We Remember Those the New York Times Won't

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Hannah Block plays the piano
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Hannah Block plays the piano at the Community Arts Center in the Historic USO building in Wilmington, N.C. during a program honoring veterans of World War II.
Courtesy Paul Stephen from StarNewsOnline.com.

I admit it: I am a third-generation compulsive reader of obituaries.

On September 11, the Public Editor of the New York Times responded to queries and complaints from readers. “Women rarely die, it seems,” wrote a man troubled by the dearth of women’s obituaries in the Times. The paper’s obituaries editor explained that the paper “set the bar high. . . [narrowing] the field to those who made the largest imprint and possibly found fame (or notoriety) in the process.” He added that obituary pages “are by definition backward-looking” and concluded that “it should come as no surprise that an overwhelming percentage of the people we write about were white and male.” He acknowledged that women “make up only 10 to 20 percent of the obits we publish. History has left them vastly outnumbered.”

The Public Editor conceded the point – as, to a certain extent, do I – but he urged the Times to make “every effort . . . to find a greater variety of subjects.” He suggested that “a systematic effort — tapping specific organizations and mining specific subject fields — would turn up rich new veins.” If the Times obituaries editor made it a habit to read the "We Remember" section of the Jewish Women's Archive website, he would indeed find a rich new vein of material. This growing online collection now includes over 100 remembrances of recently deceased American Jewish women who had an impact on and beyond their community.

Full disclosure: some of the women featured in “We Remember” came to our attention in the pages of the New York Times, but not many. You would recognize the names of only a few (for example, Betty Friedan and Kitty Carlisle Hart), the same few who passed the bar set so high by the Times. We discover most of our subjects by reading smaller papers, college alumnae magazines, professional journals, websites, and blogs. We feel honored when a family member offers to share the story of a loved one’s accomplishments with JWA’s large audience, as Marcia Levin’s daughter Michelle Parker recently did.

They are a remarkably diverse and impressive group of women: the teachers, social workers, and artists you might expect but also Judo champions, community organizers, civil rights activists, foreign correspondents, manufacturers, pharmacists, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, political power brokers, and inventors. Because the Jewish Women's Archive uses a broad and inclusive definition of Jewishness, “We Remember” has room for Yoga swami Ruby Blue, who lit Sabbath candles every Friday night; Rebecca Lipkin, the English-language correspondent for al-Jazeera; and the Biblical scholar Savina Teubal.

I’m always glad to know, even if it’s a little sad, when a woman like Hannah Block, whom the local paper eulogized as “Mrs. World War II Wilmington,” dies at 96, so we can add her to “We Remember.” It’s harder, of course, when the deceased has died young, but families tell us they find comfort in seeing their loved ones remembered on jwa.org. If you have a suggestion for “We Remember,” please email me or call at (617) 383-6756. Meantime, I’ll keep hoping the New York Times takes the Public Editor’s advice.

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