Books: Hadassah, Through Feminist and Zionist Lenses

Arts & Books

Books: Hadassah, Through Feminist and Zionist Lenses

Roselyn Bell

Just in time for Hadassah’s 100th birthday, two academic presses have released in-depth appraisals of the significant roles played by Hadassah in American Jewish and Zionist history, but each frames its analysis using different historiographic lenses—and each reaches different conclusions.

Shirli Brautbar, taking a gender-studies approach, argues that Hadassah “challenged the dominant ideology of domesticity” and turned it on its head by using images of motherhood and femininity to inspire women to pursue political and cultural goals. Mira Katzburg-Yungman places Hadassah’s organizational identity into multiple contexts of Zionist ideology and politics, the development of institutions in Israel, American Jewish cultural issues and a gender-related modus operandi and ideals.

From Fashion to Politics: Hadassah and Jewish American Women in the Post World War II Era by Shirli Brautbar (Academic Studies Press, 152 pp. $49) focuses on the post-World War II era from 1948 to 1970, when Zionism was gaining greater currency among American Jews while working women, once lauded as Rosie the Riveter, were being told to give up their jobs and return home. Hadassah leaders adapted the maternal notions of the day to activist ends by supporting practical, nurturing projects in Israel (nursing and Youth Aliyah) and by educating themselves and Jewish youth to their Jewish heritage (Young Judaea and Hadassah educational materials). These materials conveyed messages about life in Israel, as did Molly Lyons Bar-David’s “Diary of a Jerusalem Housewife” in the Hadassah Newsletter (Hadassah Magazine’s early incarnation), and about American political issues, such as McCarthyism, civil rights and immigration reform, in American Affairs kits.

The message, like the creed earlier articulated by Justice Louis D. Brandeis, was that for Hadassah members, Zionist loyalty “makes us more patriotic because it makes us better [American] citizens.”

Brautbar devotes an especially detail-rich chapter to Hadassah’s use of consumerism for Zionist goals. Hadassah conventions and regional meetings regularly featured fashion shows from the Alice L. Seligsberg Trade School for Girls in Israel, a vocational school started by the organization. The designs, often modeled by Hadassah members, incorporated Middle Eastern influences, such as elaborate Yemenite embroidery. These cross-cultural exchanges functioned in both directions. Hadassah women formed sewing circles and even engaged International Ladies Garment Workers Union members to provide clothing to be distributed in Israel.

Brautbar is at her best in depicting Hadassah’s use of traditional gender roles to promote effective participation by women in the public sphere, but she is much sketchier in describing the Israeli side of the operation. In fact, her book never mentions the Arab attack on the convoy of doctors and nurses going to Mount Scopus in April 1948, which changed Hadassah’s institutional direction for years. By contrast, Katzburg-Yungman describes the massacre in horrifying detail—down to the British police and soldiers standing idly by.

Katzburg-Yungman’s book, Hadassah: American Women Zionists and the Rebirth of Israel, translated by Tamar Berkowitz (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 400 pp. $49.50), is much more comprehensive. It covers a longer time period and uses extensive Hebrew and English archival materials and personal interviews to situate Hadassah activities within their American, Israeli and Zionist ideological milieus.

She views Hadassah’s story as the quintessential partnership of American ideas and expertise wedded to Israeli implementation.

From the beginning, Hadassah brought American models of health care and social welfare to the Yishuv; the first medical centers Hadassah nurses set up were based on the settlement house prototype from American cities.

Later, the Hadassah–Hebrew University Medical School would choose to follow the American pattern of medical education, which involved smaller classes, hands-on experience and independent research, over the European system of large lectures. Hadassah was the vehicle for importing many American approaches—from occupational therapy to community colleges—to Israel. Hadassah’s leadership was constantly faced with the multiple needs of a young country, had to budget wisely among competing projects and frequently handed off clinics, social service and educational initiatives it had founded to other entities.

Katzburg-Yungman also traces Hadassah’s political and ideological maturation. At first, Hadassah, following the social feminism of the day, embraced what she terms a “gendered Zionism” that called for women to do those jobs that reflected women’s nature and needs—nursing and administering at infant and mother stations—while abstaining from politics. Women were not even asked to pay the “Zionist shekel” for membership dues. But with time and expansion of Hadassah’s membership and activities, particularly when it took on American responsibility for Youth Aliyah, Hadassah’s voice was heard ever more forcefully in Zionist movement debates.

After the establishment of the State of Israel, there were stormy ideological arguments, in particular between Hadassah President Rose Halprin and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, on the necessity for American aliya. The author portrays Halprin as a shrewd and politically savvy diplomat. Within the framework of the World Confederation of General Zionists, Hadassah also stuck to its convictions about not aligning with any Israeli political party, and over this issue, it split with the Zionist Organization of America.

This volume is strongest in describing the middle years of Hadassah’s history and, inevitably, more recent years are a bit shortchanged. The epilogue tries to update the picture, describing how internal challenges—assimilation, mixed marriage and the professionalization of women, leaving fewer volunteers—have changed Hadassah’s modes of fundraising and activity. Yet the epilogue takes us only to 2005 and does not acknowledge some more recent changes, such as the devolution of Young Judaea.

These two volumes, undertaken independently by scholars living on different continents, in no way resemble the hagiographic portrayals organizations sometimes commission for their significant anniversaries. Nonetheless, Hadassah members can take pride in and learn a great deal about their organization’s achievements, both for American Jewish women and for Israel, from these thoughtful books.

Roselyn Bell is editor of the JOFA Journal, a member of the Hadassah Magazine editorial board and co-membership vice president of the Raritan Valley (New Jersey) Chapter of Hadassah.


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