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Mother, May I?

Reading A Treasure for My Daughter, a 1950 guide to Jewish womanhood

Eryn Loeb
June 11, 2009
(Courtesy Eryn Loeb.)
(Courtesy Eryn Loeb.)

My parents found the crumbling book, A Treasure for My Daughter, last year, while moving my 84-year-old grandmother to a new apartment. Published in Montreal in 1950, it’s a kind of textbook for Jewish womanhood, made up of recipes and instructions about major holidays and rituals. The spine of my grandmother’s copy is cracked and peeling, and the front cover—with the fading title embossed in gold above a simple Star of David—is barely holding on. Though I keep it swaddled in a plastic grocery bag and tucked in my closet, I pull it out to page through it often.

I’ve never been able to resist the thrill of a well-worn, hopelessly dated volume: I’m irrationally attached to a 1949 Baby Book from Better Homes and Gardens which I salvaged from a Maine junk barn. It is full of dubious advice (“If you have a job, you’ll want to know what to do about quitting work”), and made priceless by the lock of fine, blonde hair taped in and labeled “Cynthia, 14 months.” I’m a sucker for other people’s memories, and A Treasure for My Daughter appeals to my hunger for hidden stories. In my grandmother’s copy, a spread of Passover recipes (including ones for fried veal chops, potato puffs, coconut fruit pudding, and chicken fricassee) is spattered with cooking grease. The corner of page 161 is dogeared, suggesting her fancy was struck by either chocolate cream layer or chocolate fudge cake. The inside back cover bulges from the small pile of recipes—some clipped from magazines, others written in her languid script—stuck inside.

In Montreal, where my grandmother grew up, the book was ubiquitous; every bride-to-be was given a copy as a symbolic badge of Jewish womanhood. Aside from the occasional gastronomic shocker (the recipe for “Brain Latkes” begins, “Scald one pair brains”), the real novelty are the instructional texts, presented as prim, stilted conversations between a shadowy “Mother” and her daughter—appropriately named Hadassah—who is about to be married. Here, the two of them have a heart-to-heart:

Hadassah: “We were fortunate in procuring the synagogue for our ceremony.”

Mother: “Yes, the synagogue is the favorite place because of its sacredness.”

Hadassah: “Mother, I would like to know your ideas about the Jewish laws on marriage.”

Mother: “Marriage, Hadassah, is a divine institution, a holy estate in which man lives his true and complete life…. The affectionate consideration shown to the Jewish wife, as well as the domestic purity and the devotion that are the glory of the Jewish womanhood, are largely the fruit of our Torah.”

Hadassah is, necessarily, portrayed as something of a blank slate, and her role in these chats is mostly to offer a chorus of affirmations—“How dreadful, Mother! What trials we Jews have had to go through!”—and simple, frequently hilarious, queries like, “Isn’t it a strange coincidence that both my name and that of our organization should be ‘Hadassah’?” This model daughter was clearly the concoction of a group of cunning, hopeful mothers (their bylines uniformly formatted: Mrs. S. Schwartz, Mrs. H. Freeman, Mrs. R. Weinrauch) who could only dream that their own offspring would be so obedient and enthusiastic.

These sorts of pre-feminist guides were everywhere at the time, but it’s the specific collision of this brand of womanhood and a triumphalist sort of Judaism—the style and tone of the Better Homes guide brought to bear on faith in a fraught post-war culture—that draws me in. Surely given with the best of intentions, the book offered a clear-cut set of guidelines for my grandmother’s generation—rules for their lives as Jews, and as women, but more explicitly as Jewish women, with each element of that identity bound by the limits of the other. Instilling Jewish identity in future generations was decidedly a woman’s job, something children were expected to learn from watching their mothers in the home. A Treasure for my Daughter was designed to help women fulfill that responsibility.

Andrea Eidinger, a doctoral student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia writing her dissertation on Jewish identity and domesticity, filled me in on the book’s history. A Treasure for My Daughter was the brainchild of Bessie Batist, who immigrated to Canada from Odessa around 1905, and later worked with immigrants at the Montreal Y, where she found herself on the receiving end of questions from young women about how to keep a Jewish home. She thought it would be useful for them to have a guide they could readily consult—and that selling it would be a great opportunity for her Hadassah chapter to raise money for Israel. After the book was compiled, the committee combed through newspapers for announcements of engagements and weddings, and then called the mothers of the brides-to-be to suggest it as the perfect gift for their daughters or daughters-in-law.

My grandmother’s own mother died when she was 14, and so her copy was, quite unusually, a gift from her father and stepmother. I can only guess that in this case, he stepped into the role her mother ordinarily would have filled, giving her something he realized had become necessary in their community. A dedication is inscribed on the inside cover: To: Norma & Justin: With love and may you enjoy using this book. But neither my great-grandfather nor the book’s authors could actually have meant for it to be shared by husband and wife. Aside from the explicitly gendered title, the content isn’t something any husband in the early 1950s would ever have been expected to explore.

While the book’s lessons now seem staggeringly retro, its value as a traditional gift is so deeply rooted that it eclipses the actual content. Eidinger tells me that it’s still regularly bestowed on engaged women in Montreal—in fact, her own mother recently gave her a copy. And we’re not talking about a radically revised edition. Though it’s been reissued throughout the years, A Treasure for my Daughter has never been significantly updated. While the order of the chapters has changed and the amount of shmaltz in the recipes has decreased, those wooden exchanges between mother and daughter have been preserved in their original form. A reader of the 2000 version (the most recent) will still find a general obliviousness to the existence of something called a bat mitzvah, and sentences that, amusingly, explain that the pilgrims developed Thanksgiving based on their knowledge of Sukkot.

But that might not matter. Throughout the years, it seems the book was far more important as an acknowledgement of a stage of life, and an emblem of inclusion, than it was as a user’s manual. “Mother” sheds some on light on this. “I think, Hadassah, that your development and the development of the family, when you become a homemaker, stand a better chance if you realize early in life your responsibility to your people as well as to your home,” she explains. “There is nothing so stimulating as that sense of belonging.” Eidinger says that of the 30 women she interviewed about the book, every single one knew about it, nearly all of them owned it, very few of them used the recipes, and none had read these instructional texts. It didn’t matter what was actually written in the book. Its message was clear.

Eryn Loeb is a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine.

Eryn Loeb, a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine, is a freelance writer and editor in New York.

Eryn Loeb, a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine, is a freelance writer and editor in New York.