American Jewish Committee Oral History Collection
Over 156,000 pages of transcripts, 6,000 hours of taped interviews, 2,250 informants: this incomparable repository of unique and unpublished primary source material for the study of what is often called “the American Jewish experience in the 20th century” is the mother of all American Jewish oral histories and one of American Jewish culture’s most substantial monuments.
350 of the transcripts are now available online at: http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/american-jewish-committee
Participants in these extended, ethnically-focused, interviews run the gamut from feminist pioneer Congresswoman Bella Abzug to Paramount founder Adolph Zukor, last of the original Hollywood movie moguls, recorded in 1972 at the age of 99. The informants, each of them interviewed separately, together make up a cast of considerable diversity: Marv Albert rubs shoulders with Salo Baron, Abe Beame with Henri Bendel, David Ben-Gurion with Jack Benny, Hank Greenberg with Al Jolson, Alfred Kazin with Larry King, Groucho Marx with Jackie Mason, Arthur Miller with Bess Myerson, Roberta Peters with Molly Picon, and Bashevis Singer with Barbra Streisand.
These freestanding interviews with the great and the good are complemented by interviews conceived in thematic groups and intended to explore accomplishments of specific kinds. Hence, the collection contains a number of sub-collections, such as those titled American Jews in Sports; the Louis G. Cowan Broadcasting Collection; the Max Wilk [Theater] Collection; and the huge (and hugely important, if already quaint-sounding) sequence, American Jewish Women of Achievement. Equally important are the sub-collections devoted to those who had their commonality thrust upon them, former residents of the Eldridge Street Hebrew Orphan Asylum, for example, and the Holocaust survivor testimony project, progenitor of a succession of undertakings culminating in the work of Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation.
There are series, too, of interviews with informants deemed representative of some shared but by no means necessarily traumatic experience, such as South African Jews in America; American Jews in Israel; Jewish farmers in America; American Jews of Sephardic origin; Soviet Jewish émigrés in America; not to mention Jews of Weequahic, the one-time “Jewish quarter” of Newark, New Jersey. Finally, this composite picture of an American minority is completed with a number of genuinely regional collections, inspired by and providing something of a corrective to the New York-centered and -centric core operation. Conducted under the auspices of bodies such as the Bancroft Library at the University of California-Berkerley and local chapters of the American Jewish Committee, these projects provide relatively compact but extremely illuminating perspectives on the Jews of the Bay Area, Chicago, Atlanta, Cleveland, and so on—even a diminutive collection titled Jews of Maine (one interview, albeit with a couple of informants).
The New York Public Library and the American Jewish Committee
Important institutions initiated with the sponsorship of the great financier of New York’s gilded age, Jacob Schiff, are too numerous to list, but among them are the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Hebraic Section of the Library of Congress, the 92nd Street Y, and, according to his detractors on the extreme right, even the Russian revolution. There are two organizations, however, with whose founding Schiff is indubitably and especially identified, and in a way they form a pair: the American Jewish Committee, preeminent community relations and defense organization and in its early days a kind of club for New York’s Uptown Jewish elite and their counterparts in other U.S. cities; and the Jewish Division of The New York Public Library, located until 1911 in what is now the Public Theater in the East Village—again, not just a vast book repository but a kind of club, this time for the New York’s Downtown Jewish intelligentsia. Reinforced nowadays by nearby Midtown locations, a special relationship between the organizations continues. Thus, the working library of the AJC is liable to transfer materials to the Jewish Division as they become of strictly historical importance or deteriorate to the point that the facilities of The New York Public Library’s Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Division are called for. By far the most important piece in this inter-institutional collaboration, however, is represented by The New York Public Library-American Jewish Committee Oral History Collection.
NYPL-AJC Oral History Collection
In the late 1960s, thirty years before the phrase “the greatest generation” caught on as apt appellation for the veterans of World War II and their contemporaries, it took neither perspicacity nor chauvinism to recognize that the American Jewish population then alive formed, in terms of the community’s own history, just that: the greatest generation, the breakthrough generation, in which so many immigrants and children of immigrants had progressed so far, so fast, so creatively, in so many fields, as collectively to constitute a phenomenon of historic importance. It was a unique moment, within the American Jewish experience unprecedented and by definition unrepeatable, and widely seen as an outstanding paradigm of immigrant potential and American possibilities. There was something here to be seized and documented before it began to evaporate.
A start to this undertaking became possible as the result of a bequest from the estate of William E. Wiener to the American Jewish Committee. As the ensuing oral history project began to snowball, additional funds came from other private philanthropic sources, such as the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation, and from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Fifteen professional historians volunteered their services to steer content-formation, and they were assisted by a cadre of interviewers whom they trained with notable rigor. At first, the thrust was toward recording the Jewish-interest autobiographical reminiscences of individuals of conspicuous distinction, and a glance through the names in the table of informants provides repeatedly breathtaking testimony both to the judgment of the fifteen experts and to the prestige of the AJC as sponsor. Later informants, many great talkers among them, were sought out as much because their life stories were representative as because they were remarkable.
In 1990, with a strong sense of mission accomplished, the William E. Wiener Oral History Library wound down its program and the entirety of the tapes and transcripts constituting the American Jewish Committee’s Oral History Collection was gifted to the Jewish Division of The New York Public Library, with the objective of making it “more broadly available to students, scholars, and researchers” as the Library saw fit. Two series of abstracts had appeared already (in 1978 and 1987) and two more were forthcoming (1993 and 1995). The last of the regional projects moved toward completion and finally a characteristically imaginative special project was conducted to record the experiences of Jewish veterans of the Gulf War.