Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Almost lost to history, Emma Wolf (1865-1932), called the “Mother of American Jewish Fiction,” was a trailblazing Jewish American author best known for her focus on the Jewish relationship with Christian American society and, in particular, the theological and social consequences of the relationship between Reform Judaism and liberal Protestantism. The first female Jewish novelist to attain broad popularity and prominence – the Chicago Daily Tribune predicted that she would “rank high among American writers of fiction” – she published five novels and several short stories in which she confronted complex subjects not previously addressed in turn-of-the-century American literature, including assimilation, intermarriage, antisemitism, and the Jewish conflict between individualism and community religious practices and expectations.

Emma Wolf portrait

Wolf also made important contributions depicting the regional character of San Francisco at a time when it was becoming a sophisticated city and cultural center. While Jews, who were among the earliest settlers of San Francisco, generally found broader acceptance there than elsewhere in the United States – and, in fact, a Jew, Adolph Sutro, was elected mayor of San Francisco in 1894 – antisemitism, which was a major theme of Wolf’s novels, nonetheless undergirded the city’s social hierarchy. Although there was little overt antisemitism in San Francisco, it nonetheless existed, and Wolf’s novels contain any number of horrendous examples of both open and explicit antisemitism and the prevailing undercurrent of the antisemitism that was deeply rooted in high society.


Wolf’s first novel, Other Things Being Equal, is considered to be the first American novel written by a Jew on a Jewish theme for an American audience, and, after its publication, the renowned British Jewish author Israel Zangwill, known as “The Dickens of the Ghetto,” wrote admiringly to her in December 1896 that “certainly you are the best product of American Judaism since Emma Lazarus.” It proved immensely popular; it had seven reprintings and was reviewed in literary journals throughout the United States.

Ironically, however, Wolf was not accepted by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), the leading American Jewish publisher of the day, which, although it praised the literacy and artistry of her work, disapproved of her Reform Judaism and her portrayal of Judaism in general. The JPS determined that her work was inconsistent with the Jewish practice that it sought to promote; that some of her characters were “immoral” and that the novel would generate divisiveness rather than unite American Jews together through “common culture and tradition.” The JPS preferred to tell the well-worn stories of Yiddish-speaking East Coast Jewish immigrants, and her “de-ghettoization” of early Jewish American fiction through her characters, who were middle class and highly cultured Californians rather than lower class immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side, did not conform to the JPS gestalt.

Emma Wolf, as portrayed on the March 1896 cover of American Jewess.

In addition to her five novels, Wolf published stories in the leading mass-circulation magazines of the time about the complexity of feminism at the beginning of the twentieth century. One such publication was a poem in the American Jewess (1896), the first journal for Jewish American women, which featured her portrait on the cover (see exhibit) and also ran a profile of her. Although she made important contributions to feminist literature, including taking on the idea of “manifest domesticity” for women and depicting marriage as a union of equals, contemporary feminist scholars working to bring attention to previously great, but largely neglected, works by female authors initially ignored her because she wasn’t a sufficiently radical feminist. However, her oeuvre has more recently begun to receive attention for its robust portrayals of the theological, philosophical, and social issues inherent in Reform Jewish life in early twentieth-century America, and she has become recognized as “the Jewish Jane Austen.”

Wolf’s parents were Jewish immigrants who fled antisemitism in Alsace-Lorraine (France) and settled in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1840s. The family were members of Temple Emanu-El which, although founded as an Orthodox synagogue in 1850 during the Gold Rush, became a leading Reform synagogue known for its emphasis on greater inclusivity for women and whose Rabbi, Jacob Voorsanger, was a passionate advocate of assimilation. As we shall see, Wolf’s novels were among the first to engage with American Reform theology, and her experience at Temple Emanu-El surely played an essential role in both her stories and her philosophy.

Copy of 1913 signed photograph in which Wolf’s congenital disability, her undeveloped left arm, may be seen.

Emma’s father was a successful businessman who owned stores in several California gold rush mining towns, and his sudden death when she was only 13 years old, leaving behind his pregnant wife, Emma, and nine other children, also manifested itself in her novels, in which her female protagonists are often orphans.

One of Wolf’s childhood friends was Rebecka Bettelheim, the daughter of progressive rabbi Aaron Bettelheim, who left Hungary in protest against his Orthodox colleagues’ “religious fanaticism.” In her well-regarded 1925 autobiography, which provides some insight into Wolf’s thinking at the time, she called Wolf a “brilliant authoress” and discussed their shared religious background and experience, in particular their mutual difficulties in retaining and maintaining their Jewish identities and how different they felt as Jews in San Francisco society. Rebecka writes how she began to doubt whether it was worth making the difficult sacrifices for Judaism and whether it was just easier to assimilate and be done with it, adding that Wolf was dealing with the same internal conflict which, as we shall see, also became the dominant theme of Wolf’s novels.

With a focus on professional, affluent Jews who had fully integrated into upper-middle class society and were seemingly undifferentiable from their non-Jewish contemporaries – until their Judaism suddenly become an issue – both Other Things Being Equal (1892) and Heirs of Yesterday (1901) offer a rare and singular glimpse into Jewish life in a western American Jewish community. In Other Things, Wolf’s stunning debut novel, she tells the story set in 1880s San Francisco of a romance between Ruth Lavice, a young intellectual from an upper-class Jewish family, and Dr. Herbert Kemp, a physician she first meets when accompanying her mother to a medical appointment.

Believing that his daughter’s relationship with Dr. Kemp was purely platonic, Ruth’s father, Jules, permits her to go out with him and, when they are seen together at the theatre by her parents’ disapproving Jewish friends, he defends her against the “vulgar bandying.” However, when Ruth informs him of her intentions to wed Kemp, he vociferously objects to her marriage to a Christian. She answers that it cannot possibly make a difference because he loves her and, when he argues that there could be no happiness in such a union, she challenges him: “Why not? Inasmuch as all my life you have taught me to look upon my Christian friends as upon my Jewish, and since you admit him irreproachable from every standpoint, why can he not be my husband?”

In one of the novel’s most telling scenes, Jules arranges a meeting with the couple where he tells Kemp that he never even considered the possibility that Ruth would want to marry a non-Jew because he “trusted that her own Jewish conscience and bringing up would protect against her allowing herself to think seriously upon such an issue.” When Kemp expresses his confusion because Jules is not an Orthodox Jew, he replies:

No, but I am intensely Jewish . . . as you say, we are not Orthodox but before we become Orthodox or Reform, we are born, and being born, we are invested with certain hereditary traits that are incontrovertible. Every Jew bears in his blood the glory, the triumph, the misery, the abjectness of Israel.

When both Ruth and Kemp make clear that neither will ever renounce their respective faiths, Jules responds that the result of such a marriage will be that both will be cut off from their respective religious communities, and he challenges Ruth to explain how she can claim not to be renouncing her faith when her intended spouse will remain a Christian. Ruth responds that she would have no respect for a man who would give up his core convictions merely because she had entered his life, adding:

As for my religion, I am a Jewess and will die one. My G-d is fixed and unalterable; he is one and indivisible; to divide his divinity would be to deny his omnipotence . . . Saturday will always be my Sabbath no matter what convention would make me do . . . on our New Year, I should still feel that a holy cycle has passed, but I live only according to one record of time and my New Year will always be the 1st of January. Atonement is a sacred day to me; I could not desecrate it . . . Our services are magnificently beautiful, and I should feel like a culprit if debarred from their holiness.

Kemp adds that his love for Ruth, both body and soul, are such that he would never interfere with her religious beliefs and practices and that, if Ruth would have him, he would be overjoyed to accompany her to Temple on Jewish holidays: “[L]oving her, what she finds worshipful could find nothing but respect from me.” He contends that his Unitarianism and her Reform Judaism are very similar in that both are liberal.

When Jules asks Kemp how he will feel celebrating his beloved Christmas alone, it is Ruth who replies that her father had always taught that love is most important and that Jesus represented love so that therefore “I would endeavor that he have no lack, for so far as Christmas is concerned, I am a Christian also.” Jules counters that she could not be married by a rabbi, and she responds that she is fine being married by a Unitarian minister. Finally, when Jules asks how their future children would be raised, she responds that they would be raised “in the religion of love” and that the children could later adopt the faith of their choice. Finally, a defeated Jules tells Ruth that while Kemp is a fine man, that he understands her love for him, and that she may marry him if she chooses, it will be without his blessing. On his deathbed, however, Jules recants and requests that the couple marry quickly because he only has a short time to live and, after the private ceremony, he blesses the couple with the tripartite Priestly Blessing.

A landmark in American fiction and the history of romance literature, the novel takes a “love conquers all” approach to intermarriage with its focus on the capability of two people in love to work through their differences and to maintain a loving relationship by concentrating on common core beliefs, such as the existence of a supreme G-d and a belief in inherent human kindness, while simultaneously establishing space for each to follow his or her individual philosophies. As Wolf makes clear, factors such as the protagonists’ compatibility in class, education, and outlook are far more important than their differing faiths.

Inexplicably, at least to me, many commentators laud Wolf’s novels as resisting the pattern of assimilation championed by most Jewish writers at the time and that, instead of abandoning faith, family, and culture, she embraces the Jewish singularity and distinctiveness characteristic of her own Jewish identity. However, while it is true that Ruth does not unthinkingly and totally abandon her Jewish feelings, the fact that, when all is said and done, she does intermarry, making it illogical, at best, to hold her up as a paragon of Jewish virtue. Moreover, there is a facile aspect to Wolf’s characters’ belief that “love conquers all” and “we can work it out,” as so many intermarried couples have discovered through time. In any event, any doubts about Wolf’s embrace of intermarriage were arguably laid to rest when, in the introduction to the 1916 reprint of Other Things Being Equal, she wrote “The humanist love knows no sect.”

The extent that the novel is at least semi-autobiographical, and that Ruth’s thinking and conflicts are actually Wolf’s own, is beyond dispute. Interestingly, while most of Wolf’s sisters intermarried, she herself never wed, perhaps reflecting her own conflicts and perhaps because, given her congenital physical disability, believed to be exacerbated by polio – as Bettelhem writes in her autobiography, Wolf’s left arm was “useless” – she was considered damaged goods and unmarriageable due to prevailing social norms at the time, notwithstanding her sharp mind and talent as a writer. Some commentators suggest that her inability to participate in the traditional social model of marriage and family allowed her to make her writing a priority and that she drew on her sisters’ courtships and marriages for her storylines.

In any event, Wolf’s portrayal of Ruth was a reflection of her own embrace of the “new woman.” For example, she disparagingly writes:

Jewish etiquette, or rather Jewish espionage, forbids a young man unattached by blood or intentions to appear as the attendant of a single woman. This is one of the ways Jewish heads of families have got into for keeping the young people apart – making cowards of the young men and depriving the young girls of a great deal of innocent pleasure.

Yet, while criticizing that very paternalism, Wolf also values old traditions, such as family loyalty, and Ruth’s love for her father, and her respect for parental authority surely displeased contemporary feminist scholars and contributed to her rejection by many of them.

Heirs of Yesterday tells the story of Jean Willard, a 24-year-old Jewish woman who falls in love with Philip May but finds herself unable to act on her attraction because he is a Jew who has renounced his faith to assimilate. Much as Ruth in Other Things Being Equal, Jean is a modern and sophisticated daughter of Jewish immigrants and, like Wolf, she loses her father at an early age and is taken in by her adoring Uncle, Daniel Willard.Unlike Ruth, however, she is not Jewishly knowledgeable – her knowledge is limited to a few “Talmudic stories” she heard from her uncle, and Wolf notes that she cannot even list the Ten Commandments –and she is wholly disinterested in Jewish practice.

In a significant seminal scene in the novel, Wolf lovingly describes the beauty of the family Seder, to which Philip shows up just when the door is opened to admit Elijah. Jean explains to a cynical Philip that the Seder is “a picture, part of our ancestral gallery which we unveil every year for the sake of auld lang syne . . . but I am densely ignorant, I never get anything but the spirit out of things.” She tells Philip that she recited Hebrew prayers by rote as a young girl without understanding a single word and that she ceased praying entirely when she discovered that G-d wasn’t listening to her.At the Seder, she quotes her rabbi, who says that “Jews do not pray to the divinity above them, but to the divinity within them.” [It is most likely that this is a line that Wolf heard at Temple Emanu-El.]

Nonetheless, she adds, she always finds herself praying instinctively in moments when she is very happy and she sees herself as part of the Jewish people; in one delightful scene, she upbraids an antisemitic artist at a social gathering by telling him, “Every one of us carries the blood, the history of all of us in his veins, no matter how different we may appear, and when you sneer at one of us, you sneer, by implication, at all of us.” Wolf describes Jean’s Judaism as “sleeping in the suburbs of her soul,” a beautiful metaphor for the concept of the “pintele Yid.”

Philip, who believes that “to be a Jew is to be socially handicapped for life” and that his Judaism made him “an American – with a difference,” sees himself as the scion of cultural modernity and, after pursuing a medical education overseas, he returns to San Francisco determined to hold himself out as a refined Christian physician. He recalls with distaste being called a “Christ killer” in his youth, and he cites many appalling examples of antisemitism that he personally witnessed. He tells his traditional and Yiddish-accented Jewish immigrant widowed father, Joseph, that “beyond the blood I was born with, pretty nearly all the Jew has been knocked out of me”:

Religiously, from the meager memory I have of it, I consider Judaism a dead letter, a monument of the past. If it advances, it advances crab-like – as its followers read their prayerbooks – backward. Only professionally have I any use for graveyards, only for ceremonies – the meaningless yearly shams and shows and protestations – not that!

His stark rejection of Judaism breaks his father’s heart and, in emotional agony, Joseph calls him a meshumad (as Wolf explains in the text, literally “one who is destroyed” and, in context, an apostate) and he tells Jean’s Uncle Daniel, his closest friend, of his intention to revise his will to disinherit Philip and to leave him only a single dollar, adding sarcastically that “he can make Shabos (sic) with it.”

Philip, who even occasionally attended services at a Unitarian church, had no difficulty passing as a Christian at medical school and he expects no problems in donning the mantle of a fine Christian gentleman back in San Francisco. However, he is stunned when his application for membership in a prestigious Christian social club is denied because he is Jewish and, adding insult to injury, he is castigated by a club leader for trying to hide his Jewishness and scorned for denying his Judaism. When the news of Philip’s charade becomes broadly known, he is rejected by many of his co-religionists, denied membership even in his father’s club, and even Jean, who still has feelings for him, rebukes him.

Toward the end of the novel, Philip’s father dies, and he decides to go to temple for Friday night services. Wolf describes the beauty of the synagogue, which almost certainly was based on her own Temple Emanu-El, and describes in particular the playing of Shema with trumpets, which were also used in place of a shofar on Rosh Hashana and which was one of the “innovations” instituted by her Reform temple. Leaving the synagogue, Philip ironically questions whether the service was Jewish at all, with Hebrew omitted from most the prayers, the organ music, the “non-Jew in the pulpit”; he says that it all seemed “heretical to the ancient ideal.” In perhaps the seminal discourse of the novel that exemplifies Wolf’s beautiful and heartfelt prose, Jean’s Uncle Daniel says:

There is something in the roots in every one of us, a something which has got implacably mixed with our blood and is inseparable from it, which has made us what we are long before oppression came near us. We cannot separate ourselves from this ancient heredity. The ghettoes were only the great storehouses in which this racial germ was preserved and forced to exotic intensity. Our ethics are our birthright. And whenever a Jew fails to be proud of this birthright, and whenever a Jew fails to be proud of this birthright, it is through cowardice, or ignorance, or both. And whenever a Christian is unjust to a Jew, it is through cowardice or ignorance or both.

When his father’s will is read, Philip has an epiphany, albeit a limited one. When he learns that he has been disinherited, he decides to honor his father by declining to contest the will, even after being advised that he has ample legal grounds to do so. In the final scene, set against the Spanish American War (1898), Wolf uses Jean’s tireless work as a Red Cross volunteer and Philip’s volunteering to serve as an army surgeon to silence the antisemites and to demonstrate Jewish support for their country. As Philip is leaving San Francisco, he runs into Jean and explains his changed view of being Jewish:

I decided I would not be fate’s social cripple linked by an invisible chain to a slavish past. I resolved to break the chain . . . [But] I discovered there are other – closer – more binding links riveting us to the chain. For I succeeded in pulling the chain – until my father fell . . .

Ah, you see, I cannot help myself – you have become my religion – if you are Jewish, must I not too be a Jew?

Jean responds to Philip’s profession of love with silence, and the novel ends ambiguously as, unlike in in Other Things Being Equal where Ruth and Kemp marry, we are not told whether Jean and Philip end up together.

While the obstacle in Other Things Being Equal was intermarriage, both protagonists in Heirs of Yesterday are Jewish, and the obstacle becomes their differing views of Judaism. On its face, the conflict at the heart of Heirs is the inherent adversity between Jean’s idealism in the face of a harsh reality to the contrary and Philip’s set-in-stone anti-Jewish philosophy on the other but, on a deeper level, the story is about how neither non-Jewish American high society, nor the Jewish bourgeoisie, nor traditional Orthodox Judaism, can provide what Reform Jews are seeking.

On one hand, Wolf suggests that Jews who denounce or ignore their Judaism are as immoral as the antisemites who despise them, and she does not hold back from bitterly criticizing Philip’s apostasy. On the other hand, she embraces assimilation and intermarriage, “other things being equal” – which, of course, they are not. The conflict remains both contemporarily relevant and eternal and, as Jews have discovered throughout history – and as Hitler established for all time – a Jew does not cease being a Jew in the eyes of the world no matter the degree to which he or she may have assimilated; as Wolf has one of her characters say, “the birth-sentence [of being Jewish] is a life-sentence.”

Wolf experienced limited mobility and, toward the end of her life, she was confined to a wheelchair. After her death at age 67 due to complications from minor surgery, she was buried at the Home of Peace Cemetery, where members of Temple Emanu-El were buried, including Wyatt and Josephine Earp (she was Jewish), Levi Strauss, and Mayor Sutro.


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].