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  • Building a Home for the Past:Archives and the Geography of American Jewish History
  • Jason Lustig (bio)

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 [End Page 375] 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 mémoire) 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...


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