Jewish Mothers Who Helped Build America
May is a month for Mothers, so in their honor, let’s look at a few Jewish mothers who helped build America.
May is a month for Mothers, so in their honor, let’s look at a few Jewish mothers whose names are merely footnotes, but actually helped to build America.
FIRST JEWISH WOMAN TO SERVE IN THE UNITED STATES CONGRESS
When we think of Jewish female Congresswomen, some of us may remember the indefatigable, controversial, lady of the hats, “Battlin’” Bella Abzug who served three terms in Congress starting in 1971. Yet did you know it was Florence Prag Kahn (November 9, 1866 – November 16, 1948) an American teacher and politician who in 1925 became the first Jewish woman to serve in the United States Congress. She was only the fifth woman to serve in Congress, and the second from California. Florence Prag Kahn was born November 9, 1866 to Polish Jews who were early settlers of California.
In the mid-1860s, the family moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, where her father became friendly with Brigham Young. Her mother, an educator, wrote My Life Among the Mormons. When Kahn married in 1899, she was a teacher. Upon her husband’s election to Congress, they moved from California to Washington D.C. When Florence Prag Kahn and her husband, Julius Kahn, were invited to dine with President McKinley, they walked there, as a carriage cost one dollar to hire. “In what country,” asked Julius Kahn, “could two poor Jews be on their way to dine with the head of state?” Upon his death, he left $4,430. After he died in 1924, a special election was held – and Florence took his seat, making her the first Jewish woman to serve in the United States Congress, where she completed five terms. She was also the first woman to serve on the Military Affairs Committee. Prag traveled throughout California encouraging women to become involved in national politics.
She remained dedicated to Judaism and was in involved in numerous Jewish organizations. Florence Prag Kahn died on November 16, 1948, of heart disease. Known as a brilliant, take-charge woman with great humor she was adored by influential San Francisco Jews.
DESERT JEWISH MAMA
Jennie Migel-Drachman, born in 1859 in Russia, the daughter of a California Jewish merchant, married Samuel Drachman at age 17. They came to Tucson in 1875, where they remained for 37 years, and raised four children. They both held very strong religious beliefs. With no rabbi in the old West, Sam Drachman took the role of acting rabbi. In 1887, their son was the first male child in Tucson whose circumcision was performed by a mohel. Where would you find one in those days? California!
When Jennie gave birth, the very next morning, Sam put her on a stage to California. Remember, in those days there were no paved roads, just rutted paths ... and Indians. This woman was on the stage with her newborn for seven days. Now that’s commitment!
Throughout her life, Jennie played a major role in developing both Jewish and secular life in The Southwest. She would meet new stages, welcome and provide aid and help to newcomers, including caring for their children. During the 1877-78 smallpox epidemic, she was a leader in caring for the sick. A lover of society and music, it was Jennie who organized the first Purim Ball in Tucson in 1886. The paper called it “the most brilliant social event in the history of the city.” To this day, the Drachman name appears on a street, school, and the Drachman Institute at the University of Arizona.
Jennie died in 1927 at the age of 68. This brave, Jewish woman of faith was largely instrumental in keeping Judaism alive in the desert southwest. How many Jewish females walked in those giant moccasins?
YE OLDE GARBAGE WOMAN? A TRUE RENNAISANCE MAMA
Flora Langerman, due to her mother’s efforts, was educated in Germany in the fine arts and high German culture. Her father, William, lived in California during the 1849 Gold Rush. In 1874, 17-year old Flora married Willi Spiegelberg in Nuremberg, Germany.
Following an elegant European honeymoon, the couple set out for Santa Fe, New Mexico where Flora endured a grueling trip over rough country. The cuisine consisted of dried buffalo, bear meat, buffalo tongue, buffalo steaks, beans and chilies – not exactly haute cuisine. When the couple finally stopped at a hotel in Las Animas, Colorado, Flora was the first woman the males had seen in months. Under the gaze of cowboys at the ramshackle hotel, she had to climb a ladder to her bed while the men looked on. The anxious and teary-eyed Flora slept clothed.
When the couple finally arrived in Santa Fe, they were greeted by the Spiegelberg brothers, wives, and children, and a band playing Lohengrin's “Wedding March.” The local people cheered the Willi and his tenderfoot bride. Instead of going into culture shock, she devoted herself to improving her new community. An avid lover of the cultured life, she organized literary and dramatic clubs. In 1879, Flora helped establish the first non-sectarian school in Santa Fe and funding for a three room school house, created the first children's playground and garden in the city, and conducted a Sabbath school on Saturdays.
Among Flora's students was Hyman Lowitzy who became a member of Teddy Roosevelt's “Rough Riders” and Arthur Seligman who went on to become Governor of New Mexico in 1930. Flora also had her share of decidedly “frontier” experiences. Late one night in 1887, an angry mob pounded insisted that Willi join in lynching two Mexicans who allegedly murdered an Anglo physician. Flora convinced the mob to leave. She also met the infamous Billy the Kid when he came to the Spiegelberg’s store in 1876 to buy a new cowboy outfit.
In the late 1880s she insisted her family join the other Spiegelbergs in New York City where their daughters, Betty and Rose, could eventually marry Jewish men.
In New York, she organized the Boys Vocational Club and, in 1889, the first Jewish Working Girls Club. Flora was the leading force behind the creation of a modern system of garbage collection in New York City and Thomas Edison made a film about her plan. Flora was dubbed “The Old Garbage Woman of New York.” Sometimes criticized for her “unladylike” concerns with garbage, Flora explained that the health and cleanliness was “quite within the province of women.” Flora also served on the New York City Health Commission, the Street Cleaning Department, the Public Water Commission and the Daylight Savings Commission.
In 1937, Flora published some of the stories from her own life in Reminiscences of a Jewish Bride of the Santa Fe Trail which appeared in the Jewish Spectator. Though her life beat any “made for TV” movie, history largely “forgot” the remarkable achievements of Flora Langerman Spiegelberg...until now.