Conversations with Colleagues, On Becoming An American Jewish Historian, edited by Jeffrey S. Gurock (Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2018) 270 pages.

Conversations Between Colleagues has a personal, useful and informative festschrift flavor that honors the profession of American Jewish History, which in 50 years grew from a minor field of study in a handful of universities to a burgeoning academic growth field.

The rise of American Jewish History is tied to the  proliferation of Black, Women’s, Native American, and Latino studies, and the emergence of cultural, social, ethnic, gender, and LGBTQ history. Increased specialization of historical study derives from recognizing constituencies, social needs, methods, technology and historiography. What the future needs to know about the past is a continuing process.

The 16 contributors to Conversations with Colleagues, nine women and seven men, were born between 1940 and 1953, ten during the 1940s. Three scholars are at Brandeis in Massachusetts, four in New York, two in Washington, DC, and one each in Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Jerusalem.

These scholars transformed and amplified Jewish Studies. Many of the contributors acknowledge the intellectual guidance and inspiration they received from mentors. Credit goes to Polish born Salo W. Baron at Columbia; American born Jacob Rader Marcus who established the American Jewish Archives at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati; Arthur A. Goren who taught at Columbia; Moses Rischin at San Francisco State University; and Naomi W. Cohen of Hunter College of the City University of New York and Columbia University.

These historians display a curiosity to seek interesting paths that few have travelled. They were influenced in their childhood and adolescence by a love of reading and libraries that nurtured a desire to write and an ambition to contribute to the American Jewish story.

Their early careers revealed important chance encounters. Jeffrey Gurock mentions peregrinations, unexpected stumbles, and intellectual migration to describe his path to American Jewish history. Joyce Antler talks about accident and intersection. Dianne Ashton quested for something new to say, and told of stumbles. Mark F. Bauman used the words “meander,” “meandered,” “serendipitous meandering,” “serendipity,” and “accident.” Hasia Diner questioned the exercise as “potentially narcissistic.” Jenna Weissman Joselit used serendipity twice and “twist of fate.” Deborah Dash Moore referred to “several additional way stations” and an “odd turn of events.” Pamela S. Nadell “unexpectedly stumbled.” Jonathan Sarna, coming from a family where Jewish studies comprised the “family business,” influenced some of the contributors to the volume. Shuly Rubin Schwartz had an “unarticulated passion for history.” The books of several of these scholars sit on my shelves.

Careers are inexplicable, much relies on preparation and good fortune. Chance, coincidence, flukes, happenstance, juxtaposition, and synchronicity were unpredictable. Being at the right or wrong place at the appropriate or inappropriate time plays a part.

My formal Jewish education ended with Bar Mitzvah. In college I took no Jewish History courses. I developed British, Southeast Asian and Southern African expertise because I was born in London, served in Vietnam and my first academic appointment was in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. The pall of the Holocaust hung over my refugee family. In 1974 Karen and I moved to Omaha, Nebraska. The real estate agent asked us what parish we preferred. Preparing our son for Bar Mitzvah we affiliated with a synagogue. Alex Haley’s 1976 novel Roots exemplified the ethnic roots discovery movement. As a self-taught scholar of Nebraska Jewish history, I co-founded the vibrant Nebraska Jewish Historical Society in 1981.

Fortune and misfortune beset career paths. I wanted to write the Tillie Olsen entry for Jewish Women in America: Historical Encyclopedia. I contributed Barbara Tuchman and several women but not Tillie, which went to Constance Coiner who wrote Better Red: The Writing and resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur. Constance and her 12-year-old daughter Anna died on July 17, 1996 when TWA Flight 800 headed to Paris exploded shortly after leaving New York. The Olsen entry fell to me.

Life story telling, memoir and autobiography are vividly personal. They reveal difficulties and successes, rebuffs and failures, and unknown and undisclosed silence on what the author does not want to share. Gender and race play a vital role. In 1999 Gerda Lerner, women’s history pioneer, contributed the first chapter to Voices of Women Historians, The Personal, The Political, The Professional edited by Eileen Boris and Nupur Chaudhuri. In 2019 Louisiana State University Press published No Straight Path: Becoming Women Historians edited by Elizabeth Jacoway.

Conversations with Colleagues is a fine example of how personal experiences and changing political circumstances affect scholarship.

* Wikepedia reports “In academia, a Festschrift is a book honoring a respected person, especially an academic, and presented during their lifetime. It generally takes the form of an edited volume, containing contributions from the honoree’s colleagues, former pupils, and friends.”

Republished from San Diego Jewish World