Ray Frank Litman (1861-1948)

Teacher, Journalist and Orator
by
Harriet Rochlin

Excerpted from
"Lalapaloozas: Nine Extraordinary Western Jewish Women"
Published in the Fall/Winter issue of the
Gilcrease Journal, Vol. XII, Issue 2

Ray Frank Litman: Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society.Ray Frank Litman: Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society."She is not a mere speaker, a talker, but an orator . . . who can steal into the most guarded recesses of the heart and awaken new impulses, loftier aspirations, nobler sentiment."
— Simon Litman, Ray Frank Litman: A Memoir

Ray Frank was a handsome and high-strung Californian of humble origins, high intelligence and winning presence. Throughout the 1890s she enchanted audiences with her seemingly extemporaneous command of Jewish and general subjects — the arts, nature, the role of women. Admirers saw her as the new western woman personified — unmindful of class, with opinions that cut through scholarship and struck at the heart. Detractors saw her as an opportunist, crassly promoted as "The Female Messiah," "The Modern Deborah" or "The Girl Rabbi."

Her parents, Leah and Bernard Frank, were liberal Orthodox Jewish immigrants of moderate means. Her father was a fruit peddler, her mother a dutiful and pious homemaker. In a letter to Reverend S.T. Willis, now in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society, Frank described the effects of growing up as a Jew in the California hinterlands: “Although reared among non-Jews, I at an early age became much interested in all that concerned the Jews. Living where prejudices of a theological kind were unknown, one of the prime factors of this early interest was the desire to understand the cause and meaning of prejudice against the Jew as recorded in history and accounted in the secular press…”

Underpinning Frank's own account of her rise as an inspirational speaker is a dynamic blend of western and Jewish cultures, the former fixed on the future, the latter on the past. Combining the two, Frank transformed age-old Judaic precepts into practical solutions to the communal problems of a new and radically diverse Jewish ingathering. What appeared to be her meteoric rise was preceded by a decade of preparation.

After graduating from Sacramento High School in 1879, Frank spent six years in Ruby Hill, a Nevada mining town, teaching children during the day and their parents at night. In Ruby Hill, she also began to write for Pacific Coast and eastern newspapers. In 1885, she rejoined her family in Oakland, California, where she worked as a journalist, as a teacher (eventually superintendent) at the First Hebrew Congregation Sabbath School and as a private instructor in public speaking.

Her first experience as a preacher occurred in September 1890, while she was in the Pacific Northwest writing stories on boomtowns and prominent Indian leaders. In Spokane Falls, Washington, on the afternoon of Rosh Hashana Eve, Frank was dismayed to discover the city had neither a congregation nor plans for a service. Asked to conduct one, she agreed. Jews and Christians filled into the opera house to see a Jewish woman preach, a rare, possibly unprecedented sight. The following week, she returned to lead the Yom Kipper service, the holiest day of the Jewish year. In her wake, she left a congregation and plans to construct a synagogue.

Word spread and Frank was soon speaking throughout the West to hundreds, occasionally thousands. In 1893, she delivered the opening prayer and an address at the Jewish Women’s Congress, a section of the Parliament of World Religions at the Chicago World’s Fair. She was even asked to serve as spiritual leader of a Chicago congregation. Her longtime literary mentor and friend, the controversial journalist and author, Ambrose Bierce, pressed her to take the post and “advance the cause of woman.” But Frank declined, maintaining, as had her teacher, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, founding president of Hebrew Union College, that women were as yet unprepared to head a congregation. Given her sensitivity to criticism, it was appropriate advice for Frank, if not for all women.

In 1898, nerves frayed and sorely in need of rest, Frank went abroad. Two years later, she married Simon Litman, a Russian Jewish doctoral student in economics. As the wife of a university professor, she wrote, worked for Jewish organizations and counseled students, but rarely again mounted a podium.