A New Chaper for Jewish Oral Histories

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The oldest form of recording our histories is now benefitting from a rush to digital archiving.

Wanna hear a good story?

It’s about the ancient art of oral history — and how, thanks to a new generation of archivists, it is being updated for 21st century audiences. It’s a tale that will take us on a cross-country journey from Los Angeles to Amherst and Brookline, Mass., and, finally, to Philadelphia.


Organizations in these cities are leading the charge to adapt the way stories about such subjects as community leaders, immigration, the Holocaust and Yiddish culture are being told and preserved.

“Oral history, or the transmission of culture, heritage and law, has been a part of human society from the very beginning,” according to Josh Perelman, chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. “Not only is it the basis for the legal aspects of Judaism, but you only have to think about the vibrancy of storytelling from Chasidic masters to Yiddish poets to the marvelous literature created out of Europe, Israel and the U.S. to understand the importance and significance of telling and retelling the Jewish experience in order to keep them alive and to keep them visceral. The power of the individual storyteller, the power of the person narrating their own life, is a deeply emotive experience that is critical to connecting us to the community we live in — and to the past.”

The first stop in any discussion about the modern Jewish take on oral history is the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation Institute in Los Angeles. Created 20 years ago by the director Steven Spielberg to preserve the eyewitness accounts of Holocaust survivors for future generations, the foundation has already collected 53,000 testimonies and has also developed a special process to ensure that the physical form these video testimonies take will not degrade over time. Furthermore, it is now sharing the process with other Holocaust centers and Jewish federations to help them protect the testimonies in their own collections.

But what is truly exciting is the Shoah Foundation’s pioneering use of holograms and voice recognition software to replicate the experience of having a face-to-face interview with Holocaust survivors. Due to the special way the survivors are to be filmed, they will look as though they are sitting in the same room as their future questioners, engaging in a naturally flowing conversation that will anticipate their questions.

The first holographic interview subject, 81-year-old Pinchas Gutter, was filmed in April. As he graciously answered 500 questions over a five-day period, 22 3-D cameras recorded his image, ensuring that Gutter, who regularly speaks to schoolchildren about his experiences as a 10-year-old who lost his parents and twin sister in the Holocaust, will continue to offer his testimony literally forever.

Much still needs to be done to fine-tune the process so that it will work with a variety of user groups, explains the Shoah Foundation’s 47-year-old executive director, Stephen D. Smith. Among the difficulties is parsing the different questions likely to be asked of the survivors, Smith says. For example, an 11-year-old Hispanic student may want to know something completely different than an 11-year-old Jewish day school student, and a middle-aged museum visitor with children in tow may want to ask a separate set of questions from a high school student.

In the end, though, the technology is not the star. “If we do our job really well here, you shouldn’t really notice the technology,” Smith says.
The Shoah Foundation is working with the Illinois Holocaust Museum, which will be testing the program with students over the next year. “We should start to see it in museums in the next couple of years,” Smith says.

He adds that the foundation’s website (sfi.usc.edu) attracts about 3.4 million users annually and its analytics show that 50 percent of its online archives have been viewed in the past two or three years. Once other initiatives are completed, Smith envisions the number of website visitors increasing dramatically. He says, “I don’t think this is the end of telling the story. I think we’re at the beginning.”

Technology is also breathing new life into — and creating new fans for — Yiddish culture and the Yiddish language. At the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., a collection of 450 Jewish oral histories has been made available to anyone with an Internet connection through its Wexler Oral History Project, which began in 2009. “We have a lot of people who find us through YouTube and Twitter,” says 27-year-old Christa Whitney, who directs the project with a staff of fellows, interns and volunteers. She conducts many of the interviews, often in Yiddish. The most popular video, featuring Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy talking about the Jewish origins of Mr. Spock’s Vulcan greeting, has garnered 130,000 views.

“We were thinking from the beginning about how to get the material out to the public,” Whitney says. “The Web really has been the main way of doing that. The idea is that people can stumble across all kinds of things on social media. Why not stumble upon Yiddish history? And maybe someone will get curious and want to learn more and watch a longer video.”

Whitney, who is not Jewish, is honored to help preserve Yiddish culture. “It’s a culture that, due to tragic, historical and political circumstances, needs advocates and stewards,” she says. “It’s a warm community to be a part of. I feel very lucky in my line of work to connect with people every day and get to listen to these incredible experiences, even people who are seen as normal and consider their own lives to be normal. What you can learn from just human experience is what keeps me going.”

Further east in the Bay State, the Jewish Women’s Archive of Brookline, Mass., was one of the earliest organizations to recognize the potential of the Internet for disseminating oral history. Its archive went online 19 years ago, before Google and Wikipedia even existed. JWA now boasts the world’s largest collection of material representing the voices of North American Jewish women; every year, 1.2 million people visit JWA.org, a favorite of educators, historians, researchers and the simply curious.

In July, historian Judith Rosenbaum, 40, became its executive director.

“One of the things we find when we look at what we know about Jewish women’s lives is that often, their stories are not included in traditional histories that are written,” Rosenbaum says. “And oral history is a way of getting at some of the stories that haven’t been heard before and haven’t been told. Often, women have been trained to think that the stories of their lives aren’t particularly important because they are stories of the everyday, stories of family, of work, of volunteer work, of community building, but they are not necessarily the kind of standout stories that seem exceptional or seem to be honored in the traditional approach to history. But obviously, there is a lot we have to learn from the everyday lives of regular people.”

On the JWA website are stories of well-known and little-known women, including those from oral history projects the JWA conducted in Jewish communities in Seattle, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In addition to conducting its own projects, JWA teaches others to do so as well. From its website, it is possible to download a copy of the organization’s book, In Our Own Voices, which offers information on how to conduct oral histories, and includes lesson plans for teachers who want to encourage their students to conduct oral histories with adults they know. The JWA also conducts teacher workshops.

Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, two booths located on the second floor of the National Museum of Jewish American History on Independence Mall allow visitors to be filmed as they tell their own stories based on a question prompt they select. So far, the museum has amassed about 8,700 visitor stories. Stories are archived, and some are featured on the museum’s website (nmajh.org). Storytellers can get a link so they can share their tales through social media.

Ilana Blumenthal, 32, marketing and communications manager for the museum, says, “A major part of the mission of the museum from the beginning was to collect the stories of our visitors. The booths were developed because we recognized that many of the very compelling stories that we focus on are about the lives of everyday people and we wanted our visitors to know that they are part of the history we tell.”

About six months ago, the museum hosted an event in which six members of First Person Arts, a Philadelphia-based group dedicated to the art of storytelling, shared memories from their grandmothers’ kitchens. More than 100 people attended the event that night when Marjorie Fineberg Winther, 60, of Mount Airy, talked about her paternal bubbie, who could only cook two things: chicken soup and tongue. Forty-five years later, Winther says, “I still remember the trauma of tongue.”

Winther was the 2012 winner of First Person Arts’ Grand Slam story competition, besting 11 other competitors. The StorySlams, annual festival and podcasts that make up the organization’s contribution to Philadelphia storytelling, are the brainchild of Queen Village resident Vicki Solot, 68, who was its executive director from 2000 until 2011. Solot conceived of the group after becoming aware of the increasing number of personal memoirs, documentaries and theater pieces that began coming out earlier in the decade and wanted to bring attention to the creative people producing them. The group soon decided to let average people share their stories, too. She says the StorySlams have been a particular hit with twentysomethings who, in part thanks to social media, are very comfortable publicly sharing their own lives.

When it comes to personal history, Solot sees a big distinction between her parents’ Depression generation and their baby boomer offspring. “In Judaism, in the Diaspora, my parents’ generation was pretty eager to move on and not focus on the stories of the past,” she says. “Also, it was considered so much better to be American-born, to not speak with an accent, to not exhibit Old World habits, to assimilate into American life. That generation seemed to really shy away from any kind of focus on their history, whereas my generation has had a renewed interest in that.”

It is an interest shared by Solot’s daughter. Recently, while taking a course in the art of the Great Depression, her daughter asked for information about Solot’s late father, who had been a fighter pilot. “I told her everything I could remember, but like so many of us, she said, ‘I’m so annoyed at myself that I hadn’t asked him questions when he was still around and able to tell me more specifically, and heard the story from him and written it down.’ I think many of us have that experience — that we missed the moment.”

A frequent contributor to Inside, Gail Snyder greatly misses her favorite family storyteller, Louis Snyder. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.

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