Ear­li­er this week, Melis­sa R. Klap­per wrote about abor­tion and the com­plex­i­ty of halacha and 5 Amer­i­can Jew­ish women you’ve (prob­a­bly) nev­er heard of. She has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

At Rowan Uni­ver­si­ty in Glass­boro, NJ, where I teach, all would-be his­to­ry majors and minors are required to take (and pass – we’re stick­lers that way) a course called His­tor­i­cal Meth­ods. This class is a huge chal­lenge for both stu­dents and teach­ers, as it is writ­ing inten­sive and the stu­dents rarely come to it with much of an inter­est in his­to­ri­og­ra­phy, the­o­ry, or best prac­tices in terms of schol­ar­ship. To human­ize the issues, I tell tales of his­to­ri­ans behav­ing bad­ly — those who have pla­gia­rized, forged sources, cheat­ed — who paid the price for their pro­fes­sion­al malfea­sance. But as I learned while work­ing on my most recent book, a his­to­ry of Amer­i­can Jew­ish women in the suf­frage, birth con­trol and peace move­ments dur­ing the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, there are oth­er kinds of cau­tion­ary tales that should also be part of my repertoire.

Before I even began this book, I was already aware of at least two 1916 Yid­dish plays about birth con­trol, both of which are housed at the Library of Con­gress. I knew about them because the images of their front pages have often been repro­duced in accounts of Amer­i­can Jew­ry and because they have reg­u­lar­ly been referred to by schol­ars in the con­text of gen­er­al Jew­ish com­mu­nal sup­port for the birth con­trol move­ment. As I dove into the research for my book, I dis­cov­ered that appar­ent­ly no one had actu­al­ly ever trans­lat­ed these plays in full. My read­ing knowl­edge of Yid­dish, though ade­quate for Yid­dish peri­od­i­cals and the like, could not cope with the hand-writ­ten man­u­scripts of the plays, so with the help of a grant, I com­mis­sioned Nao­mi Shoshana Cohen to do the trans­la­tions. She and I dis­cussed my over­all project, and she set about the time-con­sum­ing task.

Imag­ine my sur­prise when, with each scene Nao­mi trans­lat­ed and sent to me, it became more and more appar­ent that nei­ther of these plays con­tained expres­sions of Jew­ish sup­port for birth con­trol. On the con­trary, both of the plays con­demned con­tra­cep­tion round­ly, and one of them was vicious­ly anti-fem­i­nist as well. While lit­er­al­ly hun­dreds of oth­er pri­ma­ry sources that I was find­ing did con­firm the Amer­i­can Jew­ish community’s over­all sup­port of the birth con­trol move­ment, the very exis­tence of these two plays helped demon­strate that pock­ets of resis­tance and ambiva­lence retained cul­tur­al cur­ren­cy and that, as is often the case, the full sto­ry was a com­plex one. My analy­sis of these plays turned into a schol­ar­ly arti­cle and a major part of one of the book’s chap­ters on birth con­trol, and I learned a valu­able les­son. Mak­ing assump­tions based on the assump­tions of oth­er peo­ple, even dis­tin­guished schol­ars, is hard­ly in the same cat­e­go­ry of the egre­gious his­to­ri­ans’ sins I tell my His­tor­i­cal Meth­ods stu­dents about. But it is a mis­take nonethe­less, and one that I am now more attuned to and try to teach my stu­dents to avoid. The historian’s mantra of going direct­ly to the sources remains the best advice for stu­dents, enthu­si­asts, and pro­fes­sion­als alike. 

Melis­sa R. Klap­per’s new book, Bal­lots, Babies, and Ban­ners of Peace: Amer­i­can Jew­ish Wom­en’s Activism, 1890 – 1940, is now available.