We Shouldn’t Ignore This Groundbreaking Jewish Novelist’s Disability

Emma Wolf's disability was central to her identity and her work — inseparable from her Jewishness and gender.

“I have discovered that to be a Jew, turn wheresoever you will, is to be socially handicapped for life,” states Philip May, the physician-protagonist of Emma Wolf’s 1900 novel, “Heirs of Yesterday.” Philip’s realization leads to his attempt to “override” the barriers that limit his professional and social advancement. He decides to cut himself off from his heritage and pass for a non-Jew, thus generating the familial and communal conflicts at the heart of the novel. Set in the middle-class Jewish community of late 19th-century San Francisco, “Heirs of Yesterday” explores, among other topics, ethno-religious assimilation, genteel antisemitism, and the rise of Reform Judaism.

Lauded as a classic in its time, Wolf’s novel is back in print after a century of obscurity, reissued in a new edition that I co-edited with Barbara Cantalupo. In writing about Wolf and researching her life, work, and times, I have prioritized her identity as a pioneering Jewish American woman novelist. The fact that she had a physical disability provided an interesting sidenote in her biography. But increasingly, I have come to view disability as central to her identity and her work — inseparable from Jewishness and gender. Knowing that Wolf was physically disabled, for example, gives new meaning to Philip’s understanding of Jewishness as a “social handicap” and his characterization as a member of the medical profession.

In fact, disability enabled Wolf’s career as a writer.

Heirs of Yesterday

Born in 1865 in California, Wolf was the daughter of Central European immigrants who arrived in the United States in the mid-19th century after fleeing antisemitism in their homeland of Alsace-Lorraine. Thanks to her father’s financial success as a Bay Area merchant, the family lived a comfortable, middle class existence, even after his sudden death in 1878, when Emma was 13. At San Francisco Girls’ High School, Wolf sharpened her talent as a writer and distinguished herself as a student.

An admiring tribute by one of her classmates, Rebekah Bettelheim Kohut, includes a reference to Wolf’s congenital disability. “One of eight daughters, Emma Wolf was handicapped from birth by a useless arm, but there was no defect in her mentality,” wrote Kohut in her 1925 autobiography, dispelling the common misconception, still prevalent today, that bodily malformation was an outward sign of limited intellectual ability. “Her memory was the most remarkable I have ever encountered. She could quote with equal facility the texts of long poems or the fatality statistics of each of the world’s great battles.”

Although the stigma of physical disability did not curtail Wolf’s educational opportunities, it did set her apart from her able-bodied peers and sisters when it came to a post-graduation future. Nineteenth-century gender norms prescribed a narrow path for middle-class women: they would marry and bear children. Disabled women were an exception. Wolf would have been considered unmarriageable and unfit for reproduction. Fueled by eugenics, prevailing scientific discourses inhibited disabled people from procreating due to fears that they could not raise children and would pass on defects to their offspring.

Exempt from the marriage market, released from many of the expectations placed on women of her class, and privileged with the financial and emotional support of a large and loving family, Wolf was free to devote herself to a career as a writer. Home life granted access to the raw materials of her art. Wolf wrote at a time when domestic fiction, centering on the union of heterosexual couples, dominated the literary market and held particular resonance for women authors and their audiences. A careful observer of the social practices from which she was excluded, Wolf drew on her sisters’ courtships and marriages for her fictional narratives.

The marriage plot supplied a structural framework for all of Wolf’s novels. Her debut, “Other Things Being Equal,” published in 1892, was a popular success, due in part to its controversial depiction of an interfaith romance between its Jewish heroine and a Christian doctor. The topic of intermarriage, then as now, generated significant debate in the Jewish community. “There were those among the readers of her book who roundly denounced the spirit in which it was conceived and written and declared that the author had broken with her ancestral religion and was trying to undermine the faith of her co-religionists,” sermonized one disapproving rabbi, while conceding that other readers “hailed the sentiments expressed in that book as the powerful manifestation of the progressive spirit of Judaism.”

Wolf was undeterred by the controversies and held fast to the principles of realism above idealization, asserting that “truth-telling should be an author’s religion.” Following “Other Things Being Equal,” she went on to publish four more novels. Over the course of a 25 year career, she also published short stories and poems in periodicals ranging from the American Jewess (the first journal targeted to Jewish American women) to Century and The Smart Set, two of the best-known mass circulation magazines of the era. Her writing tapered off towards the end of her life; in the 15 years before her death in 1932, ill health forced her retirement, with obituaries noting that the “beloved S. F. author” had been “virtually confined to her room.” Descendants recall that a bout with polio contributed to increased immobility.

Because Wolf left behind little in the way of autobiographical writing, her personal perspectives on how disability and ableism shaped her life and career remain unknown. Disability, however, enters her fiction in both overt and covert ways.

In “Heirs of Yesterday,” Wolf locates disability on the body of an artist. Philip May’s nemesis, the painter Stephen Forrest, is a rumored “Jew-hater,” who, we are told, was “lamed through an accident in childhood.” This seemingly minor detail generates a rich variety of meanings, especially when juxtaposed with Philip’s misguided belief that his own “social handicap” — being a Jew — could be eradicated through passing as a non-Jew.

The physical impairment of the novel’s antisemitic antagonist may skirt close to portrayals of the disabled as monstrous villains, symbolically aligning deformity with evil. At the same time, Wolf’s depictions of refined, attractive, and complex Jewish characters countered pervasive antisemitic tropes that affixed Jewish difference to grotesque bodies. The novel alludes throughout to traditions of Jewish stereotyping, from the medieval belief that Jews bore the cloven foot of the devil to cartoons in 19th century American humor magazines like Puck, in which corporeal excess served as a visual marker of Jewish men’s greed and undesirability. Interconnected, Wolf’s representations of disability, Jewishness, and gender resist easy ideological classification. When positioned as a vital component of her art, disability produces multiple, and often contradictory, meanings.

Emma Wolf Disability

In a photograph from 1913, Wolf sits in a porch chair, gazing directly at the viewer, the bow on her lace-embroidered dress slightly askew. Three-quarter sleeves expose the asymmetry of her lower arms. Her left is supported on the arm of the chair, offering a view of her undeveloped limb. Her right hand grasps a newspaper. Rather than obscuring her difference, the image renders visible the physical disability that made possible her life of letters.

Lori Harrison-Kahan

Lori Harrison-Kahan (she/her/hers) is the co-editor of Heirs of Yesterday by Emma Wolf (Wayne State University Press, 2020) and editor of The Superwoman and Other Writings by Miriam Michelson (Wayne State University Press, 2019). She is Professor of the Practice of English at Boston College.

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