Jewish Women and Suburbanization

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

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Many extended their understanding of family responsibilities to include a larger, Jewish public sphere. Jewish women's organizations, from the National Council of Jewish Women to Hadassah to the synagogue sisterhoods, successfully recruited suburbanites. Jewish women also participated in non-Jewish civic and cultural organizations. However, they rarely socialized with their gentile neighbors, despite socioeconomic similarities between the two groups.

The Jewish suburb, sometimes called a "gilded ghetto"--a term evoking the wealthy yet exclusively Jewish character of these enclaves--supported many Jewish social and leisure-time organizations, including country clubs. Jews pursued suburban leisure and recreation activities almost exclusively with other Jews, behavior that came to be seen as typically Jewish. Ethnic sociability was replacing religious or political affiliation.

Jewish girls growing up in the suburbs sometimes found them stifling. Despite the good secular education they received in public schools, they faced a narrow choice of gender roles. Most were expected to marry and raise children without even a short interlude of paid employment. Few acquired more than a minimal Sunday school Jewish education, although their parents often provided them with many material comforts.

In the postwar period, stereotypes and popular culture often ridiculed pampered suburban Jewish daughters like the fictitious Brenda Patimkin in Philip Roth?s novel, Goodbye Columbus. Despite her Radcliffe education, Brenda is shallow and immature, more concerned with getting her nose fixed to conform to gentile standards of beauty than with any aspects of intellectual or political life.

As a minority growing up in a world shaped by middle-class, American values, suburban Jewish daughters often struggled to attain a sense of Jewish self-esteem in the face of widespread negative attitudes toward Jews. A few rebelled by pursuing political activism to achieve social justice or by adopting a bohemian life-style that rejected the conformity and materialistic values of suburbia.

Suburban Development

After World War II, the Jewish middle class moved to the suburbs en masse. As a result, different types of Jewish suburbs developed. For example, in the 1970s and 1980s, Syrian Jews and Iranian Jews each had their own suburban areas. Jews also began settling in integrated suburbs, where they remained a small minority--under ten percent of the population. Around New York City, which was home to roughly forty percent of the American Jewish population prior to World War II, Jews settled in suburbs in Westchester county and northern New Jersey, and especially on Long Island.

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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.