Preserving history of everyday women

Project: The Jewish Museum of Maryland asks women to share their stories for its archives.

April 07, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Responding to a female rabbi's invitation, 55 women from their 30s to their 70s showed up at the Jewish Museum of Maryland yesterday to write stories of their lives for the museum's archives.

The rabbi, Nina Beth Cardin, said yesterday's event was the first such writing exercise at the museum, and was designed to preserve pieces of women's lives and minds at the turn of this century -- pieces that might otherwise pass unnoticed.

"This will give us a view of Baltimore as it hasn't been recorded before," Cardin told the group. "This is about what it felt like to be you. The one thing men do not preserve is women's conversations."

Cardin, a rabbi at the Jewish Cultural Center, said she saw the "Writing Our Selves" project as a "thread in the tapestry of Jews in Maryland and throughout time."

The hours spent yesterday were meant to summon various childhood experiences -- some participants grew up in immigrant households -- and the first historical event the writers remembered. A list of suggested writing topics also included favorite kitchen memories. In a question pinned to the present, women were asked to consider what it felt like to be American and Jewish today.

Barbara Hettleman lightly told her friends this could reveal "what happens behind the screen" in synagogues where men and women are separated -- a domain where Jewish women share their sorrows and joys.

Diary-writing, or "journaling," as yesterday's activity was called, has long been a way for girls and women to keep track of important moments in their lives under lock and key. But since they are by nature private places, diaries often get buried in attics and chests, along with the voice of their writers.

After a few hours, the women were immersed in the writing process though some had protested that there was nothing special about their lives.

"There is power in telling your story your way," said Laura Wexler, an author in her 30s. "If you don't write or talk about the past, it disappears."

She added, "I'd like to get all my girlfriends together and do this once a year."

In answer to a question about when she felt most Jewish, Wexler recalled being taunted for being Jewish as a child in Cockeysville.

Robin Waldman, the museum's archivist, said each participant would give demographic information about herself and be assigned a folder. Each was asked to sign a release to allow the material to be read in five, 10 or 50 years.

The project relies on simple tools -- pen and paper. When asked why the museum did not seek more high-tech media, Waldman said, "Paper we know how to preserve. Paper has longevity."

Avi Decter, the museum director, said he believes in the testament of a single human view or voice, telling how his or her life is lived at a certain time.

"The personal voice is at the heart of the new social and cultural history," Decter said. "Handwritten correspondence, in the age of e-mail, is not so easy to get your hands on."

Elsa Wolman Katana, 49, said for her the key was the invitation. "You don't often get asked or given permission to tell your story," she said.

For Katana, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was a story worth telling from her 10-year-old point of view. "I understood I would not be insulated anymore," she said. "It brought me into the world."

Another woman had her eyes on the future. Jennifer Rudick Zunikoff, 30, said, "I'm hoping my great-grandchild will be reading something I wrote here at the turn of the millennium."

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