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We Jews: Pioneer American Jewish Mothers

May 2, 2013 | by Marnie Winston-Macauley

As Mother’s Day approaches we salute three great pioneer American Jewish mothers.

Much has been written about Jewish male early settlers in America. Less documented are the hardships that Jewish pioneer mothers faced, especially when they ventured into untamed territory. Imagine shlepping two sets of dishes and Menorahs in the 1800s to the frontiers of America, or trying to maintain a Kosher home in the wilderness? These Yiddishe mamas not only used great resourcefulness for example, raising livestock and growing their own veggies, but once settled they often contributed mightily to the growth of the outreaches of the American West.

Imagine shlepping two sets of dishes around in the 1800s to the frontiers of America!

As Mother’s Day approaches, we honor three of these extraordinary Jewish mothers, many of whom had to summon enormous courage to support their husbands’ dreams, pass on their heritage to their children and to their burgeoning communities.


Rosa Katzenstein Drachman: Born in Baltimore in 1848, Rosa married Philip Drachman in 1868 in New York. Talk about a honeymoon! The couple got on the Overland schooner to San Francisco to put together provisions for the Western wilderness. They departed for Tucson in October, 1868, traveling by hitching a four horse ambulance! The trip took a month, as they camped across the desert among the Indians. They finally arrived in Tucson, which wasn’t exactly teeming with Jews. In fact, while there were Anglo men, there was only one other white woman. Rosa, eventually the mother of ten (she named first child Harry Arizona Drachman, the first Anglo child born in the area) had a difficult life. Her husband died young leaving this Yiddishe Mama and the kinder to run his saloon and cigar store.

Despite her load, Rosa became confidante, teacher, social worker and advocate to the new influx of women. There were a number of Jewish men who had married Mexican women. They turned to Rosa to teach them Judaism and Yiddishkeit, including how to keep a proper home. More, Rosa made sure all the kinder could read and write English.

Rosa died on July 25, 1918. Her tombstone reads: "Mother Drachman," for the great matriarch who helped build Tucson's community.

Rosa’s sister-in-law, Jennie Migel-Drachman and her husband Samuel were devoutly religious. In 1887, less than a day after their son was born, Jennie was on a stage to California – despite rutted paths and Indians – to find a mohel to perform the circumcision in time. More, she organized Tucson’s first Purim Ball, and was active in the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society while Sam was the first president of Temple Emanu-El. The couple were a major influence, succeeding to keep Judaism alive in the desert southwest.


Julia Frank Zeckendorf: Born in Germany in 1840, Julia immigrated as a youngster to New York. At age 18, she married William Zeckendorf. Also from Germany, William went to work with his brothers in New Mexico, then Arizona. The couple honeymooned by train across country. Departing San Diego, Julia was shocked as her new husband changed into his western garb – pistols on hips and rifle in hand. The couple left for Tucson and had four children. Julia entertained elegantly for the Jewish community. Eventually, they returned to New York, but the Zeckendorf name is part of the historical records of Arizona and New Mexico for their involvement in merchandising, mining, cattle raising, and farming. In New York, generations of Zeckendorfs built a real estate empire. Julia’s grandson put together the land parcel that John D. Rockefeller donated to the United Nations.


Rebecca Machado Phillips: Born in 1746 into an eminent Jewish family of Portuguese crypto-Jews all this changed when in 1762, at the age of sixteen, Rebecca married Jonas Phillips (1735-1803), an Ashkenazic Jew, born in Prussia and reared in London. The couple first lived in New York, where Jonas was a businessman. Within a year, Rebecca had given birth to the first of their twenty-one children. The business failed due to England’s colonial trade restrictions and the family became debtors. In 1765, Jonas secured a position as shochet and bodek, (for which he was trained in London) for Congregation Shearith Israel, a role he held for four years.

In addition to childbearing and child-raising, Rebecca, made cloth, clothing, soap, candles, and prepared processed comestibles to serve as their winter food supply. As observant Jews, Rebecca also supervised her kitchen to make sure all was done according to Halacha.

The years 1763 to 1772 were filled with both tragedy as four of Rebecca’s children died before reaching their first year, but also with financial success. In 1769, Jonas again went into business, but this time in Philadelphia, where Rebecca’s family resided. They became quite wealthy and contributed generously to Congregation Mikveh Israel, where Jonas became powerful in the Congregation while Rebecca took an active part in communal affairs and fund-raising. At age 55, in 1801, she was one of the founding members of the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances. The organization, assisted yellow fever victims, supported a ‘soup house,’ and provided food and clothing to indigent women and children.

Two years later, Rebecca was widowed, leaving her a single mother of sixteen children.

Yet, at age 74 she served as first directress and one of thirteen managers serving on the board of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society of Philadelphia, created in 1819 to assist the Jewish indigent.

Rebecca Phillips was an uncommon colonial mother who bore 21 children, raised two of her grandchildren, yet was a tireless community activist and philanthropist – roles that Jewish mothers would continue to embrace in this new land.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of our heroic Jewish mothers!

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