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

  • Review
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