Page 47 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 51

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HOROWITZ / PORTNOY’S SISTER
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tique raises im po r tan t points. Wisse asserted tha t women’s
studies and “the ideology o f the modern women’s movement
has done more to obscure than to illuminate the problems o f
Jewish wom anhood ...” Indeed , for Jewish women, modernity
b rough t a mixed blessing. Jewish par tnersh ip in the civic arena
drastically a ltered the position o f Jewish women. T he memoirs
o f Pauline Wengeroff, a turn-of-the-century German-Jewish
woman, recovered and translated by historian Shulamit Mag­
nus, illustrates this poignantly. An articulate and savvy woman
in a traditional Jewish household, W engeroff ran the family
business. C augh t by the promises o f modernity, W engero ffs
husband de term ined tha t the ir home would no longer be ko­
sher, tha t the ir family would no longer observe Jewish rituals.
W engeroff resisted bu t eventually gave in; she realized h er chil­
d ren were com ing to associate Jewish observance not with the
spiritual satisfaction she found , bu t with domestic turbulence.
F u rther, so tha t the ir household arrangemen ts would more
closely resemble what Wisse describes as “the bourgeois family
o f Western Europe , where husbands suppo rted the ir wives and
protec ted the women and ch ildren ,” W engero ffs husband also
insisted tha t Pauline withdraw from the world o f commerce,
leaving the family business in his charge. But, W engeroff con­
fides in the privacy o f h e r memoir, she is better at it; unde r
her hu sband ’s stewardship, the business falters.
While Wisse insists tha t the Jewish woman “dream ed o f the
day when . . . [she] would be able to quit h e r place at the ma­
chine o r shop to manage the sufficiently Herculean tasks o f
the Jewish home ,” tha t contemporary women should respond
with “humble g ra titud e” to modernity’s fulfillment o f the ir
“overwhelming desire ,” Pauline W engero ffs memoir asserts
tha t this was no t so. T h e version o f modernity so alluring to
h er husband , to Wisse, and to the protagonists o f Jewish-
American m en ’s novels instead disempowers W engeroff in the
spheres o f religion and commerce.
T o use ritua l practices as the sole benchmark o f the status
o f Jewish women is to misread the history o f Jewish women.
T h e dichotomy tha t Ochs’s narrative suggests — men, intellect,
ritual privilege on the one hand ; women, domesticity, ritual ex­
clusion on the o the r — occludes the history o f Jewish women,
and makes invisible the price exacted upon them by modernity.
But the n a r ra to r ’s recollection o f h er O rthodox g randm o ther