Jewish Women and Suburbanization

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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