As I prepare to leave my position as JWA’s Director of Public History after more than 12 years here, my mind keeps returning me back to the summer day in 2000 when I first stepped into the offices of the Jewish Women’s Archive. At the time, I was a disgruntled graduate student, disillusioned with life in the Ivory Tower and the academic study of women’s history. (Was a library really the best place to learn about women’s activism, I wondered?).
Ever wanted to learn more about an amazing, captivating, female pioneer only to find the story undocumented, or worse, simply buried? That's what happened to me when I discovered the work of Jewish American photographer Helen Levitt. I am making a film to fill that gaping hole. 95 Lives uncovers Helen Levitt's legendary career documenting NYC streets for 70 years and transforming American street photography forever. Born in 1913 in Brooklyn to Jewish Russian parents, Levitt died at aged 95 with an outpouring of obituaries celebrating her art while noting her disdain for fame.
In the years I attended Modern Orthodox day schools, I received close to zero sex education. Aside from one class period in the sixth grade dedicated to menstruation and a week during my senior year devoted to learning the laws of Neidah (Jewish ritual purity laws relating to menstruation), I remained in the dark about reproduction and sexual health, as well as about how they related to my identity as a young Jewish woman.
Accepting an award from the Jewish Women’s Archive earlier this year, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a longtime activist, pointed to the Statue of Liberty, just visible in the foggy distance, and quipped, “I love her, even though she’s not Jewish.” Over murmurs of laughter, she spoke of her love for Lady Liberty’s “grace and beauty,” and defined what the monument represents to her: “welcome, freedom, hope.” The same could be said of Pogrebin herself.
Writer Maggie Anton, whose "Rashi’s Daughters” series has sold 175,000 copies, believes that studying Talmud is the most feminist thing a woman can do. “Knowledge of Talmud is the key to halacha,” she says. Anton asserts that modern Jewish law is made at a table full of Talmud scholars, and that women can have a seat at that table.
For today’s young feminists, the name Phyllis Schlafly may be totally unfamiliar; if anything, it triggers a distant memory of a footnote in an AP US History textbook. Those activists who lived and fought during the Second Wave are, however, all too familiar with the uber-conservative activist.