- Editor’s Introduction
This issue brings another roundtable discussion to our readers. These essays, like those featured in issue 98.1, emerged from a panel that took place at the 2011 Biennial Scholars Conference held at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York City. This issue’s contributors are four public historians who work in different venues and media, but who share a common goal—to make the concepts and knowledge of American Jewish history accessible to the general public.
The convener of that panel, historian Joyce Antler, opens by framing several questions whose answers, provided by our panelists, help us to understand the work of public historians. Annie Polland, vice president for programs and education at the Tenement Museum in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, provides a vivid example of the ongoing process by which she and her co-workers at the museum develop their exhibits—by listening to visitors’ responses, by reaching out to historians, and by identifying and obtaining evocative objects to display. At each step in that process, there are variables to be weighed and decisions to be made. Polland shares the nuances of that process with us.
Documentary filmmaker Suzanne Wasserman describes for us the process by which she turns her “passion for the past” into award-winning films. Wasserman finds topics for her films close at hand—including her cousin, a Jewish woman who became president of Guyana; a subway buff in New York who built a life-size replica of a 1930s motorman’s cab in his small apartment and a local kosher butcher. Wasserman credits her mother with instilling in her a love of storytelling, but her latest project, about the children of psychoanalysts (like herself), suggests an additional source for her own sense of the power of narrative.
Judith Rosenbaum serves as the director of public history at the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA), and she views herself as “an evangelist for the field of history.” The JWA is a web-based resource “devoted to uncovering, chronicling, and transmitting to a broad public the rich history of American Jewish women.” Rosenbaum feels a strong commitment to “scholarship that engages more than the expert few,” and her work at the JWA fits neatly with her own approach to her profession. Her account of her work there gives us an insider’s view of the challenges the organization faces in fulfilling its mission, and it also shows us how Rosenbaum and her colleagues prioritize the organization’s goals in order to resolve the questions that arise.
Novelist Jennifer Gilmore is “interested in history and how it has affected Jews and Jewish families,” and vice versa. She took Irving [End Page vii] Howe’s famous remark that “there would be no Jewish fiction when Jews moved to the suburbs” as a professional challenge, and she went on to produce a work that explored Jewish family life from the 1920s through the 1960s. Her second book followed the permutations of political radicalism in a fictional family that includes grandparents who pursue communist activities on the Lower East Side and their Grateful Dead-following grandchildren. Her newest book explores questions of Jewish identity when families opt for open adoption and when such families include non-Jews.
To further help us to understand the work of these public historians, we asked them to explain how they would use a particular item from the collections of the American Jewish Historical Society. We gave them no identifying information about the image in order to learn more about how they might proceed when faced with an object that was evocative and intriguing, but about which they knew little. The item, an image of a Jewish food shop, is reproduced here, followed by the comments and thoughts of our four panelists.
Taken as a whole, this issue of American Jewish History broadens our understanding of the place of history in American Jewish life. These public historians show us how they make history intriguing and enlightening to a broad general public outside of the academy. [End Page viii]