I spent all day yesterday trying to write a few short paragraphs about one document. It's a report from October 1946 that Oscar Janowsky gave on the progress of the JWB Survey, and it outlines some of the major questions that arose throughout the process of interviewing staff and Board members at hundreds of JCCs across the country. Several months ago I took extensive notes on the document, and so when I sat down to write yesterday I already knew the gist of the report. I decided to re-read it anyways, because it seemed important and substantial and like it was worth a second look.
In a sense, that was the correct decision. The progress report represents a pivotal moment when Janowsky realized that the initial, guiding question of the Survey ("what is the objective of Jewish Center work?") should have been "what is Jewish about the Jewish Center?" It's the first moment when Janowsky publicly shared his inclination that the JCC should have an "affirmative" Jewish purpose and should incorporate Jewish content into his program. This ultimately was what he recommended in his final report, and so this progress report is evidence of his evolution towards that belief.
Re-reading the document was inspiring--what a rich, multifaceted text! I felt like every word should be carefully paraphrased or quoted in my chapter because it so flawlessly articulated why the Jewish Center needed to have an explicitly Jewish purpose. Then I started writing. I wrote a few sentences and deleted them all. I re-read paragraphs of the progress report and tried once more to paraphrase the main points. I deleted all those sentences too. Again and again I attempted to convey the questions that Janowsky raised without cutting and pasting them directly into my narrative. And again and again I became confused.
I finally realized that I had been seduced by discovery. My attempts to summarize Janowsky's arguments revealed a tentativeness--anecdotes stood in for arguments and analysis. My struggle was an extension of Janowsky's own effort to synthesize all of his questions and observations. The complexity that awed me upon my first re-reading was slowly exposed to be perplexity.
This is not a knock against the author, nor a dismissal of the document. It's a comment on the way that narrative can trick our minds. Hunting for a good story, I perceived coherence where there was inconsistency. I liked Janowsky's anecdotes, I liked the narrative he created to argue for affirmative Jewish content, and I thought that both would support my own narrative explaining this historical event. Ultimately, I used the anecdotes and argument in my own narrative--I just had to moderate my claims to reflect their intricacy and not my own awe.