A moving travelog from Johnny Diamond on BBC Radio 4 – Broadcasting House, 29/12/2013 explored the dwindling but active Jewish communities of the Mississippi Delta. Once numbering in the hundreds, their numbers declined as children, having served in the war, stayed away. New lives were built in the cities, the younger generation often joined by their parents.
Only 9 Jews are now left in Greenwood, the remaining members afraid ‘not to gather’: the community ceasing to exist feels a real and immediate possibility. In Vicksburg, Stan Klein talks of his concern about the on-going care of the cemetery: ‘we’re planning for the future of our congregation, when we can no longer physically be here to do it ourselves. We’re nearing the end and we know it’.
The roving rabbi serving these communities sees his role as ‘to help them navigate what will be very difficult realities in a way that honours that history and ensures their continued legacy’. In essence, he’s helping them manage their decline. But might there also in such efforts be a role for the public historian, capturing oral histories, gathering and cataloguing important items such as photographs and diaries, documenting the history of spaces such as the cemetery and synagogue to inform future preservation and respond to future interest?
If so, how do historians find and build the kind of connections to make this happen? Not that such endeavours are unproblematic. They raise many issues, such as authority over and ownership of the past, the tension between the interests and agendas of community members and historians, what is done with the ‘products’ of the collaboration. These are, however, all issues with which public history is fundamentally concerned and public history projects are tackling them on a routine basis. We also need to think about how we train our students, not just with the skills required but perhaps also with a certain activist mindset to want to take on the challenges involved?
Anyway, I commend the programme to you (it starts at 23′) and would be interested to hear people’s views on it, and on the issues it raises for public history.