Off the Shelf: Exploring history through objects by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

History is defined as “the study of past events, particularly in human affairs.” But what parts of history tell us the most about the past? Should its focus be great events – for example, wars and revolutions – and the biographies of those who made them happen? Or should we be studying daily life – how people actually lived and the sociological trends that affected them? Laura Arnold Leibman, a professor of English and humanities at Reed College, is clearly interested in the latter as displayed in her excellent “The Art of the Jewish Family: A History of Women in Early New York in Five Objects” (Bard Graduate Center/University of Chicago Press), which focuses on five Jewish women who lived in New York City from 1750-1850. While this might make her work sound strictly academic and of interest to only scholars, much of it is relevant today, especially when speaking about issues of race and class. 

Leibman looks to past written texts in order to explore the lives of these little known women by focusing on physical objects. She notes that “objects made for and by Jewish women help us consider women as consumers and creators of identity. Everyday objects such as cups, portrait miniatures, commonplace books, and silhouettes prove windows into those women’s daily lives, highlighting what they themselves valued, how they wanted their contemporaries to see and understand them, and how they passed identity down to their children and grandchildren.” 

The five objects featured are a letter requesting financial aid from a synagogue, a set of six silver beakers, an ivory miniature portrait, a commonplace book, and a silhouette portrait of a married couple and their three children. Leibman believes these objects can help us to break the silence of historical records, which usually ignore women’s voices. Through them, she shows “the role poverty, education and health played in keeping women’s voices from being recorded, and the way early American laws, economies, and religious institutions often kept women from being able to become part of the written record or from writing to the genres that tended to be valued in the archives.” A great deal did change by 1850, with women being able to live more public lives in the second half of the 19th century.

While it is impossible in a short review to do justice to Leibman’s in-depth study, an overview of her work is possible.

  • Letter requesting financial aid from a synagogue: Hannah Louzada, the writer of this request, was living in poverty and was requesting funds in order buy provisions for the winter. Through her research, Leibman learned that Louzada had lived a comfortable lifestyle when she was married. However, according to the law at that time, unless a husband specifically stated in his will that his money and possessions were to go to his wife, everything he owned was left to the eldest son. This created problems for Louzada because of her estrangement from her son, who suffered from mental illness. Women’s ability to work and/or raise funds was limited at the time since few women were educated. In addition, synagogues only gave funds to those who accepted their social values, which also limited earning opportunities. 
  • Silver beakers: The set of silver beakers Reyna Levy Moses owned symbolized the importance of family. The beakers were considered heirlooms to be passed down through the generations. Marriages at this time were mostly arranged and served economic purposes by connecting family businesses and creating trade networks. These connections were also responsible for maintaining religious ties. 
  • An ivory miniature portrait: The story of Sarah Brandon Moses shows the role of community in creating identity. Sarah was born a slave in Barbados. Her Jewish father arranged for Sarah to convert and move to New York City after her marriage. There she was treated not only as a Jew, but as white. That included being listed as such by the New York Census. She became a member of the New York City Jewish elite, although in other parts of the U.S. she would still have not been considered white. The ivory portrait symbolized the beginning of her change in racial status.
  • A commonplace book: Sarah Ann Hays Mordecai’s life showed a change in women’s status. Her commonplace book – a collection of writings by herself and others – shows the increased involvement of women in public life and how Jews began to embrace the secular world. During this time, women began educating children in Jewish and secular studies in synagogues and other public settings. Women were now expected to marry for love, but their social networks – the other women they knew – became an important part of their lives, particularly during difficult times. 
  • A silhouette portrait of a married couple and their three children: the portrait of Jane Symons Isaacs and her family shows the development of Modern Orthodoxy as it broke from traditional Sephardic practice and separated itself from those following the Reform Movement. The use of head coverings – which was once done only during ritual activities – became a marker for this movement and is shown by the fact that the two adults and the three children in the silhouette have their heads covered. While women’s roles in the family and synagogue did became more public, the movement also sought to separate its members from the secular world. 

Although the prose in “The Art of the Jewish Family” is a bit dry, Liebman does a wonderful job not only showing the changes in women’s status over time, but the roles race and class play in a person’s life. While those interested in women’s studies are the most obvious audience for this work, anyone who wants to better understand early American history – Jewish or otherwise – will find Liebman’s book has a great deal to offer.