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When you’re an historian conducting research, you just never know what you’re going to discover. Archival finding aids and previously published citations guide your hand and point you in the right direction, but now and again you happen upon something completely unexpected -- a juicy bit of gossip, a clever turn of phrase, a little known event -- that deepens your understanding of the past and lifts your spirits. Serendipity can often be the historian’s best friend.

Archives. Flickr/Marino González

But these days, with the wholesale digitization of newspapers and archival matter, chance encounters occur less and less frequently. You type in a keyword and the relevant text or passage appears. How wondrous! How efficient! Yet, something gets lost along the way: your eye zeroes in rather than roams freely. This is precisely why I encourage my students to consult the original text rather than rely on an electronic version.

I practice what I preach. Earlier this week, while at the New York Public Library, I was gingerly making my way through the fragile pages of the Occident and Jewish Advocate of 1860 in search of information about a specific event when, lo and behold, I stumbled across a deliciously nasty comment penned by the journal’s editor, Isaac Leeser, about his bête noire, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati.

I knew the two men didn’t get on, but this was something else again -- a whopper of a putdown, and in public, no less. Wrote Leeser: “I.M.W. may continue, for all I care, to be the greatest man living in his own estimation, but this much I will maintain, that if I need any information I shall never go to Cincinnati to obtain it from the man who has caused more disturbance and heart-burning than any other Hebrew within the limits between the Atlantic and Pacific.”

This particular passage had absolutely nothing to do with my project, but it made my day all the same, bringing mid-19th century mudslinging to life. The passage in question makes my point, too, for the odds of it appearing in a digital database are rather slender. Under what rubric or keyword would it show up? Animus? Bruised feelings? Competition? Heartburn?

Now and again, people ask me how I came to be an historian, arguably not the most likely of careers for aspiring professional women of my generation. At a time when most of my peers were headed straight for law school, becoming an academic, especially one who trafficked in the history of the Jews, was somewhat off the beaten track. What influenced me, inquiring minds want to know. Did an inspiring college professor set me on my way? Had I experienced a moment of awakening at an ancient historic site? Was I inspired by Gibbons? Encouraged by my parents?

nancy drew books
Nancy Drew books. Flickr/Celeste Lindell

In response, I usually mumble something about the life of the mind, the challenges and joys of teaching, the thrill of research -- and, yes, that my parents did actively encourage my scholarly pursuits.

But now, I come clean: The real reason I became an historian was Nancy Drew, the plucky heroine of the eponymous mystery series. I thrilled to her adventures, relished her way with a clue and delighted in her ability to put two and two together. I envied her clothes and her sporty car, of course, and fervently wished that I might have a dash or two of her aplomb, but what really got to me was the way she reasoned. From where I sat in my pretty floral bedroom, nobody could hold a candle to the girl detective whose powers of discernment and intellection -- of sleuthing -- were without compare. Nancy Drew made me think.

Imagine my despair when I learned only last week that some of the earliest Nancy Drew mysteries were riddled with racist and anti-Semitic characterizations. Writing in Tablet, Marjorie Ingall, a longtime Nancy Drew fan like myself, revealed that the first generation of mysteries left a lot to be desired when it came to depictions of the Jews and African Americans.

As one of the characters in The Clue of the Broken Locket would have it, I was “hornswaggled” by the news, profoundly disturbed and utterly baffled, too, by my failure to have noticed these cruel and mean spirited references. So much for my nascent powers of observation!

But wait. It turns out that beginning in 1959, the author of the series not only contemporized the plots and their prose but also removed the offensive passages. The Nancy Drew whose exploits lined my bookshelves did not harbor prejudice.

Phew! What a relief! I’d hate to think that I owed my career to a wrong turn.

No sooner did I sit down to write this post than my ears were assaulted by the sounds of a jackhammer, which wreaked havoc with my powers of concentration. And then, to add insult to injury, the kid who lives in the apartment right below mine decided it was time right about now to tickle the ivories or, more to the point, to pound them. Oh, woe is me.

Sound Waves
Sound waves. Source: Smith College website

The only thing that served to ameliorate my sonic distress was the knowledge that I was not alone. In years gone by, similarly aggrieved New Yorkers took pen to paper and wrote to the municipal authorities, especially to the city’s department of health, to register their dismay at the racket that increasingly characterized urban life.

I picked up this juicy little fact from a fascinating interactive online exhibit called “The Roaring ‘Twenties” which draws on archival matter, maps and Movietone newsreels to document the aural history of New York City during the interwar years. An exercise in what its proponents call “sensory history,” the exhibition challenges us to think historically about sound.

Imagine the possibilities. We could eavesdrop on a synagogue service, whose frustrated clergy repeatedly called on those in the pews to stop talking and to tend to their prayers instead. Or we could take the measure of a sermon: Did its cadences lull its listeners to sleep or prod them into action? We could listen in on the often rancorous meetings of the all-powerful ritual committee as it decided which traditions to follow and which to relinquish. Conversations around the dinner table would also fill our ears, as would the stuff of vaudeville skits and theatrical performances. And what of the way things were taught? What of the sounds of the classroom? Of the workplace?

I’m jazzed by the prospect of integrating the history of sound into my own work and of drawing on the latest digital technologies to make that happen. I’m not sure what I’ll discover but one thing is for sure: I’ll be listening.


Like the making of history, the writing of history is a collaborative venture.  It may look as if ideas are entirely the product of the individual imagination but, as any honest, straight-talking historian will tell you, they are the result of a group effort.  The writer-cum-historian gets all the credit but were it not for the efforts of archivists, not much would get done.  Keepers of the flame, of the historical record, they are the great unsung heroes of the scholarly enterprise.

Flickr / Ben McLeod.

They are also among the very first to be fired when the chips are down.  When it comes to cutting institutional costs, archivists are widely thought to be the most dispensable.  After all, goes the reasoning, they are merely stewards of the past – guardians of paper -  rather than vital contributors to the present.

True, archivists do not generate money for their institutions.  But what they do generate -  and sustain and nourish -  is a vibrant sense of history, without which the broader community is impoverished in ways that go well beyond the contours of a budget.

Hadassah, the Zionist Women’s Organization of America, is currently celebrating its 100th birthday.  I can think of no better occasion for trumpeting the virtues of its splendid archives, which has been in existence for quite some time now, and for encouraging researchers to make use of its wealth of reports, scrapbooks, memos, letters and photographs.

But, alas, that’s not to be.  Hadassah has dispensed with its smart, resourceful and profoundly committed archivist and all but foreclosed the possibility of discovery, of the artful collaboration between historian and archivist.

We are all the poorer for it.

An offhand remark, a choice bit of gossip, a curious object, obituaries, marital notices – you never know where you’re going to find a juicy historical revelation.

Just the other day, while making my way through the Vows column of Sunday’s New York Times – something I do religiously – I came across a fascinating nugget of history.


There, in a story about the nuptials of one Kramer Morgenthau and his bride Tracy Fleischman, which took place in a former Roman Catholic cathedral in Los Angeles, the reporter referred, in passing, to how the young couple ceremonially drank from a kiddush cup that had been in the distinguished Morgenthau family for generations.

A gift – a gift(!) – from Herbert Lehman, a former governor of New York State, a United States senator and a member in good standing of American Jewry’s elite, whose comings and goings were chronicled in Stephen Birmingham’s celebrated book, Our Crowd, this delicious little tidbit or grace note personalized the mighty Morgenthaus and the redoubtable Lehmans.

To know that they valued a kiddush cup, passing it down from one generation to another, not only made me smile.  It quickened my resolve to be on the lookout for history even in the most unlikely of places.

Now that the 4th of July has come and gone, summer in all its glory bears down upon us. By rights, I should be on a beach somewhere, chasing the waves. Instead, I’m at the library, chasing footnotes.

NY Public Library
NY Public Library. Flickr/Wally Gobetz
My neck is buried in that infernal contraption known as a microfilm reader, my eyes ache from squinting at the fine print of a 19th century newspaper, my fingers tirelessly tap, tap, tap away compiling information -- and I’m in my element, happy as a clam.

Academics liked to joke that there were three truly great things about our profession: June, July and August. These days, thanks to the accelerated pace of life, June and August are pretty much given over to winding down and gearing up, respectively, leaving July our one shot at sustained research and writing.

I, for one, am hoping to make the most of it, so that when it comes time to account for how I spent my summer vacation, I’ll have what to show: no tan, but enough sentences to fill a sandbox.


As an historian, my stock in trade is change. Chronicling and analyzing how one thing gives way to another is what I do for a living, day in and day out. But taking the measure of Clio’s slings and arrows is one thing; actually experiencing them is quite another. When the forces of change affect me personally, dispassion goes out the window.

Scott Beale
Flickr/Scott Beale.
What prompts this confession is the news that a beloved New York City neighborhood institution, H & H Bagels, called it a day and closed its doors. As long as I can remember, the store hugged the corner at 80th Street and Broadway, the smell of onions and yeast wafting through the air.

Bagel cognoscenti might debate the merits of H & H’s offerings -- some palates fond them far too doughy, others just right -- but for me, the modest little storefront stood for something larger than a rounded piece of dough heaped with “everything.”

It represented the multiple ways in which a certain kind of Jewishness -- a decidedly vernacular, easy-going and undemanding form of Jewishness, at that -- found a place for itself within the urban landscape and within the deeper reaches of American culture.

Along with appetizing stores and kosher (or kosher-style) delicatessens and other Jewish food purveyors that once peppered the city street, the bagel shop brought about a sea change in what Americans ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Bagels became common fare. Expanding the American diet, the bagel also helped to expand, deepen and round out America’s relationship to its Jewish citizens.

I’ll miss my occasional bagel from H & H. But what I’ll miss even more is the history nestled within its little circular frame.

Multiple ties bind this blog and the university that hosts it to George Washington. We proudly take our name and many of our cues from him.

George Washington, Public Garden, Boston, Mass.
George Washington, Public Garden, Boston, Mass. Flickr/Eric Hatch
Under the circumstances, then, fans of the first president of the United States would do well to consult the June 24 issue of The Forward, which features both an editorial and a front-page article about the fate of the famous 1790 letter assuring the Jews of Newport of religious liberty.

As it turns out, this foundational document, a staple of American Jewry’s political and civic identity, currently reposes in a Maryland storage facility, where it’s kept under wraps. “What a loss!” The Forward declares, coming down hard in favor of publicly displaying the text.

At a time when simulacra have taken the place of the real thing, and historical literacy is increasingly an artifact of the past, taking the measure of an 18th century text with our own eyes is an experience to be cherished.

This article, which first appeared in the Forward's blog The Arty Semite, is part of a cross-posting partnership with the Forward.

By Menachem Wecker

"Black woods howl in the stove/Our dog turned into a lion/but today the grownups are/Frowning like a mean witch." So go the lyrics to Karel Berman's song "Children at Play" from his 1944 work "Poupata" (Buds), sung by Canadian bass Robert Pomakov.

Walter Braunfels
Walter Braunfels

Berman's lyrics convey a naïve perspective but were composed for a bass on purpose, according to James Loeffler, research director of Pro Musica Hebraica, an organization that revives neglected Jewish music.

"If the cantor is the sound of a grown man crying, this is the sound of a grown man being reduced to a child," said Loeffler in a November 18 lecture, "What Is Jewish Classical Music and Why Does It Matter?" at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

The talk preceded the 90-minute performance "War and Exile: The Music of Berman, Braunfels, and Ben-Haim," featuring the works of Jewish composers Karel Berman, Paul Ben-Haim, and Walter Braunfels. Pianist Dianne Werner accompanied Pomakov, while the Ben-Haim and Braunfels pieces featured violins (Benjamin Bowman and Marie Bérard), viola (Steven Dann), cellos (Bryan Epperson and David Hetherington) and clarinet (Joaquin Valdepeñas).

According to Loeffler, the Holocaust was a "backdrop" to the lives of the three composers, "but they are also three different key figures in a kind of mid-century moment of reconfiguring and rethinking what it means to talk about Jewish classical music."

Pomakov, who is not Jewish and does not speak Hebrew, said prior to singing the Berman music he had never sung Hebrew opera. The new experience opened his mind as a musician, he said. "You can get very stuck doing Beethoven and Brahms and all the usual stuff."

The performance also drew on his childhood. "I'm Catholic, and half of our Bible is the Torah," he said. "I grew up singing religious texts my whole life. It's something I can look to my past for."

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Charles Krauthammer, chairman of the board of Pro Musica Hebraica, introduced the performance.

"We started from the premise that this is a very neglected area of Jewish culture, and a neglected area of classical music," Krauthammer said of the organization he co-founded with his wife Robyn four years ago. "This is a small room in the mansion of Jewish culture, and an equally small room in the mansion of Western classical music."

According to Krauthammer, people tend to identify "Jewish music" with klezmer, songs like Hava Nagilah, or liturgical music sung in the synagogue. "This whole world of Jewish classical music, which is so rich and moving, has been neglected,”"he said.

Asked if he thought Pro Musica Hebraica's audience was mostly classical music nuts wanting to learn more about Jewish culture, or Jewish music aficionados looking to expose themselves to more classical music, Krauthammer said, "I'd like to do an exit poll." He estimated that two-thirds of the audience fits the latter category, and one-third was the former group.

However exposed to Jewish classical music the audience was, it was treated not only to something other than the usual stuff, as Pomakov explained, and not only to Jewish works on par with secular classical music, as Krauthammer suggested, but also to a program that was defined as much by its sounds as by its effect on the musicians.

Berman had Pomakov grinning at the humor of the childish lyrics, and Ben-Haim's and Braunfels's compositions moved the musicians into a symphonic game of Twister, where they were swaying in their chairs and coaxing palpable emotion out of the music.

James Loeffler will be coming to GW on March 8th to deliver the annual Fleischman Lecture in Judaic Studies. His theme: the storied relationship between the Jews and the violin. Stay tuned for details.

Many moons ago, when I was a graduate student in Jewish history happily spending my days doing little else but reading, one of the most intriguing books I encountered was not Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed, or Transactions of the Paris Sanhedrin or, for that matter, Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism but Werner Sombart's The Jews and Economic Life.

Creative commons licensed image by Flickr user Tracy O.
Published in German in 1911, this work sought to account for why, time and again throughout history, the Jews were to be found on one side, and one side only, of the ledger book--the side that placed a premium on money, on matters mercantile, rather than on agriculture and the production of organic matter. How was it, Sombart asked, that the Jews seemed characterologically drawn to capitalism?

Instead of turning to the usual suspects for answers--to statistics, say, or government records--the German sociologist turned to Judaism or, more to the point, to the desert where Judaism was born. Linking religion to topography and culture to climate, he allowed how the religion of a rootless, desert people accustomed to reckoning with the hard, tree-less environment of the desert gave birth to a way of thinking that rewarded abstraction. And, in the fullness of time, this predilection for abstraction flowered into capitalism.

Wild, wooly, fanciful and fantastic, Sombart's theory drew me like the proverbial moth to the flame. Whether it was right or wrong, grounded in a willful misreading of the Bible or a skillful, daring reinterpretation of it--none of this mattered to me. What mattered was the way Sombart transformed a mode of thinking into a cultural position, a way of being in the world, a social value. To put it another way, I liked the way Sombart thought.

His conclusions, laced with a kind of racism that precluded change, was something else again. But his imaginative process was nothing less than captivating, prompting me to range a bit more freely in my own work on the modern Jewish experience.

It's been years since I've had Sombart in my thoughts. But now, thanks to Jerry Muller's provocative and perceptive new book, Capitalism and the Jews, Sombart is back in my sights.

Muller's lucid and gracefully written account not only devotes a couple of pages to Sombart's musings about the Jews but also makes abundantly--and at times even painfully clear--how money is not simply an economic transaction but a cultural and social phenomenon, whose consequences transcend the marketplace.

Money has meaning, a social meaning, especially when it comes to figuring out the place of the Jews in the modern world.

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