Thursday, November 5, 2015

Jewish Women in 17C America

Colonial Period in the United States by Eli Faber

Jewish women in colonial North America occupied traditional positions & played traditional roles within the Jewish community as well as in the larger society. Public Judaism was reserved for males. Women could not serve in positions of leadership in either the Jewish or the general community, & they are not known to have had their own social organizations. Their primary occupation was that of homemaker, although several kept lodgings in which poorer Jewish individuals lived at the Jewish community’s expense.

Marriage, the central event in the life of a colonial Jewish woman, occurred for the 1st time at an average age of 23; men were approximately seven to 10 years older. 

The exceedingly small size of the Jewish population in colonial North America necessitated choosing marriage partners not only from among the local population but also from among the Jewish communities located elsewhere in the world, especially in Europe, in the Caribbean, & in England. 

Jewish Woman in Istanbul - 17th century

Marriage created networks of personal ties that spanned the Atlantic world. Such networks bestowed commercial advantage on the Jewish merchants who resided in each location & comprised the upper ranks of each Jewish community. The small size of the Jewish population also probably accounts for the occasional marriages with non-Jews, although Jewish women appear to have entered into such marriages less frequently than Jewish men did.

Participation by Jews in international commerce led to still other forms of family disruption & separation for colonial Jewish women. Merchant husbands traveled frequently & extensively, while sons were often posted to distant ports to act as commercial representatives for their families.

Families of means engaged private tutors for their daughters. Evidence regarding the extent of literacy among them is inadequate, but it appears from the wills of men who named their wives as their executrixes that many colonial Jewish women were literate & had been educated to the point of being capable of administering what in some cases were sizable estates.

Their presence as the executrixes of estates suggests, as well, that Jewish women had some experience in business matters, although few functioned as businesswomen in their own right. Although some owned land or kept lodging houses, & one in New York, Grace Levy Hays, 1690–1740, is known to have kept a retail store, the majority who were exposed to commercial affairs functioned primarily as ancillaries to their husbands, either by assisting them as clerks or by watching their businesses when they traveled.

Jewish women in colonial America regularly received property & money in the form of bequests in the wills made by husbands, fathers, brothers, & other male relatives. Impoverished women also received funds, including dowries for marriage, through the communal allocations that were regularly made to the poor.

Orthodox practice prevailed within the walls of the synagogue, the community’s primary institution, so that colonial Jewish women sat apart in an upstairs gallery during services & participated in worship in only a passive manner. Nonetheless, they made voluntary financial contributions to the synagogue &, when they made wills, bequeathed funds to it as well as to the Jewish community in general.

Adapted & Excerpted From Faber, Eli. "Colonial Period in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009

Groshen, Doris “Colonial Jewry: Religion, Domestic & Social Relations.” American Jewish Historical Quarterly 66 (1976–77): 375–400 

Hershkowitz, Leo, ed. Wills of Early New York Jews (1704–1799) (1967) 

Hershkowitz, Leo, & Isidore S. Meyer, eds. 
   Letters of the Franks Family (1733–1748) (1968)
   The American Jewish Woman, 1654–1980 (1981)
   American Jewry—Documents—Eighteenth Century (1959) 
   The Colonial American Jew, 1492–1776, 3 vols. (1970); 

Stern, Malcolm H. “The Function of Genealogy in American Jewish History.” In Essays in American Jewish History to Commemorate the Tenth Anniversary of the Founding of the American Jewish Archives (1958).

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