Ideas | To find a sense of place in Jewish history, keep moving

On a recent Sunday afternoon, historian Ava F. Kahn and a group of imaginative locals celebrated the 125th anniversary of the Jewish cemeteries in Colma, encountering revivified characters like Levi Strauss, Adolph Sutro and Wyatt Earp in that dead city.

Kahn, the author and editor of several seminal books on California Jewish history, was happy to talk to people about the nuances of the Gold Rush and immigration patterns in late 19th-century San Francisco. And although she has made a career of linking the “now and then,” Kahn is working to break new ground connecting the “here and there.”

More specifically, in her new anthology “Transnational Traditions: New Perspectives on American Jewish History” (co-edited with Adam D. Mendelsohn), Kahn and her contributors reframe the conversation about American Jewish history at a time when the very idea of “place” has been shattered by communication technology.

As Kahn explains at a café near her Berkeley home, “The term ‘transnational’ describes the cultural, religious, social, institutional and economic linkages that span political boundaries and borders.” The idea is designed to augment a term like “migrant,” which in her view “connotes a clear division between place of departure and arrival, when often things are more murky as Jews carry with them often a multiplicity of identities.”

One contemporary example is the increasing vibrant cultural interchange between the Bay Area and Poland, culminating last month in the opening of Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews, spearheaded by former Koret Foundation president Tad Taube. Taube, who fled Poland as a boy in 1939 and grew up in the Bay Area, in this reading works as a “transnational,” keeping multiple identities alive at the same time and influencing the culture in both locations.

“Transnational Traditions” explores many historical and contemporary examples of this phenomenon. Among the contributions is Eric Goldstein’s brief history of Yiddish publishing, “A Taste of Freedom,” in which he demonstrates how the history of popular Yiddish books and journalism is as much the story of Chicago and New York publishers sending ideas and material to Europe as it is the other way around. “In fact,” he writes, “so influential were these American imports that they ultimately served as a crucial model of the development of a Yiddish mass culture in Eastern Europe in the early years of the twentieth century.”

In Kahn’s essay “Roaming the Rim: How Rabbis, Convicts, and Fortune Seekers Shaped Pacific Coast Jewry,” she explores how immigrants to California didn’t merely arrive from Germany or New York and put down roots like a tree. Instead, many were multiple immigrants, moving back and forth from east to west and back again, engaging in what is known as transmigration, Kahn says.

Ava F. Kahn

This term, with echoes of a dybbuk moving between the worlds of the living and dead, offers Kahn a more fluid mode of interpretation for how people flowed through the 19th century. It was a time, she writes, when railroads and transoceanic travel “facilitated the spread of ideas, carried in the heads and hearts of immigrants, and in the books and newspapers they brought with them.”

Today we are living in a similarly paradigm-shifting era, in which “advances in transportation and communication have transformed what it means to be a transnational. Trips between an adopted homeland and a country of origin that once might happen only a few times in a lifetime, if at all, are now possible routinely.” Communication between the old country and the new country, “once delayed, is instantaneous,” Kahn writes. “Emigrants have access to the same media, with only a minimum of delay, as kin who never left.”

Kahn was the research associate at the Western Jewish History Center at the former Judah L. Magnes Museum and a visiting scholar at the California Studies Center, both now part of U.C. Berkeley. Writing and teaching independently, she is developing a new kind of history of her adopted hometown. Kahn’s approach reflects her increasing awareness that Berkeley, a university town with a global influence on science, culture and politics, is a case study of understanding local history in terms of people coming and going, bringing ideas from one place and taking them to another.

The ultimate example of this, according to Kahn, is the work and influence of Seymour Fromer, who founded the Magnes and inspired countless cultural innovations, including the Jewish film festival movement, Lehrhaus Judaica and the Council of American Jewish Museums. (Kahn is developing a film project about Fromer.)

It’s an interesting irony that Fromer set up his museum in Oakland, which Gertrude Stein described as having “no there there.” Stein meant something very specific about her own past, but the suggestion that there is no “there” here — or anywhere — may prove the point that the distinction between “here” and “there” in Jewish and contemporary culture may be dissolving before our eyes.


“Transnational Traditions: New Perspectives on American Jewish History”
edited by Ava F. Kahn and Adam D. Mendelsohn (304 pages, Wayne State University Press, $31.99)

Dan Schifrin is producer and moderator of “Ideas of Late,” a new conversation series at the Jewish Federation of the East Bay in Berkeley.

Dan Schifrin