Ellana Schwartz


As Interviewed by Rachel Maltz, March 16, 2011

Ellana Schwartz: In Her Own Words

My name is Ellana Schwartz, and I was born in Boston, Massachusetts on November 10, 1942. I am of the Jewish religion. I am now retired, however I have been an elementary educator, a studio artist, a caterer and I’ve also been in the field of marketing, designing and writing marketing pieces for the housing division at UCLA. My mother was born in the United States, my father was born in Russia. My father’s mother and father came from Russia, my mother’s father was American, her mother was Lithuanian. I married Thomas Schwartz in 1964 and had two children, 1 boy and 1 girl. Rather than a political view, I have a world view. And that world view is that if everybody treated each other as they would like to be treated, the world would run more smoothly than it does today. I believe that everybody has the same human rights to food, clothing, shelter and friendship.

My grandparents were orthodox, but it was a time when the conservative movement was very popular, and it seemed to mesh well with living in America, so my parents were conservative.When I grew up, we were in an all Jewish neighborhood. Therefore, I wasn’t exposed to the “outside world“, you could say.

I was involved in my community, mostly when I was very young. I lived in a small neighborhood, with a very small community. The boundaries were very small, I spent most of my time within the same 5 blocks. When I was in High School, I was in a Girl’s Club and we did charity work, which was my involvement outside of my own neighborhood.

When I was growing up, the female model were women who seemed to have their eyes set on getting married and having children and being a housewife. A lot of my friends who even went to college studied teaching or nursing. There weren’t many careers open to women and/or women didn’t aspire to anything. There weren’t a lot of role models in our families also made us feel that being a wife and a mother were the most admirable goals. So those were my goals, also, along with having a good education and completing college was primary to finding a husband and getting married.

Boys were expected of more in school and such, for instance in 5th grade we took sewing classes, in 6th grade we took cooking classes, while the boys took shop. Certainly society saw that men and women should be trained differently for their childhood roles. My mother’s mother lived with us, a very educated woman, and she had the most influence on my life and I remember her telling me that if I worked hard enough, I would be able to exceed and do anything. And she encouraged me to pursue anything.

Women were expected to know their place, men always had much more freedom. If a man decided to go drink with his friends, that would be a manly thing to do. If women did something like that, they were considered to have an up loose morale. Also, less women drove automobiles as a child and also as an adult. Mostly the men used their transportation to get to work, and then they would take families out, later for the weekend. So women developed access to things in a time that lagged behind men, and that was growing up.

When I was a child and actually even later, women were considered secondary. When I was a child, women in the synagogue had to sit upstairs in the balcony, and the men would be doing the praying downstairs, and the women were seen as distractions to the men, and not really needing to be there as much as the people who did the cooking, so that when the service was over and the family gathered for the meals that usually followed all of the Jewish holidays, the women had that job while the men sat around. Also when I was going to Hebrew school. Though I knew as much as the boys and more, I was not ever allowed to even touch the Torah, nor be part of the service.

When I had my Bat Mitzvah, it was rather a new thing. People only had Bar Mitzvahs, and as women were seen as participants, this was born. So the ceremony consisted of a girl getting dressed up and reading a little speech. This was on Friday night, when the Torah was not out. Then, the parents paid for the reception, an “Oneg Shabbat” on that Friday night. And that was the total responsibility.

However, things changed when the feminist movement became popular. A friend gave me a book called The Feminine Mystique and I started to read that book. I was so enthralled with the ideas in this book, that I spent the whole weekend just reading this book. The main idea is, women can do whatever men can do. Culture and society has made us feel that we must assume the role of wife and mother, catering to our children and to our husband and supplementing our own creativity and our own needs to that for our family. And in reading this book, I saw a whole other view of things. The role models I had seen all my life was the women always doing the housework and the cooking and the cleaning. On the weekends, my husband would sleep late, and I had to go out and do the laundry, do all of the shopping for the week. And as I read this book, I realized that there was no reason for my husband not to do this work, not reason not to help with the chores, which I had seen growing up to be women’s tasks, no matter what she was doing at the time. It was very difficult for my evolution, but I am proud to say that my daughter and hopefully all my grandchildren will have a completely different world view on women.

The teachers seemed to expect that the boys would do better in school than the girls, because they were expected to go out and earn a living, therefore they needed a better education. And girls were seen as more of being wives and mothers. I noticed this when I was growing up, but it had been peripheral to my thoughts. But I just sort of went along with everything, and was happy. I hung out, was proud and just followed what everyone else was doing. But then, when I started teaching, we were having a discussion about teachers going on strike for more money, and I said of course I wouldn’t do that, I have a contract that I would teach through the school year. And some of the men said, “We need more money, because we need to support our families.” And they said that men deserved more money though doing the same jobs. And at that time, I started realizing that in a lot of the workplaces, men were in higher managerial positions and were making more money, and that women could only be less than that, like secretaries and administrator’s assistants.

I think that the inequality of men and women was more seen in the workplace than anywhere else. That women were undervalued for being able to do the same thing. When I grew up, men had been taught to treat women in a certain respective way because women were seen as not equal to men, but as people who would be mothers and wives, and so men would open doors for women, if a woman got on a bus or a train and there were no seats, a man or even a boy would give a woman his seat. So yes indeed there was a different treatment there, but it was more of a positive difference. I don’t think you would see those types of things now a days.

Now, us women can be part of every aspect of the service. We even have women who are Rabbis! Not in the Orthodox sect, they still won’t let us. But there is a great deal of quality in religion. In secular society, it looks like we have the same rights, and can do anything men do. There are successful women athletes in every sport. Women are famous scientists, researchers, and in government. There are no limits to women now.

I think that the largest human cry was in the age of the Suffragettes, I remember studying them and seeing movies about them, and news footage of their insistence of equality, and then I think things just calmed down and it was a slow evolution. I do recall hearing some of activists as I grew up, but it didn’t seem to be as organized as Suffragettes movements. It seemed to be more women inspiring other women about what they should be able to do.

I think that by the time I was old enough, the Vietnam War overshadowed all other considerations. Those were the protests that you heard about and saw, and most of the energy was focused towards that than any other issues. In fact, my husband who was teaching at Stanford at the time, in the mid-1960’s, and the students there protested by walking out of class and even breaking some of the windows. Also, we lived in Northern California, and Berkeley is a hotbed of liberalism, and there was always some sort of protest there.

Even today, we see in the Muslim religion that women must be covered up, that many of them cannot even go out without a male escort. And we see now that women are able to be leaders in their congregations in other religions.

[My daughter] was born in a time when women’s rights had already made a lot of difference, so I don’t think that she ever felt that her opportunities were any less than they were for a man. It was a very exciting time, and I remember my 25th high school reunion. I graduated in 1960, and I would say that half the girls were married straight out of college. It was considered not important that women attended college and not many did. But my family and I felt that it was very important, and so I was blessed with the ability to go to college. So at the reunion, in 1985, we talked about what our current occupation was, and one women was the owner of a Fortune 500 company, there were women there who were CEO’s of companies, some who had raised their family and were content. Women who made tremendous strides as scientists, in the business world, and as doctors. It was astounding to see these women 25 years later to see how they had benefited from that great time of women taking hold of their future and lives.

How were you affected in the Jewish community before and after your Bat Mitzvah?

I would say that it was slow and coming, slower than the transitions society made, and that was probably because the religion is very old and steep in tradition. Also, people don’t like to give up power, so the men had to share power. The biggest event for me was when I was called up to the Torah at a Bar Mitzvah to read from the Torah. This was very different, and suddenly there I was on the platform like anyone else. I finally saw how the Jewish religion was allowing women’s rights, and I took advantage of it.