Women and the Making of the Modern Jewish Home and Nation
By Cara Rock-Singer
Hadassah used its founding holiday to bring all of Palestine together in the cause of healthy living: Purim became Health Day, an annual celebration featuring events and exhibitions held at schoolhouses, synagogues, and other venues across the land. A 1925 News Letter article, for example, described a full schedule of lectures and demonstrations that covered different health topics each day and brought together people of all ages, backgrounds, and professions. There were talks by physicians, male and female, some for women only, presumably on issues of women’s health. The article reported the exact numbers of sites, physicians, and participants, listing the range of people who attended. “The audiences were drawn from all strata of the population, from both the old and the new settlement. There were Ashkenazim of the old type, Haluzim, Sefardim, Yemenites, Bokharans, Kurds.” In Tiberias, the program even attracted Arab women.
Newspapers spread the message of Health Day, striking a range of notes to have a broad appeal. Printed mottos such as “Cleanliness is length of days” and “Cleanliness brings economic prosperity” were interspersed between articles written by physicians. Health Day organizers produced leaflets and brochures with titles such as “Ten Commandments on Personal Hygiene” and “Rules of the Game of Health.” Health became almost like a new kind of religion, with its own doctrines and dogmas. Health Day had something for everybody, the article declared, from “the educators, the city and governmental authorities, the health agencies, the physicians, the dentists, the druggists, the pharmacists, the engineers, the architects, the shopkeepers, the housewives—to the whole public.” All of these members of the Jewish community in Palestine came together to learn better living through chemistry, brought by Hadassah.
At Health Day, Hadassah put its values on display. One of the most popular exhibits takes us back to the heart of the Hadassah mission: maternity care and infant welfare. As the private space of the home was put on public view, the exhibit used technology to moralize: it presented model rooms in the house of “Mrs. Don’t Care” and “Mrs. Do Care.” The bad mother’s house was crowded, filthy, unsanitary, disorganized, and populated by animals and children—a veritable pigsty. The good mother’s home was white, clean, and properly middle class. Rational religion and science were celebrated while their “others”—whether magic, pseudo-science, superstition, or any number of pejorative labels to describe the practices of eastern women—were put down. In Mrs. Do Care’s home, Hadassah celebrated the way of life and values of the American middle class in opposition to the eastern other. Through displays and exhibits, Hadassah in Palestine disrupted the boundaries between public and private, and opened up possibilities for women’s liberation at the expense of certain forms of belief and practice.
Find Rock-Singer’s complete essay in the Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America exhibit’s companion catalog, available for purchase through the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s museum shop “Esther’s Place.” For more information call 410-732-6400 x221 or email shop manager Tucker Hager at firstname.lastname@example.org.