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Museum Musings

3.10.16: Women’s History Month at NMAJH. And Please—Would it hurt to call your mother?

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There is much to kvell about at the National Museum of American Jewish history, but am particularly proud of what an excellent job we do of integrating women's history in our core exhibition. It makes perfect sense that we do, and our beloved academic advisors, Michael Berenbaum, Pamela Nadell, Jonathan Sarna, and Beth Wenger, wouldn't have had it any other way. It goes without saying that women are central to Jewish life, tradition, innovation, and continuity.

Imagine our core story, or American Jewish history, without Rebecca Gratz, Emma Lazarus, Henrietta Szold, Rose Schneiderman. Gertrude Berg/Molly Goldberg, Barbra Streisand, Golda Meir, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem…

Born to a Jewishly observant Philadelphia family, Rebecca Gratz used her family's prominence and resources to do good in society. She joined with the gentile elite to help establish the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances, which supported women whose families were suffering in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War. She also founded Jewish philanthropies including the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society. Perhaps most notably, we have her to thank for establishing, in 1838, Hebrew Sunday School and supplementary Jewish education.

The breathtaking Thomas Sully portrait of Rebecca Gratz that belongs to our colleagues at the Rosenbach Library is currently in a beautiful exhibition in Princeton. On occasion, we at NMAJH are privileged to borrow that portrait and exhibit it with other of her belongings, including her writing desk and her silver shoe buckles, designed by the great Jewish colonial silversmith, Myer Myers, both on view on the 4th Floor of the Museum.  

The Gratz family were active congregants at Mikveh Israel. When you visit NMAJH, make the short walk to the historic "synagogue of the Revolution." Rebecca and other Gratz family members are buried at the Mikveh Israel cemetery.

The poet Emma Lazarus is best known for her 1883 sonnet, The New Colossus, which graces the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty and is quoted from memory by many current immigrants and their descendants. She became an advocate for the Jews who sought refuge here as a result of the Russian pogroms. I highly recommend Esther Schor's fascinating and readable short biography on Lazarus. (Sold in our Store here.)

I had the distinct honor of having a conversation with Leonard Lauder for an intimate audience at the Museum a few months ago. Among the many topics discussed, perhaps none was as fascinating as his filial observations of his mother, Estee Lauder. Born to Hungarian immigrants, she helped concoct face creams on the same Upper West Side stove on which she prepared Leonard's lunch. Her date book in our Only in America/Hall of Fame Gallery confirms this confluence. In the same week she meets with scions of business and industry and reminds herself to buy matzoh for Seder. No working woman can see Estee's engagement calendar without a grin of recognition.

Celebrate Women's History Month by visiting the Museum to learn more about these any many other extraordinary individuals. And please-would it hurt to call your mother?

Our colleagues at Jewish Women's Archive do a fabulous job of documenting the important and ongoing contributions of Jewish women. Take the opportunity to learn more at

NMAJH docents offer a special women's-themed tour. Please see or call 215.923.3811 for more information.


Ivy L. Barsky

Chief Executive Officer and Gwen Goodman Director

National Museum of American Jewish History



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