Laura Godfrey-Isaacs celebrates the powerful legacy of journaling by Jewish women and girls.
When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that’s a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer? — Anne Frank
A three hundred strong queue snakes itself around the streets leading up to The Anne Frank House – people from all over the world wait to explore the house where Anne and her family were in hiding from the Nazi occupation in Amsterdam for two years. Thirteen-year-old Anne was given a diary, shortly before she and her family went into hiding, and over the course of their incarceration, she developed her voice as a writer.
Now one of the most famous diaries in the world, The Diary of a Young Girl, resonates strongly – it speaks of the Jewish experience, but also of any person discriminated against, persecuted and erased due to who they are. It speaks of the power of writing and giving witness. However, it not only expresses Anne’s individual experience, charting her development as a writer and person, but it also articulates a wider narrative of war, displacement and fear.
Anne Frank’s diary is a key text we use as inspiration in Maternal Journal, an award-winning community-led movement I co-produce, with fellow mother and communication producer Samantha McGowan. Maternal Journal promotes the use of journaling to process the major life changes experienced by mothers and birth parents. We facilitate journaling groups worldwide, as well as a thriving online community, to encourage people to capture meaningful thoughts and experiences in a journal, to find their own creative voice and to develop a regular practice of journaling.
Furthermore, we’ve just published our first book, Maternal Journal – a creative guide to journaling through pregnancy, birth and beyond, which is jam-packed with ideas, inspiration and support from among others, including some amazing Jewish artists!
There is a rich history of female journaling which comes partly from it being one of the only sanctioned ways for women and girls to write, to be creative or to express social and political views in the past when professional engagement wasn’t permissible. We can see how, for Anne Frank, keeping a diary was an acceptable thing for a young girl to do, and yet she used it as a vehicle to not only document and reflect on her experiences but also to think about her reader and wanted to communicate what was happening to her, as well as to speculate about her possible future as a journalist and writer.
Some other key Jewish women have played a part in the history of journaling. At Maternal Journal we naturally focus on some important accounts of motherhood and parenting, such as by poet and writer Adrienne Rich, whose seminal diaristic memoir Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976), explores her own experiences alongside the cultural and anthropological meanings and contradictions of ‘motherhood’. Another important memoir in this genre, with a slightly more personal narrative, is The Mother Knot, written by US author and academic Jane Lazarre, also published in 1976. ‘As long as we have children and raise them—both badly and well, as we must—the story of the mother in her own voice will have to be told and retold. We will have to break the silence and break it again as we try to become real for our children and, at the same time, come more fully to understand our society and ourselves’, she writes.
Using visual language to explore her experiences, American artist Ida Applebroog, a mother of four, created a series of 100 sketchbook drawings entitled Mercy Hospital in 1969 whilst she was struggling with mental illness and receiving treatment at San Diego’s Mercy Hospital. Her work charts her time in the institution and investigates themes of gender politics, sexual identity, violence, power and domestic space in her familiar multimedia style. A number of these drawings were recently on display in the Freud Museum London, in 2020.
We highlight these important works in the Maternal Journal book in our ‘Explore’ section and continue the thread with contributions from some amazing contemporary Jewish artists. For example The Book of Sarah (2019), by UK artist, Sarah Lightman is a powerful graphic work hewn from thousands of diary drawings reflecting on religion, family, motherhood and creativity and we are proud to reproduce one of her images in our publication. In her most recent work, ‘Biblical Domestic’ (2021), she paints seemingly depressed Biblical women who have escaped Master Paintings, only to become trapped in her own household chores. These watercolour paintings, made during the COVID-19 pandemic, celebrate the artist’s increased hours of unpaid domestic labour during the lockdown as she managed her home and homeschooled her son whilst simultaneously critiquing central patriarchal tenets of art history.
Sophie Herxheimer, poet and artist, has recently created a new edition of Velkom to Inklandt, a series of poems written ‘in my grandmother’s Inklisch’ – her grandmother Leisel emigrated from Germany in 1938 – which talks of her preoccupation with alienation, survival, family, marriage and motherhood, whilst trying to settle in London as a refugee. Sophie has created a wonderful journaling guide, Poetry Collage, in the book.
I recently attended an event organised by poet Jill Abram, director of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, that put together a wonderful evening of contemporary Jewish women poets for the Tsitsit Festival in London. Here again, I witnessed some powerful personal, political and cultural reflections about motherhood and life as a Jewish woman including Sophie Herxheimer, alongside poets Jaqueline Saphra, Amy Acre, Rachel Clyne and Aviva Dautch.
I have also returned to my own visual arts practice and am working on an illustrated memoir which owes a lot to the inspiration I have gained through researching artists for the Maternal Journal book.
Overall, we have found a rich tradition of journaling amongst Jewish women and girls, which helps us understand their unique perspectives as well as the cultural frameworks of the times they live in.
You can buy the Maternal Journal book at all booksellers or through the publisher Pinter & Martin. The Maternal Journal website also has free journaling guides, a toolkit for setting up and running a Maternal Journal group and plenty of support and inspiration. Follow us on social media @maternaljrnl. Find out more about Laura on her website and social media @godfrey_isaacs.