Jewish Women’s Archive
Created and maintained by the Jewish Women’s Archive (Gail Twersky Reimer, executive director).
Reviewed April 2004.
Founded in 1995, the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA) is far more than an archive. The home page of its Web site invites the reader to “Discover,” "Teach,“ and ”Research.“ In line with that mission and with its desired aim to ”uncover, chronicle, and transmit“ the history of North American Jewish women, its pages include a wide array of sources: oral history projects, biographical sketches with links to the institutions that house the subject’s archival papers, and primary sources by and about these subjects with proposed classroom activities for educators. Viewers can explore brief histories of selected North American Jewish women thematically, linked by such varied themes as civil rights, western pioneers, and midwives. They can also read the life histories and see primary documents about the ”trailblazing women“ chosen for their ”Women of Valor" exhibit. The documents (news articles, organizational minutes, speeches, broadsides, and cartoons, to name a few) date from 1800 forward; the majority are from the last century.
The site is easily navigable and uses various media, including video and audio clips. Material on many of the women featured on it can be found in multiple sections, connected by internal links. Emma Goldman and Bella Abzug, for example, each have a full biography and life timeline in the Valor project, photographs and primary material linked to teaching lessons, and comprehensive entries in the Virtual Archive, which lists the repositories of their papers and includes still more primary materials. Artists, educators, activists, physicians, rabbis: throughout the Web site, bibliographies offer sources for anyone—from the sermon writer to the academic scholar—to find more information on women of various backgrounds and public careers.
Though the JWA’s stated task is to integrate Jewish women into Jewish and American history, the groups who have successfully used the sources and teaching lessons on the Web site are all located in Jewish institutions. Such sections as the Bat Mitzvah guide are clearly designed for Jewish audiences. But even the analysis that accompanies other documents, organized around political or social themes, does not always offer enough information on how educators outside of the Jewish community would integrate these lessons into broader discussions of American history.
These analyses and the accompanying materials beg important questions about both Jewishness and gender, questions now on the radar screen of American studies and Jewish studies scholars. Is there something essentially Jewish, for example, that connects Rebecca Gratz, a nineteenth-century philanthropist and activist, and Barbra Streisand? And do contemporary Orthodox women and radical Jewish feminists think about their womanhood in similar ways?
The exhibit “Women Who Dared,” which chronicles the lives of contemporary activists from Baltimore, Boston, and Chicago, takes the first step toward tackling these questions. Interviews with these subjects, parts of which are available on video and audio clips, are broken into three categories: Jewish, Gender, and Activism. Quotations from interviews placed into each category are designed to explore the impact of Jewish values and the women’s movement on individual activism. Some audiences will surely appreciate the celebration of these interconnections; others may use the material to question the construction of the categories themselves.
The JWA’s growth—perhaps especially the growth of the Virtual Archive—promises scholars a wealth of material to study these crucial questions. As it integrates women of increasingly diverse backgrounds and pioneers new ways to study Jewish women using the Web, all of its audiences will benefit.
Marjorie N. Feld
Babson Park, Massachusetts