By Ann D. Koffsky
Her paper is missing, and it’s driving me crazy.
Let me back up. My grandmother was Ada Goldberg Gertz, a’h. (1908-2001) She was an extraordinary woman. In addition to raising her family in Baltimore, Md, she also attended Johns Hopkins University (one of the first women to do so) got a masters in linguistics, and taught in public schools and then at the Torah Academy for many, many years. She had a warm Baltimorian accent and a talent for telling a really good story. My brothers and I called her Granny.
According to my family’s mesorah, as a masters student, Granny wrote a paper about Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov movement. Do you know what that means? She wrote an academic paper about Sarah Schenirer at a time when she was able to interview Sara’s students directly—everyone was still alive! Those stories were shared with her as a living, oral history. She got to document firsthand accounts of the incredible, pioneering women who shaped the character of Jewish education.
But we can’t find the paper.
Sometimes, I think of my parent’s home as an archeological site. It has layers of history within it. My grade-school art projects compete for space with a copies of Life Magazines, such as the one announcing Israel’s victory in the Six Day War and mountains of books and ancient Fisher Price toys. My Mom—AKA the chief archeologist—will sometimes show up at my home with the latest treasure she’s dug up from the sands, er, piles in the basement. Just last week, Mom shared some chunky plastic necklaces with me that Granny used to wear with lively, matching earrings. (I think they’re actually back in style…)
And the paper? Still missing.
That lost treasure is nowhere to be found. I gave up hoping, and moved on. Sort of. While Granny’s paper was still hiding somewhere, I was determined to reconstruct her work, rediscover the story of Sarah that my grandmother had so carefully documented and share it with the next generation. I couldn’t think of a better group of women for my daughter to know more about, and look up to as role models.
But how does one dig up a story that’s been lost? As I contemplated this, I was lucky enough to find something—or someone—else. I found Leslie.
Dr. Leslie Ginsparg-Klein reminds me of my Granny, (I hope you don’t mind me saying so, Leslie.) She has a fierce devotion to education, as my Granny did. Lives in Baltimore, in the same neighborhood as my Granny did. Unlike my grandmother, Leslie couldn’t interview those women in person. But she could, and did, read their diaries and intensively research their stories for her doctoral dissertation that focused on Sarah Schenirer and the origins of the Bais Yaakov movement.
Together, Leslie and I decided to share Sarah’s story with the next generation. No longer would Sarah’s incredible story be at risk of getting trapped in the sands of a basement or limited to the world of academia. Instead, it would be written, illustrated, and shared with young children. I am proud to say that it is now on the pages of a new book, authored by myself and Leslie titled Sarah Builds A School. I think Granny would be proud, too.
Long after we had completed the project, I stopped in Baltimore, and Leslie and I met for dinner with my family. As I munched on a (quite good!) hamburger, and we played a classic game of Jewish geography.
We discovered that our fathers learned in the Yeshiva of Chicago together.
I felt the tangible weight of history closing in. Our fathers had learned Torah together. My daughter, Adira, who is named for my grandmother, was sitting next to me as we discovered this. I felt the generations winking at us.
Yes, I have dedicated the book to my Granny—and to my mother as well.
Sarah Schenirer lived in Kraków, Poland. When she was growing up, there were no Jewish schools for girls. Sarah had a dream. She wanted to start her very own school. But the girls weren’t interested. What could Sarah do? How would she succeed? Sarah Builds a School tells the inspiring story of a great woman who changed the face of Jewish education for girls in the last century. Children will love this level ed reader and enjoy its delightful illustrations