Zelda Popkin’s adventurous life could have made her the protagonist of one of her own novels. In his brilliant telling of the story of her life, her historian grandson, Jeremy D. Popkin, has made a singular contribution to the history of American Jewish women in the twentieth century.
From the 1920s when she worked in the highly competitive and male-dominated public relations business to her rise as a million selling author of popular fiction beginning in the 1940s, including some of the earliest fiction on the Holocaust and the state of Israel, Zelda’s life and work documented the rise of American Jewish women. Popkin uses Zelda’s experience to bring to life a larger story of American Jews and American women in the twentieth century, with the vividness that comes from having a lively character at its center. At the same time, this will also be a story about a woman whose powerful personality profoundly influenced several generations of a family. Popkin makes the case that even if she sometimes burnished her stories to create what he calls “legends of Zelda,” she was one of the most articulate female members of the generation of Jews who fought their way into the American middle class during the decades of the 1920s and 1930s.
Zelda’s life is a rich source of evidence about the experience of American Jewish women and offers perspectives that are frequently at odds with analyses based on men’s lives. The story of Zelda, her generation, and its rich and significant legacy will create a compelling portrait and detailed tapestry of an iconic woman and her time.
Jeremy D. Popkin holds the William T. Bryan chair of history at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of many books, including most recently A New World Begins: A History of the French Revolution (Basic Books, 2019). He resides in Lexington, Kentucky.
Introduction: Zelda Popkin, An American Jew, an American Woman, an American Writer
1. An American Jewish Childhood
2. Zelda Popkin: Modern American Woman
3. Women, Murderers, and Soldiers: A Career in Popular Culture
4. Facing Personal Loss and Jewish Catastrophe
5. Zelda Popkin and the Women of Israel
6. Left Behind in the ‘Golden Age’
7. “Yes, There Is a Second Chance”
Sources and Bibliography
In this ambitious mix of biography, historiography, and family memoir, historian Popkin pays tribute to his grandmother, novelist Zelda Popkin, née Feinberg. Born in Brooklyn in 1898, Zelda worked as a newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania before moving to New York City in 1916. She married Louis Popkin, her boss at the Jewish Welfare Board, in 1919, and the couple opened Planned Publicity Service, one of the earliest public relations firms. Zelda longed to be an author, however, and wrote freelance magazine pieces while raising two sons and placating her disapproving husband, who died suddenly in 1943. Popkin charts Zelda’s decades-long, up-and-down writing career, focusing on her struggle with whether to focus on Jewish themes or on more universal “American” ones. Two of her most popular works—the Mary Carner detective series and the novel The Journey Home (which sold a million copies in 1945 and 1946)—highlighted issues of working women, while the third, Herman Had Two Daughters, blended fiction with autobiography to spotlight generational conflict between Jewish immigrant parents and their American-born children. Throughout, Popkin draws insightful comparisons between Zelda and other Jewish American writers and provides helpful synopses of her novels. This admiring profile restores a well-deserving author to the spotlight.
Popkin examines the life of his grandmother, novelist Zelda Feinberg Popkin. Born in 1898 in Brooklyn, Zelda attended Columbia University and became a reporter for the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. Popkin demonstrates the ways in which Zelda moved in multiple milieus. The child of Jewish immigrants, who were part of an exodus from Eastern Europe, she distanced herself from customs and was among the first generation of women able to cast a ballot. After marrying her husband Louis Popkin, in 1919, they began a small public relations firm. Following Louis’s sudden death in 1943, Zelda turned her attention to writing mysteries and novels. Popkin provides synopses and analyses of her work, the most successful of which was a novel titled The Journey Home, selling millions of copies in the late 1940s. Zelda endeavored to provide an alternative view of Jewish womanhood, a counterpoint to the ‘overbearing mother’ stereotype. She also resisted Zionism, encouraging assimilation, but her own children rebelled against this ideology, embracing their Jewish heritage. Popkin paints a discerning portrait of a complex matriarch, while adding nuance to the Jewish American experience in the 20th century. Recommended.
In Zelda Popkin: The Life and Times of an American Jewish Woman Writer, Jeremy D. Popkin provides a loving, clear-eyed, and intellectual biography of his grandmother’s life. Having previously held a relatively minor place in Jewish American literary history, Zelda Popkin (1898 – 1983) emerges here as a writer whose archive of novels, memoirs, and journalism demands a fresh rereading. Her story — “a story about our country,” her grandson insists — continues to resonate a half-century after her death.
Jeremy D. Popkin brings both a seasoned historian's eye and a family member's insider perspective to this rich biography of his grandmother, whose adventurous life speaks to 20th-century American women's history and 20th-century American Jewish history. Zelda Popkin sparkles off the page as a journalist, public relations pioneer, novelist, wife, and mother who deserves this eminently readable account of a life lived to the fullest.
Feminism’s rise spurred the recovery of stories of remarkable women, acclaimed in their lifetimes, whose legacies were ignored until a new generation, searching for a usable past, rediscovered them. With Zelda Popkin, the distinguished historian of the French Revolution, Jeremy D. Popkin, joins their ranks. Writing into history Zelda Popkin, journalist, novelist, communal worker, and public relations expert, this book shines thanks to her grandson’s scholarly chops and deep love for his subject. This sparkling biography should inspire a new generation of readers to discover her writing and propel her many books back into print.
With a grandson’s loving touch tempered by an historian’s critical eye, Jeremy Popkin has captured the remarkable life of Zelda Popkin, a prolific writer of fiction, much of it on Jewish themes. She was one of the first to write about Holocaust survivors and about the new State of Israel. Although Zelda Popkin may no longer be a household name, Jeremy Popkin’s beautifully written account of the way she charted her own literary and personal course restores her to a notable place in the history of American Jewish women.
Jeremy Popkin's rich biography of his grandmother Zelda Popkin is scholarly and personal, and a great story about a writer and journalist who is no longer well known. He mines the many genres in which she wrote, and the issues that engaged her deeply to illuminate the complexities of writing as a woman and a Jew in the era that stretched from the interwar period through the devastations of the war, Israel's statehood, and to the United States during its cultural upheavals. Popkin has written a wonderful biography that truly captures what it means to write about a life.
The remarkable saga of Zelda Popkin needs to be rescued from oblivion. Who better to do so than a historian endowed with the exceptional gifts of Jeremy Popkin? And who better to record her literary achievements and her poignant private life than her own grandson? Comprehensively researched and compellingly told, Zelda Popkin is more than a biography; it is a revelation.
It is no surprise that a book by a highly respected historian about his beloved, accomplished grandmother is as beautifully and lovingly written as this biography of Zelda Popkin. The work is a scholarly presentation by a professor of history, who had wanted to write it and the pandemic allowed him the time to conduct more thorough research into the life and times of his famous grandmother and to complete this work... Though the book focuses on the life and times of one important individual, it definitely belongs to every academic library with collections on Jewish life in America. Synagogue and high school libraries would benefit from this rich contribution to the understanding of the evolution of Jewish life in the United States in the 20th Century as well.
3/13/23, Jewish Book Council, This is featured in a roundup of must-read books for Women’s History Month.