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TIJS Hosts 2014 American Jewish Historical Society Conference

By Carrie Crawford, graduate student, Department of History/TIJS

AJHS group
Gary Gerstle, Beth Wenger, Eric Goldstein, and Riv Ellen Prell at the AJHS Scholars' Conference

The TIJS hosted the 2014 Biennial Scholars' Conference on American Jewish History from June 10 to 12. Founded in 1892, the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) publishes the quarterly journal American Jewish History and is the oldest national ethnic historical organization in the nation. In addition, AJHS houses an impressive archival collection of more than twenty-five million documents and 50,000 books, photographs, art, and artifacts pertaining to the history of Jews in the United States.

More than 100 academics from every corner of the globe traveled to Emory to attend this year's proceedings, titled, "Jews and Judaism in the American World of 'Difference.'" Although ostensibly a history conference, AJHS evidenced its continuing commitment to a more interdisciplinary approach by inviting scholars from wide-ranging fields—including art, religion, sociology, biology, music, and film studies. A primary goal of this year's conference was to push beyond established boundaries to situate Jewish studies within the larger context of American history and cultural studies.

In Tuesday's opening address, "Liberty, Coercion, and the Making of American Jews," Vanderbilt University professor Gary Gerstle extended the argument of his influential 1997 essay by explicating the often-fraught process by which Jewish immigrants achieved an American identity. Indeed, questions regarding uneasy assimilation and Jewish negotiation with American racial constructs constituted a primary theme of conference panels. Sessions such as "'But You Don't Look Jewish': Race, Identity, and the American Jewish Family" (Daniel Greene, Jennifer Sartori, Helen Kim, and Samira Mehta) and "Jewish Difference and the American Economy" (Marni Davis, Michael Cohen, Adam Mendelsohn, and Rebecca Kobrin) explored how Jewish identity had been tied up with relations with other groups, and attempted to situate Jewish distinctiveness within a uniquely American context.

University of Pennsylvania professor Tom Sugrue—Bancroft Prize winner and author of the influential works The Origins of the Urban Crisis (Princeton University Press, 1996) and Sweet Land of Liberty (Random House, 2008)—gave Wednesday's plenary keynote, "New Perspective on American Jews and the Urban Crisis," in which he spoke about the need to revisit prevailing historical interpretations of Jewish assimilation and relations with African Americans. A subsequent session, "Black Power, Jewish Power, and American Intellectuals in the 1960s" (Kevin Schultz, Ronnie Grinberg, Robert Greene II, and David Weinfeld), probed this often-ambivalent relationship, while panelists in "Jewish Encounters with Asians and Asian Americans" (Libby Garland, Gil Ribak, Emily Sigalow, and Britt Tevis) interrogated how American Jews have historically engaged with another of the United States' major minority groups.

Panels exploring the perennially fascinating question of how American Jews conceive of their religious identity included "Jews Confront a Christian America" (Ellie Schainker, Rachel Gordan, Adam Jortner, and Caitlin Carenen) and "Revisiting Jewish Religion in the Nineteenth Century" (Dianne Ashton, Shari Rabin, Zev Eleff, and Laura Shaw Frank). Another aim of this conference focused on transcending regional boundaries by integrating the experience of Southern Jews into a narrative often dominated by their northeastern and mid-Atlantic counterparts. Papers presented by Adam Jortner, Michael Cohen, and Wendy Soltz in their respective sessions exemplified this more expansive approach.

Gail Reimer accepts the Friedman Award
Gail Reimer accepts the Friedman Award

The three-day conference balanced scholarly dialogue with accolades and cultural programs. A banquet at The Temple, Atlanta's oldest Jewish congregation, celebrated the 2014 Lee Max Friedman Award recipient, Gail Twersky Reimer, founder of the Jewish Women's Archive, which was established in 1995. Reimer's commitment to the preservation and accessibility of materials documenting the history of American Jewish women through a unique online archive earned her this prestigious honor, biennially awarded to any individual, group, or association deemed to have rendered distinguished service in the field of American Jewish history. Following the award ceremony, attendees were treated to a special performance in The Temple's beautiful sanctuary by the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra. This Atlanta-based jazz ensemble describes its musical offerings as "original compositions and arrangements merging klezmer music with West-African influenced rhythmic styles."

The 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra performs at The Temple
The 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra performs at The Temple

Other conference highlights included a screening of From Silence to Recognition: Confronting Discrimination in Emory's Dental School History, a film documenting the anti-Semitism experienced by Jewish dental students at Emory during the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. Former dental student and community leader S. Perry Brickman spoke about his personal experience with anti-Jewish sentiment in his introductory remarks. After three days of impressive sessions, the conference closed with a presentation by Matthew Bernstein—professor of film studies at Emory and author of Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and TV (University of Georgia Press, 2009)—by marking the centennial anniversary of the tragic 1915 lynching of Atlanta factory owner Leo Frank.

The 2014 Biennial Scholars Conference of the American Jewish Historical Society was made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Bettina & Russell Knapp Foundation and the Judith London Evans Director's Fund of TIJS. The organizing committee, chaired by TIJS Director Eric L. Goldstein, also included Lila Corwin Berman (Temple University), Marni Davis (Georgia State University), Libby Garland (Kingsboro College, City University of New York), Daniel Greene (Northwestern University), Tony Michels (University of Wisconsin–Madison), Riv-Ellen Prell (University of Minnessota and current chair of the AJHS Academic Council), and Beth Wenger (University of Pennsylvania and immediate past chair of the AJHS Academic Council). The next AJHS Scholars' Conference will be held in 2016 in New York City.

Carrie Crawford is a fourth-year graduate student in the Department of History and a TIJS fellow specializing in American Jewish history. Her research project looks at Jews in the post–Civil War South and how they fit into the emerging racial landscape, both before and after the rise of Jim Crow legislation in the 1880s and 1890s.

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Fall 2014
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