Dissolving Boundaries: Gail Twersky Reimer '72
In a photograph in the home of Gail Twersky-Reimer, a small girl has just dashed across a room during a Hasidic wedding ceremony into the arms of the rabbi. He’s her grandfather, so the man with the long grey beard could not be more pleased. But as the spiritual leader of his congregation, he is the object of criticism—surrounded by male colleagues who are frowning because the female child crossed a boundary: the strictly observed separation of men and women during religious ceremonies. On the opposite wall, a family tree bears the names of many generations of Hasidic men, a picture that has often caused Twersky-Reimer to wonder, “Where are the grandmothers, mothers and daughters?”
Finding the answer to that question, and dissolving—at least in spirit—some of the boundaries that separate Jewish men and women, has become her life’s work. In 1995, after serving as a professor of English at Wellesley College and then as assistant director of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, Twersky-Reimer founded the Jewish Women’s Archives. Based in Boston, its mission is to uncover, chronicle and transmit the legacy of Jewish women and their contributions—“the half of the story that is too often neglected,” the executive director says.
In large part, Twersky-Reimer was inspired by the example of her mother in Poland during World War II and in New York City during the resettlement years that followed. Instead of remaining on Oscar Schindler’s list, which would have allowed Natalia Twersky to work in a factory instead of being sent to a concentration camp, the young Hasidic woman followed three brothers and sisters to Auschwitz—in an attempt to remain close to her family and care for them. Six of the seven siblings survived, and after reuniting with her husband and six-year-old son, who was hidden during the Nazi years, Twersky nurtured her extended family in the new world.
As a girl, Twersky-Reimer—born in America—heard stories of her family’s difficulties in Poland and witnessed firsthand her mother’s role as the matriarch of a family attempting to rebuild itself. But it wasn’t until the older woman died that Twersky-Reimer realized her mother’s experiences—and those of other Jewish women like her—must be formally recorded for future generations, lest they be forgotten.
Looking back at the events that led to that realization, Twersky-Reimer explains that she entered Sarah Lawrence College “as a dance student from New York City, who had been educated in Jewish schools”—and graduated “as a young woman looking at a larger world and its many alternatives.” The women’s movement was under way, and Gerda Lerner had just started the pioneering women‘s history graduate program at Sarah Lawrence. (Their connection remains, and Lerner is now on the advisory board of the Jewish Women’s Archive.)
“In those early years, my identity as a woman and my Jewish identity remained separate for the most part,” Twersky-Reimer recalls. “I assimilated under the larger group of white middle class women. But as time went on, I began trying to integrate the various pieces of myself—both the feminist part and the piece that cared about my Jewish identity.”
Today, the Archives has a number of programs: “Weaving Women’s Worlds,” oral history interviews with Jewish women 75 and older; “Research,” an effort to uncover primary sources like diaries and letters buried in basements, attics and archival collections; “Virtual Archive,” a searchable data base plus digital images of letters, personal papers and pictures; and “Women of Valour” an outreach program celebrating the lives and accomplishments of Jewish women (among them chemist Gertrude Elion, actress Molly Picon and politician Bella Abzug) through posters, online multimedia exhibits and resource materials. The archive’s Web site—www.jwa.org —has an extensive collection of material on American Jewish women, attracting more than 100,000 hits per month.
Looking ahead, Twersky-Reimer says the non-profit research organization, which has 13 employees and an annual budget of $1.7 million, will broaden its reach globally and develop an online documents and publications archive. “Ours is an ongoing mission,” she says. “The work of getting the word out and exposing the collections to the widest possible audience never stops.”
— Elsa Brenner