In 2008 NYC artist Susan C. Dessel spent a week working on the restoration of the historic Hunt’s Bay Cemetery in Kingston, Jamaica. This introduction to sepulchral material led Dessel to the Chatham Sq. Cemetery, NYC’s oldest extant cemetery. While both sites contain graves that date to the mid 1600s, in 1851 a NYC law was passed banning burials below 86th Street.
Conceptual and artistic decisions were made as research was conducted. The work would give voice to the women and girls buried in the three cemeteries by naming them as during their lives they were most often referred to as wife of or daughter of.
A number of Wills of early New York Jews mention slaves among various men’s belongings that were to be passed on to others at their deaths. Reading this elicited a strong emotional reaction and a determination that this information could not be ignored. The art work had to also honor the female slaves — 10 of the 30 referred to in the Wills were mentioned by name – without taking the fact out of its historical context or having it overwhelm the installation.
Young women were concerned about the condition of their teeth which began to deteriorate at age 18. The first mass produced toothbrushes were made in the Wisdom factory (England, 1780), which still exits. Many men of the Jewish community were merchants who traveled back and forth from Nieuw Amsterdam/New York to Europe. An archived letter that mentioned sending a toothbrush back to a daughter highlighted what a special gift this was at the time
The research coalesced in a decision to create an object for each woman and girl that would resemble the article that she had used to clean her teeth.
Food was chosen as the central visual image for the drawings as the kitchen was women’s domain. Because of dietary restrictions, Jews were forbidden to eat plentiful local food such as lobsters and instead killed and prepared chickens following the laws of kashrut (kosher slaughtering). Even as wealth accumulated, women were still responsible for maintaining strictly Kosher homes by closely monitoring any household help in the kitchen.
Leo Hershkowitz, Wills of Early New York Jews (1704-1799), 1967.
David De Sola Pool, Portraits Etched in Stone Early Jewish Settlers 1682-1831. 1952.
Hasia R. Diner, Her Works Praise Her, 2002.