Colleague once said key to writing/presnting is to come up with a good title, then writing to fit it

Jewish Genealogical Society of Oregon

History, Memory, Myth and Bunk: On Doing Jewish Family and Community History

By Scott Cline

Seattle Municipal Archives


Joint meeting of the

Oregon Jewish Museum


Jewish Genealogical Society of Oregon

Portland, Oregon

May 21, 2000


It is a great pleasure to be here this morning; to see some old friends and to talk a little Jewish history. I must admit that when I was asked to present, I harbored some concern — I have been out of the Jewish history business for a decade, and now I had to dust off my books, my research notes, and my memory. But happily the task was invigorating and, I want to thank you, the Oregon Jewish Museum and Jewish Genealogical Society of Oregon, for nudging me back, however fleetingly, into this intellectual arena.

A colleague once told me that the real challenge of writing a paper or giving a presentation was coming up with a good title. Once you’ve done that, he said, you simply write the paper to fit. When Abbey asked for a title and an outline of the subject matter, I came up with: History, Memory, Myth and Bunk: On Doing Jewish Family and Community History. And I said I would discuss:

the early Jews of Oregon,
the importance of history in developing ethnic identity,
memory and history,
the role of genealogy in community history,
and archival sources in the Pacific Northwest.

Whatever possessed me to claim that I could cover all of these topics in less than a semester is a mystery. Nevertheless, what I do hope to do this morning through the use of some brief illustrations, familiar and not so familiar stories, and a smattering of dry facts, is to say something meaningful about history, memory, myth, and bunk.

It is fitting that we discuss these topics today. We find ourselves in the midst of the most memory and history laden weeks of the Jewish calendar. We are not far removed from Pesah when at the seder table we proclaim that we are players in our own long history, when we declare that in each and every generation every Jew should feel as though he or she had gone out of Mitzrayim. Pesah is followed in rapid order by Yom ha-Shoah, commemorating the greatest disaster in Jewish history; Yom ha-Zikkaron, when we remember all the Jews who died in Israel’s wars; Yom ha-Azma’ut, Israel’s independence day; and Yom Yerushalayim, celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem. In three weeks, we end this period with Shavuot, when we all stand at Sinai and receive the Torah.

The two great mythic events in Jewish history, representing redemption and revelation, frame four modern historical commemorations. (I use the term myth here in the sense of its dictionary definition: "a traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people….") Additionally, Pesah and Shavuot both include Yizkor service, when we remember those generations of our personal and communal family who have died. We are surrounded during this time by history, myth, memory, and tradition — the foundations upon which we construct our past.

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, the Salo Wittmayer Baron Professor of Jewish History Culture and Society at Columbia University, in his wonderful book, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, observed that Judaism is absorbed by the meaning of history. He also noted, paradoxically, that historians and historical writing in the modern sense, played virtually no role in this fascination until the modern era. If we look at Jews in America and the nature of American Jewish historical scholarship, we see a parallel to Yerushalmi’s critique. The writing of American Jewish history is a relatively new phenomenon; and critical American Jewish historiography is even more recent.

The American Jewish Historical Society, the oldest ethnic historical society in the United States, was founded in 1892. This was an era that witnessed the great economic success of the German Jews in America, the opening of the flood gates of East European immigration, and the growth of social anti-Semitism at the upper and middle class rungs of Protestant American society. The Historical Society’s founders were vitally concerned with documenting to the broader community that Jews belonged in America, that they were not unlike their neighbors, and that they were here from Colonial times. In other words, they were operating from a sense of insecurity, with an almost desperate desire to legitimize Jewish citizenship and participation in the American experiment. Its programs and sponsored scholarship engaged in what future historians would call apologetics—that is, writing on the past designed to systematically defend the Society’s doctrine.

Parenthetically, there are recent examples of this mode of thinking. When I was in graduate school at Portland State University, I attended a public lecture on the pioneer Jews of Oregon by a history professor from a local area college. He noted that one of the first Jews in the town was Jacob Goldsmith who he claimed was a close relative of Bernard Goldsmith—a wealthy merchant and community leader of the 19th century—and of your own Neil Goldschmidt. The facts are that all three lived in Portland for some period of time, and that they are not related. The lecturer included other comments of dubious veracity to make the point that Jews were in Portland and Oregon at the beginning, throughout history, and into the present. He could have done this without relying on erroneous information.

The early American Jewish historians and sociologists were also myth-makers. For example, some speculated upon the Jewish roots of Christopher Columbus, on the Jewish funding of the Colombian voyages, on the essential role played by Jewish navigators and crewmen; none of which is particularly relevant to understanding the American Jewish experience, and much of which is specious, at best. We should note that myths are used to rationalize group experience and have very little to do with truth or falsity.

Perhaps the longest enduring myth was that of the melting pot, a myth that serves the needs of the host culture as well as the minority group. It argued that a free and open American society would lead to the total assimilation of immigrant communities, resulting in the disappearance of ethnic distinctiveness. The irony is that ethnic groups held fast to this myth in the first half of the 20th century in the face of social exclusion, but discarded it beginning in the 1960s when greater freedom and social acceptance would have allowed nearly complete assimilation.

Another defining myth was that of the wandering Jew or the perpetual immigrant. It posits that Jews are always on the move and are never at home in any host culture. It maintains that Jewish culture is distinct and must be recreated wherever Jews migrate, but can never be fully accepted by the host nation. This myth was certainly understandable in light of the massive westward movement of Jews out of Eastern Europe between 1880-1920. Its principle Jewish proponents were the Zionists, and the myth’s acceptance leads to comments like that of Israeli author Hanoch Bartov who wrote "a people that doesn’t live in its own country and doesn’t rule itself has no history."

But Jewish communities have always relied on history to invent themselves. It is my contention, and that of others, that the Jewish historian is critical to the development of our community’s self-identity and world view. The writing of Jewish history cannot be divorced from the problem of how to survive as a distinct group in a host culture and in another people’s space. The historian can show us what mechanisms have worked and which have failed in the relationship between groups and cultures. When couched in survival language, the historian’s craft takes on an almost sacred importance. Indeed, Franz Rosenzweig argued that the Bible is our history and that the writing of history is a continuation of the "holy work of writing Torah."

It was more than half a century after the founding of the American Jewish Historical Society before Moses Rischin’s PhD dissertation under the direction of Oscar Handlin initiated the process of reevaluating why and how Jewish history should be done in the United States. Subsequently published in 1964 as The Promised City: New York’s Jews, 1870-1914, Rischin’s work is arguably the most important monograph in the evolution of American Jewish historiography because he demonstrated that histories could be and should be unselfconscious, critical, and scientific. It is also significant for our purposes this morning that, ultimately, Rischin’s work is local history.

By local history, I mean works written about communities as both physical localities (states, cities, towns, neighborhoods) and sub-divisions (the cultural/ethnic/religious groups) within those localities.

As one commentator observed, "Local history is sometimes clouded in myth, colored by forms of ancestor worship, or confused with ideas of patriotism or boosterism." It is often the poorest of historical writing and is generally written with little concern beyond local boundaries and readership. But local history can also be work of enduring value and keen insight.

It must be noted that there is a wealth of good local history literature on the Portland and Oregon Jewish communities. Among those works are:

William Toll, The Making of an Ethnic Middle Class;
Steven Lowenstein, The Jews of Oregon;
Rabbi Julius Nodel’s history of Temple Beth Israel;
Gary Miranda and David Bernstein, Following a River;
Rabbi Joshua Stampfer’s unpublished biography of Julius Eckman;
My own work on the 19th Century Portland Jewish community.

Those of us who write local history should keep in mind this wonderful tale related by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner in his book God Was in This Place and I, i Did Not Know:

The story is told that a disciple of Shmelke of Nikolsburg asked his rebbe to teach him the mystery of serving God. The tsaddik told him to go to Rabbi Abraham Hayyim, who in those days was still an innkeeper. The student did as he was instructed and took up residence in the inn for several weeks. During all this time he failed to observe any special indication of holiness in the man. He seemed only to attend to his business. Finally, in desperation, the disciple went up to the innkeeper and asked what he did all day.

"My most important job," said Rabbi Abraham, "is to make sure the dishes are cleaned properly. I do my best to make sure that no trace of food remains on the dishes. I also clean and dry the pots and pans carefully so that they do not rust."

"That’s it?" asked the student incredulously.

"That’s it," replied the innkeeper.

Whereupon the disciple returned home and reported what he had seen and heard to his master.

"Now you know everything you need to know," Rabbi Shmelke said.


Rabbi Shmelke’s point is instructive beyond religious homiletics. The lesson is that each activity should be undertaken with diligence, attention to detail, and as if God is present. This should be translated to doing history—whether academic, community, or family history. We need to engage historical writing as a critical action, paying due attention to it’s impact on our communal lives. Historian Allan Nevins, an astute observer of the local history process noted "…the special advantage of the local historian is that he can come closer to the individual man, woman and child than the large-scale historians; and if he makes the most of this opportunity, he can at once perform the greatest service to history and achieve the finest literary effects."

My Master’s thesis was local history, and while it may not have achieved the finest literary effects, it has been used by other historians, which is gratifying indeed. I embarked to explore the internal and external relationships that shaped the 19th Century Jewish community in Portland. When I started the research I asked Bill Toll, who was then working on his magnificent academic history of the Portland Jewish community, what I should do first; he said to read every local Jewish history I could get my hands on. (And believe me, there were many of them) I also was counseled by an article Nevins wrote in which he cautioned: "The anecdotal and the picturesque have their place in local history, but they are easily overdone." All of our actions take place in history, but not all of our actions are worthy of being recorded. Some anecdotes can illustrate broad truths or ideas in history, while others, no matter how interesting, tell us almost nothing.

With this in mind, I want to turn to a few episodes in Oregon Jewish history to illustrate this point. The first is my favorite story, the account of Rabbi Moses May’s eight year career in Portland.

May was a brash, uncompromising, probably immature 24 year old rabbi (he may not have been ordained) hired in 1872 as spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Israel. At the time, the congregation was using the Minhag Ashkenaz (also known as the German Minhag), the prayerbook that had accompanied the mid-19th Century Jewish immigrants to America. Upon his arrival at Beth Israel, May demanded that the congregation use Issac Mayer Wise’s reform prayerbook Minhag America. The Board of Director’s, as Boards will do, took a stand in opposition and rejected May’s request. However, in 1874, the Board reversed itself after May sent an intemperate letter to the congregation that charged his services were hindered by indifference and lack of consistency by the members: "And Gentlemen! How is it possible for any minister to do good where there is such a lack of good spirit,…You have no regularity in your school nor in your synagogue, and against all my endeavors to please the Congregation I stand in the midst of a chaos of forms and it is very difficult to discern whether to go to the right or to the left."

Charles Friendly, Beth Israel’s president, attacked the congregation’s erosion of faith following adoption of the new prayerbook and after Beth Israel had joined the newly formed Union of American Hebrew Congregations. He charged: "our children will have reason to say that our fathers are not only hippocrytes [sic] but worse than heathens, as that race professes idolatry--and practice(s) the same…." Lines were clearly drawn between American reforms and what was seen as tradition.

Divisions deepened during the next four years. In 1876 an unofficial committee of the more traditional members formed to find a new rabbi, but May’s proponents, the majority at this point, managed to get him re-elected in 1877 for three more years. A new Board in 1878, however, advertised for a new rabbi, one who would use the German Minhag. Nevertheless, the May supporters within the congregation prevailed again.

Then, in January 1879, four members of Beth Israel leveled a series of serious charges against May. They claimed that he was guilty of

1) insulting the women of the congregation,

2) slandering and blackmailing several members,

3) opening other people’s mail

4) threatening to join the Unitarian Church if Philip Selling was re-elected congregation president, and

5) being "an immoral man and an unbeliever in the doctrines of the Holy Writ".

It took eight months of wrangling before the congregation not only exonerated May, but extended his contract for two additional years.

The eight years of turmoil came to a head in September 1880, however, when May became embroiled in a heated conversation with Abraham Waldman in front of the stove and tin store of Levi Hexter and Levi May. The 65-year old Waldman was one of the traditional members of the congregation and a former director of the religious school, who argued for the German prayerbook and instruction of the school children in the German language. The public argument with May intensified, Waldman became enraged, and struck the rabbi, knocking him to the ground. The two men were separated -- whereupon May brandished a revolver from his coat and fired several shots at Waldman.

As providence would have it, May was a poor shot. But the reverberations from the incident caused May to resign, issuing an understated letter in which he said: "Being desirous of promoting harmony in your Congregation and understanding that my resignation as chazan and teacher will have a tendency in that direction I hereby tender my resignation." The congregation accepted his resignation and paid him the balance of his salary.

As interesting as it is, May’s cowboy response is only of passing historical importance. Religious discord and congregation-rabbi tensions were not isolated to Portland—although gun play was not a common theme elsewhere. The May story illustrates the conflict between traditional Judaism and acculturative religious forms in communities that were struggling to shape a Jewish response to the open and volunteer nature of America, a struggle that played out over and over again in countless American communities. It also points to the difficulties Jews had in determining whether to maintain their native German culture or to adopt the language and trappings of the host society.

This was not the first religious dispute to divide Portland Jews. Beth Israel was established in 1858 by German Jews who, despite the internecine squabbles of the 1870s, were far more liberal in religious thought than their Polish counterparts. By 1869 enough Prussian and Polish Jews lived in Portland to form their own Orthodox congregation, Ahavai Sholom. A member of the new congregation wrote to the Anglo-Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Messenger, that the new congregation was needed because Beth Israel was guilty of copying the reform congregations of San Francisco and New York by "mimicking third hand here, the fashionable congregational life of the merchants of New York, which borders closely on nihilism and gentilism. What is to be a synagogue is actually to have every appearance of a radical gentile church, and in its teachings it is to abolish all distinctive marks of the revealed religion of Moses,…" The founding of Ahavai Sholom and the tension between the two congregations illustrates some of the cultural and religious differences between the Polish and German Jews who found their way to Portland in the mid-19th Century.

On the opposite end of the anecdotal curve is the sordid story of Nathan Cohen and Fanny Hyman. Fanny lived in Troy, Ohio, with her uncle Jacob Wasserman who was the brother of Portlanders Philip and Henry Wasserman. In 1857 she decided to move to Portland. It was arranged that she be accompanied to Portland by Nathan Cohen, a Prussian watchmaker. They first traveled to New York City, in January 1858, where they were scheduled to book passage to San Francisco. They stayed in New York with Nathan Hyman, another of Fanny’s uncles.

The two men conspired to detain Fanny until she agreed to marry Cohen, threatening to leave her destitute in New York if she did not accede. Not being allowed to communicate with her relatives for four months, she finally agreed to the union, "protesting and remonstrating against it." The newlywed Cohens then sailed for San Francisco and Portland in early July.

Upon arrival in Portland Fanny left Cohen and took up residence with her uncle, Henry Wasserman. She and Wasserman petitioned the Oregon Territorial Legislature to grant a divorce which was affirmed in December of 1858. While divorce was uncommon among Portland’s pioneer Jews, no stigma apparently attached to Nathan Cohen. He became a member of Congregation Beth Israel and later affiliated with Congregation Ahavai Shalom. Fanny’s fate is unknown."

This interlude borders on the sensational, and the events, no doubt, had a profound impact on Fanny. And while it might tell us something of the vulnerability of single women at this time, it does not seem to provide evidence of larger issues faced by the Jewish community. Nevertheless, this story is instructive for the prospective community historian in relation to the provenance of its source materials. The May episode was gleaned from obvious, traditional sources -- a careful reading of the Beth Israel minute books and from different newspaper accounts of the shooting. Fanny’s story, on the other hand, is found in government records — in the records of the Oregon Territorial Legislature.

Similarly, the City of Portland’s mid-19th century City Council documents also served me well when I was preparing my thesis. I located the annual mayoral messages delivered by Philip Wasserman and Bernard Goldsmith, as well as other messages the two Jewish mayors sent to the Council.

Washington Park
Chinese Civil Rights
Public Health

The same Council Documents collection included voting records for the 1850s and 1860s. Police Arrest Records, then held by Portland State University, confirmed that few Jews had run ins with the law.

Moving north for just a moment to the Seattle Municipal Archives, I discovered a petition submitted to City Council in 1920 calling for an ordinance to close shoe shining establishments on Sundays. Virtually all of the bootblacks who signed the petition were Jewish, most of them from the large Sephardic community that had recently settled in Seattle. Among the names on the petition are:

Albert, William and Samuel Angel
Jack, Bohor and Israel Hasson
Israel, Samuel, and Simantov Nahmias
Morris Alhadeff

This petition is evidence of Jewish occupations in Seattle, especially the concentration of Sephardim in this unskilled occupational stratum.

Now I want to look at an historical anecdote that involves perhaps the most beloved member of the Portland Jewish community, Ben Selling, best known as the businessman who sponsored countless numbers of new immigrants after the turn of the 20th Century. His family was among the very early pioneers in Portland. Ben received his business training in the store of his father Philip, took over the family business in the 1880s, and in turn, began training his younger relatives and the sons of family friends. Selling sponsored young clerks and merchants and set them up in branches of the family business located in the towns of Prineville, Pendleton, Joseph, and others. Among those was a young cousin, Julius Werthheimer. Much to Selling’s displeasure, Julius apparently enjoyed the company of women of dubious character and local gamblers.

In 1884, the 40-year old Selling, looking after the best interests of both the company and his 21-year old cousin, wrote to Werthheimer: "…you must positively let women alone, and cards also, if you want your friends to assist you and respect you….When you have made enough money so that you can support a wife it will be time to pay attention to women, until then let them all severely alone or you will surely regret it."

To Selling’s dismay Julius continued his errant ways and Ben threatened to remove him from the business. Subsequently, an exasperated Selling transferred Werthheimer to Joseph, Oregon, "to get you away from bad company and try to make a man of you. You are not up in the country for you health...but to make and save money. It will not be long before your father and mother will depend entirely on their children for support."

This episode, documented in Selling’s business letterpress books at the Oregon Historical Society, illustrates several common themes found in 19th Century American Jewish history. Successful Jewish businesses spread throughout the regions of the nation, establishing branches to serve small communities. These branches, as well as the larger houses of other firms, created a distinctively Jewish commercial network that was used as a training ground for young men, and sometimes women, and for the extension of business credit. Selling certainly epitomized the conservative Jewish businessman who did not tolerate anything but the serious attention to business by the younger generation. Correlation between occupation and marital statistics show that financial and business success was the precursor to marriage and creating a family. It also tells us something about inter-generational responsibilities -- that Werthheimer was expected ultimately to care for his aged parents.

While this tale illustrates much about the nature of the Jewish community during the time period at hand, it also can be used to fill in rich detail in a family history. This is part of the merging of traditional history and genealogy—for as one family historian put it: "Genealogy is simply history on a personal scale."

This quote overstates the case somewhat; although I would argue that all family historians should strive to situate themselves and their families in the time, place, space, and life of their surroundings; to develop an understanding of how events, places, and contact with other cultures affect the family dynamic and development. In doing this, one creates a better understanding of self and hopefully adds to historical evidence.

I recognize that there are many reasons that people undertake family history. For most people, it is a great source of enjoyment; it’s fun. For some, it is all about pedigree; for others it is discovering the how and why of their current lives. For some, it has to do with salvation. All are legitimate reasons, although I would argue that by degrees some reasons are less noble than others.

When I lived in Cleveland, Ohio, well over 15 years ago, I ran the Cleveland Jewish Archives which was a program of the Western Reserve Historical Society, one of the great genealogical research centers of the upper Midwest. In a strange juxtaposition that I still muse on periodically, I shared my office with the records of the local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter. Every Tuesday morning three older women would invade the office, pull out these records, and spread them across one of the oversized desks. They spoke in very quiet tones, so as not to disturb me. They were quite lovely and I came to appreciate their company and good humor.

One of the women was also a member of the Daughters of the Mayflower. One morning I overheard an animated discussion that grew progressively louder. The leader of the three had discovered evidence that a close friend, also a DAR and Daughters of the Mayflower member, was not really descended from passengers on the Mayflower. The dilemma for this woman was whether to report the findings, which would result in her friend’s expulsion from the organization. It was clearly a troubling and painful problem for her. But her interest in the integrity of the Daughters of the Mayflower, as she viewed it, led her to disclose her evidence and her friend was expelled. Although this incident has some disturbing implications, such as ratifying group exclusivity based on pedigree, I did learn from the DAR women that rigor in genealogical research is not an oxymoron.

Pedigree construction however, also has its counterpart in Jewish family history. When I first began research in the methodology of Jewish family history, I found several references to researchers who desired to trace themselves to famous Jews—Rashi seemed to be the ancestor of preference; much as Charlemagne was among some Christian genealogists. Most disturbing to me, as an historian however, were the claims of descent made not based on solid evidence, but more on wishful thinking.

When I was asked to teach a course on Jewish family history at the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies in 1983, I read whatever I could get my hands on to inform my lectures. One of those works was Finding Our Fathers by Daniel Rottenberg. This otherwise useful book is marred by the author’s introduction in which he claims descent from King David. Going even a step—a giant step—further, he observes "…many Jews can indeed trace their lineage back to Adam, with a little help from the Bible and some inductive leaps of faith." Rottenberg claims this for his own family history in the following passage:

"Consider the lineage I constructed after discovering in some old Hebrew books that the Margulies branch of my family claimed to be descended from Rashi,….Rashi is supposed to have been descended in the thirty-third generation from Johanan ha-Sandalar….a great grandson of Rabbi Gamliel the Elder, who was in turn the grandson of Hillel….

"Tradition holds that Hillel was a direct descendant of King David. And from there, with a little research into the Good Book, it’s an easy jump back to Adam himself."

Are you familiar with the famous quote from Henry Ford: "History is bunk." Well Rottenberg’s genealogy is bunk. His use of phrases like "inductive leaps of faith", "claimed to be descended from", "supposed to have been descended from", and "tradition holds," and his faith in the genealogies of the Tanahk are troubling. I don’t dispute the possibility of his pedigree, just his scholarship. As an historian, I prefer hard, corroborating evidence. If one’s research reaches a dead end, so be it.

A very different reason to do genealogy is as an article of faith. This is the purview of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. The Mormon’s, of course, are the best friends that Jewish genealogist have, since they alone made the initial inroads into the reconstruction of family records – including Jewish records – in Eastern Europe. Genealogy among the Mormon’s, as you may know, is a theological endeavor based on the religious tenet that one can posthumously baptize one’s ancestors and thus allowing them entrance to paradise. The possibility of providing one’s ancestors with eternal rapture and of ultimately spending eternity with one’s whole family is as compelling a reason to engage in genealogical research as one can imagine.

In addition, the Mormon Religion is young, less than 200 years old. Historically speaking, it is a religion of converts. Theoretically, Mormon ancestors could be from anywhere in the world, depending on who converted to the religion. This led the church to request and receive access to the records of Eastern Europe and permission to microfilm records at a time when westerners did not routinely travel into the Soviet block.

Jewish family history does not have a theological imperative, but it does have religious antecedents. Genealogy and family recordkeeping is an important component of Torah. There are three types of genealogy in the Torah:

There is the pedigree of Adam. For example, Genesis Chapter 5 begins "This is the book of the generations of Adam." And it then lists all of the begats from Adam to Noah. Rabbi Ben Azzai translated this verse as "This is the book of Man." Either way—in the particular genealogy of Adam or the universal genealogy of humankind—the passage suggests the idea that this is the beginning of our history. Christians later built on this genealogy to trace Jesus’ lineage to David ha-Melech.
A second type of genealogy in the Torah is found in Genesis Chapter 10; it is the Table of Nations, a recounting of the collective lineages of Noah’s descendants; and again in Numbers Chapters 1-3 which include the census taken in the wilderness camp and the pedigrees of Aaron and Moses. These speak to nationhood rather than individual lineage.
Finally, there is the introductory genealogy; used to introduce a new personage to the narrative. Perhaps the most striking example is the Akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac. This most compelling of stories ends with five verses tracing the genealogy of Rebecca, which Rashi tells us was done to introduce her before the next parsha. It is also a symbolic literary construct that illustrates Jewish continuity from generation to generation.

If we accept Rosenzweig’s contention about the Bible as our history, and historical writing being an extension of the holy work of writing Torah, we can make the case that genealogy, too, is an important undertaking in recording the progress of Jewish history, if not toward the perfectibility of the world, at least toward the perfect understanding of who we are and how we got to this place.

This idea is stated no place better than in the final chapter of Alex Haley’s great work, Roots. Remember the scene: Haley arrives in the village of Juffre, the griot (the keeper of stories) recites the Kinte lineage, and Haley recognizes it as the Kunta Kinte story he had uncovered. The villagers dance around him and women place babies in his arms—this ceremony, he learns later, is called "laying on of hands." And the griot intones "Through this flesh, which is us, we are you and you are us!" In this story, history and genealogy have merged with collective memory to create a new self-identity for Haley and to add, however, slightly, to the world-view of the residents of Juffre.

Collective memory is not genetic, although it is so central to our Jewish communal identity that it might seem part of our DNA. Memory is structured by social and cultural frameworks consciously constructed to sift through our individual and collective experience. It is a repository in which our stories are appraised and arranged by what is to be remembered and, maybe more important, what is to be forgotten.

In a brilliant study of memory, history and his mother, historian Richard White pronounces that history is cruel, it is the enemy of memory. History and memory are different constructions of the past and, in order for them to be mutually useful, they must be put into conversation with one another.

White relates a story that his mother, Sara, tells of an experience she remembers from her childhood, growing up in Ireland. Without recalling the exact date, Sara tells of young Eddie Carmody, an IRA member from her village of Ballylongford, who was killed by British soldiers, a tragedy that seared the heart and soul of the local population. To place his mother’s personal memory and the event in historical time, White researched the killing only to discover that it occurred in 1920 when Sara was not yet one year old. But Sara was raised in a culture where individual memory and collective memory fused to construct a past that is non-linear. As White noted, the Irish troubles are remembered as one death which includes all Irish deaths and deprivations from the age of Cromwell to the killing of Carmody in 1920. They are all the same in the minds of Sara, her family, and the other residents of Ballylongford, even when they are historically unrelated.

White confesses that as an historian, he is compelled to find where memory fails historical fact. But he also recognizes that memory is an important cultural phenomenon critical to group identity and runs too deep to be renegotiated by historical correctives. His work, rather, is an attempt to define a playing field on which history and memory can coexist. (He actually uses a garden metaphor in which history stops at the garden gate and memory’s paths venture deep into the overgrown foliage). Sara’s Irish story and Haley’s African story are ultimately the same as our Jewish stories. We must recognize that the texture of our memories creates a cultural context that makes our lives distinctively Jewish. The historical endeavor, including the work of the genealogist—links us to our past and makes our present relevant. Both history and memory are vital, for we need memory to construct our cultural identity and history to discover objective truth about our past. Both must be nurtured.

In conclusion, I want to stress, from the historian’s perspective, the point I’ve tried to make throughout this talk, that history defines who we are. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to safeguard the historical discipline. We need only look to England and the work of David Irving and to the revisionists of Stalin’s Soviet Union to recognize the dangers of not guarding the past. As Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi so eloquently, if somewhat hyperbolically, wrote:

"Against the agents of oblivion, the shredders of documents, the assassins of memory, the revisers of encyclopedias, the conspirators of silence, against those who, in Kundera’s wonderful image, can airbrush a man out of a photograph so that nothing is left of him but his hat--only the historian, with the austere passion for fact, proof, evidence, which are central to his vocation, can effectively stand guard."

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