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Shifting the Narrative of Jewish History

The Jewish Women’s Archive marks its 25th anniversary with a new encyclopedia offering ‘radical access’ to a wide range of women’s experiences

by
Judy Bolton-Fasman
November 01, 2021
Central photo of Reema Sisodia is courtesy Joan Roth; other images courtesy Jewish Women's Archive's Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women
Central photo of Reema Sisodia is courtesy Joan Roth; other images courtesy Jewish Women's Archive's Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women
Central photo of Reema Sisodia is courtesy Joan Roth; other images courtesy Jewish Women's Archive's Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women
Central photo of Reema Sisodia is courtesy Joan Roth; other images courtesy Jewish Women's Archive's Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women

The Jewish Women’s Archive turns 25 this year, and central to its anniversary celebration is a new publication: the Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. Covering everything from sports to politics, religion to philanthropy, family to the arts, this massive online resource builds on a series of earlier print and digital reference materials, while expanding them in both form and content.

Judith Rosenbaum, who has been JWA’s CEO since 2014, sees the new encyclopedia as extending “radical access” to information about Jewish women. “Today, thanks to JWA, people all over the world enter the Jewish story through women’s experiences,” she said. “That’s amazing.”

Like JWA, the new encyclopedia’s history stretches back almost a quarter-century. That history can be traced back to Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. First published in 1997 as two print volumes, it was edited by Deborah Dash Moore and Paula Hyman—eminent scholars of Jewish women’s history. In 2006, Alice Shalvi and her late husband, Moshe, built upon the work of Jewish Women in America and published Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia on CD-ROM. Hyman and Dalia Ofer, a historian at Hebrew University, edited that edition, which broadened its focus to include geographically diverse entries beyond the U.S. The two projects joined forces after the Shalvis secured permission to reprint entries from Jewish Women in America in Jewish Women. By 2009 the Shalvis’ encyclopedia was free and accessible on JWA’s website. Since then, more than a million users have logged in annually from all over the world.

Jennifer Sartori, a JWA staff member during the early 2000s, returned to the organization in 2017 to edit the current encyclopedia. At the time, it included almost 1,700 entries and 330 essays on related topics. Sartori and her team launched a new version with close to 200 new entries and over 350 revised or updated entries. The new material addressed previous gaps in representing Sephardi and Mizrahi populations. Attention was also paid to underrepresented diaspora communities in Latin America, Australia, and Africa.

“We wanted this new version to be more fully representative of today’s Jewish community,” Sartori said, noting that she and her editorial board also wanted “to generate new content about Jews of color and LGBTQ Jews.”

The newly renamed encyclopedia debuted online this summer. The title honors Alice and Moshe Shalvi: Alice Shalvi is Israel’s leading feminist and a winner of the Israel Prize; Paula Hyman, who died in 2011, is remembered for her groundbreaking scholarship on Jewish women.

JWA CEO Rosenbaum, who is also Hyman’s daughter, called the new encyclopedia “an incredible opportunity to reimagine an archive and reach people differently.”

The encyclopedia also carries on JWA’s mandate to provide free and broad online access to Jewish women’s history. “Even in the pandemic when brick-and-mortar archives were closed,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis. “JWA was perennially open.” To that end, JWA was able to pivot during the pandemic to offer online courses and a successful virtual book club started in quarantine that is now called The (Post) Quarantine Book Talks.

While the encyclopedia is a telling illustration of JWA’s work over the last quarter of a century, the organization has continued to innovate with other programs. JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship launched in 2013 to cultivate Jewish teenage women as thought leaders in their communities; the fellowship has transformed into a makeshift think tank focusing on the needs of the next generation and providing critical feedback of JWA’s evolving mandate. In 2019, JWA introduced the Story Aperture initiative, an app that enables users to record and share Jewish women’s stories. As JWA’s current board chair, Carole Bailin, said, “Story Aperture moved stories from the periphery into the center, transforming our understanding of what Jewish history is.”

Rosenbaum points to these newer initiatives as integral to the greater goal of making JWA’s entire oral history collection available and searchable on the site. With over 350 oral histories to catalog, the work continues. “It’s a huge undertaking,” she said, “but in the end, it will bring these rich, diverse oral histories to researchers, students, and others all over the world.”

On Thursday, Nov. 4, JWA will celebrate its anniversary with a virtual gala called “Ahead of Her Time: Celebrating 25 Years of Vision,” a “multigenerational gathering” honoring the organization’s 126 Rising Voices fellows—past and present—and JWA’s founding director, Gail Reimer.

When Reimer created the archive in 1996, her original vision wasn’t internet-based. She did, however, think of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. “I saw the Schlesinger as a model of how a women’s archive could impact what history gets told,” she said. That library’s home was at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and Reimer initially thought JWA would similarly have a physical location. Boston-based, she changed her vision after a series of conversations with the senior archivist at the MIT libraries, Helen Samuels. “What resonated with me was Helen’s conviction that records would be both generated and preserved differently in the future than they had been,” said Reimer. “That’s why I often talked about JWA and its virtual archive as ‘an archive for the 21st century.’”

We wanted to shift the narrative from one exclusively about men in the Jewish story—which it was at the time—and allow women entry into that story.

Reimer and historian Joyce Antler, an early consultant to the archives and on the founding board of directors, were keen to make the story of Jewish women an inextricable part of Jewish history. “We wanted to shift the narrative from one exclusively about men in the Jewish story—which it was at the time—and allow women entry into that story,” said Reimer.

Reimer and Antler also wanted to make Jewish women an inextricable part of women’s history. Antler came to Brandeis in 1979 as a general women’s historian. But a decade later, she wanted to correct the fact that Jews were typically absent from women’s history. As a founding board member of JWA, Antler started the organization’s academic advisory council. She went on to chair the council for 20 years and credits it “with providing JWA academic legitimacy and formulating a direction.”

Rosenbaum says collecting oral history has been essential to building the archive from the beginning. Early in JWA’s organizational life, she said, “we were asking ourselves questions like how do we take material and events from the past that were not in the communal conversation and make it a part of that history? We were documenting history. What do we have to do so that the history of the recent past and of today doesn’t get lost? That’s where oral history came in.”

Shortly after its founding, JWA initiated its first oral history project, Women Whose Lives Span the Century, in partnership with Temple Israel of Boston, training volunteers to interview older women in the congregation who had lived through much of the 20th century. The project went national and became known as Weaving Women’s Words in Baltimore and Seattle.

One of JWA’s earliest offline projects was the Women of Valor poster series. Initially created in partnership with Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project of the JCC in Manhattan. The series currently honors 18 trailblazing Jewish women, including Bella Abzug, Emma Goldman, and Henrietta Szold. “The idea,” said Reimer, “was to get women seen on the walls of synagogues, camps and day schools. The message was that women had important stories. So the posters began our work with educators.”

Rosenbaum recalled that a board member referred to the posters as a “stealth curriculum.” When the posters were introduced in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Rosenbaum was teaching at a Boston-area pluralistic Jewish high school. “The posters had a lot of information and put women’s faces on walls that were mostly lined with male leaders,” she said. “I had some of the posters in my classroom, and one of my students told me she always pictured me with Bella Abzug over my shoulder. It was a perfect metaphor: Each of us walks around with these foremothers perched on our shoulders.”

 

JWA, which started with Reimer and an assistant, currently employs 11 staff members. Its operating budget for the current fiscal year is more than $1.6 million, up 25% in the past five years. Funding comes from foundation grants, individual donors, and the annual interest from the organization’s small endowment. Today 20 women from all over the United States, ranging in age from early 20s to 70s, are elected to a board of directors.

Throughout its quarter of a century, JWA has remained independent; it is not affiliated with an academic institution or an organization. Reimer notes that this has imbued the organization “with a certain nimbleness that allowed us to take risks right from the start.” For example, in JWA’s early years, there was some opposition from academia. Reimer recalls a decade after JWA’s founding she spoke at a conference about Jewish archives in Marburg, Germany. After she gave her talk, a German professor challenged her on the idea of a virtual archive. Reimer remembers him saying that “if people couldn’t touch the material and there was not a physical space where concrete materials were being held, how dare we call ourselves an archive. Now most archives are moving toward going online as much as possible.”

Each of us walks around with these foremothers perched on our shoulders.

While JWA received funding from some foundations in the Jewish world, its financial status notably improved when Reimer joined forces with Barbara Dobkin, a philanthropist who became a major backer of JWA and the first chair of its board. Dobkin’s investment in JWA and the establishment of a prominent academic advisory board attracted more funding from major foundations in the Jewish world, such as the Charles H. Revson, and Covenant Foundations. JWA also received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Yet Dobkin remains frustrated with the overall lack of interest in funding Jewish women’s projects: “Do people believe that the issues raised by feminists have been addressed? Are women included at decision-making tables and in halls of power? And this is not just about numbers.” Dobkin further points out that enthusiasm and financial support for Jewish women’s causes comes down to five or six donors. She attributes this stagnation to a lack of understanding of funding with a gender lens and social change in general. “So much of philanthropy just maintains the status quo,” she said. “Where are the funders willing to speak truth to power, to disrupt the status quo?”

A page in the Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women

A page in the Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish WomenJewish Women’s Archive

The 2004 celebration of 350 Years of Jewish Women in America, an event that featured a keynote address by late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was an occasion to uncover more of Jewish women’s history in America. JWA’s first historian-in-residence, Karla Goldman, looked at communal 1954 celebrations of 300 years of Jews in American life to prepare for the 2004 event and found the women had only cameo roles.

“Looking forward to the 400th anniversary of Jews in America in 2054, we want to make sure that women’s stories are included,” said Rosenbaum. “We need to ask ourselves: What are the contributions that the Jewish community can be marking now? How can we make sure those stories are collected? One of the biggest changes in American Jewish life has been the advent of feminism. So we came out of the 350th celebration determined to document that story, which we did through an online collection called Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution. We turned to 75 Jewish women involved in all aspects of feminism and let them tell their stories through a personal historical artifact and a statement about that artifact.”

Rosenbaum and Bailin assert that one of the most influential feminist events in the Jewish community in recent years has been the ordinations of women as rabbis. To keep Jewish feminism in the forefront, Rosenbaum notes, “We need to integrate two narratives—women advocating in the public sphere and in the Jewish community, and how these two things happened in relationship to one another.”

There was also some debate about including the word “feminism” in the exhibit’s name. “It can be alienating for some people,” says Rosenbaum. “Ultimately, we decided it was important to use the word. We wanted to expand and complicate associations with it.”

The political piece of JWA’s work, which is more explicit in recent years, remains controversial for those on the right and left. Some of JWA’s critics feel the archive is not moving fast enough to include new and different voices on the site. Others advocate for complete academic objectivity. However, says Rosenbaum, everything is written from a particular perspective. Her observation extends to people who want JWA to be more activist and those who want to tamp down its activism.

Rosenbaum keeps her attention trained on whether JWA is “doing our work with the right kind of spirit.” She uses the descriptor “ghettoization” to interrogate whether women’s stories should be separated or integrated into other archives or narratives. “Ideally, an archive should fully include women, so there wouldn’t be a need for JWA as a separate place. But we’re not there yet. And there’s value to looking at women’s lives through a gender (and Jewish) lens. That wouldn’t necessarily happen in an all-gender archive. But we don’t want to inadvertently send the message that because the Jewish Women’s Archive exists, other general archives are off the hook when it comes to women.”

The question also pertains to the Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia. Is a separate encyclopedia devoted to Jewish women conveying that women still don’t belong in a mainstream encyclopedia? For its part, the Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia has been a proving ground for including a more expansive understanding of gender and sexuality. It has also refused to be mired in the “who is a Jew” debate, choosing the most inclusive definitions rather than aligning with the interpretations of traditional Jewish law on the question.

Compiling the encyclopedia is ongoing, even since its debut at the end of June. Sartori is already adding to the 180 new entries and the hundreds more revised entries included in the initial launch. “We’re never going to be completely comprehensive,” she said. “And we’re constantly revising. We have also looked back at language over the past two decades with an eye toward gender identity. So, for example, cross-dressing as a man to take advantage of opportunities 200 years ago could also be an exploration of transmen or nonbinary people.”

Sartori and her team continue to cull lists of potential new entries. They have whittled down a list of 700 possible entries to 250 for the next round. But the names keep coming. Among the criteria for selection was what people deemed to be especially important today and giving space to underrepresented communities.

Rosenbaum observes that the work on the encyclopedia carries on the work of JWA to ensure against the “erasure of women. So many archives of women were written in sand so that they were always disappearing. We’re working to establish lineage and archival connections with all of our projects.”

Judy Bolton-Fasman’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Forward, The Jerusalem Report, and other venues. She is the author of Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets.

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