History still has a long way to go

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BROOKLINE, Mass. (JTA) — One of the intriguing questions marking this year’s 350th anniversary of American Jewish history was whether women would be effectively integrated into the celebration’s historical narratives.

Not surprisingly, the accounts offered during earlier anniversaries in 1954-55 and 1905 obscured women’s contributions both to American Jewish community and to American society more generally. But after almost 30 rich years of women’s studies scholarship in Jewish history, it was appropriate to expect a different story this time around.

Most of the presenters of history during this anniversary clearly were aware that their stories should not be told without women’s presence. A survey of many of the American Jewish history exhibits, timelines and programs indicates that a number of women joined the familiar fold of figures usually used to summarize American Jewish experience. Thus philanthropist Rebecca Gratz; the founder of the National Council of Jewish Women, Hannah Solomon; and the first female rabbi in the United States, Sally Priesand, were added to the ranks of Reform Jewish pioneer Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, 19th-century Jewish leader Jacob Schiff and baseball star Sandy Koufax.

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Still, the ways in which women made it into the 350th story suggest that the effort to see American Jewish history whole is still a work in progress. For instance, most of the timelines that have been so much a part of this year’s representation of the American Jewish past have told a very male story. On the extensive timelines offered by the two major Web sites devoted to the 350th, for instance, women feature in less than 9 percent of the events listed on one of the sites and in less than 5 percent on the other.

More significantly, central museum exhibits that noted their curators’ awareness of the need to include women demonstrated that, in fact, we have not yet succeeded in integrating women into popular representations of American Jewish experience. A major Library of Congress exhibit, titled “From Haven to Home,” presented a broad array of stunning historical artifacts that showed the richness, longevity and significance of American Jewish life. Its timeline featured women in almost 18 percent of its events chosen from 350 years of American Jewish history.

Yet key narratives were missing. Although the exhibit documented the central place of Zionism in American Jewish experience, there was nothing in the presentation to even suggest the decisive way that Zionism was shaped and determined by women’s work in organizations such as Hadassah and Pioneer Women. Similarly, the central role of Jewish women in creating feminism, a society-transforming movement in American life, was indicated only with a Bella Abzug campaign poster in the Washington exhibit, and with an unidentified photograph

of Betty Friedan in a related exhibit in Cincinnati.

The stories of Jewish women’s contributions to American Zionism, in shaping modern American feminism, and to many other institutions, organizations and movements, are too important to be omitted from American Jewish history. In that sense, the 350th has proven a disappointment.

Yet, this 350th year also gave promise that popular understandings of the American Jewish past are

growing and may grow more inclusive. Two major books by historians Hasia Diner and Jonathan Sarna represented

the first time that women’s stories and contributions were really woven seamlessly into full overviews of American Jewish life. In other examples, a poster project of a geographically diverse group of accomplished historical American Jewish women was published by the Women’s League of the Conservative Movement; a wide-ranging series of interviews with an impressive array of contemporary Jewish women was broadcast on cable television in New York; and a wide range of resources have been created by the Jewish Women’s Archive — all of which offer a rich well of material that no future popular overview of American Jewish history should be able to ignore.

We now have growing access to the voices of Jewish women who have made, and who are continuing to make history. We have timelines that now document Jewish women’s achievements across 350 years and offer access to information about significant women-related events in American Jewish history for almost every day of the year. We have a curriculum focused on women but that documents the full range of American Jewish experience. And so much more.

The legacy of this commemorative year as it relates to offering a fully inclusive history of American Jews shows that we still have a long way to go, but, at the same time, it also indicates that after 350 years, we now know the way to get there.

Karla Goldman is historian in residence at the Jewish Women’s Archive. Resources for the 350th anniversary of American Jewish history from the Jewish Women’s Archive can be found at www.jwa.org.