Ruth Nemzoff

Question: My mother is going to move to a nursing home. As I was cleaning out her attic, I found papers from her lifetime of Jewish communal work. Apparently, my mother kept records of her women’s Rosh Chodesh group, she documented her tenure as first woman president of the synagogue board, and she journaled about her battle to count women in her synagogue’s minyan. A feminist myself, I know women’s history is often ignored and tossed away – I don’t want to contribute to that! How can I make these papers useful? To whom can I give them?

Answer: Much of Jewish women’s history has been lost or was not preserved in the first place. Eastern European women once used their own Yiddish prayer books, tchines, but you won’t find those in synagogues today. In many siddurim, even the foremothers are not mentioned. Over the millennia of Jewish history, women have been taking care of their families and upholding traditions in their homes and communities. Yet, rarely does any record acknowledge this effort.

You are to be applauded for realizing that your mother’s records are not just boxes of junk. Her life’s mementos have personal and historical importance. I am glad you asked this question – many of us are cleaning out our parents’ houses and forget that the scraps of paper one might be tempted to recycle may be their most precious memories, of great import to the community and to future generations of the family. Our parents’ stories are perhaps the most precious legacy they leave us. These stories teach us values and how to bring about change. They may even teach us about love.

If your synagogue has an archive, ask if they would like your mother’s papers. Alternatively, if your temple does not have an archive, perhaps the Sisterhood would set up an archive as a project. You might also reach out to a local or state historical society; often, community records make more impact at a local level. You would want to ask if the archive has the capacity to catalogue the papers. College archives may also be interested; look for local schools, or schools with strong Jewish studies departments. For example, if your mother had a prominent national or international presence, you may want to see if Brandeis’ Jewish Feminisms Collection would be interested.

If you really want to be creative, you could get teenagers, especially young historians and feminists, to interview older women in your congregation (the Jewish Women’s Archive has great resources and questions for interviewing). Call it an internship and they’ll be more willing to help out! Or, you could work with the Sisterhood to start a memoir group. This would not only make sure the historical record is kept, but also build community.

The Jewish Women’s Archive has excellent suggestions on how to preserve your documents and gives links to other groups that preserve family papers, as well as suggesting places at which to purchase archival supplies. I would recommend that others reading this column check if your mothers have pictures of their bat mitzvahs, their diaries, their camp letters, or records of meetings to establish a chavurah or change a synagogue, are important documents to save.

Explore archives around you – it’s a great way to spend an afternoon, you’d be amazed what’s in your local archives. You will also be amazed at how much of life’s trivia now has historical significance. History is no longer told war-to-war. There is a realization that daily innovations in food, clothing manufacturing, in water carrying has created enormous revolutions without one bullet shot. Biographers are getting more and more sophisticated in terms of analyzing the meaning of daily happenings.

Mundane-seeming records are especially important in documenting women’s history. For example, Jewish women’s religious practices have been changing drastically since 1922, when Judith Kaplan celebrated the first American bat mitzvah. By the 1970s, bat mitzvah was common in many women’s Jewish practices; now, women in every major American denomination have some celebration. These changes are every bit as significant as movements pioneered by men, such as the Haskalah, Jewish Enlightenment. Women’s diaries and old photos paint a picture of these changes over the last century, even if the documents seem unimportant on first glance.

If you cannot find or create a space that collects Jewish women’s history, perhaps you and some of your relatives can work together to create a family archive. This kind of project is especially interesting to high school students who have may have history projects, and will help them create meaningful personal statements in the many applications they will soon be tackling. Having said this, I know it is extremely difficult to find the time to do this. Snowstorms and family vacations might serve as opportunities: Create family trivia games from the boxes of treasures you have found.

Perhaps your mother is well enough to sort through these boxes with your help when you visit her in the nursing home. Oftentimes, parents are motivated by the interest of their children. One thing is for sure, it will make your visits with her much more interesting if you work together on sorting through her papers.

Maybe this is a lesson to you and all of the women reading this column. The work you do in your community is important. Keep records. You are making history now. Don’t erase women’s work once again.

If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to publisher@americanisraelite.com

 

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