Reading the Silence of My Great-Grandmother: The Role of Life-Writing in Locating the Hidden Life of a Jewish Woman

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Cervini, Erica (2019) Reading the Silence of My Great-Grandmother: The Role of Life-Writing in Locating the Hidden Life of a Jewish Woman. PhD thesis, Victoria University.


Family history has become a significant cultural, academic and economic pursuit giving rise to television shows, university degrees and DNA testing. Family historians grapple with epistemological questions about the extent to which a life can ever be known to someone else – limited resources exacerbate the problem. This thesis, by creative project and exegesis, focuses on Rose Pearlman, my Great-Grandmother [1875 – 1956], and explores how the genre of life-writing contributes to our understanding of an ‘ordinary’ Jewish woman who migrated to Australia from England leaving no traditional sources such as diaries or memoirs. In so doing, this thesis makes contributions to academic and general scholarship about the extent to which knowledge resides in, and can be derived from the fragmentary, and how the researcher’s imagination - as distinct from the invention of episodes - illuminates the specificities of a Jewish woman’s life. Narrative threads in Rose Pearlman’s life are researched and developed using the genre of life-writing. This genre employs a ‘fossicking’ method which involves three actions: first, rummaging for wisps of information; second, selecting and curating an archive and third, threading together the fragments from the archive to produce narratives. Further, this thesis argues that life-writing, which has been used by biographers and some historians to tell the stories of the maginalised, can usefully be applied to family storytelling to offer important insights into lives that have previously been hidden from history. Holmes’ notion of ‘recreating the past’ has guided this approach. Within this context, this thesis contends that Rose Pearlman’s life provides important insights into the diversity of Jewish women’s lives generally, and challenges the trope of the ‘rags to riches’ Jew. In addition, it makes original contributions to the history of Jewish women in Australia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Finally, it adds to emerging and ongoing discussions in the academy about the importance of family history in contributing evidence which may help to question and reshape established historical narratives. This thesis also has personal significance because Rose Pearlman is part of my family. Tanya Evans notes that each family’s history has the ‘potential to be part of local, national, global class and gender history’. Within this frame, Rose Pearlman’s life is afforded enduring meaning because it represents a moment in time that tells her descendants – and the wider public – about her connection to local communities and to national policies. Structurally, this thesis is divided into three parts. The first presents the preface and overall introduction to the creative project and exegesis. The second part, the creative component, is entitled ‘Yizkor for Rose: A Life Lost and Found’. The exegesis, ‘But She Didn’t Leave a Diary!’: Making Sense of Fragments of a life, forms the third and final part of this work.

Item type Thesis (PhD thesis)
Subjects Historical > FOR Classification > 1904 Performing Arts and Creative Writing
Historical > FOR Classification > 2103 Historical Studies
Current > Division/Research > Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities
Keywords Rose Pearlman; life-writing; Jewish; women; Australia; Victoria; family history; family narratives; creative project; exegesis; fossicking
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