Professor's book looks at identity, organizing among Jewish women

imageA new book by Dr. Mary McCune of the history department explores how events half a world away and close to home influenced the political involvement of American Jewish women in the early decades of the 20th century.

“The Whole Wide World, Without Limits: International Relief, Gender Politics and American Jewish Women, 1893-1930” offers a lesson in how the personal—one’s own sense of identity—can intersect with the political, McCune said.

In the book, she tracks the creation and development of three American Jewish organizations: the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah (the Women’s Zionist Organization of America) and the Workman’s Circle. The toll World War I took on Jews living in Europe drew women from these organizations into relief efforts.

“World War I had a very negative impact on Jews in Europe, although this has been overshadowed by the Holocaust of World War II,” McCune said. Aware of the suffering of others like them in the first war, “American Jews tried to help. They sent money, clothing and funds to help rebuild their lives after the war.”

Because women secured the right to vote by 1920, some of them focused their political energies into different causes with specific ties to their own identities, McCune’s book shows.

What started as relief efforts inevitably spun toward the political in the 1920s as the future plight of dislocated Jews gained wider discussion. While Hadassah supported Zionism—the idea of establishing an independent Jewish state at Palestine—other Jews opposed the movement or remained non-committal, the author said.

This book brought together McCune’s various interests and areas of expertise. She studied Russian language and literature at SUNY Albany, then developed a keen interest in grassroots activism when she worked in politics after graduation. While earning a master’s and doctorate at Ohio State University, McCune thought more and more about Eastern European issues and how personal identities translated into political activity.

McCune said she hopes readers will better understand the complexity and diversity of the American Jewish identity and Yiddish culture, as well as how they have changed over the years.

“I’d also like readers to gain a greater understanding of how immigrant history is an important part of American history,” she said.

The book also examines the process of political organizing, what motivated ordinary people to become involved and how gender tensions played out—particularly as women learned they could better develop their own leadership skills and strategies when they formed their own separate spheres of activism, McCune explained.

Published by Wayne State University Press, “The Whole Wide World, Without Limits: International Relief, Gender Politics and American Jewish Women, 1893-1930” retails for $49.95.

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(Posted: Jul 13, 2005)