WALTHAM, Mass. (Dec. 24)
A search for “Jewish Women” on the Barnes & Noble Internet site produces a list of 405 titles.
But few of these volumes focus on Jewish women living outside North America and Israel: The groundswell of scholarship on Jewish women’s issues that has risen since the 1970s and the feminist breakthrough has yet to hit the shores of the rest of the Diaspora.
“There is no book-length study” on the Jewish women of Chile, Marjorie Agosin, an author and professor of Spanish at Wellesley College, told a recent gathering of about 100 Jewish women scholars and communal activists at Brandeis University.
Chile is not alone. Several countries with long, proud Jewish histories have no monographs on the contribution of Jewish women.
Enter Brandeis’ International Research Institute on Jewish Women.
The institute grew out of a need for more research on American Jewish women, which the National Commission on American Jewish Women recognized in the 1995 study “Voices for Change,” sponsored by Hadassah, the Woman’s Zionist Organization of America.
The 23-member commission was chaired by Shulamit Reinharz, director of women’s studies at Brandeis, who now serves as a co-director of the research institute with author and Brandeis Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman. Barbra Streisand is the institute’s honorary chair.
Since its founding in 1997 by Hadassah, the institute has developed into a resource for funding and disseminating scholarship on Jewish women by publishing studies, books and articles, and by sponsoring research projects and a World Wide Web site.
But even before those activities get into full swing, conferences like the recent one held at Brandeis are creating an international network of women who can benefit from each other’s research and experiences.
This year’s conference, titled “Studying Jewish Women,” featured historical chronologies and documentary slide shows peppered with personal anecdotes. The atmosphere in the brick-walled room overlooking the campus was warm and intimate.
“It was family,” said Ellen Canon, professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. “It wasn’t statistics.”
Farideh Dayanim Goldin, a native of Shiraz, Iran, now living in Virginia, said the conference gives women “courage to do research on subjects they otherwise might not.”
Goldin has submitted her collection of contemporary Persian Jewish women’s poetry to the institute for publication.
Her account of her young life in Iran and her subsequent efforts to compile the anthology was one of the most moving of the conference’s presentations, which included a keynote address by Alice Shalvi, the doyenne of Israeli feminism.
Shalvi said Americans can play a catalytic role for Jewish women across the globe by setting an example as an academic and social presence.
But to conference participants — which included women from Argentina, Algeria, Colombia, Mexico, Hungary and Russia — perhaps the most important contribution the institute can make to the field is creating an environment of cross- cultural exchange.
“We think only about Israel and America, and whoever is making aliyah,” said Gail Twersky Reimer, director of the Jewish Women’s Archives in Brookline, Mass., which compiles and chronicles Jewish women’s history, focusing on the United States, through conferences, educational programs and a Web site.
“It’s important to be reminded of communities all over the world, with their own sets of issues,” Reimer said.
Some of the issues raised by the international panelists at Brandeis centered on Jewish women’s roles in helping communities adjust to decolonization and migration, women’s physical experience and their response to memory and death.
“For me, one of the most exciting aspects of the IRIJW conference was the medium, rather than the message,” Susan Weidman Schneider, founder and editor- in-chief of Lilith magazine, and a member of the research institute’s academic advisory board, wrote in an e-mail message after the Dec. 16-19 gathering.
She said she would include the names of the speakers and participants in Lilith’s Talent Bank, a resource of Jewish women experts.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to be under one roof with women whose work we may know but whose faces were, until last week, unfamiliar,” she wrote. She added that two upcoming issues of Lilith will deal with topics covered at the conference: Jewish women’s writings from Latin America and the experiences of women in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism.
Tania Reytan-Marincheska, founder of the National Council of Jewish Women in Bulgaria, called the conference “a revelation.”
Reytan-Marincheska, who runs a program for refugees and migrants at the Bulgarian Helsinki Project, said was impressed by the academic level of discourse and the universal themes she heard in the presentations of the other speakers.
“I really feel part of a small world,” she said.