THE EVENING of songs from the old Jewish Musical Theater was nearly over at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, when Anita Willens asked whether anyone in the audience remembered any other songs -- perhaps a lullaby.
A middle-aged woman raised her hand and said she remembered only one -- "Rozhinkes mit Mandlen," (Yiddish for raisins and almonds). "Have you ever heard of it?" she asked.
A gasp of recognition filled the hall, and the audience began to buzz. "My grandmother used to sing that to me," whispered one woman to her neighbor. "But it never occurred to me that anyone else knew that song."
It was, Willens explained, one of the most popular lullabies to emerge from the Jewish Musical Theatre of which her own mother was a star. The Yiddish Theatre had clearly played a role in the life of early Jewish immigrants all over America.
The evening ended with the whole audience joining in to sing -- or hum -- the fragments they could remember of "Rozhinkes mit Mandlen." There wasn't a dry eye in the house as all of these separate people recognized a common bond they never knew they had.
Digging up such bonds is precisely what JCC Art Gallery director Susan Morgenstein and art department director Ruth Levine had in mind when they dreamed up the project, "Jewish Women in the Arts: Voices of Her Past," a concert, lecture and workshop project which has been taking place at the Center since late October.
"We wanted both to evoke these memories and to record them as part of an oral history of Jewish women," said Morgenstein. "But we sought to do this, not just by talking and asking questions, but by using the stimulus of cultural events -- songs, stories, poems, dances and works of art from the past and present.
Thus, with a grant from the Maryland Committee for the Humanities, 11 sessions were organized, ranging from those on the Yiddish theater to others dealing with music, literary arts, dances and one film, Amalie Rothschild's 'Nana, Mom and Me." The center also assembled a fine and revealing exhibition of contemporary art by Jewish women, still on view at the JCC gallery through Dec. 31.
But while the public at large was invited to attend the large, performing arts events, the real work was being done by a core group of 20 women who, in addition, attended writing workshops where they were asked to reply to queries like: "If your grandmother could have left you something, what would it have been?"
Some of the answers were funny. One woman suggested her grandmother might have offered the following advice. "Remember, what belongs to your husband belongs to you. And wht belongs to you also belongs to you."
Another was more poignant, an imaginary letter from a grandmother -- reconstructed from memories of conversations -- which read:
"If I could have left you something, I wish I could have left you better memories. Is was sweet once before I left my home in Russia. My father was a baker -- the house and shop one building. Everything smelled so good always.
"My sisters and I were happy, well-fed, comfortable, but then my father decided his children needed a better chance. So he sent me and Hannah, the oldest, to Boston to marry two men who were already there from our town. After that I never had a happy moment -- the crossing on the boat was terrible; I didn't like Harry; I had to work to hard; I had too many children; we were always fighting.
"Harry slept in the shed. Later, when he had a store, he slept there. Everyone in the family and the neighborhood knew me as a nasty woman making trouble. I wish you could have known me when I was younger."
Last Sunday, munching bagels and cream cheese (one Jewish folkway that has survived and proliferated), the core group met to listen to recorded highlights of the programs and then interview each other's oral histories on tape.
"The impact has been profound. I'm shocked," said artist Lyndia Terr.
"This has had a tremendous impact on me and on my work." "What we talked about has actually come alive," said another. "There was all this in me that I didn't even know was there."
"Jewish women have been the bearers of cultural traditions throughout history." said morgenstein, explaining the focus on women. "They even physically carried the samovars, the mortar and pestle and ritual objects like the brass candlesticks and Passover tablecloth -- often of their own making -- to the New World."
But like women everywhere, they seemed to know and keep their place. "The woman created the Seder but the man presided," noted one participant. "By his wife" was a typical way for a woman to sign an embroidered Torah or pillowcover. "I remember a sexist toast my father used to make to my mother," laughed another. "It went: 'Here's to your health, fill up my glass with wine."
As the group moved to a quiet place to begin recording their newly revived recollections, Morgenstein and Levine expressed the hope that funds could now be found to publish the fruits of the project. "We'd like to package what we have done as a model for shaking up ethnic memories in other places, other cities, before they are lost," said Morgenstein.
One woman objected. "You've seperated women from men, and now you've seperated Jewish women from other women. What's next to seperate?"
"It's not narrowing down," replied Ruth Levine. "It's an opening of options, a way to find out who you are. We all have ghosts. Why not listen to the Jewish women and their voices from the past?"