Stop, Collaborate and Listen

I received generous grant funding to spend July conducting oral history interviews for my dissertation. Oral history is the practice of interviewing (and, commonly, recording) an individual as they recollect their life or an important historical event. I am asking longtime members of the YM-YWHA and longtime residents of Washington Heights-Inwood to tell me about what it was like in the neighborhood during the 1970s and '80s. Although each interview is different, the common questions that I've posed to each interviewee ask them to describe how the Y managed to provide for the social welfare of northern Manhattan's Jewish community at the same time that they served the needs of the non-Jewish community, particularly the growing population of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. 

These oral histories are valuable to me for a few reasons. Most basically, the more sources you have describing a historical event, the better. Whether they confirm each others' descriptions or contradict one another, a multiplicity of accounts yields insight. Moreover, with the addition of these testimonies my interpretation of historical events becomes less dependent on organizational records from the Y or the Jewish Welfare Board or the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York. It gives me individual perspectives to consider, beyond the view provided in the Y's Board meeting minutes. Finally, it allows me to ask about issues or events that were left out of other records. 

So far, I've spoken with two staff members at the Y and a community activist who participated in this history in the 1970s and '80s (and have continued to contribute up to the present day). In the coming week, I am scheduled to interview two Y Board members who've had similarly lengthy tenures. I hope to continue adding more individuals to my docket in the coming weeks!

Riverdale, Bronx, NY

I must conclude by expressing gratitude to the American Academy of Jewish Research and the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History for making this research possible. 

Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

On June 15th, I finished and turned in my first dissertation chapter to my advisors (it is both the first chapter of the dissertation and the first chapter I have written). On June 16th, I threw some clothes in a bag and jetted off to South America for a week-long vacation. Here are some lessons learned over the past three weeks:

1. It is very difficult to work on two different projects--the dissertation and the blog--while on a deadline. For the past few months, I would blog before diving into writing my chapter. It was a balance: one hour spent on a blog post, then a few hours dedicated to drafting a section of the chapter. That balance fell away as my deadline approached, not because I was scrambling to catch up but because the chapter became the singular focus of my life for those two weeks. I devoted every moment of mental clarity to evaluating the structure and argument of the chapter, keenly attuned to omissions or unsubstantiated claims. There was no space in my thoughts for a blog post. My mind could not let go of the ideas in the chapter for long enough to focus on another set of ideas. I continued to make blog-worthy observations and I have a long list of posts that I want to draft this week, now that I'm phasing back into a routine dominated by research rather than writing. Stay tuned for those. 

2. Vacation is the best deadline. If you have to set an arbitrary date for completion, apparently it is very effective to set it for the day before you leave for a relaxing trip. I knew that I would not, could not work while touring around a city with my partner and in-laws, and so the work had to get done before leaving. Plus, I looked forward to kicking back and relaxing for a few days! I'm contemplating booking a trip in late August to incentivize myself to complete the second chapter. 

3. I miss blogging when I'm pulled away from it! As fulfilling as it is to convey the thoughts that have been rattling around in my head for months about how events in the past played out, most of my daily writing will only be read by my advisors (who will send it back and have me re-write it many more times before it reaches a wider audience). The immediacy of blogging, in addition to the informality and the more expository nature of the form, make it a most lovely addition to my daily writing output. Many scholars blog to share their research or to extend their academic debates beyond the narrow confines of their discipline and the ivory tower, but I think blogging also appeals to scholarly writers in the way an amuse bouche appeals to fine diners. It's a light beginning to a heavier meal, thoughtful and substantive but informal and, importantly, not meant to distract from the main focus. 

I'm now back in New York, and I have several projects I'm balancing: an article draft, my second dissertation chapter, oral history interviews, and the "ghetto" corpus analysis. Not everything will get done in the five weeks I'm here but I feel invigorated by the city's energy... we shall see how far this momentum takes me! 

Research Trip Recap

My ten-day visit to the Center for Jewish History was incredibly productive. Despite being in New York for two weeks, time felt limited and I took the "smash-and grab" approach to archival research. I know I generally grabbed photos of relevant and valuable documents, but it will take me a few weeks to read through them all in detail and see if my first impressions were correct.

I photographed around 1500 pages of Annual Agency Budget Files from the records of the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York (UJA-Federation). This humongous collection was just recently processed, and I'm one of the first historians to go through and see how JCCs like the Y of Washington Heights Inwood, Educational Alliance, and Bronx House negotiated annually with the Federation's Distribution Committee. This process was highly regimented throughout the 1950s and '60s. Executive secretaries (god bless them) saved all the important paperwork related to the application, including agencies' initial budget proposals, the Distribution Committee's announcements of annual allocations, and thorough accounting worksheets for each fiscal year. These files are thus a great way to ascertain the health of each individual agency throughout the tumultuous years of the urban crisis, because they report figures like: membership numbers; income from dues; number and kind of programs offered; number of full- and part-time staff; and size and condition of facilities. 

While incredibly rich, these budget materials are also dense and tedious. I am going to have to give myself a crash course in accounting, which is a foreign language to me. I've always been better at spending money than keeping track of it! Ideally, the experience will familiarize me with organizational budgeting, which is a useful skill to have. 

I'll end with a pitch for the American Jewish Historical Society archivists' excellent blog, This Can Go Back to the Archives, which chronicles the processing of the UJA-Federation records. Susan and her team highlight some of the most dynamic and intriguing documents from the collection, and I'm always surprised by what they dig up!