“I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.”
Emma Goldman, an anarchist, believed in the ideal of absolute freedom. She is one of the muses of the women’s movement and serves as an ideal guide for contemporary Jewish women. In a variety of sticky situations, one might wonder, “What would Emma do?” Her spirit will inspire a new advice column called “Dear Emma,” which launches on the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA) website on March 20.
That question was on my mind when I recently spoke to JWA’s executive director, Judith Rosenbaum. My reasons for getting in touch with Rosenbaum were two-fold: There was no better way to celebrate Jewish Women’s History Month in March than to explore what was new with JWA. But I also wanted to focus on the organization’s ongoing #MeToo archive—a new project that underscores what is so special and so vital about JWA.
According to Rosenbaum, the #MeToo archive represents various aspects of JWA’s work. “We’re committed to capturing history as it unfolds and contemporary issues as they are happening,” Rosenbaum told JewishBoston. “It’s not always recognized that a history-based organization like ours would take on something like a #MeToo archive. History is about the past, but in fact the reasons why history matters are because it shapes our understanding of the present and who we are; it shows what is possible and therefore highlights the future.”
Rosenbaum asserted that a public history organization like JWA is also a public trust. That is especially reflected in the assembly of the #MeToo archive, which has resonated with organizational partners that include the Women’s Rabbinic Network, Reconstructing Judaism, Avodah and JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance). These networks of women are encouraging their constituents to come forward to tell or write their intimate #MeToo struggles. The result has been a collection of varied stories submitted by women of all ages. Noted Rosenbaum: “People have the option of how much of their stories they want us to share. Most people submitting are doing so anonymously. However, they usually indicate that we can use their stories in any medium. To us that is ideal—we don’t need to know names to have the flexibility of using these stories in different ways.”
Posterity is on Rosenbaum’s mind, as is the opportunity to link to resources around emotional support for women sharing their #MeToo stories. To dredge up these stories and deal with their outcomes can place an unfair burden on women. What would Emma say about dealing with those emotionally laden situations? She might surmise that unveiling stories in the light of day may accord our daughters absolute freedom.
Perhaps that freedom is emerging in the collective voices of young women from high schools all over the United States who are participating in JWA’s Rising Voices program. These students engage with cross-generational issues of prime importance to them, their mothers and even their grandmothers. They have participated in oral history projects, immersed themselves in issues related to the #MeToo movement and have recently responded to the Parkland school shootings.
It’s clear from their essays that these young women have not only grown up in the long, cold shadow cast by school shootings, but have been deeply affected by this violence.
Tamar Cohen was 12 years old when the Sandy Hook shooting occurred. “Years later, after so many shootings, so many tragedies, at a time when my community is raw and recovering from natural disasters completely unrelated to gun violence, we’re just done,” she writes.
Josie Rosman declares: “I am afraid. I am sad, and disgusted and ashamed of my country. Most of all, I am angry. Our elected officials are paid off by the NRA, so the likelihood of common-sense gun control going into effect is slim to none.”
Writes Daniella Shear: “We shouldn’t have to be afraid to go to school. Our teachers shouldn’t have to be put in a position in which they are forced to act as human shields to protect their students.”
Rosenbaum said that as Rising Voices participants, these young women took the initiative to use their voices to write about Parkland. Taken together, these voices are a powerful indictment on gun violence. “It’s a perfect example of what we are training them to do—to use their voices and speak up for change through their writing,” she said.
For Rosenbaum and her staff, it is critical to value Jewish women’s stories. “It’s important that researchers and historians down the line have a record to look at beyond stories of prominent people in the news,” she said. “The work is not just about archiving, it’s also about translating historical scholarship and making it accessible to everyone.”