Spinoza and Cherry Ames

Written by Rabbi Mindy Portnoy

Like so many people who harbor secret sins and obsessions, I thought I was alone. And then one day, in the midst of a conversation, no doubt about high-level theological issues (or maybe where to go for lunch), with my friend and rabbinic colleague, Leah, I blurted it out: “did you ever read Cherry Ames when you were young?” She looked startled for a moment, and then responded, “I LOVED Cherry Ames!” Turns out, she and I are not the only ones who did (and do).

When I was a child, Cherry Ames was a favorite. Although I also read the Bobbsey Twins and Anne of Green Gables series, Cherry was the standout. Was it her black curly hair (like mine?) Was it her feisty independence? Was it her ability to solve every problem, not only of the medical variety, but mysteries of every kind? Was it her cute bedroom furniture in her home town of Hilton (Illinois)? Although I never expressed an interest in being a nurse, the Cherry Ames series (23 volumes in all), which portrayed a young woman who seemed to have a new doctor “suitor” in every book, yet always moved on to a new job leaving the would-be boyfriend behind, surely must have had some career-inspiring influence on me.

Somehow, unlike my Pee Wee Reese doll, several of my Cherry Ames books survived through adulthood. And I managed to find the remaining ones in second-hand bookstores and eventually on the Internet.

Recently, as I was re-reading the entire series (not a particularly time-consuming pursuit), I was stunned to find the following sentence on page 101 of Cherry Ames: Visiting Nurse (volume 8): “the old man (Mr. Jonas, owner of a grocery store and delicatessen)…was just as likely to discourse to her on literature, the history of the Jews, and the moral writings of Spinoza, if she had time…”

Spinoza in Cherry Ames?! And a few sentences later: “Ah, Mama, we do not live by bread alone… I am only explaining to Miss Ames the grammar of classical Hebrew…”

I could not believe my eyes. Cherry Ames, the quintessential Midwestern Gentile, was learning Hebrew from a New York deli owner. I hastened to share the information with my colleagues of the WRN (Women’s Rabbinic Network). After explaining to them my long-time interest in the series, I wrote: “I’m now re-reading the entire oeuvre (!) and just learned to my great surprise that Helen Wells (the author) refers to Spinoza , etc…. who knew?! So is anyone else a secret fan out there? I actually think that Cherry Ames was a great role model for girls in the ‘50’s…she was very independent and had a career to which she was devoted and often put ahead of the more common option of marriage at a young age. And she had dark curly hair!”

Shockingly, 13 of my colleagues (an above-average response to a posting) responded, nine of whom also shared my appreciation for Cherry. One colleague wrote, “wow, who knew. I haven’t ever known a single soul who loved Cherry Ames besides me…” Another: “I read them over and over” and a third was delighted to take my duplicate copies off my hands.

But the revelation was not quite complete. A few days later, I was having coffee with my friend, Claire. I told her my Cherry Ames saga, and my surprise at the Jewish references. She asked me the author’s name. “Helen Wells”, I told her, until Julie Tatham took over the writing after the 8th volume. “Well, I’m sure that’s not her real name,” quick-thinking Claire responded, “don’t you think she must have been Jewish to write that?”

And so it was on to Google, to discover that Helen Wells was in fact originally “Helen Weinstock”, a social worker turned writer, a native of Illinois, whose family moved to New York when she was seven. According to the Cherry Ames page on the Internet, she studied at NYU (graduating in 1934) where she became the first female editor of the school’s literary journal. In addition to the Cherry Ames series, she also wrote the Vicki Barr flight attendant series and other books for young people. In an interview with the author Bobbie Ann Mason (in The Girl Sleuth, 1975), Wells (a.k.a Weinstock) commented on her own work: “It’s like writing in a straitjacket—or on a tiny canvas with only three colors to work with. Yet within this tiny scope one can try to be honest, to be fun, to project real feeling, honest observations, values one believes in. Literary values? The series have none. Entertainment values, yes.” (page 109)

Almost two decades after the earliest Cherry Ames books, Wells authored Doctor Betty(1969). I graduated from high school that same year, entering a world where women could now be depicted as doctors as well as nurses—and not so much later (1972), become rabbis too.

Helen Wells (nee Weinstock) died in 1986 (the same year my book Ima on the Bima: My Mommy Is a Rabbi, was published). She lived long enough to see phenomenal changes in the career aspirations of women.

I hope she knew that the pretty young nurse with the dark eyes, curly hair and cherry-red cheeks, whom she created, helped pave the way for all of us who reveled in her adventure and her spirit.

Rabbi Portnoy is a Rabbi at Temple Sinai (Washington, D.C.) and the author of five children’s books, including “A Tale of Two Seders” (Kar-Ben/Lerner, 2010) and “Ima on the Bima: My Mommy is a Rabbi” (1986). She is a graduate of Yale University.

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