Mary Antin's The Promised Land: Constraints of Women in the Jewish Community

    Lindsay Kleiman

            Although Mary Antin wrote The Promised Land in 1912 with the ostensible intention of shedding light on the Jewish-American immigrant experience for a non-Jewish audience, one can see through close readings that this autobiography was also written to serve a secondary purpose. That is, Antin also wrote this novel for the Jewish reader as a means of critiquing the religious customs that governed the role of women within traditional communities. Due to the fact that the messages intended for her Jewish readers are far more implicit than those meant for her American audience, Antin uses literary tactics like language and plot to effectively communicate the idea that Judaism can be repressive for women. Moreover, her work suggests the notion that women within these religious communities possess the ability to move beyond these boundaries, in order to become learned and accomplished. Through a careful examination, it is possible to see how Antin wrote this novel for a dual audience, with the intention of making a strong, but covert statement for her Jewish readership.

            When analyzing Antin’s writing from this perspective, it is imperative from the outset to carefully read Antin’s descriptions of the differences in gender roles within her own Jewish community in Polotzk. Her judgmental depiction of gender positions within this town is often revealed in her description of the drastic differences between educational opportunities available to men and women, with particular regard to those opportunities awarded for religious study. While a surface reading of this text serves as an explanation for the traditions characteristic to her religious Jewish community, her choices in language subtly convey her intention to criticize these institutions.

            One of the most notable passages about the imbalanced treatment of boys and girls occurs quite early in the text, when Antin, explaining the importance of boys obtaining a Jewish education, describes her own brother’s experience in beginning his studies. She writes:

            My brother was five years old when he entered on his studies. He was carried to the heder  (Hebrew school), on the first day, covered over with a                        praying- shawl, so that nothing unholy should look on him…. After a boy entered heder, he was the hero of the family. He was served before the other             children at table…. If the family were very poor, all the girls might go barefoot, but the heder boy must have shoes; he must have a plate of hot soup,                though the others ate dry bread…. No wonder he said, in his morning prayer, ‘I thank Thee, L-rd, for not having created me a female.’ It was not much                to be a girl, you see. Girls could not be scholars and rabbonim. (33)

Through careful reading, it becomes clear that Antin is conveying both explicit and implicit messages within this passage. On a surface level, she is writing for the American readers, who are unfamiliar with traditional Jewish customs, and in this way, she depicts how strongly education is valued within the Jewish community. Yet she is simultaneously conveying a more covert idea, by quietly condemning the unfair consequences that education has on determining the value of each gender. As Antin later phrases it, the community believed that “a boy stuffed with learning was worth more than a girl stuffed with bank notes” (37). In other words, Antin demonstrates that academic limitations generate standards of personal value for community members that women are hindered from ever reaching. Because women within these communities were not given the opportunity to study at a heder, and to become as learned as their brothers, their fate of being considered less valuable, and consequently, inferior to men, is an inevitable trap.

             Moreover, it is interesting that Antin chooses a passage from a traditional morning prayer to further illuminate her attitude. Though one could read this verse as an example of how strongly men valued their opportunity to study, she carefully contorts this passage to serve her own arguments, for in citing a primary religious text, she is able to read it against its own grain. Consequently, she is able to conclusively demonstrate that the Jewish tradition does exclude and consequently disvalue females, by finding evidence within its governing religious texts.

            As her novel continues, Antin continues to critique the way in which Jewish tradition constrained the rights and opportunities of women by citing the personal experiences of her own mother. Unlike most traditional young women, her mother had the opportunity to study with a tutor, and Antin is careful to note that because her mother had access to education, she was reluctant to wed on the grounds that “she had nothing to gain by marriage, for already she had everything that she desired, especially since she was permitted to study” (49-50). Here, Antin makes a subtle, but important statement, suggesting that perhaps one of the reasons women allowed themselves to be subjected to the sexist and often brutal traditions surrounding marriage was to obtain access to religious texts.

            Still, Antin is certain to note that even a small opportunity for education could not rescue her mother from constraining traditions of the Jewish community. Antin explains that her mother was “doomed” when she came of age to wed.  As her parents force her into marriage, she explains, “Of course (my mother) submitted. What else could a dutiful daughter do, in Polotzk? She submitted to being weighed, measured, and appraised before her face, and resigned herself to what was to come.” She later adds, “It (did not) really matter how my mother felt” (52-53).  Here again, Antin’s choice in vocabulary places an extremely significant role in conveying her novel’s implicit defiance of her community’s traditions. With words like “doomed” and “submitted,” she clearly suggests that tradition rendered women powerless in the course of their own destiny, and that they were virtually slaves to the will of the men in their community, forced into a future in which they had no freedom of choice. Moreover, by using words like “weighed, measured, and appraised,” she suggests that women were barely even viewed as human, and were bartered for marriage as though they were inanimate objects.

            In other portions of the text, Antin uses the fate of her mother as a vehicle of criticizing all traditions that governed the practices of weddings in her community. When illustrating the scene of her parents’ wedding day, she describes her mother as being a “sixteen-year-old bride, suffocated beneath her heavy veil, blushed unseen at the numerous healths drunk to her future sons and daughters” (39). Once again, vocabulary places an invaluable role in conveying Antin’s perspective. By describing her mother’s wedding veil as suffocating and heavy, Antin depicts her as being uncomfortable and trapped on an occasion that should be the happiest day of her life. It is also notable that she describes her mother as being “unseen,” an idea that correlates with her continuing belief that women are undervalued within the community. If this sentence were to be rewritten with different word choices, significant sentiments would be lost, and thus, it is clear that language, and not only content, is one of Antin’s strongest tools in conveying her silent argument.

            Lingering doubts about Antin’s perspective on young brides must be eliminated when she expands the subject of her narrative, moving away from telling only her mother’s story to describe the fate of all young religious girls in her community. She describes the abrasive manner in which these girls found themselves yanked from childhood and forced into marriage, stating, “How soon it came, the pious burden of wifehood! One day the girl is playing forfeits with her laughing friends, the next day she is missed from the circle” (34). Though one might read this as being a simple ethnographic account of typical time frames for marriage within the community, a closer reading shows Antin’s evident aversion to this practice. First, one must note the deliberate vocabulary chosen; in place of phrases like “pious responsibility” or “pious role” of wifehood, the author deliberately chooses the phrase “pious burden,” suggesting that a young girl is being weighed down by an overwhelming and undesirably position in which she is placed. The imagery in this sentence is also significant in understanding Antin’s implicit message. In writing that a girl is “missed from the circle” implies that she is removed from a community of sisterhood, and that an important, emotional link in her life has been broken. From this singular sentence, it becomes clear that Antin views young marriages not as pious occasion to be celebrated, but instead, as a traumatic act of robbing a girl of what should be a blissful childhood experience.

            However, it seems apparent that Antin’s goal in writing this novel was not solely to criticize her community. Rather, in telling her own story of success, Antin achieves several important feats; for her American audience, she triumphantly demonstrates that immigrants can acculturate successfully. But in a less overt way, she also fulfills another important goal of inspiring her Jewish women readership. Her book implies that in America, women like herself have the ability to achieve a level of success that was not possible in Polotzk. In this way, she promotes the idea that women who have grown up in religious communities can move beyond the religion-constructed restraints of their Old World lives by beginning a new life in America.

            It is noteworthy that when Mary first makes a conscious decision to defy religious authority in her community and take personal strives to increase her own Judaic learning, she once again relies on language and plot in order to successfully achieve her goal. Linguistically, she draws on allusion to religious texts, explaining that she was “undeterred by the fate of Eve (and) wanted to know more” (107). It is interesting that Antin chose to reference Eve, for the Biblical figure was famously penalized for attempting to gain knowledge against the will of G-d’s authority. But in this context, Antin suggests that a woman can benefit from demanding and acquiring an education. It is also worth noting that Antin carefully manipulates plot, and her style of storytelling is deliberate in this section. Rather than telling this experience in the first person, as she does for the majority of the novel, here Antin insists that this is simply the story of a nameless little girl. Her choice to tell her own story under an anonymous guise perfectly demonstrates the overall technique Antin employs in writing this novel for a Jewish audience; the ideas are present, but they are stately quietly and covertly.

            After introducing readers to the idea that a religious woman does have the power to enhance her own learning experience, Antin keeps this idea in play, and begins to push it even further when she describes the initial success she obtains as a writer in America. When her poem is published in a local newspaper, Antin once again uses careful language choices to make a point about how she was able to successfully become learned in a male-dominated community. She swells with pride as she considers how she, “Mary Antin, was one of the inspired brotherhood who made the newspapers so interesting” (200). Here, it is interesting how Antin deliberately includes herself under a male categorization when describing her initiation into the world of education. In doing so, she makes a clear point that in America, it is possible for Jewish women to overcome former boundaries. In this New World, women have the opportunity to assimilate into a culture of academia, an achievement that could not have been feasible in Polotzk.

            Plot is also significant to Antin’s goal in this passage, for she later adds that she smiled “in delicious amusement when a man deliberately put me out of his path, as I dreamed my way through the jostling crowd; if only he knew whom he was treating so unceremoniously!” (200). When considering this passage as a means of explanation for a non-Jewish, American audience, it would seem as though Antin included this image to show how she, as an immigrant, was able to assimilate and find academic success within American culture; yet, when reading this passage as a covert message to Jewish women readers, it is quite notable that Antin determines that she is being pushed aside by a male. In this way, it is as though the author is creating a metaphor for the experience of all Jewish females, and henceforth, suggesting that while men may try to deter women in “their path,” women in America have the power to overcome these obstacles. 

            In summary, The Promised Land can be considered a prime example of how a work can adopt an entirely new meaning when its intended audience is reconsidered. Though this text was initially considered to be a demonstration of how a Jewish immigrant could successfully blend into American culture, it also retains a second, perhaps more pertinent function; though Antin lacks the power to extrinsically disparage traditional Jewish culture, she is able to successfully use this novel as a means of critiquing the limitations that traditional Jewish communities place on women. When successfully discovered, her novel’s intrinsic messages allow her novel to be read and appreciated in a new way.