Jewish Women and Suburbanization
A close look at the role of women and girls in the early American suburbs.
Suburbanization and postwar affluence stimulated an extensive period of synagogue building. Conservative Judaism, especially, benefited from this growth in congregations. Jewish girls, in turn, benefited from the expanded educational opportunities provided by Conservatism, including the adoption of the bat mitzvah, marking a Jewish girl's coming of age. Nevertheless, materialism and concern for gentile standards of beauty characteristic of prewar suburbanization persisted even as the social barriers between Jews and gentiles diminished. Rebellious Jewish daughters coming of age in the 1960s often identified these characteristics of suburban life not as typically American middle class, but as essentially Jewish.
Postwar middle-class Jewish women raising their families in the suburbs adopted similar strategies to their predecessors before the war. They turned to a wide range of volunteer activities to take them out of their secluded homes and enhance their lives. These activities included political action, usually on a local scale. Jewish women brought liberalism to the suburbs, supporting taxation to build strong public schools, the antinuclear peace movement, and laws guaranteeing civil rights for minorities.
Suburban Jewish women also advocated specifically Jewish concerns, especially championing the new State of Israel and efforts to free Soviet Jewry. Many supported the feminist movement?s political agenda, including equal rights for women and legalization of abortion, and encouraged their daughters? fight for equality in public schools. After their children left home, some Jewish mothers decided to look for jobs or go to college or professional school.
Today, suburbs are the popular residential choice of most Americans. No longer exclusively residential, suburbs house industry and technology as well as businesses. Despite their increasing diversity, they still lack the population density, poverty, and public culture of urban centers.
Suburbs have offered Jewish women mixed blessings. On the positive side are material comforts, good schools, and a safe environment in which to raise a family. On the negative side are standards of femininity and beauty that weaken Jewish self-esteem, narrow gender roles, materialistic values, and reduced access to Jewish, intellectual, and cultural pursuits.
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