Myerhoff, Barbara Gay Siegel

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MYERHOFF, BARBARA GAY SIEGEL (1935–1985), U.S. anthropologist. Myerhoff was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and was raised there and in Los Angeles by her mother Florence Siegel and her stepfather Norman Siegel. She received a B.A. in sociology (1958) and an M.A. in human development (1963) from the University of Chicago, and a Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA in 1968. Myerhoff served on the Anthropology faculty at the University of Southern California for her entire academic career, developing a program in visual anthropology and chairing the department. She was part of a group of scholars in the 1970s who introduced the importance of understanding storytelling, who pioneered the study of one's own community, and who investigated the relationships among age, ethnic identity, and gender.

Myerhoff 's initial scholarship was devoted to the developing field of ritual and symbolic studies. Her dissertation and subsequent book, Peyote Hunt: the Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians (1974), was highly regarded for its treatment of pilgrimage and the religious life of a Mexican Indian group. She explored those same themes in Number Our Days (1979), her innovative ethnographic study of elderly Jews who met at a senior center in Los Angeles, demonstrating the ways in which rituals, both traditional and invented, gave the aged the visibility they had been denied by family and society. Performances of all types, including storytelling, rituals, and quarrels, provided a certainty of their place in social interaction that was both reassuring and tenuous. From these observations Myerhoff wrote about the ways in which culture offers and withholds visibility. One of her most important contributions to the study of women and religion was the concept of "domestic Judaism" that she developed in Number Our Days. Myerhoff effectively challenged the notion that religion can best be understood from an elite, usually male perspective linked to formal practices. Rather, her work demonstrated that a well-articulated religious system for women ran parallel to men's sacred worlds.

Prior to the publication of Number Our Days, Myerhoff collaborated with Lyn Littman on a documentary film with the same title that was awarded an Oscar and two Emmys.


B. Myerhoff. "Bobbes and Zeydes: Old and New Roles for Elderly Jews," in: J. Hoch-Smith and A. Spring (eds.), Women in Ritual and Symbolic Role s (1978); B. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, "Forward," in: M. Kaminsky (ed.), Remembered Lives: The Work of Ritual and Story Telling, and Growing Older (1992); R.E. Prell, "The Double Frame of Life History in the Work of Barbara Myerhoff," in: Personal Narratives Group (ed.), Interpreting Women's Lives (1980).

[Riv-Ellen Prell (2nd ed.)]