- The Evolution of a Public Historian and Documentary Filmmaker
My path to becoming a historian and documentary filmmaker has been a circuitous one. But one thing got me here—my passion for the past. I say “the past” and not “history,” because the latter implies an academic interest, and although I do have a doctorate in American history from New York University, I’ve always been most interested in how to communicate this passion to the broadest audience possible.
I have made four documentary films, and all have dealt with Jewish-American subject matter. I do not identify myself as a filmmaker of Jewish subject matter, but rather as a Jewish-American filmmaker whose subject matter is peripherally Jewish. As a Jewish-American filmmaker, my attention has been drawn to these subjects, though I don’t especially advertise or name my subjects as Jewish. While I began my career almost 25 years ago as an academic historian, I have chosen the route of public presentation through film. Each of my films has highlighted Jewish subjects—the first three focusing on individual subjects. The fourth (and the fifth, the one I am working on now), have a group focus, and they primarily use Jewish subjects. In several of these films, I depict American Jewish women boldly confronting the choices in front of them and acting out of the box, as with socialist politician Janet Rosenberg Jagan and Polish-American novelist Anzia Yezierska (see more below). My second film, which features New York subway buff Paul Kronenberg, is another idiosyncratic Jewish American whose singularity is not in his public achievements, but in his determination to follow his own dreams and interests, no matter how strange they may seem. He is certainly an example of a Jew who doesn’t follow the traditional path to professional success—a window onto a different kind of Jew. My films lend themselves to thinking about Jewish history—and about generational change—in this manner.
I have shown my films to public audiences, on PBS, at Jewish and non-Jewish festivals and at universities and other educational venues. I am sure that it helps to be a historian, but I do not gear my films in ways different from my academic work, except that one has to be more succinct in filmmaking than in traditional scholarship. I also program more than fifteen free public programs each year for the center I direct, the Gotham Center for New York City History at the Graduate Center [End Page 49] of the City University of New York. These programs are geared toward an educated public audience, and they draw academics as well as non-academics. The Gotham Center is a center for public history, and it draws on academic expertise as much as public history expertise. Usually, at least one evening each semester deals specifically with Jewish subject matter. For example, this past fall semester, I was on a panel discussing the latest book in the three-volume anthology Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side, which was co-edited by Clayton Patterson.
My own passion for the past began with my mother. She was a wonderful storyteller and she liked most to tell stories about our family. Every family (I’ve told my students) has stories worthy of examination by historians. On my mother’s side, I had a lovely, handsome grandfather who was a compulsive gambler, and a vivacious paternal grandmother (whom I never met) who was a fervent and vocal Communist. I ended up writing a dissertation that dealt with Jewish subject matter, at least in part. I wrote about the Lower East Side of Manhattan and about how, during the 1920 s and into the 1930 s, it became a locus for Jewish nostalgia.
But no family story matched that of my mother’s first cousin Janet Rosenberg Jagan. And I never tired of listening to my mother tell stories about her. One evening, in 1997, my mother called to tell me that her cousin Janet (then 77 years old) was going to run for the presidency of Guyana in South America! I knew her life was about to change...