History’s Hold On The Current Moment


Historian Annie Polland, who joined the American Jewish Historical Society as executive director last February, has a particular interest in making the archive’s stories accessible to a broad and diverse public. Previously, she served as executive vice president for programs and interpretation at the Tenement Museum. She has written and co-written several books on Jewish history, including “The Emerging Metropolis: New York Jews in the Age of Immigration” and “Landmark of the Spirit,” about the Eldridge Street Synagogue. She grew up in Milwaukee and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.

At its annual Emma Lazarus State of Liberty Award dinner this week, the AJHS honored Nicki Newman Tanner and paid special tribute to women storytellers of the AJHS archive. The Jewish Week caught up with Polland last month just before the midterm elections.

Why does the study of history seem urgent right now?

A good study of history exposes complexities and subtleties. Coming to terms with those nuances and reconciling multiple perspectives sharpens our minds, helping us — hopefully — deal better with the problems we face at the moment. If we understand that the past was complicated, that people struggled over processes, that adaptation has always demanded compromise, perhaps we can feel more steadied and rooted, able to address the problems at hand. However, when we romanticize history as a simpler, better, static past, we tend to get into trouble.

What can we learn about the deep divisions in American Jewish life from studying history, and how can history help to bridge divides — in the Jewish community and beyond?

In NYC, we had one congregation until 1825 when a faction broke off to form a second congregation. By 1860 there were 60 congregations. So division among Jews isn’t a new or unfamiliar phenomenon. At the same time history can also show us how Jews shared ties despite political and religious differences. At the turn of the 20th century, Abraham Cahan, editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, published a series of debates involving religion and socialism among Jewish immigrants. The debates invited reader responses, and these letters show how the immigrants themselves embraced more complicated identities, referring to themselves and others as “half pious, half heretic,” or a “one-quarter enlightened, three quarters religious.” Most important, Cahan’s overall message was the importance of tolerance. So perhaps there’s some utility in looking for commonalities across difference and using tolerance to deal with the inevitable fact that Jews will not always agree.

History also shows us that Jews in New York and America devoted tremendous energy to organization: whether forming charities or identifying with a congregation, mutual aid society, labor union or even an anarchist club that feasted on Yom Kippur, Jews organized. A key to Jewish vitality and innovation is the care for and connection to a broader Jewish community, no matter how defined. On another level, history shows how in each generation Jews devised numerous ways to become American; perhaps that can then assure Jews today that it’s OK today to have different paths for the future.

There’s so much communal conversation about continuity and identity. How can history inform those conversations?

It’s hard to know what you are “continuing” if you don’t understand your identity, and you can’t understand your identity unless you explore your history. My experience in the museum world taught me the importance of storytelling, and how the sharing of primary sources and the piecing together of a puzzle engages people of all ages. American Jewish history offers a puzzle: how did Jews in past generations reconcile Jewish tradition and customs with American social, economic and political norms?

What have you learned about American Jewish women through the AJHS archives?

Going back to your question about continuity, often it’s been viewed reductively as an imperative that Jewish women have more children. I find that our archives help us look at the question of continuity qualitatively, as they show the innumerable ways Jewish women served the American and world Jewish community. Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah, brought public health to Palestine and saved thousands of refugee children; Ray Frank, the first “girl rabbi” published sermons throughout the country urging Jews to unite and create religious schools for children; Molly Picon, famed star of film and stage brought Jewish stories to life for young and old; Emma Lazarus wrote poetry and acted on behalf of newly arrived immigrants. None of them had children; nevertheless, they ensured Jewish continuity in pathbreaking ways.

What can we learn about the immigration issues our country is now facing by turning to American Jewish history?

American Jewish history and immigration are inextricably linked. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the American Jewish community was primarily first or second generation. Beyond that, American-born Jews often united through their work on behalf of immigrant Jews—whether it was the National Council of Jewish Women, the Baron de Hirsch Fund, the Educational Alliance, synagogue sisterhoods, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the many charities under the Federation umbrella, organizations to free Soviet Jews or bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Thus, even American Jews who were not themselves immigrants developed aspects of their Jewish identity through their work on behalf of immigrants.

Perhaps most illustrative of this dynamic is the red-leather bound notebook of Emma Lazarus, with the handwritten “New Colossus,” now emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty. It also lives in our archive, showing how a fifth-generation American Jew’s interest in Jewish history and interactions with new immigrants led her to write America’s most enduring poem.