Gender in Family Stories

Preparing for the SabbathMother and daughter, in matching pink dresses, are pictured reciting the blessing over the Sabbath candles, from My Book of Prayer. The traditional blessing is printed in Hebrew with contemporary English translation.Women, and traditional gender roles, are central to many American Jewish family stories. Children's books like Good Shabos (1950) and My Book of Prayer (1959) encouraged Jewish girls to model themselves after their mothers in preparing for the Sabbath (Shabbos or Shabbat). Lighting candles on Shabbat is one of the three specific tasks God commands of Jewish women, according to Jewish law.

Cookbooks were typically written by women for women, and both the illustrations and the texts glorified women's traditional roles in Jewish life as mothers, homemakers, and cooks. Cookbook titles from the 1950s like Love and Knishes and Like Mama Used to Make highlighted the importance of maternal love to good cooking - even as the existence of the cookbooks suggested that more than love was necessary to bake a good cake.Modern Jewish Meals Indeed, as the twentieth century progressed, cookbooks increasingly acknowledged that women's roles were changing: in Modern Jewish Meals (1952), home economist Mildred G. Bellin described her book as a "first-aid manual for all those busy wives and mothers who take an active and useful part in their communities," while the Shaarey Zedek (East Lansing, MI) community cookbook in 2006 noted that today, "going to Grandma's may mean stopping off for a quick lunch at her office."

Related Resources

Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia from the Jewish Women's Archive.

Home Economics: Progress of a Course, 1895-2005 from the MSU Archives & Historical Collections.

The Telling Family Stories online exhibit grew out of a year-long initiative (2011-2012) by the Jewish Studies Program at Michigan State University. The Telling Family Stories initiative was made possible by the Legacy Heritage Jewish Studies Project, directed by the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS). Support for the Legacy Heritage Jewish Studies Project is generously provided by Legacy Heritage Fund Limited.

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