Adina Back, a devoted and talented public historian, believed in history as the story of all peoples, and worked throughout her life to reveal the voices of those whose contributions to social change had previously gone unrecognized and untold. Her fierce commitment to locating and interviewing these “heroes” and helping to reclaim their lost stories, was evident in three decades of research, writing, and activism.
Adina’s career in and contribution to public history began soon after graduating from Antioch College in 1981. Over the next decade she worked as an independent producer of radio documentaries; many of her pieces were distributed through national syndication on public radio. The title of her sound portrait of the feminist author Meridel LeSueur, “Fierce for Change,” was an apt description of Adina’s own passion for this work. She shared this enthusiasm with countless others by teaching radio production and oral history skills to union women in a variety of educational settings, encouraging them to use these tools to tell the stories of their lives.
Adina went on to develop public programs at the Jewish Museum in New York and in 1992 became the Project Director of “Bridges and Boundaries,” the critically acclaimed exhibition on the historical relationship between African Americans and Jews in America. The exhibit covered the complex relationship between the Jewish and African American communities. Donna Nevel, community psychologist/educator, recalled how “Adina worked to help shape and bring the exhibit to fruition, making it as powerful and honest and probing as it was. It easily could have been otherwise—it could have been self-congratulatory or glossed over real issues, conflicts, and contradictions—but Adina was committed to insuring that it be a full and critical examination of the relationship and history. And, as with all she did, she was always kind, respectful to those around her, brilliant, and principled.”
After being awarded a Spencer Foundation Fellowship and earning her doctorate in public history at NYU, Adina took her passion for teaching to Brooklyn College where she became a professor and developed new courses in immigration history, Brooklyn history, and oral history. She loved and embraced the richness of life stories that her students, many of whom were first-time college students from immigrant families, brought to her classroom. During these years, she continued advancing the concerns of public history through her involvement in the Radical History Review, serving as Managing Editor, a long time member of the editorial collective, guest editor for special issues, and frequent contributor. She also served as a consultant to the American Social History Project.
Through her scholarly articles and contributions to popular journals, she focused attention on the unfinished business of school desegregation and struggles outside of the South to challenge school segregation and educational inequality. As her fellow Public Historian Pennee Bender said, “part of what made Adina such a great public historian was her incredible personal warmth, generosity, and integrity. Like many public historians, Adina did not just study dusty documents in the archives. Her work involved relationships with a wide range of people, and she had an amazing openness and ability to engage fully with people as subjects of history, creators of history, and audiences of history. These relationships enriched her work and our understanding of individuals as active agents of change.”
Adina was fiercely devoted to Linda Gaal, her life partner, and to their two young children Gabriel and Isaiah. Her rich web of relationships—with her four siblings, family, friends, and fellow activists— was deep and loving. Trying to unravel the mystery of Adina’s gift for friendship, Women’s Studies Professor Rebecca Jordan-Young recalled one of [their] early morning “power walks” in the park. “Adina and I spoke about collaboration, the difficulty and pleasures of working organically with someone else, the extra layers of struggle and intellectual payoff that come from hammering out a project with at least one other mind. This was Adina’s vision of how interesting work and new ideas and genuine solutions are made, and it is how Adina connected as a friend. Adina made room in her life for us. All of us felt special to be chosen by Adina, embraced.”
She was particularly committed to encouraging younger women to develop their voice and make their mark in the world. Anthropologist Miriam Ticktin wrote, “as her younger cousin, I saw her as the kind of woman and human being I wanted to be. I feel that if I am a feminist today, it is in large part thanks to her. This did not come just from her words, of course, but also from watching her life choices: her openness to difference, her generosity with people, and of course, the people she has chosen to surround and share herself with.”
Raised by her parents, Nate and Toby, in an observant but politically liberal household, Adina was a Jewish feminist. Her first published article, co-written with her sisters and sister-in-law when she was still in college, described a women’s ushpizin they created to “… invite to our sukkah those women, our honored mothers and sisters, who have passed on to us over the generations their wisdom and visions, their healing and nurturing, their dreams and daring, their songs and silences. And we thank them by continuing in their tradition…”. While always ready to challenge Jewish convention when necessary, she also honored those traditions that didn’t need changing. Indeed, numerous friends across Adina’s wide community bake challah because Adina taught them—a tradition she learned from her own mother, Toby.
After Adina was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 43, she continued her research and writing projects throughout years of treatment. Characteristically, as she sat through ongoing chemotherapy sessions, she used the time to engage those around her, asking her nurses about the stories of their lives—why they emigrated from their native countries, asking about their children, their struggles.
Throughout her final years, Adina continued her work on a book about African-American, Puerto Rican and Jewish women activists fighting to desegregate and improve the quality of New York City public schools. Adina’s friend, Dartmouth professor Annelise Orleck, describes the importance of this work as being threefold. “First, it made clear that civil rights activism toward school desegregation did not begin in the South and move north; the northern movement began simultaneous with or before the Southern. Secondly, Adina’s research makes clear the importance of African-American Jewish collaboration on this issue. And it also highlights the tensions between Jewish teacher's union activists who had long worked for greater racial equity in schools and Jewish school administrators and Board of Education officials whose racism was part of the problem.”
On her 50th birthday, Adina’s loving community labored in the backyard to plant a verdant garden, a gift for her, she who had nurtured her extended family and community for so long. She died a few days later.
A month after Adina’s death, a group of friends, family, and colleagues gathered at the Brooklyn Historical Society to celebrate the publication of her “Flatbush Neighborhood History Guide,” completed in Adina’s last days. That evening, Adina’s partner Linda said “Adina knew, viscerally and through a lifetime of disciplined study, that the whole of history is about hopes being imagined, sustained, lost and renewed. She was expansive in her imagination, compassionate toward loss, ever vigilant and uncompromising in leaning and yearning toward hope. And for all the bittersweet irony of this, she loved that one of the most artful aspects of history is how it extends human life beyond its span.”
Her life and her voice lives on in us all.