Building a Home for the Past: Archives and the Geography of American Jewish History.

Author:Lustig, Jason

In 1951, leaders of the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS), the American Jewish Archives, Yeshiva University, and the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO) came together under the aegis of the National Conference of Jewish Communal Service to discuss creating a central archive of American Jewish life. (1) It was a time of rising interest in American Jewish history, when scholars like Salo Baron, Jacob Rader Marcus, and others hoped to invigorate American Jewish historical studies and spoke of creating tools and cultivating institutions to foster professional scholarship. And so, these research groups assembled with the hope that they might convince Jewish communities and institutions to preserve their records for posterity, and perhaps themselves join forces. However, it soon became clear that a single central archive was not feasible. They may have shared a common aim of advancing American Jewish historical research, but it was impossible to overcome the question of who would lead the charge. These groups and their leaders, each with a distinct perspective and pedigree, were divided in methodological, ideological, and even geographic and religious terms. The approach of historians like Baron and Marcus, for example, differed from YIVO's sociological orientation. And it was unclear how the venerable but struggling AJHS, many of whose leaders were closely tied to Conservative and Orthodox circles, would relate to Marcus's recently-founded American Jewish Archives at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. In the aftermath of the collapse of the central archive effort, these same issues plagued the AJHS's effort to secure a suitable building, culminating in a rancorous battle in the early 1960s over whether the group should remain in New York City or relocate to Philadelphia's Independence Mall or Brandeis University outside Boston. This debate, too, held practical considerations and potent symbolism, as the location of the past could reflect on which city stood for the epicenter of American Jewish life and its history. Together, these two episodes bookending the 1950s offer an enlightening frame for an era of growth in the field of American Jewish history, gesturing at the concerted efforts to organize its study and its contested landscape. They demonstrate the desire to develop this field, the diversity of projects developed in its pursuit, and the conflict thereby engendered--how the efforts to build a home for the past, whether by bolstering the institutional and documentary basis for its study, creating a central archive, or erecting a building to house the American Jewish Historical Society, all stood in for divergent and disputed visions of the nature of American Jewish life.

In 1996, almost a half-century after the National Conference's failed effort to form a central archive, the Center for Jewish History was established with almost exactly the same groups as founding partners--the AJHS, YIVO, and Yeshiva University alongside the Leo Baeck Institute (formed in 1954) and the American Sephardi Federation (1973). Nevertheless, the earlier attempt should not be cast aside as a curious but forgettable prehistory; neither should the dispute over the AJHS's move to Boston be written off as simply an internal squabble, or as a precursor to the National Museum of American Jewish History, founded in Philadelphia in 1976 on nearly the same location once offered to the AJHS. Instead, these two case studies illustrate the importance of archives as markers of who could tell the American Jewish story and how it would be presented to the public. They also show the enduring character of such dreams--to create a central archive and to erect a monument to American Jewish life--as well as the persistent conflicts such ambitions provoked. They present struggles over spaces of memory (lieux de memoire) of American Jewish life. Initiatives like the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati and YIVO and the AJHS in New York City each fostered distinct visions of what American Jewish history would look like, and what might be its narrative thrust.

The possibility of collaboration, then, took place against the backdrop of a debate over the nature of American Jewish history; likewise, arguments over the location of the AJHS's headquarters stood for which city could take center stage in the story of American Jewish life. An examination of the changing field of American Jewish historical studies after World War II, including both the attempt to create a central archive and the acrimonious debates over the AJHS's location, thereby reveals the contesting visions of the field's content and methodology. Earlier examinations of postwar American Jewish historiography emphasized one institution or another, or looked to highlight specific scholars as the leaders of these efforts. (2) This study, by contrast, considers how the impulse to preserve the American Jewish past crossed ideological and denominational lines. It examines a range of figures and institutions that worked to invigorate the study of American Jewish history. In a similar vein, scholars like Jeffrey Gurock have surveyed the transformation of American Jewish historical studies in the course of the twentieth century, and in the critical postwar years especially, through the AJHS and its journal Publications (the predecessor to American Jewish History). (3) This article looks at the history of archives, another kind of scholarly effort just as important as the promulgation of research. In reading the development of American Jewish historiography against the grain, it becomes clear that figures like Jacob Rader Marcus, Salo Baron, and Oscar Handlin may have all railed against "apologetics" in American Jewish historical scholarship, and insisted on a new "scientific" or scholarly approach, but their push to create archives and to determine where they should be based was by no means ideologically or historiographically neutral.

The archival debates of the 1950s took place at a time when leading scholars called for more intensive study of American Jewish history, and when groups like YIVO also turned their attention towards American Jewish life. In 1942., Columbia University's Salo Baron spoke of American Jewish history's significance before the Synagogue Council of America, and The Jewish Community, his three-volume history of pre-Emancipation Jewish life, signaled his new interest when it concluded not with the French Revolution but with a discussion of America. (4) That same year, Jacob Rader Marcus of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati taught his first class in American Jewish history, what he later claimed was the first such course ever offered at an institution of higher learning. (5) By the end of that decade, Baron reflected on what he termed American Jews' "awakening historical interest," and Marcus--himself trained as a scholar of European Jewry and now director of the American Jewish Archives, which he established in 1947--reported that all his courses were dedicated to the subject, and he declared himself "devot[ed] solely and completely" to its study. (6) Marcus had at one time claimed that German Jewry could survive the Hitler regime, and Baron that Jewish culture could be rebuilt in Europe. (7) As the scale and scope of the Holocaust became clear, Jewish leaders in the United States, Britain, and Palestine moved towards the position that Jewish life could only be reconstructed outside Europe. In this context, Marcus wrote that he wanted to examine a cultural center still "young, virile, and growing" instead of one upon which the book of history had seemingly closed forever; likewise, groups such as Baron's Jewish Cultural Reconstruction worked to reallocate Jewish cultural and communal property looted by the Nazis to new lands, part of a wide-ranging remaking of Jewish culture. (8) It all amounted to a radical reorientation towards American Jewry's new position of communal and cultural leadership lending its history new gravity and according a certain urgency to the preservation of its historical record. At a critical juncture, professional historians surveyed the field and saw a scholarly vacuum: In 1948, Harvard University's Oscar Handlin derided as "distorted and misleading" the received picture of American Jewish history, Baron lamented the longstanding lack of public interest in this history in T949, and Marcus declared somewhat dramatically in 1951 that American Jewish historical study was "literally in its swaddling clothes." (9) These scholars called, each in his own way, for the professional study of American Jewish life and the creation of resources for scholars.

Of course, it was not an entirely untilled field. Founded in 1892, the AJHS was one of the first American ethnic historical societies and an early example of "community archives," at which community groups actively gathered historical material as a means of taking ownership of their past. (10) By the 1940s, though, the AJHS had under the leadership of the Philadelphia book dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach developed a reputation as a haven for amateurish and antiquarian scholarship. (11) Oscar Handlin lamented that most extant work was "steeped in apologetics and in a false provincial pride," and he complained of the "low status of writing in American Jewish history ... an open secret for two decades or more." (12) Handlin later made veiled reference to the AJHS when he wrote that American Jewish history was dominated by "devoted, but not often competent amateurs." (13) Marcus once claimed that he had formed the American Jewish Archives to support "accurate, objective, scientific research in an area that had previously known little more than apologetics." (14) The AJHS also faced grave logistical and financial challenges. Since 1903, the AJHS had been based at the Jewish Theological Seminary, but its archive had far outgrown the two rooms it was afforded there, and its...

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