A Not-So-Formal Introduction
Hello, my name is Leah Berkenwald and I am the newest ‘Jewess with Attitude’ blogging for the Jewish Women's Archive. I have been here for a little over a week now, and I continue to be blown away by the warm welcomes of my co-workers and the larger community that makes up JWA.
I am from Northampton, MA, where my upbringing was infused with feminism and progressive gender politics. I graduated from Brandeis University, where I was an improv comedian, newspaper columnist, sex educator, Journalism minor, and American Studies major. In 2008 I earned my MA degree in American Studies in the U.K. at the University of Nottingham, where I focused on sexual health politics.
These details are important, but perhaps a more appropriate way to introduce myself to the JWA community is to tell you about two of the most influential Jewish women in my life - my grandmothers.
My father’s mother, Rose Berkenwald, was a survivor. Her childhood in Lodz, Poland, was cut short by the war. She survived the Lodz ghetto and later Auschwitz. After the war, she came to New York City, where she married my grandfather, a fellow survivor. Uncompromising and unapologetic, my grandmother ruled the family with an iron fist. She knew what she wanted and she made it happen. They say the best revenge is living well. My grandma Rose pushed our family not only to survive, but to succeed. Even when diagnosed with a fast-moving form of leukemia, she refused to fall victim to the odds. We used to joke that if she wouldn’t let the Nazis kill her, leukemia didn’t stand a chance. Defying doctor’s predictions, she lived another two years on what can only be described as pure chutzpah. She passed away in April, 2007.
My mother’s mother, Frances Schaffer, was an incredible Jewish-American woman. She met my grandfather at a USO dance during World War II, contributed to the war effort while he was enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, and then raised a family of five in Springfield, MA. She was a warm, open-minded, no-nonsense woman with an unprecedented sense of humor. She once came to our New Year's party dressed as the glamorous Sophie Tucker. (It wasn’t a costume party.) My grandma Frances showed me a different way to be Jewish. Her assimilated, Jewish-American identity was a comfortable blend of traditions. She cooked matzo balls as well as spaghetti and meatballs, and took us to shul as well as McDonald's. I am grateful to have experienced her “Relax, don’t worry so much!” approach to Jewish identity. She passed away in January, 2009.
Working here, I see my grandmothers in a new light. Even though they were very different women who led very different lives, they are both part of the shared tradition of strong, Jewish women recorded and celebrated by the Jewish Women's Archive.
I am incredibly excited to be here, to blog here, and to keep learning about remarkable Jewish women and their stories. Thanks for having me!