How do we take the stories of women’s lives and turn them into a living museum?
How do we chronicle our own family stories?
How do we motivate a young audience into an historic journey?
How do we share it?
For the past 11 years, Barbara Rosenblit, a 2004 Covenant Award recipient, JWA board member, Humanities and Jewish Studies Teacher and Director of Mentoring at The Weber School in Atlanta, has been considering these questions.
And the answers have come in many different forms--dresses, purses, shadow boxes, sculptural books, lamps, vintage hats, gloves and pearls, embroidery hoops and place settings. These creations are all the work of juniors and seniors at Weber who have taken Rosenblit’s course “Addressing Women's Lives,” which she teaches together with Weber faculty member and conceptual artist Sheila Miller. In this interdisciplinary course, students engage in a year of studying the history of Jewish women in America, identify and interview a Jewish woman 75 years or older, and then create a mixed-media work that reflects something they have learned about each woman’s life. Rosenblit uses “In Our Own Voices: A Guide to Conducting Life History Interviews with American Jewish Women,” a curriculum developed by the Jewish Women’s Archive, to train the students in taking an oral history. At the end of the course each year, the students prepare to display their work in a public exhibition housed within the Weber School’s art gallery.
“In some ways, this course has changed completely and also not at all,” says Rosenblit, reflecting on the last 11 years. “Of course, the visualization changes every year—the whole first floor of our school is pretty much a gallery of these projects in their various incarnations,” she says. “But the purpose of all of this remains the same—to highlight the lives of women.”
“It’s like pentimento,” Rosenblit explains, invoking an Italian word that describes the process in art by which a composition shows the drawing or painting that has happened underneath it—so that when one observes the art, there are traces of the versions that came before. “Over time, as painters reuse canvas, white-washing over their previous work, the first painting bleeds through and shows up in their new work in curious ways, casting an image or shadow from the old painting. We feel that’s kind of how the lives of women are expressed through the lives of all of us, and through our students. The influence their lives have had on us sort of comes up, or emerges, over time.”
This year, Rosenblit and her students will consider the influence of famous Jewish women in history, as well, when they return to “A Place at the Table,” an homage to artist and feminist Judy Chicago’s famous installation The Dinner Party. Originally produced by Weber students many years ago, for 2015, the installation has a twist: students will design both a goblet and a plate. The goblet will honor a woman who has been interviewed by a student, and the plate will honor a Jewish woman in history whose story complements that of the interview subject. One of Rosenblit’s students has decided to create a plate in honor of Bel Kaufman, the famed granddaughter of Sholom Aleichem and a teacher and author best known for writing Up the Down Staircase, a novel about the realities of teaching in New York City public schools in the 1960’s. He chose Kaufman, who passed away last summer, because his grandmother had also been a public school teacher in New York.
On the outside, it might seem obvious why these stories should be told, but Rosenblit confides that year after year, those women who are interviewed don’t feel worthy of the attention. “The interviewees always think they are incredibly uninteresting people, that they are quiet women who have lived lives that are very ordinary,” Rosenblit shares. “But as their stories begin to emerge, and they reflect on—in some cases—almost a century of living, the backdrop of their lives broadens and they offer to these students a tunnel back into time that they would never have imagined they could share.”
For the students, there is surprise as well. “I’ll be honest,” Rosenblit says. “At the beginning of these interviews, the kids are not particularly excited. They’re not sure they’ll find their interview subjects interesting to talk to or be around…but when we tell them to turn off all technology and just listen…what happens is so cool. Every year, they wind up saying, ‘you know what? I had no idea…’ and then they begin adapting the lives of these women into their own sense of excitement, and into their artistic expressions.”
It’s that notion of “I had no idea…” that really motivates Rosenblit in her work. In her acceptance speech for a Covenant award in 2004, she said, “I’ve learned that it’s not important what I know, but what is important is knowing what my students know, and how to meet them where they are.” This imperative—that as educators, we must first determine where our students are coming from—combined with the knowledge that to help them succeed they must understand those who came before them, has formed the foundation upon which the Addressing Women’s Lives curriculum is built.
As Rosenblit continues to develop and rethink her work, she’s considered research from the social sciences to support the necessity of courses like hers, and in particular, research that’s being done at the MARIAL center at Emory University. There, Dr. Marshall Duke and others are studying ways to develop resilience in young people. We know that resilience is a predictor of success—as Rosenblit puts it: “anyone who has done anything worthwhile has failed many times along the way.” What Duke and others have learned, through their research, is that one way to build resilience is to teach the family narrative.
A student who is taught to develop their “intergenerational self,” a sense of self through historical time and in relation to family members, might also have a better chance of weathering the tides of their own experiences, research says. Sharing stories of triumph and tragedy gives kids a “psychological map” upon which they may begin to lay out their experiences and hopefully, develop a more resilient state of mind.
And Jewish teachings concur. In the Passover seder we are instructed to see ourselves as if we were slaves leaving Egypt. Abraham Joshua Heschel (noted in Dr. Duke’s work as well), urges Jews to locate themselves within the chronology of Jewish history, for these same reasons.
“Studying and learning from the details of a long life trajectory will teach you that lives have up and downs,” Rosenblit asserts, “students learn that there were times that were hard, and times that were great, and we struggled and we got through it,” says. “It doesn’t matter what the trajectory is, even a downward spiraling life story shows resilience because there is a person telling that story, which means, despite the struggling, they are still here.”
 Marshall Duke, Robyn Fivush and Jennifer Bohanek, MARIAL Center, Emory University.
In this podcast, 2004 Covenant Award recipient and Jewish Studies teacher Barbara Ellison Rosenblit discusses her reinterpretation of a midrash based on Genesis 1:16. Rosenblit explains that verse 1:16 is puzzling, as suddenly, of the two great lights that God has created—the sun and the moon—one, the moon, is abruptly demoted to a small light. Many sources have interpreted this passage through the lens of gender, assigning “male” to the sun and “female” to the moon and ultimately creating a dichotomy by which this tale is understood as a struggle for power, one gender pitted against the other. Rosenblit rejects this interpretation and offers her own—in which she “reinterprets greatness” and turns a lens on the “burdens of power” in a poetic and poignant midrash of her own.
By Adina Kay-Gross, for The Covenant Foundation