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Joshua Furman joins us to discuss the Houston Jewish History Archive and how this effort to preserve the history of Houston’s Jewish community after Hurricane Harvey brings together the strands of American Jewish history and the challenges posed by human-caused climate change, how we try to preserve the past against the tide of a changing world and adapt in order to create sustainable lives and communities.
Read about the Houston Jewish History Archive:
- Houston Jewish History Archive on Facebook
- Press release: Rice Launches One-of-a-Kind Houston Jewish History Archive in Fondren Library
- American Libraries Magazine on the impact of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma on libraries and archives
Other archives, initiatives, and ideas discussed:
- Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin
- American Jewish Archives, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (Cincinnati)
- American Jewish Historical Society (New York City)
- Center for Jewish History (New York City)
- Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston
- Leo Baeck Institute (New York City) and DigiBaeck
- On climate change and history: Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 197-222
- Community-based archives
- Andrew Flinn, “Independent Community Archives and Community-Generated Content: ‘Writing, Saving and Sharing our Histories,’” Convergence 16, no. 1 (2010)
- Andrew Flinn, “Archival Activism: Independent and Community-led Archives, Radical Public History and the Heritage Professions,” InterActions 7, no. 2 (2011)
- Michelle Caswell, “Inventing New Archival Imaginaries: Theoretical Foundations for Identity-Based Community Archives,” in Identity Palimpsests: Archiving Ethnicity in the U.S. and Canada (2014, Litwin Books), pp. 35–52
- Michelle Caswell, Marika Cifor, and Mario H. Ramirez, “’To Suddenly Discover Yourself Existing’: Uncovering the Impact of Community Archives,” American Archivist 79, no. 1 (2016): 56–81
The Houston Jewish History Archive was established in 2017 just before Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston. Meyerland, the area of southwest Houston where many Jewish families and community institutions are based, was heavily affected by the flooding. As a result, many historical documents and materials were unfortunately damaged and Josh and his team have been working to salvage materials and preserve them at Rice University.
Joshua Furman is the Stanford and Joan Alexander postdoctoral fellow in Jewish studies at Rice University, and he is also the inaugural director of the Houston Jewish History Archive. He received his PhD in modern Jewish history from the University of Maryland in 2015.
What follows is an edited version of the conversation.
Jason Lustig: I thought you might be able to start off by telling me a bit about the Houston Jewish History Archive. How did it get started, and what are you trying to accomplish with it?
Joshua Furman: In 2015, I was asked to give a lecture about Houston Jewish history at our Jewish Community Center, but I didn’t know anything about Houston Jewish history. I’d lived here for a year or a year-and-a-half. And at that point, I said well, that’s fine. I’ll go to the library and I’ll check out a book. But I quickly discovered there really wasn’t a book on Houston Jewish history, and I thought that was curious. Houston is the fourth-largest city in the United States. There have been Jews living here since Houston has been a city. Why hasn’t anyone done that work? And I did some research, and I found what I thought was a pretty interesting story, and I gave a lecture and then I began developing it as a book.
But last summer, Matthias Henze, who’s the director of the program in Jewish studies here, and I were thinking about a bigger project that we could work on to try to fill that void in the field, to try to create something to put Houston Jewish history on the map. And so the original conception of this initiative was less an archive in the sense of collecting documents and more of a project, let’s say, the central focus of which in June or July of 2017 was really oral history. We thought we would primarily be collecting oral histories about Jewish life in and around Houston. So that’s where things started, and then hurricane Harvey hit in August 2017 and that changed everything
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JL: So in what ways did that really change the situation?
JF: If you if you didn’t live through Hurricane Harvey, it’s difficult to imagine what living through a natural disaster of that magnitude is like. And it’s not the first major flood that Houston, or even the Jewish community of Houston, has seen. There were three devastating floods in Houston just in the last three years, on Memorial Day weekend of 2015, the Tax Day Flood of 2016, which hit in April, and then, of course, Hurricane Harvey in late August of 2017. Each of these floods had a devastating toll really on all parts of Houston, but they hit southwest Houston, which is the historic center of the Jewish community of Houston since the early 1960s, particularly hard.
Houston is already a flood-prone city. And with floods comes destruction and devastation. As a historian, what that means is that every time there’s a flood, people go through their possessions and their belongings, and institutions go through their possessions and belongings, and things are thrown away. Things get wet, they get ruined. They get moldy, they’re disgusting, and they’re just discarded.
What that meant was that the documentary record of Houston Jewish life, which by and large had never been systematically collected before, was quite literally endangered. And so in the days immediately following the storm, thinking about what can I offer to the city in the community as a historian, in terms of how we move forward from this, I said, well, maybe we can save some of the documents that got wet.
So I called a colleague of mine, Dr. Melissa Kean, who is the Centennial historian of Rice University. My wife and I met her at United Orthodox Synagogues, which is a Modern Orthodox synagogue located across the street from Brays Bayou, one of these major waterways that flows throughout the Houston area that took in at least six feet of water during Hurricane Harvey. And we put on N95 masks and gloves, and we went into this flooded building and there was a storage closet that had shelves of binders on it with board meeting minutes, cemetery maps, commemorative synagogue history books from the 1960s. And this stuff is not only soaking wet and smells awful—some of it had mold on it from prior floods. It just hadn’t been touched in decades. And we we pulled it out, and we put pieces of white paper in between each page to try to dry it out. Some of it was just too wet and had to be discarded, but a lot of it was ultimately brought to Rice, so we’ve been able to preserve most of it.
And then we decided to continue this work to see where else in the city we could find endangered, ruined documents. We went to Congregation Beth Yeshurun, which is a Conservative synagogue here in Houston. It’s actually the largest Conservative synagogue in the United States in terms of member families, so we’re talking about a very important Institution. Beth Yeshurun had a “heritage room” which flooded badly. A lot of materials had been left on the floor and got very wet. A lot of people from the synagogue and actually students from Rice University came, and community members came to try to help dry out some of these ruined documents.
It became clear to me at that point that Rice University had an opportunity to play a really important role in preserving the documentary record of Houston Jewish life. We have a special collections room, we have archivists on staff, and we have historians like myself and my colleagues who know the history of Jewish life in this city and who are in a position to be able to find these documents, acquire them, preserve them, and then make them accessible.
JL: It’s really an incredible project. Do you maybe want to say something briefly about the history of the Houston Jewish community, and maybe why it matters? And also how your project fits into this wider context.
JF: Sure. It’s interesting. Houston is the fourth-largest city in the United States, but its Jewish Community is really only, I think, in the latest demographic study that was done a year ago, ranked 32nd in terms of largest Jewish communities in America. So, the pace of growth in Houston in the in the twentieth century into the twenty-first century doesn’t match the pace of growth of Houston’s Jewish Community, which might help explain in part why historians of American Jewish life tend to overlook it, because it’s not an exceptionally large Jewish community, and it’s not an exceptionally small Jewish Community. There seems to be a predominance of interest at either end of the spectrum: studying the New Yorks and the Los Angeles and the Chicagos, or studying small-town Jewish life. I think Houston has escaped the attention of Jewish historians because it is kind of in the middle, and most of its growth as a Jewish Community is relatively recent.
It’s really only since the 1970s that the Houston Jewish community began to attract significant numbers of Jews from other parts of America and from other countries, and that has to do with Houston’s warm climate. It has to do with NASA and the medical center being job magnets for both American Jews and also Jews from South Africa, many of whom came here in the 1970s and 1980s. And so even though the Houston Jewish Community is not that big, there’s a large community of Jews from South Africa here and there are Soviet Jews here. There’s an Israeli Jewish community here. And so to study the Houston Jewish Community, first of all, is to study a community with a large proportion of Jews from somewhere else. There are certainly families who have been here for generations. But most Houston Jewish families only go back one or two generations, if that. So it’s a community predominantly, from the vantage point of 2017, of recent arrivals.
And then, talking about Hurricane Harvey and the floods of the last few years: Houston is unfortunately right on the on the forefront of discussions of the impact of climate change and urban planning, or lack thereof, and what that means for an American Jewish Community.
Historically, American Jews settle in neighborhoods that are perceived as safe and stable, and when that perception changes then Jews leave. So one of the things that will be interesting to see is what happens to the Houston Jewish community over the next five, ten or twenty years: will it stay in southwest Houston?
The Jews of Houston came to the southwest part of the city in the 1950s and 1960s predominantly because of racial turnover, because the neighborhoods in which they were living at the time were becoming African-American, and fears about crime and declining property values encouraged many Jews to move to the southwest part of the city. Southwest Houston, at the time, was brand new. It was open, it had good public schools. It was close to downtown. It was the nicest place that an upwardly-mobile middle-class Jewish family could move to in the 1960s and 1970s. So, will the historic center of the Houston Jewish Community maintain that perception as we move forward in the twenty-first century? And if not, where will this community migrate to next? These are really interesting historical questions that we are tracking in real time.
Simultaneously, as we’re watching this history of a community and a neighborhood unfold, there’s also an urgent need to recover the documentary record. Under normal circumstances, as historians and scholars we rely on primary sources to try to understand the past. We need photographs and scrapbooks and letters and newspapers to begin to reconstruct what life was like. Well, when those things are washed away, they’re gone.
JL: It’s interesting you mentioned the response from the community towards this project. Could you maybe say a word about that?
JF: The response from the community has been overwhelming. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people, sometimes people I don’t even know, who say: “I have this this thing in my closet, it’s a collection of photos from the 1940s.”
I’ll tell you a great story about a month or two after Harvey. We’ve been doing this work, and we’ve been been looking for rare documents, and I’ve been putting some stuff on Facebook. Facebook is really key to how we’ve been operating as a new archive. When we find materials, I put them on Facebook to show them off and give the community and colleagues of mine and impression of the work that we’re doing. But it also inspires other people to go through their closets and their attics and figure out what documents, photos, and records they might have that nobody was interested in before.
So this woman sends me a Facebook message, and she says: “I have this World War II banner in my garage that my father found in a storage closet of an old synagogue building, which was then a daycare center. I’ve had it in my garage for years and years and years. I’ve never even looked at it. Do you want to come see it?” And I said, of course I’d love to see it.
So I go to this woman’s house, her husband is there, and she takes this this flag out of the plastic wrap that it’s been sitting in for decades, and we unroll it. And our jaws just drop. It’s a nine-foot-long banner. It’s silk. It says Beth Jacob Congregation on it. Beth Jacob congregation no longer exists; it folded in the in the mid-1960s and merged with another Orthodox synagogue to form United Orthodox Synagogues. And on this nine-foot-long banner are the names of more than 200 Jewish men and women from the Houston area who served in World War II. And there’s a star by each name, and some of the stars are gold stars for people who were killed in action during the war.
It’s an incredible find, and it was just sitting in this woman’s garage for years and years. And if she lived half a mile away, that garage would have flooded and that banner would be gone, just gone. It would have been thrown out, it would have been too wet to save. But we brought it to Rice, and I posted images of it to Facebook. And people commented: “That’s my uncle. That’s my father. That’s my cousin.” And so people who live in the Houston Jewish community are discovering their family history in this incredible artifact that languished forever in a garage because nobody knew about it, and there was no logical home for it. There was no place to take artifacts like that. But now there is, and I’m anxious to see what more treasures we will find as we continue this work.
JL: It’s very exciting, and one thing that really strikes me is this dichotomy between the way that people treat historical documents and historical artifacts.On one hand, they keep them in basements and garages and attics, and synagogues have places where they keep these things where people don’t necessarily touch them. And then when there is a place for them to go, sometimes people start to pay more attention to them, and especially when they’re in some kind of potential danger. It’s a shift from disinterest to intense interest.
JF: I think we’ve definitely seen that. And one of the advantages we have at Rice University, not only do we have a wonderful library and a wonderful special collections room and wonderful staff, but Rice also doesn’t flood. Rice is is immune to the kind of flooding that is endemic to southwest Houston and to Meyerland. So if materials are brought here, they’ll be safe. They’ll be well cared for, they’ll be used and appreciated. They’ll be used by scholars who, we hope, will come to Rice, and by community members. We very much want this to be a community archive. This is not something where people donate their records to us, and then we lock them in an ivory tower. We want them to come and to see their family papers and the records of their synagogues and their day schools and their summer camps and their institutions.
JL: I think it’s really interesting and really important that you just used this term, community archive, to describe what you’re doing. What you are doing is very exciting, and it’s new for the Houston Jewish community. But it’s not new, broadly speaking, in as much as archivists have been talking for a while now about the idea of community archives as opposed to state or business archives, as a way in which communities of people, ethnic groups, religious groups, groups of immigrants or migrants, and especially those who are victims of various kinds of oppression, try to take control of their own history by having archives of their own.
JF: Sure. I think that, you know, it’s interesting that Houston has never really had to the best of my knowledge a Jewish historical society. There’s a there’s a local Jewish genealogical society, and there is a Texas Jewish historical society which takes as its mission documenting the record of Jewish life in all of Texas, which includes Houston. And there are materials that have been archived at the University of Texas in Austin. But there never really been an effort before to archive these things locally in such a way that the history of Jewish life in Houston stays in Houston.
And so you can come as a Jewish Houstonian and and see it and visit it without having to go to Austin or Cincinnati or New York. And obviously there are there are records which are very important to Houston Jewish life which are in Cincinnati and which are in New York, and there are very good arguments for for having them there.
Luckily, with digitization, it’s easier than ever to share information and to share files. But I think there’s there’s something to be said for local archives, that people feel invested in and feel comfortable with it, that they have a relationship to in a way that they that they can’t have a relationship with the larger archives that are already existing.
There’s an important element of trust that comes with giving somebody your family papers, or with entrusting the records of a synagogue or an institution to an archive. And I think having them in Houston, making them accessible not only digitally, but also to have school groups and synagogue groups being able to come and use the archive, not to mention Rice University undergraduates, adds another layer to the project to our mission.
JL: I think it’s really interesting you talk about keeping archives local. This has been an issue that comes up constantly when we’re talking about the history of archives, and especially the history of Jewish archives. It’s something that comes up in my own research quite a bit. For instance, in my dissertation I wrote about the Gesamtarchiv der deutschen Juden, which was the central archive of the German Jews based in Berlin. But though there were many Jewish communities that sent materials to Berlin, many decided that they wanted to keep these things close to home. So this is not at all a new concern or struggle.
You know, you mentioned a number of potential places where this material could have ended up. In Austin, the Harry Ransom Center has an extensive Judaica collection, especially in a Jewish literature. They have the papers of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the papers of David Mamet, and many other important figures. You mentioned Cincinnati, where they have the American Jewish Archives, or New York, where they have the Center for Jewish History and the American Jewish Historical Society. These are all, in a certain way, natural homes for this kind of material, but you decided to keep it close to home. But at the same time, you’re talking about this as a community archive, but all this material is being deposited in the university which is not a Jewish community institution. Do you think there’s any tension there, in terms of how the community feels about the material being at a university as opposed to something managed directly by the Federation or by one of the synagogues?
JF: That’s a very good question, and there may well be some tension. I know that Dallas has a Jewish historical society run out of their Jewish Community Center. Here in Houston, I think first of all unfortunately the the Jewish Community Center in southwest Houston flooded very badly. It’s located right on the bayou, and they had offices below ground level of which took on ten feet of water. You probably wouldn’t want to put an archive in that building.
I think that the advantage of having the archive at Rice University is that we’re able to combine the advantages of keeping the Houston Jewish History Archive in Houston with the resources and expertise of Rice University. So it’s not housed in a Jewish communal Institution. But it’s housed in a place where scholars are going to come to use it and community members are welcome as well.
It also has the advantage of being nonpartisan. You couldn’t put a community archive in one of the synagogues. Because we are a nonpartisan, even a non-Jewish organization, but a university that I think has a pretty good reputation not only in the city, but in the broader academic universe. I would venture to say that people might be more likely to give certain records to Rice University than to a community archive not managed by professional historians and archivists.
JL: Right, right, and that didn’t mean to imply that that giving it to a university was bad by any means.
JF: Sure, but it is a different model than some of the other models that are out there.
JL: Absolutely. You know, if you look at the American Jewish Archives or the Center for Jewish History, these are archives that are associated with Jewish institutions in one way or another, whether the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati or the CJH, which is an important community institution in New York City.
JF: Right. And there are other examples too. I’m sure you’re aware of community archives, or state or regional Jewish archives that are housed at universities. The College of Charleston is one example among them. So it’s not something that no one has has tried before, which is good because that means there are models we can learn from in terms of the relationship between a university and a community archive, and how that operates.
JL: Right. The other thing that’s interesting that you talked is keeping this material local. These files ultimately were still in Houston since the fifties or the sixties. Do you think that the reason why say, a synagogue like Temple Emanuel, a major Reform congregation, didn’t give its historical materials to, say, the American Jewish Archives—which has since its origin in the 1940s been trying to collect material from Reform synagogues across the country—do you think it keeps material local because they wanted to keep it close to home? Or do you think that it was more just as broader disinterest in the material, or the fact that they didn’t quite know about it to begin with?
JF: I don’t know that I can speak to the specific motivations of individual synagogues, as to why they wouldn’t want to have their records sent other places. I can only speculate and imagine. There are some synagogues and institutions in the Houston Jewish community that do have their own archives, and Emanuel is one of them, another is Congregation Beth Israel. Beth Israel was the first synagogue in Texas, so it has a long history that goes almost as far back as the beginning of Texas as a state. I think those two institutions have a have a sense of their historic importance ingrained in their culture. So because they took the pains to establish archives, I could understand why they would want to continue to be the primary repository of those records.
What it means for us at Rice is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to documenting the history of synagogues that have archival records. We instead have the opportunity to partner with them to try to share materials where possible and to direct our efforts as a new archive to those synagogues that haven’t done that work, and that don’t have already-established archival collections
JL: Clearly, some of the more historic synagogues have a sense of their historical importance.
JF: Yeah, that’s right. But unfortunately synagogues have a lot of expenses, and most synagogues are not able to hire archivists or professional archivists. So the work is often done, if it’s done at all, by volunteers. And that can be sometimes difficult for communities to maintain. So where there’s an opportunity for us to lend our expertise and resources to community institutions to help them preserve their histories, we’re eager to do that.
JL: So one thing that I find to be really interesting, coming out of this whole conversation, is that many of the people and especially Jews who have been interested in archiving, historically speaking, have talked about the act of archiving in terms of an urgent need to rescue the documentary record. I think the way that you’re talking about all of this sounds very familiar. You are, of course, talking about something very specific, in terms of climate change. At other times, people have talked about expulsion, looting, or even fires as danger to archival materials. Here, we’re talking about a different kind of challenge. I don’t think that we necessarily think about climate change as a force in Jewish history, though I think that we should. How do you think you know that this whole effort speaks to these kinds of challenges, and how do you think that what you’re doing is maybe similar or different to some of the other things that we might talk about?
JF: I think there are a lot of interesting similarities, when you think about Jewish communities under duress, Jewish communities under transition. I mean, the whole history of Jewish communal life is that it’s transitory, that Jews move all the time. And so there’s there’s certainly nothing new about Jewish communities dealing with these kinds of existential challenges. But I think what may be new are the particular issues that come with flooding. Because like fires, floods are extremely destructive. When stuff gets wet, depending on how wet it gets and how soon you’re able to get to it, you may be able to preserve it. You may not. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve already had just since September of 2017 with people who live in the community who say “yeah, I had this really wonderful scrapbook of my father’s, but I threw it away. It got wet.”
And knowing that you live in a city where floods, which certainly seems to be a part of life. How do you prepare for that? How do you prepare for that as an individual and as a family, and how do you prepare for that as a historian?
I think if there’s one lesson I would want people to take away from the story of what happened in Houston and what we’re doing is: digitize everything. Now! Make scans and PDFs and multiple copies, because you don’t plan on a flood or a fire or an earthquake, but these things can and do happen and there’s no chance to to do these things over.
Another problem we face in Houston, not so much in regards to climate change but just to climate, is that it’s very humid here. Where we are located is a really muggy, mold-friendly place. Mold grows here so easily and imperceptibly that if stuff is just stored in attics and you don’t look at it for a couple years or decades, mold can be a problem as well.
So there there are all kinds of issues related to to climate and to place that make this work more challenging, but also more urgent as well.
JL: The climate is a key element in all of this. If we think of the Cairo Genizah, the reason why it survived was because it was in a dry climate.
JL: The Houston Genizah would not have done so well.
JL: No, certainly not. So you mentioned synagogues that a “heritage room.” That sounds a lot like a Genizah, that they would put things there and then forget about them. But the difference in climate is important.
JF: Well, that’s probably a misrepresentation of what the heritage room at Beth Yeshurun is. It had framed photos on the walls, and there was some stuff that had been in put in there, but again you don’t plan for six feet of water in your building until it happens. You never imagined that a building could be overwhelmed by flood waters in that way, so it’s not necessarily that stuff was was not was not cared for, but it’s that the infrastructure wasn’t necessarily in place to account for that kind of catastrophic event.
JL: Right, I imagine that the community was not expecting their neighborhood to get overrun with floods three times in just a few years.
JF: When Meyerland was first built, it was built right along a waterway, and that waterway was built to divert flood water. But what’s happened since the 1970s is, irrespective of climate change, there has been massive growth and really unregulated development further west of Meyerland where the Jewish Community is kind of headquartered.
And in a city that’s prone to flooding, the more grass you replace with concrete, when it rains that water has nowhere to go. That water isn’t absorbed anywhere, and so when Jews was came to southwest Houston in the 1950s and 1960s they they were not concerned about flooding. They had no reason to be. But not only has the climate changed, but the city has changed. The infrastructure has changed. Buildings were not built to be to be flood-proof in the sixties, because nobody imagined that it that it would happen the way that it’s happened.
JL: One of the things that’s really quite interesting is the way in which Jews, as you said, have a migratory history, moving from one country or one city to another, or even within a city. So even if synagogues and organizations and institutions and individuals are giving you things that are in their garages or in their basements or whatever, they’re going to continue to accumulate new things as time goes forward. Do you have a plan in place to continually collect materials, because ultimately this area is going to flood again. Is there any real long-term solution, except for either giving you the materials or, broadly speaking, the migration of people away from flood-prone areas for their own long-term survival of their lives and communities?
JF: This is a great question. I’m a relative rookie when it comes to this. I had no dreams or designs of becoming an archivist, and I’ve fallen into the work because of circumstances. I think when I think about our mission and our job right now, I think of it in terms of trying to recover what’s been damaged and what is old and rare. But that’s a bias that is not ultimately sustainable. And the challenge of our archive, and really the challenge of every archive, is how you document Jewish life in the digital age. How do you preserve the records when the records are no longer printed out? When they are born digital, when they are emails and things like that. And we are, at this stage, too young of an archive to have had the opportunity to really think through some of those issues as we are, again, trying to preserve flooded wet records and try to save them. And then also to find the records that, even though they haven’t necessarily flooded now, they could be lost. Right? If Houston were to flood again, they could be lost now.
In terms of how as an archive we are going to document the present, that’s something that we need to work out. I’m encouraged by the fact that some of the institutions in this community already are doing a great job of documenting their histories, and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. And we may work with other institutions that aren’t doing that, to encourage them to preserve their own digital records that we can then link to. But that’s going to be one of the big picture issues that we’re going to have to transition to as we move forward.
JL: I think you mentioned before the opportunities of digitization as one way to stem the tide, so to speak, of these kinds of issues. But it’s really quite interesting because archivists and scholars in general have recognized the power of duplication for a long time. Digital duplication is just sort of the next step. When you’re starting with photography and microfilm, this is the same thing that we do as scholars who visit an archive. We take photographs of the things we find interesting. Digitization seems great at face value, right? It allows us to to take things from a location and have a copy of it for ourselves, whether we’re talking about as a scholar, or as an archive, without displacing the original in one way or another.
It also enables access for people who are outside. If you digitize portions of your collection, and and it’s available online, then I can examine it sitting at my desk in my office a thousand miles away or even across the world. There are a number of major archives like the Leo Baeck Institute, for instance, that have made a lot of strides in this direction.
I think a lot about digitization as sort of a solution to all of these problems. But we also know that digital materials are very fragile. If the Federation office floods and the computers are destroyed, then those digital files are lost too.
JF: Yeah, if they’re not stored on some kind of external server or Cloud yeah, they’re gone. That’s true.
JL: Yeah. That’s what I think a lot about in terms of digital materials. It’s not it’s not necessarily a panacea, even the way that some people think about it.
JF: Right. That’s a good point. Hard drives crash, computers can go missing, all kinds of things can happen. So a digital copy of the file or a record is vulnerable in its own way. You have to have multiple copies, which is why it’s nice to still have archives that preserve the pieces of paper for when those digital copies do go missing.
JL: Yeah. So do you have plans to digitize the materials? Or are you focusing now on just collecting what you can get your hands on, and preserving materials that were damaged in the Hurricane?
JF: We are planning to digitize some of our materials on a case-by-case basis. We are also planning to build a website where some of those digitized materials will be made available to the public. Sometimes, when we accept collections, we accept them on the condition that they’ll be digitized and we’re happy to do that. But I think for now the way I see our most urgent work is document recovery. So are we going to digitize records? Yes, absolutely, some of them will made available on our website. Do we have a systematic way of thinking about what we digitize, and what don’t digitize? I don’t think there we’re there yet.
I think we have a lot to learn from other archives that are already doing this work, about how to make those decisions. There are also sometimes records that we may receive that people don’t want digitized, for privacy reasons or sensitivity reasons. We have to honor those those concerns.
JL: One of the things I think a lot about when I study archives, in the history of archives, is that each archive gathers material, but the material that they gather in and of itself tells a story. What kind of things that the archive is interested in gathering and what it really amounts to as a whole often constitutes a kind of narrative or understanding of the community. If you had to venture, what kind of history of Houston’s Jews do you think that the materials you’re collecting are going to tell?
JF: I think that they tell, to some extent, the story of Jews everywhere: The story of socioeconomic mobility and migration. Certainly, one of our central collections will be a collection on the history of Meyerland, the suburb that became the Jewish hub of Houston the 1960s. So to look at those materials is to see the the “Golden Age” of American Jewish life, of socioeconomic progress and mobility following World War II, when Jews in Houston and elsewhere left urban centers for for suburbia.
But there are other stories to tell. I think that the World War II banner that we recovered tells the story of how Jews took pride in their military service. It was something that they wanted to be displayed, and they wanted it to be known that they were patriotic that they were willing to fight for their country in World War II.
We have a notebook that we recovered that was donated to us by the Jewish Federation of Houston. And again, this notebook sat on the shelf in an office in the Federation building for decades. And what it is, is handwritten notes from a committee called the Refugee Services Committee, which was organized under the auspices of the predecessor institution to Federation. It’s predominantly women, and it documents how they organized to assist German Jewish refugees who came here in the 30s and 40s, and how they helped them to find a place to live, find a job, learn English. So in that, we get a window into Jewish philanthropy, Jewish activism on behalf of refugees, Jewish women’s activities. And again, this notebook was just sitting on a shelf in an office where nobody would have been able to see it, let alone know about it. Now it’s part of the archive. Now we can we can look at it, and we can tell its story and we can think about it in other historical contexts.
JL: I was wondering, maybe could you comment a bit on broadly speaking like you know why does the history of Houston matter for American Jewry? What do we learn from it? Especially in comparison with the history of other cities with prominent Jewish communities.
JF: Well, when you look at the history of Jewish life in Houston, you’ll find many parallels to Jewish life elsewhere. You’ll find a story of migration of Jews moving from one neighborhood to another and then to another as they collectively climb the ladder of socioeconomic progress. But I think there are specific issues in American Jewish life where thinking outside of the proverbial box of the Northeast and the Midwest might be interesting, even if you arrive at the same conclusions. As scholars, we should broaden our nets a little bit more.
In particular, the story of desegregation in Houston is a very interesting one in which Jews played a leading role, and that needs to be documented. But it’s not well-incorporated into the larger history of Black-Jewish relations.
If we want to think about the the history of American Jewish life after the immediate post-war period, if you want to think about the 1970s and 1980s, and some of the waves of migration that really changed the dynamic of the American Jewish community, in particular the South African migration, you need to look at Houston. You need to look at Houston and other Southern cities which were particularly magnets for South African Jews.
And then again, as we spoke about earlier, Houston is at the forefront of how cities and communities will deal with climate change in the twenty-first century: how they will adapt, or not, to some of the of the realities of living in a changing world, and what that will mean for Jewish neighborhoods and infrastructure in particular. We know how Jewish communities tend to react historically to stress, but this is a little bit of a different kind of stress. In earlier periods in Jewish history, even thinking and just in terms of American Jewish history, there was a very clear next frontier for Jews to move to. In the 1950s and 1960s, that was the suburbs, when they perceived instability in urban neighborhoods both in Houston and and elsewhere. But what’s the next frontier of Jewish settlements in a city where, suddenly, maybe the suburbs are becoming inhospitable, if not uninhabitable? Where does the Jewish community go next? Does it go back downtown? Does it go further out into the suburbs? Does it simply splinter and dissolve? Some of this is already happening in Houston, where Meyerland is still where most of the community’s institutions are located and a majority of the city’s Jews live in or near southwest Houston. But there are already pockets Jewish life in other parts of Houston.
So what’s going to happen next in the history of Jewish migration within a city is a really interesting story, and not just for historians of American Jewish life, but for urban historians and social historians and environmental historians. I think there are a lot of reasons to pay attention to Houston as we move forward.
JL: To follow up on that, I think we often talk about Jewish history, broadly speaking, in terms of migration from one place to another, and the history of Jewish archives is caught up in this too. In the 50s, archivists were really concerned about suburbanization. In the early twentieth century, many people were concerned about processes of urbanization, as people moved from smaller towns to major metropolitan centres, and trying to get the relics of the documentary record of Jewish life in the various places where people were moving from. So I find this to be so fascinating, because we are seeing a shift in where people are choosing to live. Young people are moving more and more to city centers, as opposed to suburbs for instance, and so we’re witnessing, I think, almost a generational shift in the geographical location of Jewish communities.
JF: Interestingly enough, that has not really happened in Houston yet. It wouldn’t surprise me if we looked ten or twenty years into the future to see that, but there’s not much, certainly in terms of Jewish infrastructure, with the exception of Congregation Emmanuel which is located across the street from Rice University, or perhaps Chabad. There’s really not much of a Jewish institutional presence in downtown Houston. Will that change, either as the next generation of American Jews finish college and come to Houston for jobs in the medical field or jobs in the energy field and they decide to settle in the urban core of Houston, either because they want to live in the urban core, and they want to be able to walk to things, or because they don’t want to live in flood-prone areas like Meyerland? That may well happen, we have to watch and see.
JL: Absolutely. I think it broadly speaks to the need for all of us to think about climate change as a growing force in human history and in our present. There’s a really great article by Dipesh Chakrabarty at the University of Chicago about the “climate of history,” talking about how historians and scholars needs to take climate change or global warming into account when we talk about the past, but also in terms of the present. And so I think the what you’re doing and what’s happening in places like Houston is really interesting because it’s often easy to think about climate change in very abstract terms. But it’s something that is affecting all of us everywhere, and not just in Houston.
JF: Climate is both a blessing and a curse. And with respect to Houston, Houston’s climate in part allowed the city to grow in unbelievable ways that nobody or a few people would have imagined in the early twentieth century. As soon as Houston figured out air conditioning, that was it. There was an article done about Meyerland in Look magazine, talking about the benefits of air condition for the modern middle-class family. And there’s a quote in this article from a native Houstonian, talking about air conditioning. And he says, “All this air conditioning is going to do is allow a lot of damn Yankees to come down here and live.” And he was absolutely right. Houston’s combination of mild winters and air conditioning to alleviate some of the oppressiveness of Houston summers allowed Houston to thrive and certainly was a magnet for Jews who came here from cold-weather places to get away from the snow.
But now we find ourselves, maybe having a different relationship to the climate of Houston. I think Chakrabarty is absolutely right thinking about the history of a city and a community in relationship to climate can be really interesting and can really change our perspective on why certain cities or communities grow and then decline. Obviously, the hope is that Houston as a city and as a Jewish community will be able to figure out some of the infrastructure issues that will be required for for it to really continue to grow into thrive.