- Beyond the Ivory Tower:American Jewish History for a Public Audience
This forum explores the multiple ways in which public historians, novelists, filmmakers, artists, and others have taken American Jewish history to a popular audience beyond the academy. In their novels, films, museum and online exhibits, magazine columns and web blogs, they have translated scholarly findings and created new narratives and meanings regarding Jewish history. In crossing the boundaries between academic scholarship and popular culture, they have encountered both challenges and opportunities—developments that this roundtable explores.
As a vehicle for presenting American Jewish history to audiences beyond the ivory tower, we have asked several of these historians, writers, and filmmakers to describe their own work and the particular venue in which it appears. We have asked them to consider the nature of various audiences—public or academic—as factors that drive their work, probing the differences—and, perhaps, the conflicts—between storytelling modes and commentary for such audiences. We also wonder about the ownership and control of material and meaning when scholars work in public arenas. Does collaboration require different perspectives with regard to scholarly authority?
We have also asked our contributors to examine the nature of the historical questions that arise, and the means and ideas they use in order to respond to these questions for public audiences. In probing these ideas, some contributors turn their attention to exploring the nature of the public historian’s craft as opposed to that of the scholarly historian. How does each use evidence? What is the relationship of fact to imagination in the products they create for a public audience? In crossing institutional boundaries and disciplines, what kind of interdisciplinary materials do they employ?
We are also interested in the historical dimension of public vs. academic presentations. Do different versions of Jewish history emerge when told to different audiences? Is it necessary to simplify, summarize, or otherwise alter or reshape scholarship when presenting it to the public?
Another important issue in this forum is the relationship of American Jewish history to American history beyond the ivory tower. Just as our contributors often straddle the worlds of academia and the general public, [End Page ix] they also straddle—and, perhaps, bridge—the divide between what is seen as particularly, acutely Jewish and the broader sweep of American history, literature, art, and activism. Do the narratives of American Jewish history and American history come together in these public history formats, and, if so, in what ways?
Relevant to the question of Jewishness, some of our contributors comment on the matter of audience identity—whether Jewish or non-Jewish—as a relevant factor shaping their work and its reception. For those who deal with Jewish subject matter yet need to attract a diverse audience—for example, those working in Jewish museums or Jewish filmmaking—making Jewish history relevant to non-Jews is important. What challenges arise in interpreting Jewish history/identity to these audiences?
Finally, we have asked our contributors to look to the future—the future of their discipline and the future of the public platforms and venues for which they are creating stories of American Jewish history. How has technology changed their craft? What new opportunities for reaching popular audiences do online media offer? Are there other desirable ways of creating more participatory modes for popular audiences interested in American Jewish history? The four historians contributing to this issue offer fresh perspectives and immense experience on a vital aspect of doing American Jewish history for public audiences. We are very pleased to begin the discussion of public history in this journal. [End Page x]
Joyce Antler is the Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture, and Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, at Brandeis University. She is a founding board member and chair of the Academic Advisory Council of the Jewish Women’s Archive.