I’ve just come from a family reunion with kin whose ages range from 8 months to 98 years. While the connections were pure pleasure, still I’m left uneasy — forced to revise some longstanding assumptions. A small but telling example: In one of those interstitial conversations that work their way into reunions, I learned that in 1904 my Aunt Ann, oldest child of seven and responsible daughter to her widowed father, declined when her father encouraged her to go to university. “I was having too much fun!” she told her granddaughter decades later.
Why do I find this apparently trivial piece of information — that a respected family matriarch had cared about fun — unsettling? When you consider how little we know about what drives even our closest contemporaries, it should be no surprise that we know next to nothing about the inner workings of women from preceding generations. Did Aunt Ann talk over her decision with her first cousin Dorothy, who lived next door and slept over almost every night? Was Ann’s father disappointed that his smart and capable eldest was so cavalier? Did it matter anyway, since she was a girl in a generous family that, nonetheless, passed business opportunities only along the male line? (The family wholesale grocery firm, pickled herring its specialty, was, after all, Weidman Bros. — italics added)
The descendants of the Bros. — 180 of them — came lemming- like to Winnipeg in June to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the 1882 arrival there of my great-grandparents and their sons. We know plenty about the men, since there are loving testimonials and tender eulogies and business records of all sorts attesting to their occupation, loyalties and good deeds. And the brothers — warmhearted, learned, community-minded men — even kept a joint record of the trip they took in 1923 to visit the graves of their parents on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. (Those intrepid great-grandparents had settled the family in Winnipeg and then, in 1904, made aliyah to Eretz Israel.) The sons revisited Bialystock and their old yeshiva, then traveled, via Egypt to see the pyramids, to pre-state Israel. Their observations on kibbutz life and their conversations with Rav Kook, chief rabbi of Eretz Israel, are all recorded for posterity in a small printed volume — English on one side, Yiddish on the other. The diary is so endearing in part because its details enable us, the family that followed, to see Mordecai and Haim Leib as individuals.
So I feel all the more bereft that we have no parallel information about their mother and their wives, daughters and daughters-in-law.
My own mother did leave some writing — a few essays and some short fiction. Other women left letters. But no journals or diaries; mostly just the outer trappings of their lives. A piece of jewelry. A wedding veil. A handmade shawl. Treasure-troves of photograph albums from the 1890s onward — Aunt Millie in her full-length tennis dress, Millie with Uncle John on board ship sailing to Europe between the wars (seeking help, a cousin suggests, for their inability to conceive). What was Millie thinking as she smiled for the camera? Why did my great-grandmother depart the Canadian prairie for the Holy Land in 1904? There’s no way to know now. We have objects and recipes, photos and a family tree for the public facts of these lives, but not enough words to reveal what thoughts prefaced these actions.
The fallout from having too little information is a tendency to smooth out individual differences and imagine all women to have been cut from the same shtetl tablecloth. As a consequence, we’re unable to conjure our female forebears in all their resplendent specificity.
I knew Aunt Ann as the adored older sister who raised my dad after his mother died and as the name behind her signature oatmeal-coconut cookies, her life a familiar trope — I thought. To recast Ann as a dance-happy partygoer required the same mental shift as when I recently saw a very poised and elegant young guest at a wedding take off her silk jacket, surprising me with a bare back completely covered in tattoos. I had pegged each of these women wrongly, as more ordinary than she really was, and each ultimately defied my easy categorization.
Projecting onto women a more sanitized persona than reality will bear doesn’t serve us well. Such cleaned-up versions erase a woman’s individuality, and thus mask the diversity that exists in our world. As regular readers of Lilith know well, women who are Jewish, by birth or by choice, come in all colors, ethnicities, nationalities, political tendencies and degrees of gleefulness. You’ll meet several in this issue. It’s time to get to those individuated and diverse life stories, told in images and words. Read on!