When Gail Twersky Reimer came up with the idea for the Jewish Women’s Archive, just over 18 years ago, the voices and history of Jewish women could be found in few places outside of the types of libraries and archives that only academics are excited to trawl.
Reimer wanted to create a virtual archive to elevate and illuminate the stories of Jewish women whose lives — rich, productive and important as they may have been — remained largely unknown because history was being written, by and large, by men. With the exception of a few path-breakers like Golda Meir and Barbra Streisand, Jewish women’s stories remained invisible, though they have now become a whole field of study.
Like all large groups of people, American Jews are complex and irreducible despite some aspects of shared culture. Recently, the Jewish Women’s Archive made an interesting choice to focus a new curriculum on Jewish involvement in the labor and civil rights movements — without cheerleading or focusing solely on women’s involvement — thereby shining a probing light on that very complexity.
Called “Living the Legacy,” the curriculum uses primary sources to paint a multifaceted portrait of Jewish activism from the roots to the height of the labor and civil rights movements, right up through today.
In other curricula on social justice, “there was little engagement with the history of American Jewish involvement in social justice movements, except to celebrate it in a fairly superficial way — ‘Jews were at the forefront of all social justice movements in American history — Yay, Jews!,’” JWA’s Director of Public History Dr. Judith Rosenbaum told me in an email exchange. “We felt that this loses much of what’s complex and interesting about Jews and social justice.”
Rosenbaum highlights accounts that complicate the oft-told tale of Jewish activism: Southern Jews who resisted civil rights because it “threatened their own precarious acceptance,” as well as those Jews who got involved in organizing not because of Jewish values but rather in opposition to their own Jewish communities which they perceived as conformist or materialist.
By fourth grade, I was already a troublemaker — taking on any boy who dared to challenge, in the classroom or on the playground, girls’ equality or worth. I learned from the best of the troublemakers, women who refused to take no for an answer when going after what they want: my mother and my grandmother. And from iconic feminists like Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin.
The Jewish Women’s Archive annual luncheon, held March 18 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, was a place where making trouble — and, in the process, making history — was cause for celebration. Steinem, who has Jewish roots, presented awards to the renowned Jewish feminist (and Sisterhood contributor) Cottin Pogrebin, to Elizabeth A. Sackler, the founder of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, and Rebecca Traister, the author of “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” about women’s role in the 2008 presidential election.
“Judaism…has informed who I am,” Pogrebin told The Sisterhood, to the extent that I think it contributed to what I have done. I was raised with a very, very clear and pressing sense of justice. If things are wrong, we’ve got to fix it. It’s up to the Jews.”
“Big Hats and bigger opinions, she knew ‘This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives,’” Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder tweeted on May 2, the launch day for Jewish Women’s Archive’s “#jwapedia: Tweeting the Encyclopedia” project. By doing so, she sent a link to the article about Bella Abzug in the online “Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia” hurtling out into cyberspace to be clicked on, opened and read by her many Twitter followers.
The rabbi (and occasional Sisterhood contributor), together with 25 other prolific tweeters in the Jewish community, will be tweeting a significant portion of the encyclopedia’s 1,700 biographies, 300 thematic essays, and 1,400 photographs as an experiment throughout May in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month.
Although they were asked to commit to tweeting just one article a week, many of the partners have immediately embraced the project and have been tweeting multiple articles a day. Three days into the effort, 58 articles had already been tweeted — and retweeted many times over.
One week from today marks 100 years since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. It’s often called “the fire that changed everything,” because the 146 deaths that it caused — its victims were mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant women — became a catalyst for much of the labor activism that helped bring about sweeping workplace safety reforms. If you haven’t already, check out the Forward’s website devoted to the fire’s legacy — complete with more than a dozen original pieces, multimedia, and 25 translated articles published in the Yiddish Forward in the fire’s immediate aftermath.
In the weeks leading up to this somber anniversary, our friends at the Jewish Women’s Archive’s Jewesses With Attitude blog put together an important series to honor the “Top 10 Jewish Women in Labor History.” Among those who made the list are Clara Lemlich and Rose Schneiderman, driving forces behind the “Uprising of 20,0000,” in which garment workers went on strike to protest workplace abuses, and Fannia Cohn and Lillian Wald, who helped provide educational opportunities for workers and their families. “From the ashes of the Triangle fire, these women took up the battle to make sure a tragedy like this would never happen again,” said Ann F. Lewis, who chaired the Jewish Women’s Archive’s inaugural luncheon last weekend.
What began with a 2008 story about autobiographical comics by Jewish women in the Forward has developed into a touring museum exhibit. Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women is the first exhibit to explore what co-curator Michael Kaminer calls a “unique and prolific niche of graphic storytelling” by Jewish women. The exhibit features the work of 18 Jewish women artists, some of which is being seen by the public for the first time.
We at JWA were taken with this project. We spoke with Michael Kaminer, co-curator and author of “Graphic Confessions of Jewish Women,” the Forward article that started it all. This is the first in a series of interviews; we will be posting weekly interviews with the artists and samples of their work.
As the year comes to a close, the New York Times Magazine published “The Lives They Lived,” an annual feature celebrating the lives of people who died over the last year. The collage is a mix of people known and unknown. This assortment of stories is more gender-balanced than the regular obituary section of the New York Times, which received criticism this year for it’s editorial policies regarding whose stories are important enough to record.
The Jewish Women’s Archive — whose blog crossposts regularly with The Sisterhood — makes an effort to record the stories of great Jewish women who fly under the radar. This year, we said goodbye to a number of impressive Jewish women — some of whom were recognized in the media, others not so much. So, today we present JWA’s edition of “The Lives They Lived.” I hope you find these women’s stories as inspiring as we do.
At Hanukkah time, Judah and the Maccabees get top billing. Often left out of the narratives passed down from one generation to the next is the story of Judith, who is said to have killed an enemy general and, ultimately, to have led the Israelites to victory.
Our friends and partners at the Jewish Women’s Archive have produced a video about the story of Judith, which is widely considered to be apocryphal; the video also celebrates contemporary women who bear the name of the biblical heroine: feminist writer Judith Plaskow, civil rights activist Judith Frieze Wright and comedian Judy Gold, among them. Watch it here:
This weekend we lead up to the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans on the morning of August 29, 2005 killing more than 1,700 people and displacing hundreds of thousands. There is a lot to digest and discuss this year as we consider the storm, the response, and the efforts to rebuild still underway.
Five years ago, watching these events unfold, the Jewish Women’s Archive decided that we had something to offer. JWA had the resources and expertise to capture the story of the Jewish communities of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We conducted oral history interviews and created an online collection of documents and images from people across the country that were affected by the storm. This project is called “Katrina’s Jewish Voices.”
The current theme here at the Sisterhood is about women being seen and heard. I like that! Renee Ghert-Zand wrote about a really important initiative to encourage women to get their strong voices out there by writing more op-ed articles. Debra Nussbaum Cohen and Devra Ferst reminded women to speak up unapologetically. And I, myself, have been writing, perhaps a bit obsessively, about female representation (or lack there-of) in print, in professional life and in leadership. It’s all about women having a presence, and being properly acknowledged and respected for what they say and do.
Elsewhere on the blogosphere, other Jewish women have apparently been thinking the same thing. Over at Jewish Women’s Archive, which cross-posts regularly with The Sisterhood, there is a new initiative to help achieve the goal of seeing and acknowledging women’s work. The project, which the Forward wrote about here, is called “On the Map”. It’s a graphic interactive, user-generated database of Jewish women’s history and achievements.
A space dedicated to visually representing Jewish women’s work is quite a welcome creation.
It has been four years since Hurricane Katrina hit with devastating and deadly force, killing at least 1,836 people, destroying tens of thousands of homes, and sending 1 million people away from New Orleans, Baton Rouge and the Gulf Coast into other parts of the country.
Four years later, while some areas have returned to regular life, according to this article, thousands of people in Louisiana and Mississippi are still living in trailers.
The Jewish Women’s Archive, in collaboration with the Center for History and New Media has focused on Jewish voices, collecting stories and artifacts from Jews, both women and men, whose lives were altered. Their stories can be read here.
The statue is more than a foot high, a representation of Hannah G. Solomon atop a sturdy base. The very kind members of the National Council of Jewish Women presented this to me earlier this week, in recognition that through great luck and timing, I’m the first woman to edit this newspaper.
So who was Hannah Solomon? Honestly, I had never heard of her before a brief biography was read at the luncheon. Intrigued, I did some research. Turns out that she was a pioneering leader who tried, as so many of us continue to try today, to balance devotion to family with a public life promoting the rights of women and children.
According to the Jewish Women’s Archives, Solomon not only was the founder of NCJW, but she was a full-fledged participant in the teeming days of reform in turn-of-the-century Chicago. She worked with Jane Addams and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, delving into issues of children’s education and juvenile delinquency.
But the challenges facing Jewish women were a particular cause. At the Chicago World’s Fair, she organized a four-day conference that led to the establishment of the NCJW, which promptly elected her its first president. The organization seesawed during its first few years between an emphasis on religion and on philanthropy. There even was a deep split between the Reform women who wanted to back a proposal to move Shabbat from Saturday to Sunday, and the Orthodox women who wanted no such thing. Pressed to take a stand, Solomon showed her diplomatic skills by saying: “I do consecrate the Sabbath. I consecrate every day of the week!”
For all her work in the public sphere, though, Solomon defined her family as her first priority. Nowadays, while the balancing act persists, there’s no doubt that women like myself, blessed with both a family and a career, know that we can place family as our first love with the expectation that many men will, too. That change didn’t happen overnight. We have, among others, my new friend Hannah Solomon to thank.