- Collecting Kentucky Jewish History:Covenant and Collaboration
"Building Kentucky's Archives and Collections," a panel at the 2018 Kentucky Jewish History Symposium, featured four presentations by professional archivists on their efforts to cultivate Jewish collections and audiences at their historical societies and university libraries. Following the presentations, moderator Rabbi Dr. Gary P. Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, opened the Q&A section by enumerating the dangers that await Jewish historical materials housed in non-Jewish archives. Unless deposited at Jewish institutions and stewarded by archivists specially trained in Jewish history, he worried, such history risks being "lost" either through neglect or misapprehension. This anxiety over the preservation of Jewish history is telling for it cuts straight to core ideological and methodological debates on archiving minority history in general and Jewish history in particular: To whom does Jewish history matter? Where does it belong? Can Jewish communities trust non-Jewish institutions to responsibly store, organize, and facilitate access to their histories? The answers posited by Zola and the American Jewish Archives are that Jewish history matters primarily to Jews, belongs in Jewish institutions, and should not be entrusted to non-Jewish ones. In this essay, the Jewish and non-Jewish Kentucky archivists on that panel argue otherwise: that Jewish history matters to local histories; that its preservation should be a shared endeavor founded on mutual respect between a minority community and area archival institutions; and finally, that this approach to collecting Jewish history offers immense intellectual and logistical benefits for Jews and non-Jews alike.
Introduction: Where Does Jewish History Belong?
The mistrust and suspicion toward non-Jewish institutions that house Jewish collections has a long, legitimate, and powerful history behind it. [End Page 233] While American Jews have never endured the traumatic material requisitions suffered by European Jewry, such experiences have had an indelible impact on our cultural DNA. Second only to the fear of Jewish bodily harm is the fear of Jewish texts, records, and ritual objects ending up in the hands of authorities who are at best indifferent and at worst violently destructive. The persistence of such catastrophic thinking in the twenty-first-century United States is born of and masks a subtler anxiety about difference and belonging. The guarded impulse springs from age-old tensions between insularity and integration, acceptance and self-preservation. We have difficulty imagining outsiders taking genuine and good-faith interest in our institutions, customs, and communal and individual lives—and we are not alone.
Until fairly recently, American Jewish history, like all minority histories, has been treated as ancillary to or deviating from mainstream American history. At best, it has been cast as a secondary gloss or bonus diversity perspective on the real shapers of history—generally white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men. Minority histories have therefore operated on the margins, struggling simultaneously to cultivate and strengthen minority identities while articulating their legitimacy to a wider audience. As scholar Lara Kelland has recently demonstrated, the production of collective memory and the establishment of shared history authorize communities' presence through ties to the past—so much so that collecting, interpreting, and narrating minority histories was foundational to the great US social movements of the second half of the twentieth century. Gains in social recognition and political rights for women, African Americans, LGBTQ people, and Native Americans relied on the research and collecting of upstart community historians among their ranks, who "understood that mainstream institutions had not represented their struggles and victories in a favorable light" and who "redefined the terms by which liberal institutions interacted with their stories, their artifacts, and their representations."1 So successful were these efforts that by the close of the 1970s, young historians began embracing new, democratized approaches to history that eschewed a biographical emphasis on "great men" in favor of social context and experiences of everyday life.2 They also helped introduce the field of public history, which pivots the practice of history away from rarified scholarship and toward the urgent application of history to real-life problems.3
American Jews were in fact one of the country's first minority...