Non­fic­tion

The Art of the Jew­ish Fam­i­ly: A His­to­ry of Women in Ear­ly New York in Five Objects

By – July 29, 2020

When is a sil­hou­ette bet­ter than a text? As Lau­ra Leib­man so expert­ly demon­strates in The Art of the Jew­ish Fam­i­ly: A His­to­ry of Women in Ear­ly New York in Five Objects, a sil­hou­ette, like the oth­er objects upon which her learned study cen­ters, can serve to fill the gaps left by texts nev­er writ­ten and sto­ries nev­er told.

In her vol­ume, pro­duced as part of the Bard Grad­u­ate Cen­ter’s Cul­tur­al His­to­ries of the Mate­r­i­al World series, Leib­man exam­ines paper frag­ments, sil­ver cups, minia­ture por­traits made of ivory, com­mon­place books,” and artis­tic ren­der­ings of fam­i­ly sil­hou­ettes to paint a more com­plete pic­ture of ear­ly Amer­i­can Jew­ish women who have too often been neglect­ed in the schol­ar­ly accounts. Fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of the recent Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award-win­ning Amer­i­ca’s Jew­ish Women: A His­to­ry from Colo­nial Times to Today, whose author, Pamela Nadell, blurbs Leib­man’s book, the author seeks to over­come the fis­sures and silence” of the tex­tu­al record on Jew­ish women in Amer­i­ca’s ear­li­est decades. In the hands of her adept analy­sis, a frag­ment, in which a woman named Han­nah pleads for char­i­ty, becomes a win­dow into mid-eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry pau­per let­ters,” wom­en’s edu­ca­tion, hand­writ­ing, prop­er­ty law, men­tal ill­ness and syn­a­gogue sup­port sys­tems. Sil­ver cups (more trans­portable than real-estate and more dynam­ic than paint­ings and rugs) con­vey their own­er’s social stand­ing (“beyond its desir­abil­i­ty as a beau­ti­ful, shiny, and mal­leable met­al, sil­ver indi­cat­ed that peo­ple had mon­ey to waste”) and served to solid­i­fy mar­riage arrange­ments. They could also serve as liv­ing memo­ri­als” to fam­i­ly mem­bers of suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions who pos­sessed and uti­lized them for rit­u­al and dis­play purposes.

Mar­riage, heir­looms, and fam­i­ly his­to­ries also play a cen­tral role in the book’s most fas­ci­nat­ing chap­ter, Por­traits in Ivory,” which, through an analy­sis of the com­po­si­tion and genre of ivory minia­tures, demon­strates how one’s race could quite lit­er­al­ly change col­or. It chron­i­cles the man­ner by which Sarah Rodrigues Bran­don, born a slave in Bar­ba­dos, became Sarah Bran­don Moses, an heiress mar­ried in Lon­don’s bevis Marks syn­a­gogue whose ivory depic­tion seems to por­tray her as white and whose chil­dren (she gave birth to nine before dying in New York at age thir­ty) served in the Civ­il War, went to med­ical school, and became the pres­i­dent of New York’s Con­gre­ga­tion Shearith Israel (whose records were used exten­sive­ly in Leib­man’s research).

Anoth­er of the book’s chap­ters cen­ters upon the afore­men­tioned com­mon­place books, which, though no longer com­mon, pre­fig­ured today’s social media land­scape, con­tain­ing as our feeds do now, an assort­ment of learned reflec­tions, opin­ions, poet­ry, and draw­ings offered by the own­er as well as friends, neigh­bors, and acquaintances.

The last sec­tion dives into a par­tic­u­lar fam­i­ly’s cut sil­hou­ette, which washed ashore after the ship­wreck of the artist (who sur­vived and gift­ed his work to his gen­er­ous hosts). In it, Leib­man demon­strates how a fam­i­ly’s reli­gious prac­tices, chil­dren’s aspi­ra­tions, and Ortho­dox fem­i­nism can all be gleaned from the sim­ple-look­ing ren­der­ing of its members.

Though Leib­man admits much is still unfor­tu­nate­ly unknown about the intri­ca­cies of wom­en’s lives in ear­ly Amer­i­can his­to­ry, her vol­ume is a wel­come, infor­ma­tive, and fas­ci­nat­ing attempt to fill at least some of those gaps.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

Discussion Questions

Amer­i­can Jew­ish Studies

From the moment this book opens as Judith de Mere­da steps off a creaky deck” and into mud­dy streets,” we know that we are in the hands of a ter­rif­ic writer. In this bril­liant­ly researched and rich­ly illus­trat­ed book, we jour­ney to New York City in the cen­tu­ry between 1750 and 1850. There our guide, Lau­ra Leib­man, dis­cov­ers objects — peti­tions for finan­cial assis­tance, sil­ver cups that became fam­i­ly heir­looms, a por­trait, a com­mon­place book, and a sil­hou­ette. These become her spring­boards for recon­struct­ing the lives of their orig­i­nal own­ers: five Jew­ish women. Through their col­lec­tive biogra­phies we encounter the rich diver­si­ty of ear­ly America’s Jews — Sephardic and Ashke­naz­ic, rich and poor, enslaved and slave­hold­ing. Using quo­tid­i­an objects, not marked­ly Jew­ish, Leib­man brings out of the shad­ows of the past lives miss­ing in the paper trails of archives. She dis­cov­ers America’s Jew­ish women shap­ing the emo­tion­al land­scape of Amer­i­can Judaism.” More­over, her path­break­ing vol­ume com­mands that atten­tion be paid to mate­r­i­al cul­ture in future writ­ing about Amer­i­can Jew­ish history.

His­to­ry

The Art of the Jew­ish Fam­i­ly: A His­to­ry of Women in Ear­ly New York in Five Objects by Lau­ra Arnold Leib­man, pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish and human­i­ties at Reed Col­lege, is root­ed in the aca­d­e­m­ic study of mate­r­i­al cul­ture.” Here, the objects under scruti­ny are a let­ter, a sil­ver beaker, an ivory minia­ture, a com­mon­place book, and a por­trait. But they are only the start­ing point for a deeply insight­ful and illu­mi­nat­ing saga that allows us to meet and know five women who have, as the author puts it, disappear[ed] from the archives.” It’s a mea­sure of the author’s gifts, both as a schol­ar and as a sto­ry­teller, that we come to know these women, their fam­i­lies, and the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in which they lived with aston­ish­ing clar­i­ty and inti­ma­cy. Leib­man rich­ly deserves the wide­spread acclaim — and, even more so, the affec­tion — that her remark­able book has attracted.

Wom­en’s Studies

What do the objects in our lives reveal about us, our fam­i­lies, and the var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties of which we are a part? What will they com­mu­ni­cate to future his­to­ri­ans? In her inno­v­a­tive and rich­ly illus­trat­ed book, Lau­ra Arnold Leib­man rais­es these ques­tions in rela­tion to select­ed arti­facts, each of which once belonged to a Jew­ish woman who lived part of her life in New York City between 1750 and 1850. Through these objects, Leib­man con­structs the biogra­phies of five indi­vid­u­als whose diverse sto­ries illu­mi­nate the expe­ri­ences of ear­ly Jew­ish Amer­i­can women.

Leibman’s employ­ment of mate­r­i­al cul­ture enlarges our under­stand­ing of lived Judaism. In shift­ing the focus from the syn­a­gogue to the domes­tic set­ting, she uncov­ers the mul­ti­ple cul­tur­al res­o­nances that con­tin­u­ous­ly enrich and also sub­tly recon­fig­ure Jew­ish life. Among Leibman’s five select­ed objects are a wed­ding gift of sil­ver beakers designed by eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry sil­ver­smith Myer Myers, famous for his rit­u­al objects; an ivory minia­ture por­trait from 1815 belong­ing to a Jew­ish woman who was born a slave in Bar­ba­dos; and a mid-nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry com­mon­place book, filled with obser­va­tions, quo­ta­tions, and images from its mid­dle-class owner’s social net­work of rel­a­tives and friends. In each instance, Leib­man admirably demon­strates how these arti­facts voice the aspi­ra­tions, val­ues, and con­tri­bu­tions of Jew­ish Amer­i­can women of the eigh­teenth and nine­teenth centuries.