Author Laura Leibman in conversation with Jonathan Sarna and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, moderated by Dean Peter N. Miller, to celebrate the publication of The Art of the Jewish Family: A History of Women in Early New York in Five Objects.

In order to rethink early Jewish American women’s lives, The Art of the Jewish Family examines five objects owned by Jewish women who lived at least a portion of their lives in early New York between 1750 and 1850. Each chapter creates a biography of a single woman through her object, but also uses her story to shed light on larger changes in Jewish American women’s lives. The women Leibman discusses are diverse: some rich, some poor; some Sephardi, some Ashkenazi; some born enslaved, and some who were slave owners themselves. In creating these biographies, Leibman proposes a new methodology for early American Jewish women’s history, one which could be applied to other areas in Jewish history for which records on women are sparse. This method looks at both material objects and fragmentation as important evidence for understanding the past. What social and religious structures, Leibman asks, caused early Jewish women to disappear from the archives?

The objects she considers span the 1750s through the 1850s. They are (1) a letter written in 1761 by an impoverished Hannah Louzada requesting assistance from Congregation Shearith Israel; (2) a famous set of silver cups owned by Reyna Levy Moses (1753-1824); (3) a beautiful ivory miniature of Sarah Brandon Moses (1798-1829), who was born enslaved in Barbados but became one of the wealthiest Jewish women in New York; (4) a commonplace book created by Sarah Ann Hays Mordecai (1805-1894); and (5) a family silhouette of Rebbetzin Jane Symons Isaacs (1823-1884) and her young brood.

Looking past texts to material culture, Leibman expands our ability to understand early Jewish American women’s lives and restores some of their agency as creators of Jewish identity. While the vast majority of early American texts about Jewish women were written by men with men as the primary intended audience, objects made for and by Jewish women help us consider women as consumers and creators of identity. Everyday objects provide windows into those women’s daily lives, highlighting what they themselves valued, how they wanted their contemporaries to see and understand them, and how they passed identity on to their children and grandchildren.

Art of the Jewish Family is published in Cultural Histories of the Material World, a series dedicated to publishing monographs, works in translation, and collective project volumes that mark out the frontiers of BGC’s knowledge map. All books derived from the Leon Levy Foundation lectures in Jewish Material Culture will be published in this series.

“This is a pathbreaking volume by a master scholar.” –Jonathan Sarna, author of American Judaism: A History

The Art of the Jewish Family is an elegantly written, astonishingly researched, and persuasively argued collective biography of five early American, New York Jewish women… From the moment that the book opens, we know that we are in the hands of a terrific writer… Leibman’s detailed analyses of the messages encoded in the objects is brilliant… Given the power of the material and the grace of the writing, I would hope that this book would reach beyond scholars to the significantly wider audience of those outside the academy who are deeply interested in early American history… I am in awe of Leibman’s accomplishment.” –Pamela Nadell, author of America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today
This book was published with generous support from the Leon Levy Foundation, the David Berg Foundation, and donors to Bard Graduate Center.