Jewish Women as Industrious Earners


Between 17th-century Europe and contemporary American Jewish culture, the representations of Jewish women and money have reversed. In traditional European culture, a woman was valorized if she could earn enough money to support her family, allowing her husband to devote himself entirely to studying Jewish texts. By the late 19th-century, however, Jewish intellectuals embraced European bourgeois gender norms, and perceived Jewish women’s roles as economic providers as backwards. Once valued as industrious earners, Jewish women were now to be relegated to the domestic sphere, while Jewish men transformed themselves into ideal breadwinners. By the mid-20th century in America, Jewish women were stripped of their once-admired economic utility and portrayed as predatory spenders or parasitic consumers—as overbearing mothers or Jewish-American princesses.

This negative turn in the cultural representation of Jewish women as greedy consumers is a recent phenomenon. In the 17th-century, Glückel of Hameln authored one of the earliest-known Jewish memoirs, detailing the rise and fall of her own fortunes. A 54-year-old woman with business acumen, her obsession with money was practical: widowed with eight of her 12 children unmarried, she took over her husband’s business to ensure her children’s future. In the memoir, Glückel lovingly describes her marriage as a business partnership, boasting that her husband would turn only to her for business advice.

While Glückel unselfconsciously proclaimed her business smarts in 17th-century Prussia, by the 19th-century women’s economic power became a source of Jewish cultural anxiety. In his satirical epistolary novel, The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl, Sholem Aleichem portrays a very different gendered economy. Menakhem-Mendl, the prototypical Jewish luftmentsh, absconds with his wife’s dowry to Odessa where he plays the commodities exchange. In letters home to his wife, Sheyne-Sheyndl, he spins tales of markets he barely comprehends and describes the marble tables of Café Fanconi and elegant displays of gold jewelry and women’s clothing. His wife’s letters, however, provide a different tone. Sheyne-Sheyndl does not care about fancy cafes or shop windows; she understands the value of a ruble and how far it will go to pay for medical care. In increasingly angry letters, she pleads with her husband to sell his holdings and return home. Whereas Glückel’s husband respected his wife’s financial advice, the fictional Menakhem-Mendl ignores his wife’s urgent pleas.

Sheyne-Sheyndl’s fears of abandonment and her economic vulnerability mark a turning point in the representation of Jewish women. A Jewish woman’s practical concern for her children’s welfare and her fears of abandonment, by the end of the 19th century, are dismissed, disparaged, and satirized. While Sheyne-Sheyndl frets, it is her husband who fantasizes about fortunes, seduced by the unattained decadence and luxury of the urban arcades. 

In 20th-century American Jewish culture we see the culmination of a dramatic reversal in the representation of Jewish women. Jewish men become economic heroes—the shrewd accountants and business executives—while Jewish women are the wasteful consumers, who pine after great fortunes and the fashionable items on display in America’s shopping malls.