Focus on Issues: Building a House of One’s Own; Archive Reclaims Women’s History
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Focus on Issues: Building a House of One’s Own; Archive Reclaims Women’s History

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Long before there were cameras, a woman known by the single name of Gluckel lived in Hameln, Germany, and gave the world seven volumes filled with clear pictures of life in her time.

She wrote of her and her husband’s business dealings, her children and their spouses, of petty fighting among her community’s wealthy leaders and of the wisdom she accumulated in 44 years of a life lived fully.

What she penned of her world was invaluable for the light it shed on the life of a Jewish woman of her time.

That was 300 years ago and few women since have committed to paper the details of their daily lives.

The papers, publications and artifacts that women leave in their wake, the material that gives enduring testimony to the contributions made by their lives is scattered, inaccessible and, in most cases, lost forever.

While feminism and the advent of religious egalitarianism have led to a recent explosion of publications exploring new women’s rituals, interpretations of the Bible and Jewish theology, little has been done to preserve information about Jewish women’s contributions to social history — both Jewish and American.

Gail Twersky Reimer wants to fix all that.

She has founded the Jewish Women’s Archives.

Until now, “not a single Jewish archive has been dedicated to collecting the record of Jewish women’s lives,” said Reimer, co-author of “Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim a Sacred Story” and author of the forthcoming “Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holidays.”

“The stuff remains buried,” she said. “As a result, we have very little sense of the history of Jewish women and the impact they’ve made. Men say all the time, `Who are the Jewish women?’ No one can name anyone but Golda Meir.”

The archive now consists of a two-person staff in Boston and a board of directors in formation, which met for the first time in November and is in the process of defining its strategy.

The archive has already raised $250,000, and the final touches are being put on an agreement that will give it a seven-figure challenge grant, Reimer said.

While Reimer has scheduled a small invitational conference next June to work out the archive’s long-term strategy, the nascent institution has already decided to focus on documents from and about North American Jewish women of the 20th century.

The first step will be to develop what she called a “virtual archive,” providing access to materials about Jewish women. Those materials are now sitting in hundreds of widely dispersed family attics, local historical societies, community and college archives and national institutions.

“We want to make sure that the material is being collected, and that it’s accessible,” Reimer said. “Our role will be to create a database that enables people to know where all the material on Jewish women is located.”

Eventually, she said, actual documents will be scanned into digital form so that someone sitting at a computer anywhere in the world will be able to access them.

The archive also plans to find a physical space, so it can decide whether to begin its own collections, and so that it can be a physical center for scholarship, research and program development.

A building is also important because it “grants a presence to women that nothing else can,” said Reimer.

“The Jewish community has built institutions” devoted to collecting information, she said. “Now it’s time for us to build one that will allow us to not forget half of our history, half of the Jews who have perished because we have no documentation.”

Reimer believes now is the time for such a venture.

“We’re just at the moment where we can claim not just a room of our own, but a house of our own,” she said. “It couldn’t have happened 10 years ago because no one was ready for it. Today women are willing to claim their power in a way they never have been before.”

Adult Bat Mitzvah sermons are an example of the type of document Reimer wants to see preserved.

Adult women becoming Bat Mitzvah is a phenomenon bound to die out in the space of a single generation, because today even Orthodox girls formally celebrate the rite of passage at an early age.

And though the Jewish Women’s Archives is not yet encouraging anyone to think of it as a repository for documents, some people — from author Esther Broner to women looking for a place to send their grandmothers’ diaries — have already expressed interest in preserving their material at the archive.

Why create something new rather than help established archives focus more on Jewish women?

The Jewish Women’s Archives was invited to be part of the new Center for Jewish History, which is bringing together under one Manhattan roof YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research, Leo Baeck Institute, the American Jewish Historical Society and Yeshiva University Museum.

But Reimer said the Jewish Women’s Archives was wary of being swallowed up by such giants as they work out the internal politics of merging together, Reimer said.

“There’s potential for us getting lost at the Center for Jewish History,” she said, adding that she is glad that there is an open invitation to join down the road.

Some of the work of Jewish Women’s Archives is already underway.

It has sponsored one academic conference and is planning more, exploring the contribution of Jewish women to various endeavors and with Ma’ayan, New York’s Jewish feminist center, is working to add a Jewish component to women’s history month.

National Women’s History Month is in March. This year, synagogues, day schools and Jewish community centers will receive three posters, each featuring a Jewish woman who made important contributions to history.

Gluckel of Hameln, Henrietta Szold, who established Hadassah, and Rose Schneiderman, a labor activist, are the first three women to get posters of their own.

The idea for the archive was born two years ago, after Reimer published “Reading Ruth,” which explores women’s perspectives of the biblical story of Judaism’s first convert.

“I kept feeling a tremendous burst out there to know about Jewish women.”

Beyond the Bible, she said, “there are heroines in our history who can serve as role models if women only knew about them.”

She approached Wellesley and Brandeis, which gave her seed money to research the project’s viability. During most of 1995, a committee of faculty and administrators from both colleges — one devoted to women and the other primarily to Jews — explored whether they could jointly own the Jewish Women’s Archives.

It soon became clear that friction over turf issues would preclude it, Reimer said.

Then the Dobkin Family Foundation donated $25,000 to further the project. A few months ago, Reimer left her job as associate director of the Massachusetts State Humanities Foundation to devote herself full time to creating the Jewish Women’s Archives.

Reimer is motivated by a concern about continuity as well as by an ideological and philosophical commitment to preserving history.

She wants her two daughters, who are 12 and 17, to see material about Jewish women on the walls of their day school, which they never have before.

Their self-perception as Jewish women will be a result, in large measure, “of what’s in history books and the school’s curriculum.

“If we want to keep Jewish girls involved, we need to make them feel positive about what they have to contribute as Jewish women to Jewish culture.

“If we don’t make them feel positive, they’ll go elsewhere,” she said. “We saw it in previous generations and we’ll see it again unless we do something about it.”

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund