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Arts & Culture As Remote Communities Dwindle, Jews Seek to Record Their Histories

April 7, 2006
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Growing up, Steve Hochstadt didn’t think much of the Buddha trinkets strewn about his house. “I thought that every family had little statues of Buddha in their house,” said Hochstadt, a history professor at Bates College in Maine. “I did not have a sense that my family was different from other families.”

Years later, those trinkets would come to fascinate Hochstadt, and lead him on a journey to his roots in Asia.

Hochstadt started by asking questions — first to his elderly grandmother, a German Jew who emigrated to Shanghai during the Nazi regime. Hochstadt soon learned that approximately 15,000 German-Austrian Jews had followed that path, lured to Shanghai by its Western business culture and relatively open borders.

“For many people, this caused them to re-emphasize their Jewishness,” Hochstadt explained. “They founded several synagogues, held cultural performances, opened Viennese pastry shops. They didn’t see themselves as Chinese.”

By the time he was done, Hochstadt had conducted 100 interviews, mostly in German, with Shanghai Jews now living in the United States. Thus was born the Shanghai Jewish Community Oral History Project.

Hochstadt is one of a growing number of Jewish oral historians working to capture the diversity of the Jewish experience. Through documentary filmmaking, tape-recorded conversations and a variety of other primary source materials, these projects give voice to vanished or vanishing Jewish communities in China, Iran, Iraq, Cuba and other unlikely locales.

Riv-Ellen Prell, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Minnesota, said the projects are part of a larger trend of oral histories. She described the medium, which sprang up in 1970s, as “the product of a cultural revolution.”

“Before, writing history belonged to those in power, with great education, who were predominately male,” Prell said. This version of history trumpeted one official narrative — that of the “winners.”

But with a swelling interest in the minority experience during the 1970s, all kinds of history makers and historical subjects came out of the woodwork. Pluralism became the norm.

“Suddenly an entirely invisible history became visible,” she said.

Jewish subgroups were among those whose stories were brought to the fore. Prell described the process as an exercise in communal self-awareness.

“What does it take for a community to gain self-consciousness, and then go to the larger Jewish community and say, ‘We have a story to tell?’ ” she asked.

For Homa Sarshar, a Persian Jew who grew up in Shiraz, Iran and now lives in Los Angeles, the answer to that question came in 1995.

A prominent journalist in the Iranian American community, Sarshar happed upon two oral history projects of Iranian Americans. While excited to discover the work, she was disappointed by what was left out.

“I saw that they hadn’t even talked to one Jew, let alone other minorities,” she said. “I mean, Jews had been around” in Persia “for 2,700 years — I thought somebody should talk about them.”

Sarshar founded the Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, a Los Angeles-based organization that seeks to document the life and history of Iranian Jews.

The center has conducted 100 interviews with Persian Jews — mostly in Farsi — produced 20 documentaries, collected 2,000 documents and published five books.

The center’s research focuses on the experiences of Jews in Iran between the start of the Constitutional Revolution in 1906 and the Islamic revolution in 1979. In two- to three-hour interviews, Sarshar and her colleagues ask subjects about life back then, touching on school, work, Jewish practice and coexistence with Muslims.

Sarshar said she adopted the methodology from the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, a Los Angeles-based organization that seeks to preserve Holocaust testimony.

“I didn’t have any clue how to conduct an oral history project when I first started out,” she said. “But they trained five of us. They showed us how to gather information.”

Hochstadt prefers a different technique.

“At first I started with a list of questions,” he said. “Then I realized what I wanted to do was to let people talk about their lives. I wanted to hear what they thought was important, what they wanted to say without me guiding them.”

But the conversation doesn’t always flow so easily.

When Carole Basri started taking oral histories of Iraqi Jews, she found even her own family members unwilling to talk.

“Telling these histories is a very painful process,” said Basri, a lawyer by training. “People don’t want to talk about being in jail, or hangings… nobody wants to think of themselves as a refugee.”

Over time, however, Basri was able to get Iraqi Jews to open up, using connections from her grandparents, who were prominent members of Baghdad’s Jewish community. She now has produced three documentary films and interviewed 100 Iraqi Jews in the United States, Canada, Israel, India and elsewhere.

“I wanted to understand what made people decide to leave and why they did leave,” she explained. “The oral histories were so important because I couldn’t get the answers anywhere else.”

Miriam Greenberg, a New York filmmaker compiling a documentary about Jews in Cuba, has run into other snags.

An assistant professor at the Pratt Institute, Greenberg says she can’t find funding for her film, which chronicles the experience of 50 Jews still in Cuba. Though the film’s production was supported through grants, “No todos nos fuimos” — “We didn’t all go” — has been on hold for the past two years.

“They gave money to produce it, not to edit it,” Greenberg explained. “We have over 60 hours of footage. It all needs translation, subtitles, graphics. It’s a rough cut.”

Greenberg says the delay is particularly frustrating because there’s such a pressing need to catalogue Cuba’s Jewish history.

“A lot of people who left Cuba after the revolution were the most involved — the rabbis, the teachers, the leaders of the community,” she said. “They took with them a lot of knowledge of the history of the community.”

Thanks to the recent rebirth of the island’s Jewish community, a younger generation of Cuban Jews is eager to hear their history.

“This is meant to bridge the generations,” Greenberg explained.

Hochstadt, who is pulling together interviews for two books about Shanghai Jews, also cited a time crunch.

“Most of my interview partners were teenagers or younger when they arrived in Shanghai,” he said. “The Jewish adults who made the decision to flee to Shanghai, who somehow found tickets and organized their trip, are by now no longer able to tell their stories.”

That would be a devastating loss, Hochstadt says.

“They’ve been from Europe to Shanghai to the United States,” he said. “They’ve lived around Japanese, Russian, French and Chinese. They developed an attitude that’s kind of remarkable — they are so tolerant.

“I think of them as world citizens,” he added. “They have seen the world.”

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