A Jewish mandate to act: 60 million refugees around the world

World Refugee Day is tomorrow (June 20). In recognition, HIAS has released this video that calls on Jews to remember their history as refugees and to help those still displaced. The video is powerful and compelling.

In particular, I am struck by two connected through lines that position HIAS within a history of Jewish displacement and the contemporary refugee crisis:

(1) The connection between Jewish values and the work of rescuing and resettling refugees around the world today. Their mission is no longer to save Jews, but they are still informed by their roots as a Jewish organization. As they define their goals:

Guided by Jewish values and experience, HIAS is working to address the global refugee crisis.

(2) That the organization chose to tell the history of Jewish displacement as part of a long history of displacement is inspiring. They empower Jews to act today not because Jews are in danger, but because we were once refugees and HIAS was there. In telling this connected history, the video jumps from Nazi concentration camps to the Jewish exile in North Africa to Darfur and Refugee Camps across the world. In each case, HIAS was there:

We were the ones at the docks…and we are still at the docks, in the deserts, and in the cities and camps and lands where people no longer have a home in their homeland.

The argument that Jews should care because it is a Jewish mandate is powerful and speaks beyond World Refugee Day – it speaks to how Jewish values can be part of political concerns that are not just about Israel or just about antisemitism.

This history is at the heart of the Memories/Motifs project and I am proud to be a supporter of HIAS today.


Reposted from Memories/Motifs in honor of World Refugee Day

When CLIR Fellows Meet: A report from the HASTAC 2015 Conference


Interactive twitter visualization at HASTAC 2015

The HASTAC 2015 conference, held at Michigan State University, was an apt place for a mini-CLIR Fellows reunion. The conference (and HASTAC in general) is a welcoming space for non-traditional scholars, creating opportunities for librarians, postdocs, instructors, graduate students and technologists to lead alongside tenured faculty. HASTAC’s commitment to recognizing new modes of doing scholarship is evident in the invitation of two early career scholars to give the Keynote addresses. (It’s worth reading and revisiting both Scott Weingart’s “Knowledge Uprooted” and Roopika Risam’s “Across Two (Imperial) Cultures: A Ballad of Digital Humanities and the Global South” to see where Digital Humanities is as a field RIGHT NOW and where it will be going.)

Thanks to support from the UCSC Library and CLIR, I was able to attend the conference and present on a panel with fellow first year CLIR fellows Emily McGinn, Charlotte Nunes, and Alicia Peaker. Our panel, “Tales from the Library Basement: Doing Digital Humanities as CLIR Fellows,” was designed to explore the role of CLIR fellows in libraries and on campuses focused on building Digital Humanities communities. To keep it all in the family, Daniel Chamberlain, a former CLIR Fellow and Director of the Center for Digital Liberal Arts at Occidental College, served as our moderator and framed our discussion as a series of productive tensions. The goal in presenting together at HASTAC was to explore these tensions, as well as the challenges we each faced in different settings, serving as bridges between library, faculty, and administrative interests.

We each offered a case study of this kind of work, based on our own experiences over the past year. There were, not surprisingly, overlaps in the stories we told about our work lives – we took on numerous roles, offering support, translation, and digital consultation for faculty members on our campuses; we served as community builders, event planners, and “collaborator-in-chief”s. We struggled to navigate between the appeal of experimental, unique digital work and the need for scalable, sustainable support models. But, there were unexpected overlaps as well; for example, we each mentioned working with Omeka (an online publishing platform), suggesting an interesting role this particular tool has in integrating Digital Humanities methods into college classes.

But, what struck me most was the local particularity of the jobs we did. Emily, at Lafayette College, is part of a Digital Scholarship Services team, where her work is well supported by a team of programmers and developers. As a part of this team, she worked with faculty to create new – and very successful – digital assignments for a range of classes and initiated an internship in the library that is giving 7 students the opportunity to develop their own digital research project over the course of six weeks. Charlotte, the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Scholarship at Southwestern University, described a range of projects she coordinated – both class based and grant supported – that connected Digital Humanities work with the archive and allowed students to create public facing scholarly products.

Discussing my work as the Digital Humanities Specialist at UC Santa Cruz, I focused on the hidden nature of digital work in the library and the challenges in connecting faculty with the kinds of expertise hidden away behind locked doors in the basement. At the same time, Alicia discussed the challenges she faced in working in such an open space that she had a hard time focusing on the intellectual work of scholarship – both digital and otherwise.

The opportunity to discuss the day-to-day tasks and larger goals of my work alongside those navigating similar paths was exciting and provocative, but the biggest takeaway for me was Alicia’s paper that sharply articulated the challenge of identity that perhaps all CLIR fellows face: how can we integrate, combine, and understand our personal research ambitions and our fellowship goals? How can we resolve the diversity of responsibilities that come with these kinds of positions and in a short period of time meant only to spark interest or community? And, how can we better express and formalize the value we bring to the kind of mixed cultural work that successful DH projects demand?

These questions – of identity, labor, responsibility – also sparked a lively Q&A session in which the very nature of libraries as a place where books are held, the role of librarians and the digital in the future of scholarship, and the sustainability of temporary positions were raised. It seems that CLIR fellows cannot gather without inciting a debate about the changes in library cultures that speak to the future of digital scholarship.

Thank you to Daniel, Emily, Charlotte, and Alicia for this opportunity to interrogate and explore what we all do every day. And, to CLIR for making this kind of work possible and for supporting us as we find our way through the often uncharted terrain.

For more about the conference and the panel, read Charlotte’s killer write up about her HASTAC experience.

Digital Humanities & Jewish Studies

I’m thrilled that Memories/Motifs has been featured in the AJS News: Digital Humanities Issue. It’s an honor for the project to be listed as a Resource for Jewish Studies and I hope that scholars explore the site, offer comments, criticism, and suggestions for improvement.

I also hope that Jewish Studies folks will see the project and feel inspired to take up more digitally inflected work – not because it’s the trendy thing to do, but because using digital tools can help us articulate and visualize new forms of connections and arguments which can lead to new questions about the pasts we study.

Of course, I also hope that more attention on Memories/Motifs will help scholars recognize the postwar period as a moment of intense Holocaust memory construction and spark continued conversation about the longer history of Holocaust memory in America.

Originally posted on memoriesmotifs.tumblr.com >

Yom Hashoah & the Need for Remembrance

Seventy years after the Allies liberated the camps, we still read about the Holocaust and the other Nazi crimes in part because we are afraid…: We fear that we will start to think of monstrous actions as just the way of the world.
– David Mikics, “Why We Still Read about the Shoah
Today, on Yom Hashoah, we commit to remembering the Holocaust. This day of remembrance has been amplified this week as we also honor the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Bergen Belsen.

These commemorations take many forms: candles will be lit, survivors will address large crowds, and names will be read. But, 70 years after the end of the Holocaust, in a world where anti-Semitism remains a persistent (if surprising) threat, we must also take time to consider WHY we remember the Holocaust. What do these Days of Remembrance offer for understanding this history and the legacy of so much destruction?

The USHMM put together a compelling video to document some different reflections on Holocaust memory. In the video, survivors, staff members, historians, and others account for why Holocaust memory is meaningful for them. These thought leaders remind us of why we study the events of theShoah and why the voices of survivors remain powerful markers of a past we must face and account for. As Raye Farr (Film Curator, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) states in the film:

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The fear and freedom of asking anything

Last week, Holocaust survivor Ben Lesser, Founder of the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, participated in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything).

The fact of a Holocaust survivor opening him- or herself up to anything on the internet is a scary proposition. The internet is where the depths of Holocaust denial, revisionism, and anti-Semitism dwell. What kinds of questions would arise in this space, on Reddit, in the wake of ongoing anti-Semitism? What kinds of comments would be posted and upvoted? Would hate or stupidity or love or hope be the prevailing tone?

Turns out the live conversation picked up a bit of each of these – but significantly less hate than might be expected. And a lot of the stupidity got voted to the bottom – like the question of a user who identified themselves as a young student, who asked Lesser if he had “ever met Adolf.” Lesser himself starts from a place of love and hope, using Reddit as a platform to “further the case of tolerance” and express the potential for young people to make change in the world by using their voices and speaking out. In his introduction, he urged the readers/users to do so through a new project of his Foundation – I Shout Out.

By focusing on these kinds of take away lessons – “So my advice to you is choose to live a life that matters” – and on the wonder of America, both as the country of his liberators and his postwar home, much of Lesser’s AMA echoes the tone of other contemporary survivor witnessing efforts (ie. here, here, andhere,) and broader representations of Holocaust survivors in American culture (see: here, here, and (of course) here). But, what does it mean for this kind of dialogue to happen online and for the boundaries of questions to be unbound? As institutions of Holocaust memory start to engage in online spaces, the ability of users to post questions, both historical and intimate, thoughtful and provocative, to comment, sub comment, and vote on these iterative conversations seems even more transgressive.

The USC Shoah Foundation YouTube channel has over 1,000 survivor testimonies available for viewing. And, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum has started webcasting their  First Person program, allowing viewers around the world to watch live conversations taking place at the museum in which survivors speak about their experiences under Nazism. While these digital projects invite greater access to the voices and stories of survivors, they still do so within moderated and limited parameters: the set up remains an interviewer and interviewee, the questions are prioritized by the host institution, and internet viewers cannot interact directly with the survivor.

Lesser’s AMA, on the other hand, was not an interview between two people – one of whom had a story to tell and the other an obligation to listen [citation 1]. Rather, Lesser opened himself up to be interviewed by anyone, although he retained the ability to choose which questions to answer and which to leave alone. He responded in detail to some questions – about what he saw, what his worst memory was, what he wishes he could tell his younger self – and left many others without answer. For example, repeated questions about Israel and Zionism and the connection of the Holocaust to ongoing Israel/Palestine politics were taken up not by Lesser, but by other Reddit users.

But, it is not just the openness of the questions that feels different from other models of online Holocaust survivor witnessing. The space of Reddit, the space of the internet itself here, is without limit. There is no Youtube screen, no house plant in the corder of a Shoah Foundation video, no stage or chair or moderator. Lesser’s responses are not visual or audio – they are virtual. This space, one that does not rely on a survivor’s body or voice to authenticate their memories and does not set the boundaries for what should be talked about or how it should be said, feels unsettled and new. Yet, It evokes many of the earliest frameworks for survivor narratives. Survivors, in the wake of liberation, wrote down their memories for court cases, legal documentation, and communal collection projects, like the Jewish Historical Commissions that started in 1944 [citation 2]. These accounts were roughly drawn, written hastily, and sometimes dictated (as Lesser’s AMA was).

The AMA string is still open – other Reddit users are posting about experiences they lived through or their grandparents lived through under Nazism and responses are nested inside other responses. Some of the initial questions and comments that were openly or subtly anti-Semitic were voted down and are now hidden from the front page. The detailed responses Lesser gave to questions about his liberation and his personal experiences with violence in the concentration camps have been voted to the top.

As this conversation continues and the openness of a space for ‘anything’ grows through comments, sub comments, and responses, the nature of a testimony – a direct conversation between an interviewer and an interviewee, already so tangled through an online forum like Reddit, becomes ever more networked. As more voices become part of this conversation, it weaves out in multiple directions, and offers an entirely new way of thinking about Holocaust witnessing – not as the voice and words of one survivor, but as a public discourse that breaks down the limitations of a video taped testimony.

But, what does it mean for Holocaust memory to grow out in these unexpected and unknown ways? Do the possible dangers of this kind of open forum outweigh the value of public engagement? These questions remain open as Holocaust memory changes in the digital age and transforms for the world when survivors are no longer able to answer these questions directly.

1.   See Henry Greenspan, On Listening to Holocaust Survivors : Recounting and Life History, (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998) and Dori Laub, “Bearing Witness or the Vicissitudes of Listening,” In Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, edited by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub (New York; London: Routledge, 1992).
2.   See Laura Jockusch, Collect and Record!: Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2012).


Originally posted on http://memoriesmotifs.tumblr.com >

Holocaust History & LEGOs: Learning Achieved (from Memories/Motifs)

In response to a school assignment to illustrate events of the Holocaust, John Denno, a 16-year-old student in Liverpool, UK, built a timeline of key historical events out of LEGOs.

The association of LEGOs as toy meant for play seems to challenge our assumptions about how we should think about, learn, and understand the Holocaust – evidenced by the title of the clickbait article on pixable.com: “The Most Controversial LEGO Creation Ever: Holocaust Timeline Scenes.”

Despite the past 2 decades of scholarly debate about the Limits of Holocaust Representation – it seems that the popular version of this conversation continues. And, the ubiquity and playfulness of LEGOs seems to evoke the limits of this concern.

Yet, Denno’s comments, quoted in Pixable and picked up by Haaretz suggest that the pedagogy was successful. Denno said of building 15 historical scenes from 1933 – 1945:

The biggest thing I realized about the Holocaust through making this project is just how long the persecution went on. From 1933 Jews slowly lost all their rights until they were being murdered in their thousands. – John Denno

Read the rest at http://memoriesmotifs.tumblr.com/

On Immigration, Executive Action, & Holocaust Survivors in the postwar period: What would our forefather’s think?

Yesterday, President Obama used executive action to open the promise of America to 5 million more people. In doing so, he said:

“Whether our forebearers were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal, that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.” via Washington Post

In the postwar period, it was Jews and not Latinos that the fight against immigration tried to bar from entering. And Truman’s executive action, known then as the Truman Directive, opened the doors for 25,000 Displaced Persons, about 2/3 of whom were Jewish survivors, who had not yet been granted permission to legally enter the United States. [For more about the Truman Directive and Jewish immigration in the postwar period, see here (USHMM)]

Reading Obama’s directive, I am reminded not only of the fight Jewish organizations waged to change public perception about who Jewish survivors were and why they needed to come to America, but also about the kind of rhetoric used to make those arguments – and I hear the echoes of that language today. Recalling American history as a site of haven and refuge calls upon the memory of our own family histories and roots an argument for immigration reform in emotion. This kind of personal and national appeal is a powerful way to connect past and present that evokes a moral imperative to act.

Read the rest on the Memories/Motifs blog >

Selfies, Memory Sites, & “appropriate” forms of commemoration

The selfie of San Antonio Spurs’ Danny Green at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (in Berlin) is making the rounds online. The people of the internet are “outraged,” both, it seems, at the picture itself and at the caption Green wrote: “You know I had to do it one time lol #Holocaust.” Undoubtedly, the pairing of “lol” with “#Holocaust” is insensitive, unthoughtful, and shallow. And, Green responded to the incident by issuing multiple twitter apologies and a new caption: “A lot of history here, more than you could imagine…very sad/tragic things happened #holocaust #berlin.”

But this selfie scandal, if we want to over-estimate its importance in the world, touched a nerve around Holocaust selfies more generally and renewed a conversation about behavior at Concentration Camps, memorials, and other sites of Holocaust memory. Lilit Marcus from the Guardian has published a piece today about Holocaust Selfies and Holocaust Tourism. In the article, she argues:

“For some people, a visit to a place like Auschwitz isn’t about paying respect or learning about history – it’s simply yet another “must-see attraction” they’re checking off in their guidebook, a thing to be Instagrammed, like the Mona Lisa or the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”

While she makes a compelling personal case for not wanting to visit these sites and instead visiting places Jews lived before and after the Holocaust, it seems like there is more to be said here about travel, Holocaust memory, and social media.

Read the rest at the Memories/Motifs blog >

A View from McHenry

When I started documenting my first month as a CLIR Fellow at UCSC, I used the hashtag #30SantaCruzFirsts because I anticipated taking pictures of things that would be new and exciting, as well as confusing and challenging. I thought working in the library would challenge the kind of things I had learned as a graduate student and as a historian. And, to some extent, this happens everyday at work. Not only am I amazed by the amount of things that happen in one day when you’re not just writing your dissertation, but the world of the library is so extensive. I never realized how much work went on behind the scenes at academic libraries – they have secret lives behind locked doors and in collections rooms where books get rebound, manuscript collections get processed, and maps get digitized.

However, the real surprise of documenting this first 30 days has been the deer. This is not a metaphor. I see deer EVERY DAY on my way to work. I take the bus up the hill – going from the ocean to the mountains on a short 15 minute journey. And, once up the hill, I get off the bus and walk through a forest path, across a foot bridge, and under a larger wooden bridge. Along the way, I see, alternatively, a doe, a family of deers, or a male deer WITH antlers. At the end of this walk, I end up at McHenry Library, which is surrounded by Redwoods, and where, most days, an entirely different family of deer are munching the grass on the library lawn.

I think the people who have gone to school at UCSC or have worked here for a while are no longer dumb founded by the persistent presence of deer. But, I spent 7 years living in LA, where the best view on a hike is the Hollywood sign and the vistas are largely scanned for celebrity sightings. To me, seeing deer everyday is magical. And some mornings, the fog weighs down on the hill, covers the library, and I really feel like I might wander into a fantasy land.

If you’ve been following my #30SantaCruzFirsts, you’ll know that I have not posted a picture of deer everyday. Mostly, because I thought it would be excessive. And, it would also be unfair – because most people do not get to go to work in the redwood forests. They do not get to watch deer chew grass as they walk to a job that is challenging and exciting in all the best ways. Nonetheless, these 30 days have not been all deer. They have also not been as contemplative or emotional as my last 30 days in LA. I no longer feel like I’m dwelling in multiple past lives or crafting a memory of my life. Rather, I feel like I’m celebrating the unbelievable setting that I get to work in everyday.


Instagram, Memory Making, and Leaving LA

The last few months have been all about change. In May, I submitted my dissertation. In June, I received my PhD from UCLA. In July, Adam and I moved from LA to Santa Cruz, CA. Next week, I start a postdoc at UC Santa Cruz. After 7 years of graduate school and living in Los Angeles, a new adventure has begun.

As we started packing in June, I realized that I wanted to document what we were leaving.  The idea started by wanting to keep a record of the most ridiculous aspects of LA life: celebrity spotting, juice cleanses, hyper-local/organic/food culture, excessive gym going, etc. (All clichés. All somewhat awesome.).  So, I planned to instagram (yes, as a verb) my last month in LA and used the hashtag #30moredaysinLA to do so.

Things I learned pretty quickly upon starting this project:

1)   Taking generic “LA” pictures is not very interesting: Far away shots of tv/commercial celebrities are of no interest to anyone. And, in the long term, was that really what I would want to remember about my 7 years in LA?  It wasn’t. So, the project, instead, was about my last 30 days in LA – what I was doing, what I would miss, and what I loved about my life there.

2)   It’s not that easy to define a consistent Instagram “voice”: creating visually engaging and communicative photographs everyday was a challenge.  I had to focus on taking good pictures with my phone. Not pictures that reminded me where I parked or what books I wanted to buy, but composed shots that could document a moment, a feeling, an idea and convey that to a virtual audience. Pairing the visual image with a caption also took some thought. Did I want to be snarky? Did I want to be sincere? How could I be both?

3)   Sharing pictures of my life everyday dictated what I did each day: Some days, I took a picture of the boring thing I was really doing, like working or packing boxes. And, some days I relied on older pictures that spoke to something I really loved about LA. But, most days, I felt motivated to do things so that I could take a picture of it. On the one hand, I did things I had long been meaning to do, like stroll the Venice canals and hike at Topanga Canyon. On the other hand, I felt the pressure of making public a life that was more active and exciting than the one I normally lived (which generally consisted of shuttling back and forth between UCLA’s campus and neighborhood coffee shops).

4)   Some basic social media lessons: (1) People “like” pictures with people in them more than pictures without people. (2) If you take pictures of food, use lots of hashtags if you want get people you don’t know to “like” them. (3)  I am susceptible to craving “likes” and obsessing over them!  Why did people like some pictures and not others? Was it the time of day I posted? The nature of the caption? Even though this project was mostly for me, I was still concerned about what would be popular. This was compounded when I started sharing the posts on Facebook, where family members, childhood friends, long lost acquaintances, and friends of friends could also see, “like,” and comment.

As a historian particularly concerned with memory, the whole experiment felt overly meta. I was creating, editing, captioning, and sharing pictures about my life as a way of curating my own LA memory.  By choosing the images that best conveyed what I wanted to remember, I elided moments of loneliness, sadness, and frustration. This should not have come as a surprise because this is fundamentally what social media does. We share the best versions of ourselves and our lives. But, it struck me, as I tried to encapsulate 30 things I loved about LA, how easy it is to construct memory not only for our social media “friends” but for ourselves.

Looking back through the hashtag now, I’m glad that I included mundane days as well as exciting days, and my favorite shots are the ones that evoke a complex emotional moment, many of which were prompted by the process of packing and moving. The picture of old CDs that reminded me of so many past musical moments is as provocative as the one of me dropping off my very last UCLA library book, which still (over 6 weeks later) prompts a complicated feeling of melancholy. By looking at the images as a whole collection, I also notice a few things I didn’t anticipate: like how often I wear the same outfit (black jeans, black t-shirt, jean jacket), how beautiful LA can be, and how absent the people that populated my LA life are from this record.

Thinking about the relationship between social media and the construction of both a public and private memory made the effort more exciting for me. And taking stock of what kind of memory it created makes me excited to try it again. So, I’m going to document the first 30 days of my new, post-graduate school, post-doctoral position. This time I hope to add a bit more text to some of the posts on this blog so that I can reflect on the new things I’m learning and the moments when my training as a historian is in tension with my new position in the library. But, already, this goal seems devoid of people, so let’s see if I can change my own impulse in memory making.

Stay tuned. And, follow my new hashtag adventure: #30SantaCruzfirsts