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Events focus on feats of female Jewish athletes

Feb. 9, 2007

KALAMAZOO--A traveling exhibition and documentary film displaying the athletic feats of female Jewish athletes are coming to Western Michigan University, thanks to the help of a WMU history professor who assisted with both projects.

The exhibition, put together by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute of Brandeis University, and titled "Jewish + Female = Athlete: Portraits of Strength from Around the World," opens Monday, Feb. 12, on the third floor of Waldo Library and continues through March 2. A reception for the exhibition is from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 15, in the library's Edwin and Mary Meader Rare Book Room.

The exhibit features significant sportswomen from the past and present from around the globe, exploring gender, ethnicity and sport. Fourteen current sports heroines and 13 sportswomen from the past are profiled in lively photography showing various ways Jewish women have influenced sports. Dr. Linda Borish, associate professor of history and women's studies, served as a historical advisor and research associate for the exhibit, which has traveled throughout the United States. Its stop in Southwest Michigan comes on its way to a conference in Cleveland that will celebrate the 35th anniversary of Title IX.

The display comes on the heals of the publication of a two calendars published by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, a research center at Brandeis University, under the same title as the exhibit, with Borish again providing her historical expertise. The calendars provide information and feature glossy, full-color photos of current and historical Jewish female athletes. Due to the strong response to the first calendar, the 2006-07 calendar has expanded material on Jewish sportswomen.

The documentary film, titled "Jewish Women in American Sport: Settlement Houses to the Olympics, "is thematically along similar lines as the exhibit, but focuses in depth on American women's sport history. It will have its local premiere from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21, in the Little Theatre. The 30-minute film will be preceded by brief remarks and introductions and followed by questions and answers. Borish served as executive producer and historian for the film, The film had its first screening in October at a Jewish community center in New Jersey and at the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Commack, N.Y.

Borish lent her expertise and research on American women's sport history to this first-ever film about Jewish women in American sport from the 1880s through the 20th century and into the early 21st century. The film project began in spring 2003 when Borish teamed up with well-known Israeli and Chicago-based filmmaker Shuli Eshel, the film's director and producer, to develop and produce a documentary based on her original research.

Borish and Eshel used archival research, news footage, still images and interviews with athletes and historians to trace the early years of prominent American Jewish female athletes and sports administrators, culminating with the induction of the first class of women into the 2003 Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

Both the exhibit and film shed light on such important Jewish sportswomen as Charlotte Epstein, recognized as the mother of women's competitive swimming; Senda Berenson, who studied the teachings of Dr. John Naismith in the 1890s to develop the first rules for women's basketball; and 1932 Olympic track and field champion Lillian Copeland. Current athletes also are highlighted, including professional golfer Amy Alcott, Olympic gold medal skating champion Sarah Hughes, and ESPN sportscaster Linda Cohen.

Borish says the two projects are, in part, a response to greater acknowledgement in recent years of the athletic contributions of Jewish men in history. Little was being done to recognize the accomplishments of Jewish female athletes, so Borish set out to make sure their achievements did not go unnoticed.

Borish says many of the historical athletes profiled did more than just accomplish great athletic feats. They also opened doors and broke down barriers for today's female athletes.

"It has been fascinating to research that history and very rewarding to bring it to light," Borish says.

The exhibit is booked through 2008 and has sparked interest everywhere it has traveled. That interest has resulted in Borish being invited to be part of and often give presentations at various events across the country and internationally. This summer she will be presenting the film and her research at a sport and spirituality conference in York, England, and at an international conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. The film has received interest from various organizations and is being shown at special events, including the upcoming Detroit Jewish Film Festival. Borish now is writing a book on the subject, tentatively titled " 'Not Merely Confined to the Gymnasium': Jewish Women in American Sport."

"It all stems from my own interest in sports, having played collegiate tennis and having had a courses in American sport history," Borish says. "That has encouraged me to see how sport has changed over time for women and men in American society. It has blossomed in a positive way."

Both projects have generated substantial support locally. Regina Buckner, director of operational services for Waldo Library, is eager to bring the exhibit to WMU.

"We are very excited about having this marvelous opportunity to display this traveling exhibit in the library," Buckner says. "I find this unique exhibit instrumental in capturing the moments-in-time of these tremendously accomplished Jewish women. We are looking forward to the many visitors that will take part in learning more about these Jewish's women's moments of triumph."

In addition to University Libraries, the exhibit is co-sponsored by the WMU departments of History, Comparative Religion, Anthropology and Sociology; College of Arts and Sciences; Office of the President; Office of the Provost; Diether H. Haenicke Institute for Global Education, the Kercher Family; Gender and Women's Studies Program; the Sports Medicine Clinic; Sindecuse Health Center; and the divisions of Intercollegiate Athletics and Multicultural Affairs.

The film screening is sponsored by the Department of History and WMU's chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, a history honors society. Completed in fall 2006, the film tells an important story, says Dr. Marion Gray, history department chair.

"'Jewish Women in American Sport' reveals an untold history, yet one that is essential to the understanding of American society," Gray says. "Linda brings together three separate specializations--gender history, sport history and the history of ethnic groups--in an expertly conceived project. The partnership between her and Shuli Eshel is ideal, ensuring historical integrity, technical expertise and aesthetic quality in a film that deepens our insight into an important aspect of the American past."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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