Read a book or article about Jewish community history or peruse the collection at the Jewish Archives and you may notice something missing: Jewish women’s lives.
Yes, Jewish women are mentioned in the archives as the wives or daughters of famous people or in reference to their volunteer positions, but they are almost always referred to as Mrs. David So-and-so, not Susan or Rachel So-and-so. The Jewish Women’s Archive is trying to work across the country to bring these women out of obscurity and give the Jewish community access to a part of our history that has been packed away like a trunk in the attic.
Seattle is one of three communities being examined in the first phase of the organization’s new oral history project. The mission of the Jewish Women’s Archive, which is also focusing on Baltimore and Omaha, is to “uncover, chronicle and transmit the rich legacy of Jewish women and their contributions to our families and our communities, to our people and our world.”
This part of the Jewish Women’s Archive’s work is called “Weaving Women’s Words.” Other projects of the archive include a reading series of memoirs by Jewish women, education for adults and children, and a virtual archive on the Internet that will make it possible for people to find local sources documenting the history of Jewish women throughout North America. The Jewish Women’s Archive is located on the Web at www.jwa.org.
They are accomplishing this historic mission with the help of modern technology. More than anything else, the Jewish Women’s Archive will be a virtual archive, with all of its information available through the Internet.
The first project in Seattle is the gathering of oral histories from 30 women. The work is being spearheaded by a committee of women volunteers led by Robin Boehler. After the committee decides which women’s lives to explore, the interviews will be conducted by two women. Pamela Brown Lavitt is a graduate student and Seattle resident who spent this past summer and fall on an historical “dig” uncovering local resources on Jewish women. Roz Bornstein is a therapist who has family ties to the local Sephardic community.
The 28 women on the advisory board represent all the diversity of Seattle’s Jewish women. Together, they came up with a list of 90 women from whom the final 30 will be found. They hope the final group will be diverse, either natives of Seattle or women who spent most or all of their adult lives here, and have a variety of Jewish affiliation and life experiences. All the women interviewed, who are being called narrators, will be over 75 years of age as of Jan. 1, 2001.
“None of them have been approached yet. It’s a secret list. No one has seen it except for women on the committee,” said Jewish Women’s Program Director Jayne K. Guberman, Ph.D., during a recent visit to Seattle.
“We have a lot of eligible women. The hardest thing now is deciding who will be selected,” added Boehler.
A fundamental message of the archive, however, is that more women than just those chosen for extensive exploration have important stories to share. “We don’t know what will come after this initial project.
We hope all women will say, ‘My story is important,’” said Hillary Bernstein, Seattle
community coordinator. Other women will be welcome to share their stories through an interactive Web site focusing on Seattle women’s history. Guberman said she hopes the work of chronicling Jewish women’s lives in Seattle will continue after the “Weaving Women’s Words” project is completed in the next few years. The Jewish Women’s Archive will be training people in Seattle so the community will continue to record the lives of Jewish women and gather materials to be housed in archives here and in the virtual archives on the Internet.
An education committee of the Seattle advisory board is working on curricula for both adults and children. The education committee is chaired by Tina Novick; Iantha Sidell and Leslie Rosen are co-chairing a committee working on an art event related to the project. Michele Rosen gets credit for the fact that Seattle was chosen to participate in the “Weaving Women’s Words” project, as she is a national board member of the Jewish Women’s Archive.
For more information on the Seattle advisory board of the Jewish Women’s Archive, contact Hillary Bernstein, who has an office at the Jewish Education Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, 206-443-5400.