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I've just returned home after having spent nearly a week -- and a most stimulating one, at that -- in Charleston, South Carolina, at an NEH-sponsored Summer Institute on Southern Jewry. Hosted by the College of Charleston’s Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture, academics from around the country gathered together to explore the impact of the South on the modern Jewish experience.

Outside, the humidity was so high you'd sweat up a storm even when standing still. But indoors, talk one sultry morning was of things that kept one warm rather than cool: of samovars, boiling water and tea.

An original Russian samovar/Flickr: mmoorr.

No, we hadn't taken leave of our senses on account of the weather. Rather, prompted by the institute's thoughtful and imaginative conveners, historians Dale Rosengarten and Shari Rabin, to think about what artifacts we might have at home that reflected Jewish immigrant life, the samovar loomed large in our deliberations.

The Russian "self-boiler" also loomed large in an archival photograph from the College of Charleston’s remarkable Jewish Heritage Collection: an early 20th century pawnshop in downtown Charleston, whose dusty, uppermost shelves were lined, cheek by jowl, with one samovar after another.

A characteristically lively discussion ensued, with the institute's participants wondering aloud how the samovar might have made its arduous way from the Pale of Settlement to the Charleston Peninsula; pondering why so many immigrants lugged the bulky, unwieldy thing from the Old World to the New; and querying where they might have obtained one in the first place (At a regional fair? From a peddler?). Questions beget questions.

I'm not sure we resolved much of anything, but in this instance, as in so many others throughout the institute, it wasn't for want of trying: Conversation flowed as thickly as strong, black Russian tea. More to the point, through a welter of carefully designed and varied activities -- walking tours, site visits, digital exercises, archival research -- we sought assiduously and sensitively to grapple with issues that were as insistently present as the samovar in the homes of Jewish immigrants and their descendants: the intractability of prejudice, the institutionalization of racism, expressions of cultural anxiety, the long shadows of the past, the protocols of memorialization.

I don't know whether the participants in the summer institute will continue to keep in touch as this summer yields to another. What I do know, though, is that right now I can't stop thinking of the ways in which the search for historical truth -- usually a solo enterprise -- rendered us a community.

There seems to be no end to the writing of history books.  Kindles, Nooks and the corner bookshop are thick with them. So numerous are brand new histories of this, that and the other thing that they threaten to crowd out and supplant the work of previous generations.

But not Oscar Handlin’s celebrated 1951 account of the immigrant experience, which he evocatively titled The Uprooted. In its 300 pages, Handlin, who died just the other day at the age of 95, put immigration at the center of modern America rather than at its margins, where it had long resided, and in the process created a brand new field:  immigration history.

In prose that often verged on the lyrical –  or, as one enamored reviewer characterized it, writing with the “grave, moving eloquence of the Psalmist” – the Brooklyn-born, Harvard historian trained his sights on the cultural, economic, religious and social costs of transplantation, on the “thousand trials” that awaited immigrants from Eastern Europe, Ireland and Italy.

Flickr/Wagner T. Cassimiro "Aranha"

For several generations, The Uprooted was required reading for those with a professional interest in American history.  It continues to be read today, more than sixty years later. Most recently, one of my Ph.D. students prepared for her comprehensive examinations by closely scrutinizing the text.

When it first appeared, Handlin’s account was hailed for its narrative sweep, command of historical sources and sensitivity to those at the grass roots. These days, its unblinking emphasis on deracination is what makes waves, as a latter generation of historians, schooled in new ways of thinking about history, are more inclined to highlight continuity rather than rupture between the Old World and the New.

No matter. The Uprooted and with it, the legacy of Oscar Handlin, remains intact.  As the New York Times put it way back when in the early 1950s, this was “history with a difference.”

We spend a lot of time thinking up ways to engage our students: tinkering with the text of our remarks, searching for le mot juste, much less the perfect illustration, devising imaginative exercises. The better the prep, we tell ourselves, the better the class.

Credit: James F. Clay/Flickr
But now and then, something happens in the classroom -- something entirely unanticipated -- and we're off and running. The most magical moments in the classroom, it turns out, are spontaneous rather than planned.

This week, the subject of my "Jewish Lives" class was Mary Antin and her 1912 autobiography, The Promised Land, a celebration-cum-manifesto of the processes by which immigrants became Americans. We discussed why the book was so widely reviewed and saluted in the years prior to World War I, why it has remained in print for nearly 100 years and what it might possibly offer those of us who've come of age in the 21st century.

Our exchanges, though lively, were couched largely in intellectual terms. The students tended to view the challenges that Antin faced through the prism of history, distantly. Finding one's voice and footing; figuring out which rituals and traditions to retain and which to jettison; how best, as Antin put it, "to take possession of America" -- all this seemed, well, academic.

And then, up in the front of the room, a first-year student who is usually quiet and contained began to speak in an accented English and with mounting excitement about the copy of The Promised Land which she had obtained via interlibrary loan: a first edition. More tellingly still, she told us how its tattered condition as well as its long, long list of stamped due dates bore witness to the book having been read and re-read -- and now, read again.

All of a sudden, it dawned on everyone in the room that Mary Antin’s words were not just glimpses into a world gone by or, for that matter, pretty turns of phrase. In one powerful moment, we came to understand that for some of us at GW in 2011, Mary Antin's words were as evergreen and fresh and vital as they had been way back when in 1912.

Who among us doesn't have a relative whose name was changed at Ellis Island? Rare, indeed, is the American Jew whose surname is the same as that of his or her European and Israeli cousins. Normative rather than exceptional, the immigrant's acquisition of a new name seems to be as American a phenomenon as, well, apple pie.

But now, in an article published by Dara Horn in Azure magazine, we're told that the changing-of-the-name is itself a bube mayse, an urban legend, a fabrication of the immigrant mind. It simply didn't happen, or, if it did, these flights of onomastic invention took place well before Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe even came to the New World. By Horn's lights, name change had little, if anything, to do with tone deaf inspectors at Ellis Island.

"Ellis Island Medical Exam." Flickr creative commons photo by jjprojects.

In an imaginative and extended riff, Horn not only denies the historicity of name changing but also claims that the whole thing, from start to finish, is a tall tale of expiation, projection and apology. Having so readily turned their backs on the Old World in their eagerness to become one with the New, Jewish immigrants, she claims, made the whole thing up. It's all one big mea culpa for our sins.

"By inventing a story that depicts their name change as beyond their control ... these immigrants sent a powerful message to future generations: I did not shed my Jewish identity intentionally. And despite the values of the country in which we are living I hope that you won't, either," she writes.

When I shared the latest news with my students, they were taken aback, even baffled. And not just baffled. Suddenly they were cast adrift, floating free of family stories that had once anchored them. Only a few days earlier, one of my students had written lovingly and at great length about how his great grandfather's name had been changed by an official at Ellis Island, and now he was being told that his forbear had made it all up. Who to believe? Dara Horn or grandpa?

The choice is not an easy one. Maybe it's easy for Horn to throw down the gauntlet, come what may. But where does that leave the rest of us who cherish the stories of how Smilensky became Smith, and Zabarsky became Zabar?

Midterms are upon us and with them, a barrage of dates, facts, lab reports and other exercises that place a premium on processing information.

I thought I'd buck that trend by having the students in my Jewish Geography course, which explores the relationship of the modern Jewish experience to the American landscape, do something a tad more creative: to imagine themselves as newcomers, as immigrants, to the New World and to do so through a venue of their own choosing – or devising.

Drawing on the kit and caboodle of ideas, sounds, impressions (and misimpressions) that constitute their cultural baggage – on family stories passed down from generation to generation as well as on old, sepia-toned photographs - the students were encouraged to think – really think – about what immigration, transplantation and dislocation actually entailed.

I'm delighted to report that they acquitted themselves admirably. Some took to paper, others to song and still others to YouTube, giving voice to diary entries, reminiscences, short stories, recipes and mini-documentaries. A couple of students even created a performance piece.

Several women imagined themselves as men, while a handful of men imagined themselves as women. Some inhabited a world of their own making, creating fictional characters. Others built on the foundational stories of their ancestors. And still others found a congenial, real life historical personality and imagined what it must have been like to have been him or her.

A whole lot of conjuring going on…

One can only wonder what the man in Luis Sanguino's "The Immigrants" is wondering. Creative commons Flickr content by Wally Gobetz.

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