An Interview with Cassandra Euphrat Weston: Fein & Lapidus Fellowship Recipient

July 27, 2023
by Cassandra Euphrat Weston

AJHS checked in with previous Fein & Lapidus Fellowship recipient Cassandra Euphrat Weston to see what her experience was like researching in our collections and how it had informed her work.

AJHS: What drew you to the AJHS collections?

Cassandra: In October 1916, several Jewish women, including experienced Chicago organizer Fania Mindell and Brooklyn mother Rose Halpern, passed out flyers printed by a nearby anarchist Yiddish press advertising an illegal birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. For the next few weeks, Jewish immigrant mothers like Halpern flocked to the clinic to get information about contraception, until police shut it down and prosecuted Mindell and the other organizers.  

Historians have already explored this fascinating moment, which made it a useful starting place for my own research when the pandemic limited me to digitized sources in the first few years of my PhD. As I investigated the Brownsville clinic, I started asking broader questions about American Jewish reproductive politics. For instance, the clinic only admitted married women who had previously had children and were not currently pregnant. Clinic organizers designed these restrictions to test anti-contraception laws as precisely as possible. But I wondered: could we learn new things by focusing on the unmarried women seeking contraception, or the pregnant women seeking abortions, who were turned away? In addition, clinic organizers’ strategy of seeking arrest in order to bring a legal test case placed their patients at risk of state surveillance, coercion, and violence. Could foregrounding this risk lead us to a better understanding of Brownsville women’s varying responses? How did clinic patients’ existing relationships to radical movements and to the U.S. state shape their responses? And, finally, what did Jewishness have to do with all of this? 

My questions about the Brownsville clinic made me suspect that Jewishness, sexuality, and radicalism were deeply intertwined historical narratives. I realized that while historians of the early twentieth century United States have written extensively about Jewish radical movements; reproductive politics; and the growth of the state, they have seldom asked how all three collided at once.  

The Fein/Lapidus fellowship gave me an invaluable first chance to conduct in-person archival research after pandemic closures. The AJHS archive offered me the chance to explore early twentieth century Jewish institutions and individuals engaged in varying strands of what I had started calling “sexual politics,” and to begin thinking about how they might fit together. For instance, the papers of Alice Davis Menken and the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) New York Section allowed me to trace Jewish women’s vigorous campaigns against Jewish sex work, which increasingly depended on surveillance of young working-class Jewish women’s sexuality. Meanwhile, the records of the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum and the Jewish Foster Home and Orphan Asylum of Philadelphia allowed me to consider the less overtly stated reproductive politics of Jewish childcare institutions. 

AJHS: What was something unexpected or that surprised you in your research?

Cassandra: As soon as I dove into primary sources, I found that sexual politics and Jewishness were linked everywhere I looked. Jewish women like Menken obsessively tallied the number of Jews among women arraigned on prostitution-related charges and recorded whether or not they were married. Then, they worked alongside the state, especially municipal and state-level carceral institutions, to funnel young women arrested on sex work-related charges or otherwise considered sexually “incorrigible” into specifically Jewish institutions, like the National Council of Jewish Women’s Cedar Knolls School.  

Many historians have emphasized the sexual discipline that accompanied the growth of “social service” institutions in the early twentieth century, as well as how these institutions were enmeshed with the growing carceral state. American Jewish historians have considered specifically Jewish institutions like the NCJW or New York’s Kehillah, and their accompanying tussles over definitions of Jewishness. But as often happens, sifting through primary sources showed me a new angle on this familiar set of historical narratives. I realized that when working-class women in New York ended up in court on charges related to dissident sexual behavior, other Jews’ intensive efforts toward Jewish sexual discipline categorized these women as Jewish or non-Jewish by funneling them into specifically Jewish institutions like Cedar Knolls. I further realized that this confident categorization took place alongside a proliferation of definitions and understandings of Jewishness. For instance, Menken led the mostly wealthy, U.S.-born members of her Sephardi congregation, Shearith Israel, to establish social services for Ottoman Jewish migrants when she saw that other New York Jewish settlement houses were designed for Yiddish-speaking migrants from Eastern Europe. 

AJHS: Did you find anything that changed your mind or made you look differently at your subject matter?

Cassandra: As I puzzled through these dynamics, I wondered about the assumption that every woman who faced the municipal court system would be easily classifiable as either Jewish or non-Jewish. I wondered, too, about places beyond New York. 

When I looked for answers in secondary sources, I discovered to what degree the scholarship on American Jewish sexual discipline has centered on New York. AJHS materials from Philadelphia Jewish institutions like the Jewish Maternity Hospital of Philadelphia and the Jewish Foster Home and Orphan Asylum of Philadelphia made it clear that some similar infrastructure existed there. Although I had begun my research in New York, with the Brownsville clinic, I realized that focusing instead on Philadelphia would offer me the chance to broaden scholarly narratives by considering a city that shared key features with New York, including a similarly robust Jewish community, similarly diverse in class, politics, ethnicity, and migration history. 

I also found suggestions of Jewish networks further afield. Menken corresponded with her cousin Jessica B. Peixotto, who founded UC Berkeley’s social welfare department. But if I found little scholarship on early twentieth century Jewish Philadelphia, I found next to nothing on the San Francisco Bay Area, even though historians outside of Jewish history have shown it was a key hub of anxieties and activities regarding migration, race, radicalism, and sexuality and thus a valuable context to consider Jewish sexual discipline. 

In addition, the breadth of the AJHS collections allowed me to explore new research questions as they came up. I had begun catching references to Butte, Montana in seemingly unrelated materials. I learned that in 1910, as the Jewish fraternal organization B’nai B’rith was spearheading a campaign against Jewish sex work, they expelled one of their members in Butte who was running local brothels. Around the same time, Jewish anarchist couple Annie and Abe Edelstadt hosted the well-known anarchist Emma Goldman in Butte and helped ensure that Butte women attended her lectures on birth control.  Back at AJHS, I dug up the National Jewish Welfare Board’s report on Jewish organization in Butte in 1925: the pessimistic estimation that Butte housed only “one hundred and twenty five Jewish families,” with “very few young men and women in the city.”  

These vastly different glimpses of Jewishness in Butte led me to ask: Who, in each case, counted as Jewish, and to whom? Who, in each case, counted as a family? How did these historical actors’ sexual politics—including their labor and property ownership, their sexual, marital, and reproductive actions, and their political affiliations—shape the answers to these questions? And how could asking these questions about Jewishness in a Western mining town help us reconsider histories of sexuality, migration, race, and radicalism?

AJHS: How did this fellowship contribute to your reaching your goals or developing your project?

Cassandra: The questions about region I started to formulate at AJHS led me to a dissertation project that focuses on three distinct case studies: Philadelphia; San Francisco; and Butte, Montana. Through these case studies, I argue that the sexual politics of American Jewishness between 1900-1930 shaped the long-term relationship between sexual dissidence and political radicalism in the United States. 

My research at the AJHS helped me formulate an expansive understanding of “sexual politics” that is essential to my dissertation. I use that term to refer to sex work; heterosexual encounters that avoided, eschewed, or modified marriage, such as “trial marriage” and “free love”; childbearing outside of marriage; preventing and terminating pregnancies; and intimacies incompatible with state and/or religious marriage, including interracial, interreligious, and same-sex encounters. I also consider “sexual politics” to include early twentieth century ideas about how these non-normative practices connected to radical critiques of capitalism and of the state. My dissertation will trace how and why these wide-ranging visions and practices of sexual politics realigned from 1900-1930, and how Jewishness influenced this process. 

AJHS: What are you working on now? What future projects are you looking forward to?

Cassandra: I am excited and honored to be returning to the Center for Jewish History this fall for a full-year fellowship for dissertation research, for which I’ll delve further into AJHS collections. I’ll explore some materials I barely scratched the surface of during my Fein/Lapidus summer fellowship, including the National Jewish Welfare Board and Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds collections, which each contain extensive reports on local American Jewish institutional infrastructure in places like Philadelphia in the 1920s. I’ll also explore numerous collections that are new to me, both from AJHS and from partner organization YIVO. 

In the long term, I plan to use these materials to support my claim that sexuality and radicalism centrally determined what kind of category Jewishness was—e.g. racial, religious, or ethnic—in the early twentieth century United States. I’ll focus on the examples of Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Butte to explore these ideas. What’s more, I will demonstrate that American Jewishness and its close entwinement with both sexuality and radicalism informed Jewish radicals’ sexual politics in the same three decades. In the process, I will show that radical movements concerned with political economy—i.e. socialism, communism, and anarchism—were an essential domain for the negotiation of counter-normative ideas and practices of sexuality in the early twentieth century. 


AJHS Collections

Alice Davis Menken Papers (P-23) 
Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum (I-230) 
Jewish Board of Guardians records (I-302) 
Jewish Foster Home and Orphan Asylum of Philadelphia records (I-300) 
Jewish Maternity Association of Philadelphia records (I-378) 
National Council of Jewish Women New York Section records (I-469) 
National Jewish Welfare Board (I-337)

Published Sources

Alexander, Ruth M. The “Girl Problem”: Female Sexual Delinquency in New York, 1900-1930. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995. 

Bristow, Edward J. Prostitution and Prejudice: The Jewish Fight against White Slavery, 1870-1939. New York: Schocken Books, 1982. 

Goldman, Emma. Living My Life. Reprint of the 1931 ed. 2 vols. New York: Dover Publications, 1970. 

Goren, Arthur A. New York Jews and the Quest for Community; the Kehillah Experiment, 1908-1922. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970. 

Gross, Kali N. Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2006. 

Hartman, Saidiya. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019. 

Igra, Anna R. Wives without Husbands: Marriage, Desertion, & Welfare in New York, 1900-1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 

Klapper, Melissa. Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940. New York: New York University Press, 2013. 

McCann, Carole R. Birth Control Politics in the United States, 1916-1945. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994. 

Rogow, Faith. Gone to Another Meeting: The National Council of Jewish Women, 1893-1993. Judaic Studies Series. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993. 

Rosenbaum, Judith. “‘The Call to Action’: Margaret Sanger, the Brownsville Jewish Women, and Political Activism.” In Gender and Jewish History, edited by Marion Kaplan and Deborah Dash Moore. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011. 

Willrich, Michael. City of Courts: Socializing Justice in Progressive Era Chicago. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.