By Cindy Mindell
WESTPORT – Award-winning journalist and historian Andrée Aelion Brooks of Westport is known for mining the more obscure and remarkable aspects of Jewish history. From the Jews of Cuba and Persia to the “Jewish Queen Elizabeth,” Doña Gracia Nasi, Brooks’s research and writing shine a light into the corners of the Jewish world long darkened by the Inquisition and overshadowed by 20th-century Ashkenazi Jewish history.
An associate fellow at Yale University, Brooks is founder and first president of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale (WCS), established to train women around the world who want to run for elected office. It is for this aspect of her work that she was among the 10 honorees at the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame (CWHF) 20th annual induction ceremony and celebration on Nov. 6. Based in Hartford, CWHF was founded in 1994 as an educational outreach organization.
Brooks grew up in suburban London, England, the daughter of a Greek Jewish father and French Jewish mother. In a 2011 interview with the Ledger, Brooks explained the central question behind her research. “I sometimes ask my audience to name three outstanding Jews between the destruction of the Temple and Eastern Europe circa 1800s, and no rabbis are allowed on the list – a musician or mathematician or merchant. The room is silent. You’re going to tell me that for nearly 2,000 years, there wasn’t a distinguished Jew in the entire world?”
In 2012, Brooks received first place in the Rockower Awards for Feature Writing for her piece on the Jewish history of Harbin, China. She is a regular contributor to Hadassah Magazine, among other publications, winning First Place in 2012 in the magazine division of the annual awards of the American Jewish Press Association.
Brooks has also been a contributing columnist and writer for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
Brooks is the recipient of numerous awards, including the American Jewish Committee’s American Jewish Woman of Achievement Award, a special award from the Consulate General of Israel and the American Sephardi Federation for her work on Sephardic Jewish history. She also received the Connecticut Press Club’s Mark Twain Award and an outstanding achievement award from the National Federation of Press Women.
She is also an historical consultant and board member of the Gomez Mill House and historic site in Marlboro, N.Y., the oldest surviving Jewish residence in the U.S.
Just as she uses her pen to probe the farthest reaches of the Jewish world, Brooks’s school has become a global presence, training women from around the world to step into leadership positions. The non-profit WCS is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, founded in 1993 as an independent, non-partisan leadership-training program, just 20 years after Yale had become a co-ed institution.
“Women were forming protest groups, which they needed to do, because government is all a numbers game,” Brooks says. “You may have the support, in any level of government, for the programs you feel are important. But if you’re not there at the table, the placards outside won’t do very much. My philosophy was that you have to get involved from the inside if you really want to make a difference. I still believe that very strongly.”
Brooks served as the WCS’s first president for three years and stayed on the board for another few years. Now, she visits once a year to meet with students.
She continues to lecture and write on unusual aspects of Jewish history, “places and stories that are never told,” she says. Her most recent foray is into the Jewish history of Uzbekistan, where she visited last month, tracing the ancient Silk Road. She is planning a Dec. 4 lecture in Westport on the Jews of central Asia.