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February 16: Numbering Our Days

February 16, 2016

551939e00ba0d_barbara_myerhoffAnthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, whose fieldwork with elderly Jews in Venice, California yielded an Academy Award-winning documentary (1977) and book (1979) about aging and philosophies of life, Number Our Days, was born in Cleveland on this date in 1935. Myerhoff received her Ph.D from the University of California in 1968. Her dissertation and first book focused on the Huichol Indians’ use of peyote as part of their ritual and symbolic life. She next turned to her own people, with a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation. “When working with the elderly,” writes Devorah Shubowitz at the University of Indiana’s website, “Myerhoff discovered that they... relied on stories as their bodies failed them. Through storytelling, they asserted their love of life, involvement with people, and created an alternative world where they had presence and visibility.” Myerhoff’s investigations “inspired Jews to apply anthropological methods to the study of Judaism, as well as anthropologists to view Jews as legitimate ethnographic subjects.” She continued her involvement and storytelling about elderly Jews in Los Angeles until her diagnosis in 1984 of lung cancer, which led her to the creation of In Her Own Time, a film about her exploration of Orthodox Jewish healing practices. She died in 1985 before the film’s completion. To see her describing her work in Number Our Days, look below.

“The self is made, not given.” —Barbara Myerhoff