Posted on July 1st, 2015 by Rachel
“You see what she did there? That’s good. That’s really good. You hear that? She paused. That silence makes people feel like they need to say more—like they need to fill the space. You can get some great stuff that way.”
Karen Falk, our curator at the museum, is sharing with me some tricks of the trade before I conduct an informal oral history over the phone the following day.
And these are tricks that I could definitely use—I’ve sometimes been known to exhibit signs of mild tremors when asked to even ring up distant relatives. While the idea of speaking with a stranger about their career choices and personal values is then definitely a little intimidating at first, it’s actually not so much the conversation that puts me on edge, but rather something about the nature of speaking over the phone. It’s precisely that pause that Karen keeps talking about—the lingering silence that makes my palms sweat as imagine the other person’s expression on the receiving end.
The tools of the trade!
We’re conducting these interviews as part of our research for the museum’s upcoming exhibit, Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America (set to open in March of 2016). A common occurrence at the museum as many of the exhibits maintain a unique first person perspective, I’ve already read through five oral history transcriptions conducted with medical professionals (or their family members) who worked in and around Baltimore during the 50s. We’ll eventually use these interviews either as brief quotes in the soundscape of the exhibit, or in their more complete form and create a listening station for visitors to enjoy on their own.
However they ultimately become incorporated into the exhibit, this unique opportunity to explore these stories was one of things I looked forward to most when I began this internship a month ago and has truly been an incredibly fascinating, and at times, even humbling experience. One interviewee spoke about Jewish quotas in nursing schools when her sister applied in the early 1950s and the blatant antisemitism she was confronted with by the administration. Another weaved colorful stories about a family business fabricating anatomically correct plastic models for medical schools. Nearly every oral history transcription I read highlighted a sense of the interconnectedness of medicine and Jewish values—of a shared notion of the tradition of community care and the sanctity of human life.
Reading these personal insights made me all the more excited to organize my own oral history interview, to be conducted with a current nurse practitioner student in New York. With this conversation and a few others, Karen is looking to acquire more contemporary perspectives in the field and I look forward to uncovering the new stories and experiences of someone not much older than myself. But then my early onset Parkinson’s flares up again…
Despite my growing nervousness, the following afternoon I felt confident in the knowledge that I was at least formally prepared. Armed with a few more insider tricks from Karen, a prepared list of some twenty questions, and an intimidating piece of recording equipment, I felt pretty well equipped. And, for the most part, I was. I successfully managed to set up the microphone, I asked the questions we had prepared, and somehow even overcame the impulse to fill the static void that inevitably arose. But what I wasn’t at all expecting was to be so blown away by my interviewee’s perspective and career choices, so much so that the silence that hung in the air wasn’t as piercing as I anticipated it to be. In fact, it wasn’t unsettling at all.
I realized, admittedly only after hanging up, that this phone call in fact allowed me to let her words speak entirely for themselves—liberated from the visual stimuli that can otherwise distract or distort our impressions. The lingering pauses that I am now playing back as I transcribe the interview don’t magnify the unease I felt, but rather the power of her words.
A blog post by Exhibitions Intern Elizabeth Livesey. To read more posts by interns click HERE.
Posted on July 28th, 2014 by Rachel
During my Exhibitions Research Internship at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, I have had the opportunity to conduct research on the Sinai Hospital Nurses Training Program for the upcoming Jews, Health, and Healing exhibition. This research has included reading several oral history interviews from nurses who trained at Sinai Hospital (the program ended in 1975). These interviews have not only given me new insights into the hospital and its program, but also have allowed me to learn some of each woman’s personality.
A group of Sinai nurses in gathered in their residence eating pizza, no date. Courtesy of Sinai Hospital of Baltimore.
Oral histories collect and record personal memories and commentaries, and are one of the most important sources of information available to historians. An oral history allows one to learn about the lives of people that are not ordinarily covered in history textbooks. The information gathered in an oral history can be used for research, excerpted in publication, filmed for documentary, or displayed in museum exhibition.
The Jewish Museum of Maryland is home to hundreds of oral histories. Those histories that have not yet been digitized or transcribed are kept in audiocassette form and organized in filing cabinets.
Information we have gathered through the nurses’ oral histories will better allow us to place exhibition objects into context and craft a narrative for their display. As Curator Karen Falk wrote in her “JMM Insights, July 2014: Where Culture Meets Science” blog post, Bobbie Horwitz’s interview gave context for the elaborate silver tea gifted to JMM by the Sinai Nursing Alumnae Association. Horwitz explained, “They wanted to make ladies of us.” One of the ways they did so was through a civilized “tea” held every Friday.
Sinai nurses drinking from their silver tea set, no date. Courtesy of Sinai Hospital of Baltimore.
Another interesting story I came across was from former Sinai nurse Senator Rosalie S. Abrams. Abrams recounted how she learned Yiddish while working in the men’s ward. “I was a head nurse for the men’s ward,” she said. “That’s where I learned my Yiddish—on the men’s ward. We used to sing them Jewish songs.” Such stories illustrate the intersection of Jewish culture and medicine in the space of the hospital.
Three Sinai nursing students and their instructor stand around a patient in his hospital bed, June 1960. Accession # 2010.020.316. Courtesy of Nurses Alumnae Association of Sinai Hospital.
After reading so many interesting stories I was excited to receive training, with my fellow interns, from Curator Karen Falk on how to conduct an oral history. We went over how to use the museum’s recording equipment and preparing the proper documentation for the interview. It is crucial to be prepared for the interview. One of the most important things to consider is what you want to learn. You should know your topic and what information you hope to gain. Prepare a list of questions that get at the heart of what you want to know and familiarize yourself with them. Your rapport will be easily interrupted if you keep pausing to look down at your questions. Keep in mind that you should also be flexible with your questions. Your interviewee may bring up interesting points you never considered, but would like to explore.
Prior to conducting your oral history make sure all your recording equipment works. Familiarize yourself with it and practice. You do not want to waste your interviewee’s time trying to set up equipment that you do not know how to use or that does not work.
Some of JMM’s oral history recording equipment, including a digital recorder and microphone.
Upcoming research for the Jews, Health, and Healing exhibition will include conducting more oral history interviews with Jewish medical professionals. I hope that some of the great accounts from the Sinai nurses’ oral histories will be incorporated into the exhibit.
A blog post by Exhibitions Research Intern Sarah Moore. To read more posts by interns click HERE.
Posted on December 4th, 2013 by Rachel
People sometimes ask me, “What is the use of Jewish history?” And “why do you study and write about that so much?” Author and historian, Lucy Davidowitz, wrote a book on this subject.
2007.054.027 Book cover, The Hoffburger Journey in America: 1882-2005, compiled primarily by Lois Hoffberger Blum Feinblatt.
Others take their concern and doubt to an annoying level, saying, “History is not important.” Perhaps not, for them, compared with the latest Hollywood gossip, the score of Sunday’s football game or newest technological toy. Their view is short sighted, to say the least.
For me, researching and writing about Jewish history is akin to raising a memorial to departed relatives, ancestors and – yes – to strangers. Some may be famous community or congregational leaders while others served their families quietly with love and dedication.
Only two of my relatives served the community in public ways – one was a Hershfield who served as secretary of a synagogue in New Jersey. The shul is now defunct, and I have no documentation about this except for Oral History tapes of my mother.
Another Hershfield in the same family in Jersey City served on the public School Board. But this branch of the family are notorious for not answering letters, and we have been out of touch with them since the 1960s, so no documentation has been found to verify the anecdote.
(As for yichus, that is, genealogical status, I sometimes imagine that I am descended from a 2nd Century Sage or a Levitical priest. But this may be ego on my part!)
Every time we quest for our family’s history, read an article in a Jewish History periodical or visit the JMM, we are raising a memorial to the whole Jewish people. It is like placing rocks on the top of tombstones when we visit cemeteries. The purpose is to make the marker-stone larger, thereby, increasing the honor of those who have passed away. Saying Kaddish for one’s father is another example. Sharing our genealogies with living relatives is a third example of zichron – remembering our ancestors. And from where we came.
1973.008.001 Collage of Galitzianer gravestones (1903) from Gruft family collection. Artist unknown.]
The value of learning, teaching and celebrating our many-faceted history becomes more apparent when we consider how often in history that the Jewish people have faced extreme adversity. Even if our immigrant-ancestors lived a life of obscurity, toiling in the moderate Garment Industry of Jonestown or peddling as an arabisher, there is eternal value to our interest, care and memory of them. We need the Eternal One’s eyes to perceive the value of Jewish history.
1997.149.003 Button sewing machine (1930s), made by Singer, from D. Schwartz and Sons Garment Machinery Co., of Baltimore Street and later, Gay Street.
A blog post by Collections Volunteer Robert Siegel. To read more posts by and about JMM volunteers, click here.