How I Accidentally Became A Jewish Historian

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Etta with Matriarchs
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Etta King, JWA's Education Program Manager, with (from left to right) her paternal great-grandmother, her maternal grandmother, and her paternal grandmother. Photo by G. Orcha.

Like many recent college graduates, I began my job hunt by asking myself some difficult questions “What do I want to do? Who do I want to be? How can I accomplish my goals?” And, in the not-so-tactful words of a close friend, “what real skills do I actually have?”

After much bubbling and churning, I decided my teaching experience and academic background in educational policy made me well suited for several different career tracks, but I had one rule for myself: I wasn’t going to work for The Jews. After being raised in Habonim Dror, being active in my synagogue, and attending Brandeis University, I felt I could make a bigger impact if I looked beyond the community of which I had always been a part.

I took a summer job as an outdoor educator. In the fall, I headed back home for a few months of what I like to call “funemployment.” I spent much of my time researching organizations and jobs, dutifully (read: begrudgingly) completing my goal of writing to eight or nine a week. After two and a half months, I had heard back from two places. Neither seemed like the right fit.

Then I came across an ad for a non-profit organization whose mission is “to uncover, chronicle, and transmit to the broadest possible audience the untold stories of American Jewish women.” My first thought? YAWN. At Brandeis I took classes in almost every department—including one in farming and another in the history of electronic music. The only departments I didn’t touch? Women’s and Gender Studies, History, and Near Eastern Judaic Studies. Why, I asked myself, would I want a job there? Not only was it a Jewish organization, but it was an organization that worked in the three subject areas in which I had—I thought—little or no interest.

I’m not sure what motivated me to click the link to the site. Maybe I was bored, lonely … maybe, just maybe, there was something inside me that wondered if I was wrong to reject a Jewish professional track. So I clicked … through videos of old ladies talking about dance and cooking; I read a few articles in the online Encyclopedia, and then I clicked on a link promoting stories of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement.

Bam! up popped a photo of a bunch of kids flying a NFTY banner at the March on Washington. Of course, I thought at first, Jews are everywhere! But there, I suddenly realized, was my story. The story of young Jews taking a stand for equality, building friendships through social action, and “doing Jewish” on the streets, in the fields, and at rallies instead of in a synagogue or school.

These stories, captured in letters, interviews, and photographs, made an explicit connection between the experiences of my youth and my desire to make a positive impact on the world in my adult life. I was hooked.

Lest you think this is a blatant advertisement for my place of employment, I want to drive home my real point: stories are what make the difference. It is the way we teach history, the narrative we choose to tell, and the sources we use to tell it that will create meaning for our students. The study of history that explores the achievements, challenges, and life experiences of specific people who resemble our friends and family allows us (teachers and students) to relate historical stories to our own, taking history out of the past and placing it on a continuum that begins before our births and will continue long after we’re gone.

I have now worked at the Jewish Women’s Archive for almost two years; in that time I have done what I thought might be impossible. I have reconnected with my personal Jewish practice, reignited my interest in Jewish culture, and discovered a new interest in collecting my own family’s history. And I have learned a lot about why history is such a powerful tool for meaningful Jewish education.

I have become a prouder, more knowledgeable, and more curious Jew. I have also found deeper meaning in my professional and volunteer work—even that which happens outside of a Jewish context. And perhaps most importantly, I have acquired a commitment to preserving the legacy of my own family, making the Jewish story richer and more complete for the generations of Jews the world does not yet know.

 

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