American Jewish History 89.1 (2001) 154-155
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Asserting that American Jewish women have not been "constructed as a category of knowledge" (p. xxi), the editors offer this encyclopedia as a partial remedy and as an inducement to further research and reflection on the subject. Including women who lived in or live in America, and those who either identified themselves or were identified by their contemporaries as Jewish, the two volumes comprise 800 biographical and 110 topical essays covering an impressively wide range. The selections, the editors explain, "emphasized accomplishment" of mostly deceased women of the twentieth century and areas in which Jewish women were active and interested. Two appendices in particular, an Annotated Bibliography and Guide to Archival Resources, and a Classified List of Biographical Entries, help make the rich and extensive contents more accessible.
While the encyclopedia in toto demonstrates the great diversity in American Jewish women's experiences and contributions, the Classified List also points up some interesting patterns and juxtapositions. One must be struck, for example, by the number of women in the categories of "activists," "intellectuals/scholars," and "writers," as well as by the numbers of women in the creative arts and entertainment. Generally lively and well written topical essays build on these themes, exploring, for example, "communism" and "eastern European immigration" as well as the "film industry."
A theme that emerges from both the biographical and topical essays is the continuing importance of an early project of women's history: restoring women's life stories to our national narratives. The biography of Clara Lemlich Shavelson is a good example. Familiar to historians of American women and labor for her founding role in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and her leadership during the strikes that broke out in 1909, Shavelson's life story encompassed far more than these episodes. She read radical political literature as a child in the Ukraine, and put her lessons to use well into her eighties and nineties, when she helped to organize the orderlies at her nursing home. In between she was instrumental in groups protesting about such basic issues as food prices and eviction policies. Shavelson's lifelong commitment to radical politics and organizing on behalf of working people speaks not just to the tumult of the early twentieth century, but to the conditions of working men, and especially women, throughout the century. [End Page 154]
Because of patterns in Jewish immigration which brought many like Shavelson to the United States in the early twentieth century, the encyclopedia entries largely emphasize this and later periods. Even somewhat elusive figures from the earlier periods, however, get some mention. As a consequence, essays about women whose lives more clearly reflected general patterns rather than singular achievement appear alongside luminaries. This is the case with Frances Hart Sheftall (1740-?), whose life in the Revolutionary south seems to have mirrored that of many women and whose biography immediately follows Shavelson's. The wife of a patriot in British-occupied Savannah, she fled with her children and ultimately pled her case to the Continental Army. Years later she petitioned for redress of her property losses during the war. Sheftall's life, as presented here, differs little from that of other women of her era and status. Although the essay notes that the Sheftalls were important in Savannah's nascent Jewish community, we don't know why or how that may have influenced her life and experiences.
This is an issue that the editors and contributors face throughout: namely, the relationship of Jewish identity to the women they have written about. The editors gamely state that a profiled woman either "identified as a Jew or was perceived as such by her contemporaries" (p. xxii). The resulting group of women naturally reflects the diversity of Jewish experiences in America, but also the diversity of Jewish identity.
As an artifact of modern epistemology an encyclopedia represents a cultural and intellectual...