Looking for Sylvia Heschel at the Archive

As I wrote in my previous post, I spent the last week perusing the Abraham Joshua Heschel Papers at Duke University.

One of my major goals of the trip was to glean as much information as I could about Sylvia Heschel (nee Straus), Abraham Joshua Heschel’s wife. I knew very little about Sylvia Heschel before going to the archive – I knew she was a concert pianist, but not much more than that.

One of my favorite books on American Judaism is called The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture 1880-1950 by Jenna Joselit Weissman. One of the things she does throughout the book is look towards pieces of material culture often overlooked by more traditional scholarship. This hermeneutic of “uncovering” previously under- or un-studied material often looks towards “women’s things”: cookbooks, synagogue gift shops, matchmaking practices, etc.

In a chapter of this book about home decorations and furnishings called Home Sweet Haym, Joselit Weissman writes:

“Most extant American Judaica [at the time, pre-WWI] possessed little aesthetic appeal; fashioned out of cheap materials like tin and inexpensive fabrics like “sleazy” white satin, American Judaica simply didn’t lend itself to being proudly displayed. […One rabbi] witheringly compared the willingness of Christian Americans to spend lavishly on Christmas tree decorations while ‘the average Jew… contends himself with the fifteen-cent tin Menorah.’ Not everyone, however, was contend with the apparent triumph of this neutral idiom of home décor. […] Seeking to make as much room for King David as for Louis Quatorse, Jewish public figures like Mathilde Schechter, a founder of the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism, and writers like Trude Weiss Rosmarin championed a new cultural understanding of style…”[1]

When I read Mathilde Schechter’s name in that paragraph above a little chill of excitement ran through me. Mathilde Schechter, beyond being one of the founders of the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism, was married to Solomon Schechter. Solomon Schechter was a significant thinker of American Conservative Judaism, one-time president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and founder of the United Synagogue of America. (More about him can be found at the Jewish Virtual Library.)

What stunned me so much about the above quote from Joselit Weissman, then, is not only its focus on material Judaica, but how she talks about Mathilde Schechter. Mathilde isn’t immediately described as being the wife of Solomon Schechter! Instead, she and her work are written about as important in their own right to American Judaism. This, I thought to myself at the time, is important. The way we write about wives is important.

And so I had the idea to try and write something about Sylvia Heschel. So, while at the archive I pulled a lot of folders with her writings, notes, and personal effects.

It was thrilling. I felt like a detective. I started to feel close to Sylvia Heschel. I started to recognize the way she doodled in the margins of her notes. I recognized her handwriting. I looked at holiday cards she had saved, letters from her family, letters of congratulations when she married Abraham. I scanned in cards, letters, and her notes that I thought might be useful to me and my research later.

It wasn’t until I was at back at my hotel after a long day of scanning, reading and feeling that I realized what I had done.

***

“How was your day?” My husband asked me on the phone. (I, like Mathilde Schechter and Sylvia Heschel, am a wife.)

“Oh, fine. I’m a little concerned about all the things I didn’t scan in about Sylvia though. I think I sort of re-created a patriarchal approach to looking at Sylvia.”

“What?”

“Well, she had all these notes about music – she was a pianist, and took advanced classes at the Manhattan School of Music – but I couldn’t make heads or tails of the notes, they were handwritten and I don’t know music theory so I sort of concentrated my research and my scanning in things which were about her role as a wife and mother and I might have been discounting her scholarly work as unimportant. But maybe it is!”

“What kind of music theory was it?” My husband asked me, interested. “I know some of that, you know. And my dad does, too…”

“Well, I’ve already told them to take the box back to storage,” I said, resigned. “I think I’ll need to plow ahead and finish the original plan for my next day here…. Next time I’m back here maybe I’ll look at those notes again. She did have an essay about religious music I copied, but it was missing a page…”

***

The next day I was continuing to sift through more cards and letters to Sylvia. Many of the envelopes had little notes or doodles on them – she was a big doodler. I got into the habit of checking the envelopes to see if there were any significant doodles or notes on them when looking over the letters. I flipped over an envelope of one of them and saw a list. “Eggs, milk, bread,” the note read. A grocery list. Part of her life as a wife and mother, relegated to the in-between and transitory place of an opened envelope: scrap paper. I sighed, and wondered to myself how much of Sylvia Heschel was a wife and mother, how much of her was a pianist, how much of her was a student. All impossible questions.

And what would she think of me, a graduate student doing archival research for the first time in my life, worrying over one of her grocery lists?


[1] Joselit Weissman, Jenna. The Wonders of America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 194.

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