This guest post is by Manuscript Division archivist Elizabeth Livesey and is the latest in an occasional series that looks behind the scenes at the work of Manuscript Division staff.
The life of my grandmother, Celia Kemeny (née Soble), particularly captivated me as a child, and it is perhaps partly to her credit that I work as an archivist today. A true matriarch, grandma “Ceil,” as she was known, was quite a force. Quick-witted and sharp-tongued, she had little patience for things and people she deemed unworthy of her time. From what I remember, she was besotted by books, travel, her bridge and mah jongg groups, the Miami Dolphins, and in spurts, us, her family. She could be critical, and had high expectations for others and especially for herself; of her many attributes, her strong sense of self and self-worth was paramount in my eyes. I both deeply admired and feared her. She lived far away, which meant I didn’t see much of her, but my mother and I would travel to Miami, Florida, to visit her for a week or so each summer. As she was approaching ninety years of age, these weeks passed at a slow and gentle pace, punctuated only by short visits to the beach, her favorite Cuban restaurant or Jewish deli, and afternoons spent picking mangoes from the tree in her backyard. And, for as long as she would tolerate it, we would also sift through her personal papers in an attempt to “get it all down.”
Our process was not entirely unlike the work I do today in the Manuscript Division: we’d open up a crumbling cardboard box and tediously sort through hundreds of loose photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, and other personal files. The photographs were always my favorite. Unlike my work today, however, where the collections I process have already been separated from their creators, there we had my grandmother across the dining room table to guide our work. My mother and I would take turns holding up old prints: posed portraits from the 1920s or 1930s, unlabeled and with worn corners, or mid-century Polaroids from her family’s time living in Cuba or Chile or Hungary, in the hopes of jogging her memory. Most of the time she could share a story or identify a family member or friend. My mother and I would scribble down notes or write a name or a date on the back of a print, sorting items by decade.
Aside from the hundreds of loose photographs and letters we uncovered, we also found a few brittle newspaper clippings related to my grandmother’s tenure as a member, and later, as the president of the Miami chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) in the 1950s and 1960s. Regrettably, we asked fewer questions about this work and learned little about the types of projects to which she contributed. When she died in 2007, we inherited her NCJW gavel, as well as the crumbling box of her papers. While the majority of her files have since been sorted and identified, many questions remain unanswered.
By happenstance, in 2022, I received a compelling processing assignment here in the Manuscript Division: two additions to our National Council of Jewish Women collections—the records of both their national office and of the Washington, D.C., office. Some fifteen years after my last visit to my grandmother’s house in Miami, it felt as if I had been given an opportunity to answer some of our questions.
In processing these two large additions (some 85,000 items total), I learned that NCJW describes their organization as “the oldest Jewish women’s grassroots organization in the country,” founded in 1893. At present, it has roughly 210,000 members and 60 sections across 30 states. Over its nearly 130-year history, NCJW’s campaigns, lobbying efforts, and community service projects have influenced a large number of progressive issues, including abortion access, maternal and infant health care, childcare, immigrant aid, child labor laws, religious education, reproductive justice, support to victims of domestic violence, opposition to antisemitism, international relief work, racial and gender equity, and peace initiatives. Among the organization’s many projects were a permanent NCJW immigrant aid station on Ellis Island, New York, established in 1905; the German-Jewish Children’s Aid Society in 1938; and in 1945, the Ship-A-Box program, which sent toys, books, and educational materials to Jewish children in Europe. After the war, NCJW opened settlement homes for young women victimized by the Nazis in Athens, Greece, and Paris, France, and it also provided funding to establish the Department of Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Other projects included the publication of Windows on Day Care (1972), an innovative national survey of day care services, and the establishment of the Center for the Child research institute in New York.
While immersing myself in the organizational history of the NCJW, I came to learn that Ceil was representative of the women NCJW served. In a way, the NCJW project files provide a written record of other aspects of her life not referenced in her personal papers or that were rarely mentioned aloud. Born in 1911, Celia Rebecca Soble was the eldest daughter of Russian Jews, Fannie Oberman and Frank Soble, who had fled pogroms and immigrated to Philadelphia in 1905. Her parents were poor, spoke Yiddish, and were mostly illiterate; Frank worked as a hatter and Fannie in domestic service. Desperate, and without any other resources or options, Fannie sought out more than one abortion, and after Frank died of tuberculosis in 1921, she drank. My grandmother was shuttled off to different family members in New York and Chicago who were slightly better off, yet was still obliged to leave high school early to work at the onset of the Great Depression. By 1947, she had married Marvin Nudelmann, had a son, divorced, and remarried Emery Kemeny, a Hungarian immigrant and Holocaust refugee. In the 1950s, Ceil gave birth to another son and a daughter (my mother), all while juggling her own work and the financial peaks and valleys of my grandfather’s import-export business. Her childhood was marked by instability, as well as emotional and sexual abuse, and adulthood brought the added pressures of raising a family alongside sexist and ageist discrimination in the workplace. She was, in a word, a woman; more specifically, she was a Jewish American woman. As evidenced by the NCJW records, her story was all too common.
While processing the collection, I leafed through many issues of NCJW’s Council Woman, a monthly periodical that covered national projects and events, as well as the occasional brief blurb from local chapters. I wasn’t at all sure I’d find mention of Ceil, but I perused the journals for notes from Miami members nonetheless. Dozens of issues proved fruitless, but I finally happened upon the April 1954 publication, which was likely the year she joined the NCJW after coming to Miami from Cuba. Sure enough, I found a single mention of the Miami chapter and a small accompanying photograph, labeled “Service to foreign born volunteers of Miami section in court to welcome first of 500 newly-naturalized citizens.” While none of the volunteers are identified, my grandmother is unmistakable, even as she appears partially obscured from view in this small and grainy photograph. Her smile, to me, indicates a sense of pride in her work and contributions, a sentiment I often feel when reflecting on her life and legacy.
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