History, Shared

By Betsy More

On a blustery afternoon in late October, I sat down with Dr. Ellen Singer More in her study in Worcester, Massachusetts. Dr. More is a historian of women in medicine, an emeritus professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and my mother. I was there to test out a new oral history collecting mobile app, Story Aperture, which the Jewish Women’s Archive recently launched.

Story Aperture puts the power of documenting women’s stories in the palm of your hand. With the app, people of all genders and ages can capture and preserve the stories of the women in their lives: from the origins of grandma’s famous recipe, to mom’s passion for philanthropy, to a fellow activist’s tales from recent protests, to one’s personal survival of sexual harassment.

Everything we do at JWA is rooted in the belief that Jewish women’s stories matter. Our website chronicles thousands of Jewish women who have made significant contributions throughout history. We created Story Aperture because we know that the stories of everyday courageous, visionary, loving, engaged, and complex Jewish women also deserve to be shared. The act of documenting and sharing these stories not only allows us a better understanding of ourselves, but of the world around us.

But first, we needed to test the app, and my mother graciously agreed to be my guinea pig. I didn’t expect to be surprised by our conversation; my mother and I have always been close. I, too, am a historian of women and gender, and our shared devotion to the project of recovering and teaching about the lives of women throughout American history has led to countless conversations about her past. So I assumed that the value of this interview would lie primarily in the act of recording stories I already knew.

But even before I hit record, it became clear that the process of a structured interview would open up areas of her life about which I’d never known. We talked about how her gender had affected her career, how her life’s work fit into her understanding of activism, and what topics were still too tender for her to discuss on tape.

Perhaps most surprising to me was that this conversation opened a window into her Jewishness. My own upbringing was not religious. My mother is cheerfully and emphatically secular; my childhood observance was limited to a few visits to our local Reform temple on the High Holidays. Yet, guided by the suggested prompts in the app, we discussed what it meant to be in an interfaith marriage earlier in her life, how her Jewish identity shaped her experiences in academia, and the fact that, however secular she might be, Jewishness has always been a core aspect of her life history and family roots.

One of the most revelatory exchanges concerned my grandmother’s work outside the home. My mother’s mother, Dorothy Cooperman Singer (1906-1999), worked as a buyer for prominent department stores in New York City in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. In that period, it was unusual – and often stigmatized – for white, married mothers to work outside the home full-time. While their relationship was a complicated one, my mother recalled that growing up, she was profoundly influenced by her mother’s love for her career. Having a mother work outside the home in an “intentional” way, for satisfaction and identity in addition to a salary, enabled my mom to envision a life for herself that didn’t require choosing between her professional aspirations and her desire to be a mother.

Interviewing my mother with Story Aperture didn’t just help preserve the memories of a woman who was a pioneer in her field. The process of interviewing her also deepened my understanding of how she got there, and how I got to where I am today. And our relationship is richer for it.

Betsy More, Ph.D., is Director of Programs at the Jewish Women’s Archive, engaging educators, community members, and JWA’s worldwide audience with history that inspires. For more information about JWA’s new story-collecting mobile app, Story Aperture or to inquire about bringing Story Aperture to your community, visit jwa.org/stories or contact Shira Kraft, Senior Director of Communications and Development.