(1869-1906). “Compared in her day to Grace Aguilar and Emma Lazarus,
hailed by Israel Zangwill and a host of other critics, and described near the end of her life as ‘the best Jewish sketch writer in America’—Martha Wolfenstein is today a forgotten figure in American Jewish literature,” says Jonathan D. Sarna, Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. “Her writing displayed charm, learning, and a distinctive woman’s perspective,” says Sarna, “and she achieved more recognition than most American Jewish women writers of her day.”
The praise that greeted the publication of her 1901 novel Idyls of the Gass was glowing. Of all the books “of a similar character written in the past fifty years,” famed Jewish orator Simon Wolf told the young author, he could think “of none that surpasses your admirable work.” “Your portraitures are so life-like and true that one … wonders how an American. . .girl can present them in such a striking natural manner,” said the great Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler, one of the most influential theologians of Reform Judaism in the United States. “What entitles [Wolfenstein] to tell the story of these strange places and stranger people,” said The Jewish Chronicle, “is that underneath their clothing she has penetrated to their hearts, their souls—that she understands them, loves them, weeps with them, sighs with them and never at them, and knows even better than they themselves all their profounder religion. And what she understands and feels she tells in an American tongue, with American generosity, American pathos, American humor, and with convincing American advocacy.” Idyls featured a strong and appealing female hero. The novel was also unusually sympathetic to ghetto Jews and their highly ethical way of life, even as it was conscious of impending change.
Inspired by her father’s memories of life in the Jewish Street (die Judengasse) back in his native Moravia, Martha’s first stories, written while she was still in her twenties, began appearing in national publications like McClure’s Magazine and Lippincott’s Monthly, where they immediately attracted attention. “There is a finish about her work which marks the born story-teller. We have no other Jewish novelist who writes with such sympathetic sweetness,” said Lippincott’s editor, who told the young author, “We are delighted that our appreciation of your work is being confirmed.”
The letters preserved in the Cleveland Public Library Special Collection of Martha Wolfenstein’s papers are all addressed to her at Cleveland’s Jewish Orphan Asylum, now Bellefaire, where her father was superintendent from 1878 to 1913. And Martha, from the age of 18, worked with the young residents as a matron.
Wolfenstein: “a born storyteller” (Cleveland Public Library)
(Photo courtesy of the Center for History + Digital Humanities,
Cleveland State University, supported by tax-deductible gifts)
To read more about this extraordinary institution and see more historical photos, such as this one, visit https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/875. For more about the Cleveland Jewish Orphan Asylum, see Ursuline College sociology professor Gary Edward Polster’s book, Inside Looking Out: The Cleveland Jewish Orphan Asylum, 1868–1924, (Kent State University Press, 1990) or visit https://www.clevelandjewishhistory.net/ins/jewish-orphan-asylum-polster.htm . Heather Bloeser (email@example.com) has done extensive research on Wolfenstein.
Wolfenstein’s stories reflect her sympathy with a younger generation that is expected to comply unquestioningly with traditional ways of thinking or acting that may seem nonsensical or arbitrary to youngsters growing up in a changing world. This generational clash occurs most memorably in the humorous confrontations the precocious little boy in Idyls of the Gass has with the village elders in situations for which time-honored formulaic responses are prescribed. The wise and compassionate old woman who has taken on the job of raising this special boy gently upholds these revered traditions while finding a way to tap into the deeper truths behind them. It is for this reason that The Jewish Chronicle’s reviewer says that Wolfenstein seems to understand, even better than the people she so faithfully portrays, “their profounder religion.”
This must have been very satisfying to a younger generation dealing with the challenge of being true to their heritage while also learning to see and appreciate the world, and their people’s traditions, with American, and modern, eyes.
“She would have to keep her pen going every waking hour of the day and far into the night to meet the demand she has awakened,” said The Jewish Chronicle. But the year after Idyls was published Martha was diagnosed, at the age of 32, with tuberculosis. A few months before she died, she was presented with a newly published collection of her most beloved stories. A Renegade, and Other Tales has been reissued by Cornell University Library; Idyls, by Wentworth Press, at the urging of scholars who describe Wolfenstein’s novel as a “culturally important and part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.” Both books are available online at modest prices.
For some of the beloved author’s admirers that might have been enough. Dayenu. But a year after her death, and burial in Willett Street Cemetery, Martha House opened its doors. Supported by the Cleveland Council of Jewish Women, it offered all the comforts of home at a modest cost, and with the fewest possible restrictions on their freedoms, to young Jewish women and girls 14 to 22 who came to Cleveland in search of jobs as clerks, stenographers, factory hands, or milliners’ or dressmakers’ helpers. Located at 2234 E. 46th Street, between Cedar and Central avenues, it had a parlor, library, pantry, kitchen, dining room, bedrooms for 18 residents, and a large, welcoming fireplace. Nine years later, at 2032 East 90th Street, a new Martha House bought with funds subscribed by the Jewish community, with room for 45 to 50 young women, opened its doors.