Hello! Welcome to the July issue of the Documensch Newsletter focusing on glimmers of the American Jewish Community, past and present. This month brings the heat and our newsletter is no exception. In addition to an in-depth piece on Jewish women and history by Judith Rosenbaum of the Jewish Women’s Archive, we explore the Berman Archive’s intersections with today’s insurgent labor movement (and Fran Descher!), the 50-year anniversary of the Jewish Catalog, experiments in Jewish education, and Jews and jewelry.
It is hot out here, so join us as we schvitz to some oldies but goodies from the Berman Archive (and stay hydrated, folks!).
Don’t hesitate to reach out with feedback, articles we should consider sharing, or documents we should consider archiving. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading,
Ari Y Kelman, Director, Berman Archive
Jewish Women Make History
Judith Rosenbaum, PhD, is the CEO of the Jewish Women’s Archive, a pioneering organization that documents Jewish women’s stories, elevates their voices, and inspires them to be agents of change. She recently wrote a post for the Berman Archive blog sharing the origins of JWA and the many pieces on the Berman Archive that underscore the importance of work.
Like many organizations, the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA) has several origin stories. The seed of one can be found in the Berman Archive, in a 1994 paper by Leonard Fein called Smashing Idols and Other Prescriptions for Jewish Continuity. In this compelling piece, Fein prescribes a renewed commitment to social justice as the key to a meaningful Jewish future. A prescient argument, it was also marked by what was, to some, a glaring omission. A few months after its publication, at the Jewish Funders Network conference in 1995, Gail Twersky Reimer challenged Fein as to why his account did not mention a single Jewish woman, despite their rich history and leadership in movements for social justice. His response – “Where would I go to find out about Jewish women in history?” – spurred Reimer, along with feminist philanthropist and activist Barbara Dobkin, to found JWA.
The Jewish Catalog, first published 50 years ago, showed American Jews ways to live Jewishly without traditional religious institutions. The Forward published a thorough look back at the Catalog’s conception and reception, noting that the Catalog “argued that Jews should take religious practice out of the synagogue and into their own hands.” Rather than turning to rabbis and synagogues, the Catalog brought a DIY—some might say countercultural—spirit to the rituals, practices, and transmission of information about being a Jew. And it was hugely influential, selling over 500,000 copies.
The Berman Archive holds Nessa Rapoport’s 1974 enthusiastic-yet-critical review of the Catalog in Response: A Contemporary Jewish Review, noting “the most successful chapters have somehow, caught the essential principles behind ritual action, without jeopardizing their substantial halachic content.” The 2010 issue of Sh’ma has a fun piece by Daniel Brenner who imagines a lost section of the catalog ruminating on the word and notion of “blech.”
Jews and Labor
As the Screen Actors Guild enters the Hollywood strike fray, Jewish actor and Guild President Fran Descher has become a bit of a folk hero and the face of the insurgent labor movement out on the West Coast. Kveller has a good assessment of Drescher’s choice deployment of Yiddish in her public statements. Alma connects Drescher’s role now to her role in the Nanny in the 1990s. Her character refused to cross a picket line, saying, “Well, I’m sorry, but the Fines don’t cross picket lines. It’s against our religion.”
Or course, Jews have a long history with the US labor movement. The Berman Archive holds the 1976 bicentennial issue of the American Jewish Historical Quarterly which is dedicated to the topic of American Jews and the labor movement. From historiography of Jewish labor to the “wandering jew” of American socialism, this issue covers a lot of solid(arity) ground.
Ellery Weil traces the Jewish history of jewelry for Alma including designer Nettie Rosenstein who popularized the “little black dress” and was a “wildly popular designer of costume jewelry (and so beloved at her job that she was persuaded to come out of retirement to design Mamie Eisenhower’s inauguration outfit).”
Berman Archive connection: Vanessa Ochs wrote “The Jewelry of Jewry” in a 1998 edition of Sh’ma, looking at the Lion of Judah pins that Jewish Federation women wear to convey both status and generosity to others.
Experiments in Jewish Education
Rabbi Carrie Vogel’s article about the success of the Jewish Learning Experience (which began as a partnership between American Jewish University and a Los Angeles Synagogue), is a great example of the flexibility and experimentation that has long characterized American Jewish education. Though often a target for criticism for being, as Vogel wrote, “not very good,” American Jewish education has a long history of experimentation.
This report from 1932 details one community’s effort to “To set the children entrusted to our care in an environment congenial to the Jewish spirit, to offer them a balanced intellectual diet, to help them along the road to self-realization, and to watch them daily evolving into that most mysterious of all compounds which we call personality.” This one, from England in 1944 details another educator’s attempt “to ensure that the pupil will know how to react to the situations he encounters in later life as an honest and sincere Jew.” Finally, and most recently, an early report on Birthright Israel called it a “mega experiment in Jewish education.”
The specific innovations that Vogel wrote about might be new, but she is picking up on a tradition of experimentation and innovation in American Jewish education. If you’re interested in learning more about Jewish education, the Berman Archive has made the entire history of the Journal of Jewish Education freely available.