Jewish thought

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.

Time and Authenticity in Visions and Images of Abraham Joshua Heschel

[7 minute read]

“Can we have snack right now? When we get back to the classroom?”

“We usually have snack at 10:00 or 10:30am. It’s only 9:30am now. Don’t you think you’ll want it later?” I ask one of my students doubtfully, walking beside him as we head towards the seventh-grade classroom at Temple Concord. We have just come from T’fila – the communal thirty-minute prayer-time that begins weekly Sunday school.

“I’m hungry now! Can I have two snacks? One now, one later at 10:30am?” the student continues. Twelve-and-thirteen-year-olds have a fast metabolism.

“Maybe. We will see if there is enough…” I say, hoping that there will be enough snacks for those who want two. Sure enough, there is – most of the students don’t want an extra snack. I hand over the snack-sized bags of pretzels for the hungrier students and begin the class. We are talking about the Holocaust today.

As I ushered my students down the hallway of the religious school wing at Temple Concord, we passed the following poster:

intro

Masters Series©2012, Paula Scher, Quote: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Harold Grinspoon Foundation, West Springfield, MA.

Most days I walked by it unawares, busy with telling students not to run or going over the lesson plan for the day in my head. But it was always there, something that we looked forwards and upwards towards, metaphorically and literally.

The poster depicts a partial photograph of a man walking, with the quote “When I marched in Selma, I felt as though my feet were praying” offset to one side. The quote is by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, speaking about his involvement in, and experience with the famous Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965.

Abraham Joshua Heschel was a prolific writer and thinker, and an important figure to postwar American Judaism. Born in Poland to an important Hasidic family, he was able to escape the Holocaust by way of a visa program organized by Julian Morgenstern, the then-president of the Reform rabbinical college, the Hebrew Union College (for more information, see this link or Edward K. Kaplan and Samuel Dresner’s biography Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness. Information about this book here). Once in America, Heschel taught at the Hebrew Union College and later the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and wrote many influential works about Judaism and religion.

My dissertation projects seeks, in part, to understand how and why the memory of Heschel’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement is so important to contemporary American Jews. This poster, produced by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s Voices and Visions projects, is part of a series of posters sold (and in some cases donated) to Jewish communal organizations internationally. Under the tab “Our Vision” on the Voices and Visions website, the site reads “Voices & Visions is about art, about powerful messages, about combining them into posters, about starting conversations, about continuing the Jewish journey” (see this link for more). This poster, created by Paula Scher, is therefore intended to help Jews to “continue their Jewish journey” by way of having transformational conversations and experiences reflecting on the artwork and quote in the poster. The site contains background information and a “conversation guide” for Jewish educators who want to incorporate the poster into a lesson plan (see this link for more). The poster, then, is supposed to not only be a testament to the memory of Heschel’s involvement in the civil rights movement, but is also intended to influence contemporary Jews to think about and reflect upon their Jewish identity in some way.

*_*_*_*

I started this blog post intending to do a visual reading of this poster. A wrench was thrown into my original plan when I realized I had never asked myself an obvious, foundational question about Scher’s graphic art. Does the poster actually use an image of Heschel at the march? Is that really Heschel on the poster? What does it mean if it is? And, perhaps more importantly, what does it mean if it is not?

The most well-known photo of Heschel at the march can be found at this link. In it, a white-haired and bearded Heschel stands between Ralph Bunche and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stands in between Ralph Bunch and Ralph Albernathy (one person away from Heschel). Heschel’s right foot is in exactly the same position as the foot in the poster, albeit seen from another angle. However, in the historical photograph, Heschel is wearing a coat and his arms are linked with his fellow protestors, not simply hanging down as is the case with the poster.

This leads me to conclude that this image is not taken from a photograph of Heschel himself, unless it was taken from a later photograph. (Heschel passed away well before the creation of this poster, in 1972. This poster was made in 2012.)

When I saw the poster for the first time, I assumed it was of Heschel. However, I was a bit of a specialized audience member – I had already graduated with an M.A. in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (where Heschel worked himself!) and was therefore accustomed to seeing pictures of him in hallways. I was also already familiar with the quote and Heschel’s involvement in the Selma-Montgomery march.

But for those people not already-in-the-know about the historical background of the quote, the poster may be less clearly about a rabbi named Heschel (the attribution of the quote is quite small on the poster itself).

What is clear on the photo is that the quote is important, and furthermore, that the quote is a quote. The quotation marks are quite large – larger and bolder, in fact, than any of the words themselves! The important thing is that this is a historical quote, that someone from the Jewish community (perhaps it doesn’t even matter who, it matters that it was someone) said this and was therefore at the march in Selma. The graphic of the partial man marching looks old-fashioned (indeed, old-fashioned enough to make me initially think it was an altered photo of Heschel!), also signaling to the viewer the importance of the past-tense-ness of the poster. However, cyan and magenta lines rocket off the borders of the graphic of the man and of the quote, shattering the clean lines of image and making it almost difficult to stare at for too long a period. While this certainly doesn’t make the poster look vintage or of the 1960s, it still doesn’t look quite modern, either. The effect is alluring yet jarring as the temporal setting of the photo is destabilized and the poster becomes hard to look at for a sustained period of time – like a Magic Eye that your eyes just won’t “lock onto” correctly. This happened in our community’s past, the poster seems to whisper (remember, the poster is intended for a primarily Jewish audience) and it can happen again, as well.

I don’t know if any of my 7th-grade Sunday School students took the time to look and reflect on the poster as they passed by it on their way from the sanctuary to the classroom. I’m a bit embarrassed now to admit that I never incorporated the poster into any of my lesson plans. However, I noticed it, and it had a transformational effect on me, at least – it helped me choose the topic of my dissertation.


Maria Carson is a Dissertation Fellow at the Humanities Center at Syracuse University. She is a PhD Candidate in the Religion department at Syracuse University, working on her dissertation about the life, thought, and political activism of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Her work blends together cultural studies, affect theory, and Jewish thought and cultural studies. She has an M.A. in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, a B.A. in Religious Studies from DePaul University, and a B.F.A. in Theatre Management from The Theatre School at DePaul University.