Jewish Journal

Our Own Legacy

November 11, 1999 | 7:00 pm

This week, even as PBS was airing its two-part biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, I was on my own journey into early feminism; this time of the Jewish variety.

Anyone with Internet access should go right away to Jewish Women's Archives (www.jwa.org), for Jewish women's history at its best.

"It's the new technology that makes it possible for us to share our history," Gail T. Reimer, the project's director, told me. Jewish Women's Archives is located, not in a library, but completely on the web. It's a central location where, eventually, you will be able to find not only full documentaries of notable Jewish women, but also links to crucial documents and histories of, say, Jewish women scientists or government officials or inventors. It will be a central source, so to speak, for research on Jewish women's lives.

It's the candid, colloquial style of writing and the influence of a 40-member Academic Council that makes the site so impressive (I hope that soon it will include audio and video testimonies.) Each of the six beautifully-mounted exhibit biographies creates a multi-textured portrait of a woman within the context of the vital American ideas and conflicts of her time, using diary excerpts, photographs, legal documents, and her own words.

About Lillian Wald, for example, we learn not only that she started the beloved Henry Street Settlement on New York's Lower East Side, but that in 1919 "Who's Who in Pacifism" considered her "undesirable" for her reformist ideas and association with radicals like Emma Goldman. Yet in 1940, thousands mourned her, and her work with the Visiting Nurses continues to this day.

In exploring the life of Hannah Solomon, founder of the National Council of Jewish Women, the Archives acknowledges that NCJW in 1917 rejected women's suffrage, and provides links to the precise wording of the amendment that NCJW voted down.

"For the NCJW, issues like Jewish immigrant aid and America's entry into World War I took precedence over women's rights," the Archives explains. "Members also had good reason to distrust the women's suffrage movement. Writers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw Judaism and Christianity as the forces behind women's oppression and called for the abandonment of both religions. Other feminists of the time blamed the oppressive parts of Christianity on its Jewish roots." The difficult truth is presented unvarnished for us to make of it what we will.&'009;

Judge Justine Wise Polier, a pioneer labor and family lawyer, went seeking a job in textile mills because she was "fed up on dried-up old maids studying problems of people about whom they knew nothing." She sounds real.

Jewish Women's Archives is supported by some heavy-weight philanthropies, including Revson, Dorot, Covenant and the Righteous Persons Foundations. But Barbara Dobkin, chair of its board, told me she wants 360 women in each major metropolitan area to be enrolled by the new year, at $36 each. The oral histories and documents gathered here will have a home nowhere else. "We are the only ones who can make sure that the next generation has its history," says Dobkin. She's right.

I also spoke this week with Riv-Ellen Prell, the leading historian of American Jewish women's image, who specializes in the way that the media has transformed and mirrored our lives since the great immigration boom at the turn of the last century. If there's a reason why Jewish women are the butt of jokes, the endless buffoons and set-ups, Prell (a member of the Jewish Women's Archives Academic Council) knows it.

In her book, Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender and the Anxiety of Assimilation (Beacon), the University of Minnesota professor suggests its not about Jewish self-hatred, but about the conflicts with American life: the anxiety with "making it."

After studying the portrayal of young Jewish women in the Jewish press at the turn of the century, Prell says that nothing much has changed; the difficulties of acceptance and esteem encountered by contemporary Jewish women were already being foretold. Right from the start the attitudes exhibited about Jewish women mirrored the doubts and struggles of Jewish vulnerability (men complain that Jewish women are nagging, smothering) and the pleasures/struggles with work and material consumption (Jewish women were considered calculating, demanding, spoiled, materialistic and driven.)

"The price of becoming Americans," Prell told me, "is that the media knows how to pit the women of any ethnic group against the men. In the case of Jews its more difficult because the Jews in many cases are the ones creating those media images."

Prell and I commiserated that this year there are no Jewish women on television to complain about. Usually, it's easy enough to find a neurotic sister or a brassy mother as a betrayer of Jewish women's spirit, or to wonder if Elaine or Maude is really Jewish. This year, not a one. But then again, since "Seinfeld" is off the air, there is a lack in the neurotic Jewish male category, too. African-Americans and Latinos have already voiced outrage over their lack of representation in a major series; the lack of Jews (in a medium after all created with a heavy dose of Jewish ta'am) is yet one more slice of white bread in the loaf.

"I'm waiting to see a Jewish woman character who is not neurotic, alone or self-effacing," Prell says. "The fact that there can't be one indicates just how much trouble American society has dealing with love." We're both still waiting.

And while we're waiting, it helps to look back. The women's movement of the late-60s suffered its lack of a memory. We thought we were inventing a liberated persona out of whole cloth. We lost our past, and a lot of time. Let's spare our sons and daughters that.

Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of the Jewish Journal, hosts historian Riv-Ellen Prell for a talk on "The Anxiety of Assimilation" at the Skirball Cultural Center on Sunday, Nov. 21 at 11 p.m. Her email address is wmnsvoice@aol.com

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