Thinking about local history

Thinking about local history

Joanne Palmer

Writing the cover story this week made me think about Jewish history.

To be clear, it’s rare that I don’t think about Jewish history, and I think that places me squarely in the same camp as many other Jews. Our history is entwined in just about everything we do.

Local Jewish history is so very complicated. To me, growing up on Long Island, the idea that there were other Jewish communities, not very far away, all part of the same metropolitan area, that did not trace their origins to the Lower East Side seemed impossible. Of course everyone came through there, and they then moved to the outer boroughs, then east to the Island, north to Westchester, or west to Jersey. (No one ever went south. That wasn’t a thing.)

Yes, that’s a typical New Yorker’s thinking, a sort of Empire State of mind. And it’s factually incorrect.

The truth is that there were Jewish communities all over the place, and some of them started with immigrants fresh off the boat. There was the community in Newark, dwarfed by New York but huge in its own right. There was the community in Paterson that was dominated by lacemakers and other textile workers, and smaller but still significant ones in Jersey City, Hoboken and Hackensack. Those communities’ children often felt fierce loyalty to their roots, and developed lifelong friendships celebrating them.

The other, opposite truth about Jewish history is that we’re all connected. Genetic testing services like 23 and Me show us that. Other people apparently have far fewer relatives than we do; we’re so connected to each other, given the centuries that we’ve married within the community, that we’re practically our own grandparents.

It’s fascinating and important to understand the history of our local communities, because that history can explain so much about who we are and predict so much, both good and bad, about what we might do. It can provide warning and inspiration.

Warren Grover, the local historian who wrote about the Nazis in Newark and the Jewish thugs — basically aged-out wrestlers, many with mob ties — who fought them — talk about the general category of Who Knew? — explains why local history is so important.

“From local history you get general history, because everything starts locally and what people do locally builds,” he said.

“Every little local thing fits into the pattern of the broader scope of history. I am a big believer in local history because you get to know the first small details about what will occur later on.” Without local history, we’d be missing out on the small (or small-seeming) stories that can encapsulate trends and ways of thinking and acting. We’d also miss out on the humanizing details that help us connect to history; we might want to read about David Ben-Gurion or Golda Meir, or Jonas Salk or Rosalind Franklin, or Abraham Lincoln or Eleanor Roosevelt, but it’s hard to identify with them. Even if their lives started normally, their trajectories took them to places where it would be hard for regular people to follow them, even in our imaginations.

But the Jews who settled in, say, Mount Freedom, because they were running hotels there, who started shuls and sent their kids to school there — we can imagine ourselves, however inaccurately, into their lives. We can imagine Weequahic or the Lower East Side, and we can talk to people who grew up there. Local history in a sese is democratized history.

We applaud people like Linda Forgash and Warren Grover, whose devotion to local history teaches us about ourselves, our past, and our future. We hope for more local historians like them.