Photo Credit: Jewish Press

The prolific Ferber (1885 – 1968), who ranks among the most influential female novelists of all time, produced twelve novels, ten of which were adapted into film, seven plays, eleven volumes of short stories, and two memoirs. Her best known works include So Big, for which she became the first Jewish Pulitzer Prize winner (1924); Showboat (1926), the story of a girl’s life on the floating theater of the Mississippi River, which was made into one of the most beloved Broadway musicals of all time; Cimarron (1929), the story of Oklahoma, the Indian territories, and the opening of the American West – whose characters Jabotinsky described in a 1940 review as “genuine pioneers” from whom Jewish settlers had much to learn; and Giant (1952), the story of life in Texas.

Portrait of Ferber

Ferber was among the best-selling novelists of the twentieth century. Her works have been translated into many languages and read worldwide; the plays adapted from her books enjoyed long runs; and the films adapted from them were among the most successful of their era. Her work reflects a deep and conspicuous love for America and for all Americans and a deep contempt for racism and bigotry. She socialized with members of the famous Algonquin Round Table, including Teddy Roosevelt, who was one of her biggest fans and who often offered her plot advice, and George S. Kaufman, with whom she wrote and produced several hit comedies, including Dinner at Eight and Stage Door.

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Yet, today, her work is hardly remembered, except for the classic films made from her work, including Giant, Cimarron, and the timeless Showboat.

Although Ferber discussed Judaism at length in her nonfiction writing, including her autobiographies, its absence from her novels has generally left her outside the mainstream of Jewish-American literature. The absence of specifically Jewish issues and characters in her fiction is likely attributable to her views regarding her own Judaism; to the importance she ascribed to assimilation, as more fully discussed below; and to her view that the “narcissist-like tendency of Jewish writers to focus on their own trials” repels readers: “Once [the Jew] begins to write about himself or preach about himself, he feels sorry for himself. This trait is one which the world does not find endearing.”

Ferber’s father, Jacob, a Hungarian-born Jewish storekeeper, launched several businesses, all of which invariably failed, forcing the family to move from Kalamazoo, Michigan where she was born, to Chicago, then to Ottumwa, Iowa, and then to Appleton, Wisconsin. This itinerant travel took its toll on the young Edna, who dreamed of venturing out into a hostile world and making something of herself. As a result, her books, which often told wide-ranging stories across a great historical arc from the perspective of everyday people, featured often semi-autobiographical memorable protagonists who were strong, resourceful, and attractive feminist women who are forced by unfortunate family circumstances to enter a harsh world and who, with burning determination and a spirit of self-actualization, successfully seek their fortune.

Young Edna loved her father, but it was her admiration of her mother, Julia, the daughter of wealthy Jewish merchants from Germany, that played the more important role in her life. When Jacob began to lose his eyesight, the resolute and gritty Julia became head of the household and its breadwinner, which created a strong impression on Edna. The strong and heroic women in Ferber’s works are based upon her mother, who served as a model for everything Edna hoped to become. However, above and beyond Ferber’s early failure to establish meaningful roots in any one place and her irrepressible mother, her work was shaped most by her personal experience with anti-Semitism, particularly during her early formative years in Ottumwa.

Ferber spent happy teenage years in Appleton, a small Wisconsin town with a Jewish mayor and some 40 Jewish families, where she attended Shabbat-school classes and sang in the choir at Temple Emanuel. Later, during her time in Chicago as an adult, where she wrote many of her best novels, she attended Sunday services at Temple Sinai and came to greatly admire its Rabbi, Emil Hirsch, who was a leader in the Reform Jewish Movement. Ferber, who always manifested great sympathy for America’s struggling people, found a kindred spirit in Hirsch and was deeply influenced by his humanitarianism and his humanist “interpretation” of Judaism.

However, her earlier years in Ottumwa scarred her for life and arguably led to her assimilationist philosophy of life. As she later wrote in her autobiography, “child though I was, the brutality and ignorance of that little town penetrated to my consciousness,” and she referred to her time there as “those seven years of my bitter little girlhood.”

In Ottumwa, Ferber faced vicious anti-Semitism, which included regular abuse and mocking. For example, when she brought lunch to her father at his store on Shabbat, the local youth would spit on her and taunt her for her Yiddish-accented English. As she writes in her notes to her autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure (1939):

I don’t think there was a day [in Ottumwa] when I wasn’t called a sheeny… I still feel an absurd and deep hatred for it. And yet not absurd. It must have left its mark on a sensitive child… I hope that [all the ignorant hateful boys from the town] were all very hungry, ill and in a good deal of unbearable pain before they died. Myother cheek was all worn out long before I grew up.

It was this oppression that led to her to escape into books; it was anti-Semitism that led her to imagine an idealized version America; it was the cruelty and abuse that she never forgot that led her to create an American myth where strong women triumph; and it was all this that made a little Jewish girl determined to find her place in the great American melting pot. However, even when she achieved greatness and broad acclaim, she was panned by some of the greatest writers of her time, some of whom manifested anti-Semitism in their criticism. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald – who admitted to never reading her work – nonetheless derisively labeled her as “a Yiddish descendent of O. Henry.”

Ferber grew up in a non-Observant family that nonetheless closed their general store and attended services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Although she, too, was a non-practicing Jewishly uneducated Jew who never became involved in specifically Jewish interests or with her fellow Jews, she was nonetheless intensely Jewish in every respect. Although she largely rejected Judaism in terms of religion, she deeply felt, and identified with, the history of the Jewish people, particularly with respect to its long history of surviving anti-Semitism and persecution. “All my life,” she explained, “I have been inordinately proud of being a Jew, but I have felt that one should definitely not brag about it. My Jewishness was, I thought, something to wear with becoming modesty.”

On one hand, she saw Judaism and Jewish identity as a vestige brought to America from the Old World and she viewed assimilation as the preferred path for modern Jews such as herself. She believed that Judaism was something that she – and her fellow Jews – had to outgrow to join fully in the American experience.

On the other hand, she was a fiercely proud Jewess who often credited her success to her Jewish heritage, never disavowed her Judaism, and never felt that it somehow diminished her. She became famous – or infamous – for never letting anti-Semitism go unanswered. In my favorite story, when a snooty dinner hostess asked her “Oh, you’re Jewish?,” she answered coolly “Only on my mother’s and father’s side.”

Ferber’s pride as a Jew was related to feeling at once “different and set apart” but also superior to her anti-Semitic tormentors. Perhaps unconsciously reflecting the Jewish theological belief that everything ultimately happens for the good, she believed that the oppression of the Jews was the ultimate source of their extraordinary creativity:

I have felt that to be a Jew was, in some ways at least, to be privileged. Two thousand years of persecution have made the Jew quick to sympathy, quick-witted (he’d better be), tolerant, humanly understanding… He has acquired great adaptability, nervous energy, ambition to succeed, and a desire to be liked…

[I see those years in Ottumwa] not as bitter corroding years, but as astringent strengthening years; years whose adversity had given me and mine a solid foundation of stamina, determination, and a profound love of justice.

Perhaps Ferber’s best expression of this “all is for the best” philosophy is her citation to the Baal Shem Tov, “a member of the Hasidic movement, founded in the first half of the 18th century” who, she said, taught that “there are three ways in which a man expresses his deep sorrow: the man on the lowest level cries, the man on the second level is silent, but the man on the highest level knows how to turn his sorrow into song.” Ferber’s viewed her own work as being rooted in this Jewish idea of transforming pain into creativity.

Ferber notably focused on her own coming-of-age and Jewish heritage in her second novel, the plainly autobiographical Fanny Herself (1917), in which she dismisses the notion that Judaism is a handicap. The protagonist, Fanny Brandeis, is, like Ferber, headstrong, feisty, brash and ambitious and, though tempted by assimilation, she refuses to surrender.

In this undated (“August 11,” but no year – though almost certainly 1955, a few months after the death of actor James Dean) correspondence, Ferber presents an incredible description of the nature of her own work and offers a glimpse into her own self-image. She characterizes her work as much more than good stories but, rather, as “novels of protest:”

Ferber correspondence

…I have never been moved by the designation “great story teller.” My books are not just great story telling. They are people and manners and mores and passions and national psychoses (for goodness sakes!) – strained through the particular receptor that is called, for everybody’s convenience, “Edna Ferber,” nee Ferber. [Author’s note: she was never married.] If these unique emotions and sensibilities and spinsterish inclinations were not involved, then SHOW BOAT and CIMARRON and so on and so forth would not have survived these decades. Besides, and this point seems to have been missed entirely, my novels are novels of protest. They happen to involve large canvasses, but there is more dimension I hope than size.

She goes on to mourn the loss of Jimmy Dean, who starred, along with Elizabeth Taylor, in the movie version of Giant:

I too was inutterably felled by the waste of Jimmy Dean. It was beyond my power to fathom because he was so fetching and unrestrained in his openness to life. And all those little creatures who still contact me for memento mori should have perished instead. If I had had a son, I would have wished for someone just like him.

From 1922 through 1936, Ferber visited Europe several times a year and, unlike most Americans who were ignorant of the rise of the anti-Semitic hate she had experienced in her childhood – or who knew about the growing Nazi menace, but didn’t care – she became deeply concerned and outspoken: “It was a fearful thing to see a continent – a civilization – crumbling before one’s eyes. It was a rapid and seemingly inevitable process to which no one paid any particular attention.” Her Nazi fears had a great impact on her work, which often featured themes of racial and cultural discrimination. For example, she originally included a sarcastic dedication in A Peculiar Treasure (her 1939 autobiography) to Hitler:

To Adolf Hitler, who has made me a better Jew and a more understanding human being, as he has of millions of other Jews, this book is dedicated in loathing and contempt.

In the book, Ferber recounts her own personal experiences with anti-Semitism and movingly expresses her horror at the rise of Nazism, and she actively promoted the purchase of war bonds during WWII. The theme of the book is Jewish success and the ability of Jews to transcend anti-Semitism and to prevail.

At the end of the day, Ferber’s Judaism may perhaps be explained through an undated correspondence that she wrote late in her life:

You were wrong about the government of Israel, of which I no longer approve. Withal (sic) and despite the fact that I have abandoned all semblance of Judaism, I am a Jew. Europe reminded me of that. It’s really a way of looking at the world, with humor, cynicism, courage, and the kind of dis-ease that no gentile – however intelligent – will ever understand.

As suggested by this letter, Ferber was a fervent anti-Zionist although, interestingly, she did not start out that way. In 1934, she took a trip to Egypt, which she saw as the “Land of the Pharaohs” that had enslaved her people, and to Eretz Yisrael, about which she wrote: “I know why it was known as `Jerusalem the Golden.’ It is golden.” She was inspired by the settlers, about whom she expressed great optimism: “I am not a Zionist, [but] I only know this with great assurance: if suffering for centuries has been the badge of all our race, it is high time to tear off that badge . . .”

However, she later proved that, indeed, she was no Zionist. When Ben Hecht, whom she had befriended in Chicago, tried to enlist her for his important promotions of the Zionist/Revisionist cause, she coldly refused. [Hecht never forgave her.] More significantly, when she returned to Israel in 1952, she no longer viewed the settlers positively; rather, she considered the Jews of Eretz Yisrael to be “arrogant, ignorant of the world beyond Israeli borders, and lacking in basic manners.”

Her criticism of Israel’s government in the correspondence cited above is almost certainly related to her acerbic exchange with Prime Minister Ben Gurion, who urged all Diaspora Jews to make aliyah. Ferber heatedly protested that “America is my Jerusalem” and, characterizing Ben Gurion as “insolent and arrogant,” she publicly demanded that he be removed from office.

U.S. stamp honoring Ferber

Finally, on July 29, 2002, the U.S. Postal Service issued an 83¢ Distinguished Americans series postage stamp honoring Ferber, which was based upon a black-and-white photograph taken of her in 1927. After a non-Jewish funeral, she was cremated and buried in New York City.

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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 sauljsing@gmail.com.