The Jerusalem Report: “Learning to Love Her People”

The Jerusalem Report

January 17, 2000, p. 51

“Learning to Love Her People”

By Karen Yourish

Unknown today, Fannie Hurst was once a famously successful novelist, who loaned her name to all good causes but those of her fellow Jews

ONE DAY A CENTURY AGO, when Fannie Hurst was in grade school in St. Louis, a group of girls lined up their classmates at recess and told them to shout out their religion one by one.

“Instantly,” Hurst (1889-1968) recalled in her memoirs years later, “the line took it up like a singing regiment. Left foot, right foot, each girl snapping in turn: Lutheran. Catholic. Baptist. Presbyterian. The exception was the girl at the far end. Me.”

Embarrassed by being the only Jew, Fannie remained silent. “Suddenly, I had become different.”

The feeling of stigma associated with being Jewish remained forever with Hurst, who, with her heart-wrenching tales about working women, immigrants and boardinghouse life, reigned as a leading “sob sister” of American fiction in the 1920s and 1930s. Unfortunately it is not until almost the very end of Brooke Kroeger’s rather awkwardly titled biography of Hurst that we gain some insight into why she harbored these feelings – although there are references throughout the biography to a “lifelong discomfort with being Jewish” and to her consistent disassociation from things “too Jewish.”

Hurst, a daughter of highly assimilated German Jews, had a penchant for writing throughout high school and college (she attended Washington University) and it was only shortly after moving to New York in 1910 that she began to attain celebrity status as a writer and invoke comparisons to Edna Ferber and O. Henry. The Saturday Evening Post’s publication of her short story “Power and Horsepower” launched Hurst into the big time and she quickly became a sought-after commodity by other big-name magazines. Despite her near pop-culture icon status during the first half of the 20th century, interest in all but the most popular of Hurst’s work – like “Back Street” and “Humoresque,” the latter of which was filmed and became a box-office sensation in 1920 – has faded with time. Critics agreed almost universally that it was Hurst’s ability as a story teller – and not as a writer – that made her work worth reading.

Perhaps Kroeger, a journalist who produced an earlier biography of Nellie Bly, can’t be faulted for deciding in this first biography of Hurst against focusing on the writer’s lifelong struggle with her Jewish heritage and setting out instead to prove that the “queen of shopgirl fiction” never received rightful credit for her contribution to women’s and civil rights causes. But in providing a few brief, but critical, glimpses into this aspect of Hurst’s life, Kroeger herself makes a case for why the issue should have been given more attention.

As a close friend of leading political figures of her day, including Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Fiorello La Guardia, and herself a household name, Hurst had both the profile and the platforms with which to speak out against various injustices, which she did – up to a point. She was ahead of her time with some of the issues she tackled in her stories – sexual harassment and physical abuse, among others – and was frequently asked to serve on the boards of civic organizations, though she rarely did more than lend her name.

Hurst drew the line at efforts organized by Jews, however. She rejected a request by Louise Wise, the wife of Rabbi Stephen Wise, in 1935, to host a meeting of Christian and Jewish women to discuss combating Nazi inroads into the United States and rescuing those fleeing Nazi persecution (ironically, Wise himself is remembered for his reluctance to rock the boat by publicizing the Germans’ crimes against the Jews) and she declined the vice presidency of the United Palestine Appeal in 1936. Hurst felt that Zionism “segregates us, raises barriers or creates race prejudice.”

It was only at the end of her life, during a 1953 trip to Jerusalem, that Hurst finally came to terms with the idea of being Jewish. In her 1958 memoir, “Anatomy of Me,” Hurst wrote that seeing the “tribal men and women out of Yemen and the long-eyed Sephardic Jews, and Jews who for the first time in their history were not walking the desert sands but the storied streets of the homeland to which they had returned, it came to me as if up from the Biblical soil: These are my people, and Mama and Papa and I from Cates Avenue in St. Louis are their people.” Hurst included these revelations, she explained, “because I feel lighter and perhaps a little nicer.”

 (Copyright (c) 2000. The Jerusalem Report)

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