Just over a year ago, my imagination was captured by a picture I found in Irving Abella’s book A Coat of Many Colours. Taken somewhere in the Maritimes during World War II, it shows approximately 200 Jewish servicemen sitting at long tables in a hall, attending a Passover seder.
However, in that sea of faces, I could only find a single woman. I wondered about the women not included in that photo. Women likely cooked the food that night, probably women from synagogue sisterhoods or Hadassah, or a group of women from the community who came together to ensure Jewish soldiers were able to have a kosher seder. Who were the women involved in creating that seder? Moreover, where are the Jewish women who were involved in the war effort, period? If you’re one of those women, or if your mother was one, I need your help.
Very few researchers have asked how a woman’s religion affected the work she chose to do. Scholars such as Ruth Roach Pierson and Jeff Keshen have explored what kinds of work women did on the home front in World War II, such as working in factories as men left to go overseas. Others, such as Carolyn Gossage, have investigated the role of enlisted women. However, most writers who have dealt with that time period have treated women as one undifferentiated group, ignoring how parts of their identities aside from gender affected their choices. But as the seder picture described above shows, Jewish women often chose work that was influenced specifically by their Jewishness. It is this influence that I am exploring.
Important knowledge is slipping away from us. Since women’s work and experiences have rarely been considered interesting or important, few people have asked about them. While work done on the history of the Jews in Canada has given researchers a lot of knowledge about the Jewish community in general, about specific Jewish communities across the country and a few, particular men, there is very little information about Canadian Jewish women. However, the very little we know about Jewish women’s experiences on the home front during the war hints at some fascinating experiences.
For example, in his book Branching Out: The Transformation of the Canadian Jewish Community, Gerald Tulchinsky outlines how women in Halifax organized and ran a kosher canteen for Jewish soldiers. Women’s groups such as Hadassah raised money for British hospitals in what was then called Palestine. Young Jewish women often attended dances organized for Jewish servicemen when they had leave. Though Jewish women often did much of the same work that non-Jewish women did, their Jewishness enriched their lives and experiences in many unique ways.
My research seeks to fill the gaps in our knowledge by uncovering the experiences of Jewish women and girls during the war. Were you one of the women cooking those holiday meals or hosting soldiers for Rosh Hashanah? Or were you one of the many Jewish women who went to work for the first time during the war? What did it mean to be a Jewish working woman? Was there a special obligation as Jewish women to do such work? For what reasons? If you were a girl at the time, what experiences did you have that were shaped by your Judaism? In other words, what was it like to be a Jewish woman or girl during World War II?
To answer these questions, I’m collecting and analyzing oral histories of Canadian Jewish women who were active on the home front or were girls during the war. I’m also interested in speaking with children of such women about their mothers’ work during that time.
Help us learn more about the history of Jewish women in Canada, so that our daughters and granddaughters know about the amazing women who came before them. If you’re interested, contact me at 780-237-0566, or by email at [email protected]
Jennifer Lander is a third-year PhD student in the department of women’s studies and feminist research at the University of Western Ontario.