It’s been a busy summer in the Judaica collections at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library! Many collections were processed and are now available for use, thanks to the efforts of some fantastic students. This post, by Marianna Najman-Franks, is the second of a series describing some of the work on our collections this summer.
Archiving the maps and records of the Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazi Jewry has been an honor for me, and was an unexpected opportunity for me to help understand my own identity and my family’s historical narrative. As a Middle Eastern Studies major, in many of my classes at Barnard/Columbia I’ve thought hard about what it means to reconstruct historical narratives where they were perhaps neglected, or how to construct a historically accurate timeline where there has been trauma and political turmoil. Making meaning of history and centering people and stories that remain after substantial tragedy is something I’ve thought about often in other cultural and geographic contexts, but I hadn’t yet analyzed my own Jewish identity and its ties to historical narratives which have been repeatedly shifted and transformed by intergenerational trauma, particularly by the Holocaust. Both sides of my family come from Eastern Europe, and seeing Yiddish words I’d only heard in passing being archived and kept as part of understanding the lives and experiences of a diverse region of Jewish communities was extremely rewarding. Each day I learned a new Yiddish word or became familiar with one I once knew; I unlocked a vast memory of Yiddish words and colloquialisms that I didn’t even know that I knew!
The ability to ensure that the pre-WWII cultural and linguistic history of Ashkenazi Jews are preserved in a way that allows them to be studied for decades to come felt like important and pressing work. I also found much joy in reading the correspondences between linguists who worked on this daunting and unbelievably comprehensive project; whether it was a note written on a crumpled napkin which I logged and kept or notes exchanged on paper; they were clearly so dedicated to preserving and making use of each interview they conducted. I also learned how to write some Yiddish words with the IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet) in order to make them accessible to other linguists looking at the log I was working on. Language is the key to understanding cultures and communities, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to help track my own community’s linguistic and cultural past, and ensure that it remains something that we can reconstuct history from, and salvage a vibrant cultural past which was nearly lost in the Holocaust. A huge thank you to Michelle Chesner for allowing me to work with her on this project, and to Dr. Uriel Weinreich, Dr. Marvin Herzog, and all of the other linguists who worked on this project for their unbelievably hard work and for ensuring that the project was one that would be accessible and extremely well-organized.