Women's objects through history

On Friday afternoon, Nov. 20, Laura Leibman joined the Fern and Manfred Steinfeld Program in Judaic Studies at UT to give a talk on her book “The Art of the Jewish Family: A History of Women in Early New York in Five Objects.”

In this book, she shares the stories of five different women and their families who all lived in New York between the years 1750 and 1850. She does this to get their stories and history out to an audience that, otherwise, may not have known who they were.

Leibman gave a presentation that served as an overview of her book that was split into five chapters. Each chapter was dedicated to a certain object and the woman behind it.

There was a letter from Hannah Louzada asking for financial assistance during the winter, a set of silver beakers that were owned by Reyna Levy Moses that were passed down to her daughter Sally, a miniature ivory portrait of a slave turned into one of the wealthiest women in New York named Sarah Brandon Moses, a commonplace book owned by Sarah Ann Hays Mordecai and a family silhouette of Jane Seymour Isaacs and her family.

Leibman said that sharing these objects were important to her because women have been silenced for too long, especially when looking at the images of men on a kiddish cup and a teacup which was more feminine and was ritualistic in the sense that this is what women would use daily rather than men.

The teacup was also broken -- showing the fragmentation of women.

“It emphasized the way that the previous little fragment wasn’t just a random thing, but many of the things I was finding about women were fragments, even in the literal sense (in regards to the teacup) or were fragments in the sense that they were missing some of their history,” Leibman said.

This made her wonder more about the methodical issue of women’s stories being fragmented and silenced.

Leibman also said towards the end of her presentation that even now “female academics are still silenced.”

She went through each object and told the audience about the object as well as the women behind them.

Leibman discussed disabilities and education, and how some women were seen as uneducated when they were just educated differently depending on their secular beliefs and identities.

She further explained how slavery and racism were shown through art, how social standings were portrayed, how things were passed through the family or dictated to a certain family member, how women wanted to learn more outside of Jewish teachings as well as the importance of independence in this time.

Leibman ended her presentation with a question and answer session where many people, including UT’s faculty, asked questions regarding some of the objects and their meanings as well as how Leibman was able to work with museum curators to collect all of her information and material.

This event was moderated by professor Helene Sinnreich of the Department of Religious Studies and she spoke on how much she loved the book and that she was glad that Leibman was able to bring her presentation to UT.

“I am so grateful that you came and presented this material with us. … It is a new and interesting way to tell history,” Sinnreich said.

Leibman has written other books and has focused on Native American history as well as Indigenous writings in Mexico. She is also a professor of English and humanities at Reed College.

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