What Jewish History Forgot: Tribute to the Jewish Woman

by Marnie Macauley January 2, 2019


flora-langerman-spiegelbergQ: How many Jewish women
does it take to change a light

A: Don’t worry, I’ll just sit here in  the dark.

Q: Why don’t Jewish women  drink?

A: It interferes with their

Q: What is the most common

disease transmitted by Jewish  women?

A: Guilt.
We’ve all heard them. The Jewish female stereotypes, borne of ridicule, heightened by Borscht Belt comics, portrayed in media and casually accepted, even today by both Jews and non-Jews who go for the joke, the easy zetz (punch). And so, we have become the “cartoon,” the prototype of the overzealous, overinvolved, over-worried, overprotective, over-nurturing, overbearing – and zaftig presence that has invaded popular culture.

Those who have looked beyond the stereotype are not being heard loud enough. There are few popular spotlights on our reality.

Since Biblical times, Jewish women have been rebels, groundbreakers and have achieved greatness. Some of them and their stories are well known. Who hasn’t heard of Barbara Walters, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, playwright Wendy Wasserstein, Molly Goldberg (Gertrude Berg) and of course, Streisand and Midler. But have you heard of Flora Langerman Spiegelberg, the “Old Garbage Lady?” Did you know that a remarkable Jewish woman was the model for the heroine in “Ivanhoe?” Too many in our history who have shaped and changed the world we live in have been given short-shrift or been ignored.

In this two-part column, we hope you will see the special soul of Jewish women; read of the sacrifices, the extraordinary belief in the future that Jewish women over the centuries have possessed; read of the greatness, not only of women heralded, but of unsung Jewish female heroes who were valiant every day of their lives.

We start with pioneer, colonial and 19th century Jewish women.

Jewish pioneer men have been well documented. However, the struggles and hardships that Jewish pioneer women faced, as they brought their menorahs from Europe to the frontiers of America, have been far less recorded and remembered. Here is a small sampling.

In 1874, the highly educated and outspoken 17-year-old Flora Langerman married Willi Spiegelberg in Nuremberg, Germany. After an elegant European honeymoon, the couple set out for Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Flora endured a grueling trip over rough country with cuisine consisting of dried buffalo, bear meat, buffalo tongue, buffalo steaks, beans, and chilis. The bumpy stagecoach ride likely caused Flora to miscarry.When the couple finally stopped at a hotel in Las Animas, Colorado, she was the first woman the men had seen in months. Under the gaze of cowboys at the ramshackle hotel, Flora was so anxious that she slept clothed.

When the couple finally arrived in “wild” Santa Fe, instead of going into culture shock, Flora devoted herself to improving her new community. She organized literary and dramatic Clubs and in 1879, she helped establish the first nonsectarian school and the first children’s playground and garden in Santa Fe. Flora conducted two religious schools herself, one a Sabbath school on Saturdays for Jewish children, and the other, a Sunday school for Catholic children. Among her Jewish students were Hyman Lowitzy, who became a member of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and Arthur Seligman, who went on to become governor of New Mexico in 1930.

Flora also had her share of decidedly “frontier” experiences. One night in 1887, an angry mob insisted that her husband join in lynching two Mexicans who allegedly murdered an Anglo physician. It was Flora who convinced the mob to leave.

In the late 1880s she insisted that her family join the other Spiegelbergs in New York City, so their daughters could eventually marry Jewish men. She became a social activist in New York, organizing the Boys Vocational Club and, in 1889, the first Jewish Working Girls Club. Flora was the leading force behind the creation of a modern system of garbage collection in the city and Thomas Edison even made a film about her plan. She was dubbed “The Old Garbage Woman of New York.”

Although criticized at times for her “unladylike” concerns with garbage, Flora explained that health and cleanliness was quite within the province of women. She also served on the New York City Health Commission, the Street Cleaning Department, the Public Water Commission, and the Daylight Saving Commission. Despite her remarkable achievements, the name Flora Langerman Spiegelberg has remained largely unknown.

Rebecca Gratz was born in Philadelphia on March 4, 1781 into a wealthy Jewish family. After her parents’ early deaths, she raised her siblings and then was mother to her late sister’s children. At age 20, she organized the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children of Reduced Circumstances in Philadelphia, serving as its first secretary and fundraiser. Rebecca was also one of the founders of the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum. In 1819, she founded the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society and then in 1855, she created the Jewish Foster Home and Orphan Asylum. In addition to her groundbreaking work on behalf of orphans, Rebecca presided over the establishment of the first Jewish Sunday School, on February 4, 1838. The Philadelphia Hebrew Sunday School Society offered free weekly classes to children from early childhood to the early teens. It also gave Jewish women an unprecedented role in the education of Jewish children with its teacher training program. Rebecca was the school’s superintendent for over 25 years. The school was an immediate success and branches were opened all over Philadelphia and the country. Her 1838 design for supplemental Jewish education is still used in the United States today.

Gratz, one of the most famous women of her time, had friends like Henry Clay and Washington Irving. Irving told Sir Walter Scott about the extraordinary Rebecca Gratz, who then, it is believed, became his role model for the heroine in “Ivanhoe.”

Florence Prag Kahn was born November 9, 1866, to Polish Jews who were early settlers in California. In the mid-1860s, the family moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, where her father became friendly with Brigham Young. Her mother was an educator and early feminist who wrote “My Life Among the Mormons.” Florence was a teacher when she married Julius Kahn in 1899. They later moved from California to Washington, D.C. when her husband was elected to Congress. When Florence and her husband were invited to dine with President McKinley, they walked to the White House, as a carriage cost one dollar to hire. “In what country,” asked Julius Kahn, “could two poor Jews be on their way to dine with the head of state?”

The Kahns were dedicated to Judaism and their two sons were Bar Mitzvahed at Temple Emanuel. Florence, known as a brilliant, take-charge woman with great humor, was once asked “Would you favor a birth control law?” She replied: “I will if you make it retroactive.”

In 1924, after her husband’s death, a special election was held, and Florence took his seat, making her the first Jewish woman to serve in the United States Congress. She completed five congressional terms and was also the first woman to serve on the Military Affairs Committee. Florence traveled throughout California, encouraging women to become involved in national politics. She remained dedicated to numerous Jewish causes throughout her life.

Julia Frank was born in Germany in 1840 and immigrated as a youngster to New York. At 18, she married William Zeckendorf, who was also from Germany. When William went to work with his brothers in New Mexico, then Arizona, the couple honeymooned by train across country. The couple relocated to Tucson and had four children. Julia entertained elegantly for the Jewish community. Eventually, they returned to New York, but the Zeckendorf name became part of the historical records of Arizona and New Mexico because of the family’s involvement in merchandising, mining, cattle raising and farming. Generations of Zeckendorfs then built a real estate empire in New York and Julia’s grandson, William II, put together the land parcel that John D. Rockefeller donated to the United Nations.


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