Jewish Women and Suburbanization

A close look at the role of women and girls in the early American suburbs.

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Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women's Archive.

Few Jews participated in the first wave of suburbanization during the final decades of the nineteenth century, when streetcar suburbs were built around such cities as Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. In their early years, Brookline in Massachusetts, the Main Line in Pennsylvania, and the North Shore in Illinois did not offer new homes to Jews.

In contrast to the close proximity of the rich, middle class, and poor in large cities, class stratification characterizes suburban districts. Moving to a newly created suburban utopia allowed people to be selective in their neighbors. Many suburbanites expressly kept Jews from living in their neighborhoods through individual residential covenants or through corporate regulations of planned communities.

Nonetheless, the children and grandchildren of Jewish immigrants embraced the American dream of home ownership and suburban living. Like other Americans, Jews wanted the cleanliness, quiet, and security that comes from living in a relatively homogeneous, middle-class community. Thus, Jewish suburbs were built, often by Jewish developers, during the second wave of suburbanization prior to World War II.

Most American cities with large Jewish populations had at least one such suburban district, usually within the city's boundaries. This area was considered Jewish because of the presence of Jews (often as much as thirty percent of the district?s population) and Jewish institutions, including large, modern synagogues.

Most Jews, however, did not opt for suburban living until the mass-produced suburbs of the 1950s and 1960s brought home ownership within the reach of millions of middle-class Americans. In 1948, the Supreme Court had declared restrictive residential covenants to be illegal, invigorating the efforts of such organizations as the American Jewish Congress to eliminate anti-Semitic discrimination in housing.

Gradually, many suburbs were opened to Jews, allowing them to benefit from generous provisions in the GI Bill as well as federal mortgage, tax, and highway policies encouraging suburbanization. Unlike their predecessors, the new suburbs were designed for automobiles and were built beyond a city's boundaries. Like their predecessors, they were residential enclaves, stratified by class and race, where women and children spent their days while men worked in the nearby cities.

Suburban Mothers and Daughters

Jewish women responded in diverse ways to suburban living. When the occasional well-to-do immigrant families first moved to Jewish suburbs, the women were initially disoriented by the isolation of the individual homes and the lack of public culture, so different from the bustling conditions of the city. By contrast, most women appreciated the freedom from paid employment and the opportunity to devote themselves to child rearing and housekeeping.

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Deborah Dash Moore

Deborah Dash Moore is the Director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies and a Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of History at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan.