Elizabeth Gertrude Stern was born in Poland, in 1890. Her family immigrated to the United States the following year and settled in Pittsburgh. She grew up to become a journalist, novelist, and essayist. She also was an early feminist who rejected her father’s traditionalist Judaism, as is clear in the following excerpt from her autobiography, I Am a Woman–And a Jew. Despite the hostility to Orthodox Judaism that she expresses, Stern remained proud of her Jewish identity. Reprinted with permission from Writing Our Lives: Autobiographies of American Jews, 1890-1990, edited by Steven J. Rubin (Jewish Publication Society).
I remember looking down at the face of my father, beautiful and still in death, and for a brief, terrible moment feeling my heart rise up–surely it was in a strange, suffocating relief?–as the realization came to me: "Now I am free!" All my life, for 29 years, he had stood like an image of fine-carved stone, immovable, unbending, demanding that I submit my will and my thought, my every act in life, to the creed he represented. His creed was that of Judaism, brought to the 20th century from the 15th, and held with an intensity an d a passionate faith that would destroy everything in his life, the very happiness of his children, that it might not be, in one small observance, unhonored.
I looked from his features, at peace at last, to those of the man near me, my husband, whose tender eyes met mine with love that he had given me abundantly, and with the sacrifice of everything else in his life to it. My husband’s eyes were tender, but they were not sad, not brimming with the bitter loss that lay in my mother’s glance, nor even with the deep sorrow that shone in the tears of the bearded rabbis and of the pious merchants about the bier. He could not feel near, nor even really unhappy over the passing of the man who, though he had been father to his wife, had lived in a world utterly removed from his own.
My husband’s people have been Christians for many generations: his grandmother, though born a Jewess, became a Christian when she married. His associations and memories are built on repression in human intercourse, on a tolerant acceptance of dogma in others, even Jews, but with no deathless need for it.
To him, the passion of my father, as well as the somber exaltation of my father’s friends now about his lifeless body, were alike incomprehensible, despite his gentle acknowledgment of the right each has to build his creed, and to believe in it and practice it. He was a stranger in that room of death, that stranger I had brought into my father’s life, when I had joined his life with mine.
I had thought that, by marrying a Christian, I, who was in my heart no longer a Jew, would be free. I was to find not only that on the day of my father’s death, but twice again, how mistaken I had been….
The Wrong Profession
There is nothing, surely, more disastrous than to choose the wrong profession. The misfit has always been a figure of tragedy. But I had done more than choose a wrong profession when I went to New York. I broke every tie at home to do it.
My father insisted that it was time for me to marry. My aunts said the same. My sister Hannah and her husband were shocked that a girl of 21 planned to spend more time, wasting money, on just educating herself. My sister Etta, teaching school, felt that I might be doing the same. Only mother said nothing. She just listened. But I knew she did not disapprove.
My father called me into his study to see him one day. "What is it you want?" he asked me. "You have a good home, and I think your mother and I have been kind to you in it. What are you seeking? Were you in love with young Raphael?"
I felt I would sink through the floor, but he said kindly, "I wonder if you know what you are doing, my daughter. I came to a new land for the sake of my children. I left my father, my own mother, to give a new life and religious freedom to my sons and daughters. I have left those who know me and honor me to live through contumely and misery here. And you are breaking away, destroying that for which I sacrificed everything."
I was to hear in my classrooms many lectures on the "problem of the immigrant," on "Americanization"; but none were to speak for that which my father represented, the old immigrant whose dream it was–as it was the Quaker’s and the Puritan’s–to find a new home of religious freedom in the new land, and who was, instead, to lose his children to that new land. My father’s story was never considered in the classes I attended.
I could not tell him that I wanted the same thing for which he had come to America. I wanted to live and to act according to the faith I had, just as he wished it for himself. I wanted to be free to live as I believed, in every way. I wanted, first, the right to find out what I believed, what my faith was.
No Religion to Lose
"If you go to New York," he said, "you will lose your Jewish spirit. What is this work for the poor? Is it work for their soul? Is it work for their religion? The synagogue will take care of its poor, and the rabbi. What sort of humanitarianism is it that does no see the need of each one’s religion first of all?"
I waited, and then I answered, "I shall not lose my religion, father. I haven’t had any for over two years."
He turned toward me, his face without color, his beard like gold brown flame. "You’re a–you don’t–you’re not a Jewish woman?"
I answered, "I’m not anything you think, father. I’ve not been branded with a flaming iron. But I don’t believe the way I used to any more."
"I warned your mother," he said then, quietly, "you would become lost to us if we let you have the education you wanted." He left the room. He did not even bid me good-bye when I left for New York. All the time I was there, I received not a word from him, nor was his name mentioned to me in my mother’s letters. I took summer courses, and worked in the winter between my classes. The second year I did not return home before school.