Thursday, March 10, 2016

Jeannette Gabriel, a 2013 Graduate Institute Fellow and a PhD candidate in Teaching and Learning, has been crisscrossing the state in an attempt to document a disappearing community.

As a graduate research assistant in the Iowa Women's Archives, Gabriel is currently the backbone of the Jewish Women in Iowa Project. This special project was initiated by Joan Lipsky, a former Iowa state representative, attorney and heir to Cedar Rapid’s famous Smulekoff’s furniture business. Lipsky believed that Jewish women have made important and unnoticed contributions throughout Iowa, especially in small towns where only one or two Jewish families resided. In 2013, she made a major gift to the IWA in order to fund a graduate research assistantship.

Building Trust, Building a Collection

Based on her own Jewish background growing up in a Catholic town in Wisconsin, Jeannette has connected to and developed deep personal relationships with a group of amazing women and dedicated families who have established rich collections to keep the memories of their loved ones alive and participate in documenting a previously unknown history. Working on the Jewish Women in Iowa Project has helped develop her understandings of historical memory and historical consciousness, which are central components to her history education research. In addition, Jeannette is deeply grateful and appreciative for the warmth and graciousness with which she has been received by the Jewish families and communities that have become part of this project.

Most of the Germany and Russian Jewish families that settled in Iowa have long since left. The project began with historical research to document the historic Jewish population trends in Iowa and seek out descendants who have family collections of photographs, diaries, letters, family trees, scrapbooks, recipes and much more. Making connections with families who still possess these archival items,  however, is not an easy job. It's one that takes time, perseverance, and in-person contact. Jeannette has built strong connections to Jewish communities in towns and cities throughout Iowa. She has also followed the migration of Jews out of Iowa to trace relatives in Minneapolis, Omaha, and beyond.

The Value of the Everyday

At the recent symposium, "Taking It to the Streets: Celebrating Ten Years of the Obermann Graduate Institute," Gabriel shared the experience of looking through a scrapbook with a 102-year old woman from Sioux City. As a girl, the woman had longed to go to college and meet new people, including - perhaps - a husband. But her family did not have the means for her to go and she stayed home. Ingeniously, she mimicked part of the collegiate life by forming a sorority and hosting parties with young men who had a fraternity. Community-based sororities and fraternities were a common practice among working class Jews of that generation. The scrapbook documented their parties and events. Gabriel was fascinated by it, and the woman was very moved that someone found her life and this piece of it to be of interest.

Special Talk

On March 24, Gabriel will give a talk about the project, "We Did So Much Beyond the Home:  Jewish Women and Community Life in Iowa." A reception will begin at 4:00 pm in the Iowa Women's Archives on the 3rd Floor of the Main Library; Gabriel's talk will start at 4:30 pm. To RSVP, please contact the Iowa Women's Archives at 319-335-5068