Oral Histories: Gaining Insights and Learning Personal Stories

Posted on July 28th, 2014 by

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

image 5.recording equip

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.

Sarah MooreA blog post by Exhibitions Research Intern Sarah Moore. To read more posts by interns click HERE.

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. 

Image 1: 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. 

Image 2:  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.

Image 3:  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.

Image 4:  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.

Image 5: 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.

 

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WHAT IS THE USE OF JEWISH HISTORY?

Posted on December 4th, 2013 by

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.

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.]

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.

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.

 

photo of Robert SiegelA blog post by Collections Volunteer Robert Siegel. To read more posts by and about JMM volunteers, click here.

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Finding a Home in the Collections

Posted on October 30th, 2013 by

Within the first five minutes of my internship at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, I found myself in the midst of an intimidating board meeting. Over the course of the next two months, I realized that I had joined a dynamic staff and a group of enthusiastic Collections interns. So far, I have worked with a wide range of collections including photographs, oral histories, scrapbooks, rare books, invitations, and Bar Mitzvah cards. The most exciting evening of my internship was the day Jobi Zink entrusted me with the condition reports for two swords and a rifle for the Passages through Fire: Jews and the Civil War exhibit. You can find photographic evidence of my excitement at handling these objects on the JMM Facebook album or by clicking these links: Civil War Sword and Full Sword and Scabbard.

While most of the other collections are not as thrilling as swords and rifles, I gained valuable insight about Jewish culture in Baltimore and the rest of Maryland by processing multimedia collections. As an out-of-state undergraduate at UMBC, learning about Jewish life in all aspects of Baltimore’s history has helped me feel at home. I particularly enjoyed processing an affectionate oral testimony about Camps Louise and Airy. Growing up, I never attended Jewish summer camps, so I was intrigued to learn about this important aspect in the history of Baltimore’s Jewish youth. This record is now available in the JMM’s digital collections (Oral History #170).

Most of my work is in the form of paper documents – ranging from Hebrew diplomas, High Holy Day Cards and Bar Mitzvah invitations to family photos and newspaper clippings from Jewish businesses. I am especially intrigued by the sheer extent of the collections donors such as Linda Lapides saw fit to donate to the JMM collections. Within her file, I found a vibrant story of Jewish life evolving and changing within the city of Baltimore. Perusing her donations helped me realize that Jewish life extended far beyond the walls of the synagogue in Baltimore City.  My favorite piece of the collection was a German-language book representing the early Zionist movement, encouraging Jewish people to migrate to what was then British Palestine (Palästina). This was an exciting opportunity to practice my German language skills! In the next file, I stumbled upon two scrapbooks and a large collection of photographs detailing the development of the family-owned Greenberg’s Jewelers – yet another reminder of Jewish life outside of the synagogue. I can’t wait to find out what else lies in store for me to process in the library closed stacks!

Intern JenA blog post by Collections Intern Jen Wachtel. To read more posts by JMM interns, click here.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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