10 Commandments of Jewish Heritage – Part 2

by Sally Berkovic

19 Jul 10 Commandments of Jewish Heritage – Part 2

Read Part 1

3. Thou shalt guard your archives and implement an effective collection policy

Buried in the detritus of attics of abandoned old synagogues, hidden in the locked cabinets of government bureaucracy, stored in shoeboxes in a kitchen cupboard shelf, or haphazardly filed in the papers of Jewish communities are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of documents that form the architecture of our institutional memory. Communal newsletters, government correspondence with Jewish communities, pinkassim detailing demographic data on each community, rabbinic letters, and Jewish military records are just some of the many documents reflecting organised, and disorganised, Jewish life.

However, it’s not always clear what can be found in archives and where they are located. Yerusha is a project designed to become the online hub of information regarding Jewish and Jewish-related archival materials in Europe, and will bring archival descriptions together onto a single, searchable online platform. It will be hosted by the National Library of Israel and complement the work of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People which was established in 1939 and holds the archives of hundreds of Jewish communities, as well as of local, national and international Jewish organizations and the private collections of many outstanding Jewish personalities.

In the digital age, there are challenges regarding born digital archives and ephemeral material. Are emails an archive? And are the online menus from the wide array of kosher restaurants worth saving so that, in time, someone will be able to write a social history of the food Jews used to eat?

While archives are particularly important for researchers studying the past, it takes prescient community leaders to organise archives for the future. Ephemeral items such as bar mitzvah invitations, community newsletters, flyers for film festivals and Jewish greeting cards form their own archival collection within a community. A new initiative by the National Library of Israel to proactively collect ephemera from Jewish communities in Europe will ensure that the chronicling of emerging forms of post-Holocaust Jewish life in Europe is recorded, not because of fear that it will be lost, but rather because it is intrinsically noteworthy and that scholars in the future will be able to draw on the material to construct a slice of social history.

03 archives

Ephemeron from the collection of the National Library of Israel


4. Thou shalt acknowledge the complex role of museums and encourage their on-line presence

Journalists flocked to report on the opening of the Polin museum in Warsaw in October 2014. At a cost of $100 million USD and occupying 4,000 sq metres, the Museum has eight different galleries that will “immerse visitors in the world of Polish Jews, from their arrival in Po-lin as traveling merchants in medieval times until today… “It is defiantly not a Holocaust Museum and focusses on the 1,000 year long history of Jewish life in Poland.

Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam, Paris, London, Moscow… it seems that every self-respecting European city has a prominent Jewish Museum and they all have active educational programmes for school children in addition to their ‘core business’ of exhibitions and preservation. The Association of European Jewish Museums lists over 60 Jewish museums in Europe however questions of their viability and sustainability are always on the agenda – for example, the Irish Jewish Museum is under threat of imminent closure and many smaller museums can only afford to be open on a part time basis.

In Europe, many museums exist where there is virtually no Jewish community and a study contrasting the impact of Jewish museums in America with its vibrant Jewish population and those in Europe (excluding obvious cities such as Paris and London with large Jewish populations) would be interesting. Jewish museums have an important socio-political role to play in exploring the tensions between universalism and particularism, i.e. other communities could learn to reflect on their own experiences of immigration, acculturation and assimilation from the Jewish experience. However, events in the last few months, including the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, should make us wary of platitudes that museums are a panacea and a cure-all for peace between nations.


School learning programme in the Manchester Jewish Museum (Manchester Jewish Museum)


5. Thou shalt listen, record and document the voices of experience

The decision to redact the Talmud, after years of oral transmission, ensured that its law and lore are still a core text of the Jewish people. It was a visionary decision because the centuries of ongoing debate continue to resonate in the study hall, and contribute to shaping our communities. Ruth Calderon, in her extraordinary maiden speech at the Knesset, exemplified the ongoing relevance of the Talmud.

Thus the template for recording the story of people’s lives was set, and through the collected diaries of travellers, prominent communal personalities and essayists, we have some understanding of daily life. In more recent times concerted efforts by University of Southern California Shoah Foundation to make audio-visual interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust has had an international ripple effect, and there are many other important projects interviewing survivors. Arguably, the stories of Jews from Arab Lands have not receive comparable attention and projects such as Sephardi Voices seeks to redress this imbalance.

Based in Vienna, Centropa interviewed 1,200 elderly Jews still living in the 15 countries between the Baltic and the Aegean (from Estonia and Russia to Greece and Turkey). “We collected and digitized thousands of family photos. Our interviewers spent up to twenty hours with each respondent, asking them to paint for us a picture of the world they grew up in – as well as the world they rebuilt for their families after the war.” Its educational resources are used by schools throughout Europe and America.

And what of the lives being lived now – who is documenting these stories? The leaders of Jewish youth movements, prominent Israelis who built the country, the women inspiring change within Orthodoxy, the Ethiopians in Israel, the last Jews in a village, the list is endless. And in what language? Despite the miraculous revival of the Hebrew language, it’s clear that English is increasingly the lingua franca of the Jewish people. Yet, there are other languages that must be captured as part of the story. In small numbers, Jews are still speaking to each in Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Median (Iran), Bukhori, and Juhuri. The Endangered Languages Alliance is collecting information on other past and present Jewish languages helping to preserve it for generations to come. We are a mobile people and those journeys and languages mean that we have interacted with so many others over time and capturing these stories complements the view we get only from the buildings we inhabit or the ritual objects that we use.

05 oral history Julian Sofaer

Julian Sofaer with his family photographs (Sephardi Voices UK)


To be continued …

Sally Berkovic is the CEO of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe

The essay was first published in eJewish Philanthropy.

The opening image is the ketubah of Jacob Gerson and Lea bat Samuel (Vienna, 1857) from the collection of the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives.