Creating record of women's lives

History: Baltimore is included in an archive of Jewish women's experiences.

January 02, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Ruth Levy, who turns 80 today, has a "very fine recollection of Baltimore." She grew up in Reservoir Hill, on a block of Whitelock Street since razed. But her memories can still take you door to door of the "intensely Jewish neighborhood" where she once went on foot, collecting payments for her father Albert Surosky, a kosher butcher.

The 900 block of Whitelock Street, chock-full of dairy stores, groceries, cleaners, bakeries, a barbershop and drugstore, was a place "to exchange gossip and to shop," Levy says. "It was a place of community."

Friends and family are the richer for Levy's remembrances. An effervescent mother of four, interior designer, teacher and world traveler, the North Baltimore resident says that her favorite Hebrew phrase is "L'dor Vador." The expression means "generation to generation" and it reflects the importance for her of preserving one's personal and cultural history.

Now, through a pioneering oral history project, Levy's recollections can be shared with the world. She and 29 other Baltimoreans have been asked to participate in "Weaving Women's Words." The project, initiated by the Boston-based Jewish Women's Archive, seeks to "capture a sense of the varied lives that American Jewish women have lived in the 20th century."

With extensive interviews conducted by folklorists and oral historians, as well as family documents, photographs and other memorabilia, the archive is creating a densely textured online resource for future researchers, from schoolchildren to graduate students. Ultimately, the archive plans to expand pilot programs in Baltimore, Seattle and Omaha to other cities, as well as allow Jewish women everywhere to relate their own stories electronically.

"Weaving Women's Words" was conceived as a way to recover material that might otherwise vanish or become overshadowed in history's "master narrative," typically told through the lives of men.

"There's a real dearth of material on Jewish women's history," says Jayne K. Guberman, a folklorist and project director for "Weaving Women's Words." "If we don't do something about it now, our generation won't be in any better position [than past generations in terms of] preserving raw documents. This is an attempt to collect those materials and engage women across the country in preserving their own documents, photographs and memories." (The recent death of one Baltimore narrator, artist Amalie Rothschild, underscores the sense of urgency inherent in the project's purpose.)

Without first-person accounts of Jewish life, "We end up with traditional organizational history and studies of philanthropies that have often been headed by men," says Marcie Cohen Ferris, one of three folklorists who interviewed Ruth Levy and other Baltimoreans for the project. Even though the women of Levy's generation were "equally involved, or more so, their voices were left out."

The women's accounts of surviving the Great Depression and World War II go beyond closing historical gaps to offer a reassuring post-Sept. 11 perspective as the archive's Web site suggests: "The strength, wisdom and resilience that emerge from all of these sources serve as precious guides as we seek to understand and respond to these difficult times."

The Baltimore Jewish community was selected by the archive as a project site because of its history and national prominence. A local advisory board worked deliberately to choose 30 narrators, all of whom are 75 or older and have spent most of their lives in the Baltimore area.

"We were consciously trying to engage members of the community in the process from the beginning," says Guberman, "because that's part of the message we're trying to convey: All of us need to be engaged in the making of history and all of us, as active participants in our own families and communities and society, have been active makers of history."

For Ruth Levy, being a part of "Weaving Women's Words" is exciting: "You feel very special that you have been singled out."

In her interview with Cohen, Levy related stories about being brought up as a Zionist, "just like you brought up your children to be Americans." In the years before Israel's founding in 1948, Levy's family supported the idea of a Jewish state through political and cultural activities. Levy and her siblings belonged to a Zionist youth group and attended a summer camp where they sang and danced to Jewish folk music. Levy stressed in her interview that her family members were American patriots as well.

"It was never a question of `either/or,' " she says.

Levy told Cohen about first meeting her husband as a counselor at Camp Louise in Cascade and how she, like her mother before her, graduated from Western High School, in 1938. Cohen entered the University of Maryland, College Park at 16 and then became a naval communications officer during World War II.

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