A new book is telling old stories with the intent to spawn fresh work. “Her Deeds Sing Her Praises: Profiles of Pittsburgh Jewish Women” relates 21 brief biographies of local Jewish women spanning nearly 150 years.
“We made a huge list of women and established some criteria,” said Lois Michaels, one of the book’s three editors. “They could no longer be living, had to have made a significant contribution in some field, and there had to be archival material so we could base what we were writing on facts.”
The project began roughly two years ago, when Michaels, a longtime donor to community causes, and Eileen Lane had proposed writing a book on Jewish women’s organizations that the two had been involved in. After beginning their research, the pair encountered a problem.
“There were big gaps in archival material about [the organizations], so we thought maybe we should write about women, which is what we wanted to write about anyways,” said Lane, daughter of a Holocaust survivor and a longtime member of the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women.
They again hit the books, and computers, in search of material for their project.
They turned to the Jewish Women’s Archive, a national organization self-described as “dedicated to collecting and promoting the extraordinary stories of Jewish women.”
Unfortunately, or fortunately for readers of their new book, Michaels and Lane found little regarding Pittsburgh’s Jewish women.
“I thought that was a terrible injustice and told Eileen, and she agreed, and we decided that was terrible,” said Michaels.
“There’s such interesting stories about women here and the accomplishments that they had,” echoed Lane.
The duo consulted the National Council of Jewish Women, Pittsburgh Section’s Oral History Project. The trove of more than 500 oral history interviews, taken between 1968 and 2001, focus on the Pittsburgh Jewish community, its growth and specific contributions from its members.
But while reviewing the interviews, which are available online at the University of Pittsburgh’s Digital Research Library, Lane and Michaels encountered a difficulty.
“Many more of the stories that they recorded were about men than women, which is surprising for a women’s organization. We wanted to rectify that as well,” Lane explained.
So along with Eric Lidji, a researcher at the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center, Lane and Michaels convened a group dedicated to promoting the history of Pittsburgh Jewish women.
Writers, researchers and educators identified 21 deceased Pittsburgh Jewish women and began working.
Lidji assisted each writer with finding and digitizing relevant documents related to the subjects. Rachel Kranson, an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Religious Studies, advised the group and authored the book’s introduction.
The resulting book, which was published only recently, takes on a unique place within Pittsburgh Jewish history, said Lidji.
“I feel like maybe in Pittsburgh we are getting to a point where maybe a lot of the big topics have been covered well and maybe the next step would be to look at the smaller topics,” he said. “This takes one particular portion of the story, Jewish women, and goes much deeper than you could go in a [broader work].”
“This is an area that probably hasn’t had as much attention to it, but so much of our history and community owes a great deal to the women that were a part of it and we need to celebrate that,” added Lane.
Although she and Michaels are satisfied that the book is now in print, they hope that it generates future efforts.
“One of the things we would love to see happen is wouldn’t it be great if people did other profiles,” said Lane. “We’d really like to get more people involved in doing oral histories of women, Jewish women, contemporary Jewish women. Some of these people really made significant contributions.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Her Deeds Sing Her Praises: Profiles of Pittsburgh Jewish Women”
(Word Association Publishers $12.95, paperback)