This research guide is a resource for scholars and students of Jewish history and culture, and members of the public who are interested in exploring the development of Jewish archives across the centuries and what kinds of materials are available for research today.
The guide is a supplement to the academic book A Time to Gather: Archives and the Control of Jewish Culture, which tells a transnational story about Jewish archival activities across the twentieth century. The guide seeks to articulate the continuing meaning of “a time to gather” in modern Jewish life. Indeed, when we look at the ongoing proliferation of Jewish archival activities, repositories, and institutions in contemporary Jewish culture we see the ways in which the impulses behind gathering historical materials—which the book argues is tied to distinctive developments in modern Jewish culture both before the Holocaust and especially in its aftermath—continue into the twenty-first century
This guide presents a brief overview of Jewish archival and collecting activities through the ages and around the world, with an emphasis on a number of specific archival and recordkeeping practices in Jewish culture, and it also offers a directory of significant archival institutions and repositories which can be utilized today. Notably, this directory is not a comprehensive listing of all archival collections relating to Jewish history; it seeks to offer an overview of some relevant archival institutions that focus specifically on Jewish history. The guide also offers notes on the history of a number of these institutions and their place in the wider landscape of Jewish archival materials.
The guide is primarily directed at students and scholars of Jewish history and culture, and members of the public who are interested in exploring the Jewish past. There is a reason why archival research is often difficult—it certainly is hard work and time-consuming, and they can definitely be Kafka-esque. Archives can be difficult to access and understand. You probably need to travel to be there in person and spend time there, getting to know the collections and the people who control the keys to the files. Sometimes when you are there you realize that they don’t have what you are looking for, or (and this is when it gets exciting!) that the archives hold something tremendously important that you had no idea was there.
This guide is meant to help facilitate this process by providing a birds-eye view of the landscape of Jewish archival materials and their history, so that those who are interested in researching and understanding the Jewish past can grasp the lay of the land, what kinds of materials exist, and how they made their way to our present.
While the research guide is published on the book’s website, it is a distinct and separate project. It is intended to supplement A Time to Gather: Archives and the Control of Jewish Culture and its analysis of twentieth-century Jewish archives—which primarily focuses on Germany, the United States, and Israel/Palestine—with an overview of the global landscape of Jewish archival institutions and repositories. We hope it will be a resource for scholars pursuing research on Jewish history.
While the research guide represents a separate initiative, the materials presented here complement the book and its argument in a few ways.
First, this overview of Jewish archives highlights the ongoing proliferation of archives in modern Jewish life, which the book suggests is reflective of the rising value of archives in Jewish cultures around the world—such a “time to gather” and its concomitant impulse to preserve the Jewish past in the form of archives is connected with the powerful symbolism of Jewish communities, institutions, and individuals all wanting to hold these archives as symbols of their vitality and leadership in Jewish life.
Secondly, this research guide helps take the consideration of Jewish archives beyond the core case studies examined in the book, and offers information about Jewish archival initiatives in other parts of the world. It is our hope that this will underscore the ways in which Jewish archiving—and the issues relating to the control of Jewish culture—are not restricted to Germany, the United States, and Israel/Palestine, but are part of a worldwide phenomenon.
And thirdly, this research guide highlights the possibilities for the ongoing study of the history of Jewish archives as highlighted by A Time to Gather: Each of these archives has a history of its own and it highlights the developments and conflicts within its own specific cultural contexts, and they invite both the study of the histories that they document, as well as the symbolic and practical meaning of how Jews are continuing to respond to the impulses of a “time to gather” in Jewish culture around the world.
On the most basic level, an archive is a collection of historical materials, usually one-of-a-kind primary sources that were created by an individual or institution, which are preserved in order to study the past. When we talk about archives, the term can refer interchangeably to the materials themselves (sometimes described as a collection), as well as to an institution or repository that holds them (though archival materials or collections are not always held by institutions). Archives, broadly speaking, represent some of the most important materials that historians and other scholars utilize to study the past, because they were produced by the historical figures that we study.
Whether anything (or anyone) Jewish is a fraught issue. Indeed, as scholars have pointed out recently, the very attribution of “Jewish” to historical figures is itself a challenge: Someone may have been Jewish according to traditional Jewish norms, but to what extent did they themselves perceive the activities they were involved with as being “Jewish”? Consequently, our own definition of Jewish archives—and of Jewish history—is dependent not on any essential nature of Judaism, but on our own attribution of Jewishness to it. The existence of “Jewish archives,” that is of archives which we categorize as “Jewish,” is the foundation for Jewish history as a field of study: not just because these resources offer materials for study, but because the experiences and developments documented therein are thereby framed as part of a “Jewish” history.
With all this in mind, and the many definitions of “Jewishness” and also of “archives,” one might consider at least three ways to define Jewish archives:
- First, one might look to archival institutions that are dedicated specifically to Jewish history, or which are affiliated with or attached to a specific Jewish organization or Jewish community. This research guide and its directory of present-day “Jewish archives” focuses mostly on this type of archives. It is especially interested in repositories and collections that call themselves archives, as well, as part of the phenomenon of the rise of archives—as institutions and as ideas—in modern Jewish life.
- Second, one might consider archival collections that relate to Jewish history in some fashion, whether or not they are held in a “Jewish archive.” For instance, there are many archival collections that originate with Jewish communities and institutions that are not found in specifically Jewish archival institutions.
- And third, one can talk about archival materials that touch upon Jewish history. To give one example, police records in Russian archival collections relate to Jewish history, even though they are not exclusively “Jewish” by any means, because the police reports offer a useful source of information about Jewish political activities, nascent nationalist efforts, and social activities which the police infiltrated and spied upon.
Librarians, archivists, and other scholars have spilled tons of ink in an effort to try to define their work and the disciplinary differences between libraries, archives, museums, and other institutions and initiatives that preserve the past and present it to the public. In this guide, we are interested especially (but not exclusively) in institutions that call themselves “archives.” This self-attribution, we believe, is important. Even if we use a collection as an archive, for instance like the materials of the Cairo Genizah, when we look at these institutions, projects, and collections in historical perspective, how they understood themselves is very important.
With that said, the directory of present-day archives also includes institutions like museums, libraries, and special collections that contain archival departments and archival collections that would be of use to scholars of Jewish history. We have done this particularly with the objective of trying to offer a global perspective on archival resources for Jewish history. If we only included “archival repositories” in the most strict sense, then we would leave a lot out that would otherwise be of use to researchers.
The Cairo Genizah was not created as an archive in our present-day sense, and the question of whether it “is” or “is not” an archive is not particularly fair, i.e. to apply contemporary definitions of what is an archive (in professional or scholarly terms) to a cache of materials created over 1,000 years ago is not really applicable or useful.
However, the Cairo Genizah materials have been utilized as an archive by modern scholars. More broadly, the Cairo Genizah and the entire genizah phenomenon represents an important component of the history of record-keeping practices in Jewish cultures.
The point is that we can distinguish between whether something was created as an archive, and how it may have been utilized as an archive by scholars. Altogether, this distinction is also important as we look at the rise of archives in modern Jewish cultures, inasmuch as historical materials have been increasingly placed under the umbrella of “archives.”
As a practical matter, there are a number of kinds of archive institutions and repositories that include material relating to the historical experiences of Jews: Communal and other archives directly tied to Jewish life and its institutions, state and other public archives connected to the wider societies in which Jews have lived. This includes in the state of Israel, where municipal and other state-related archives have relevant materials on Jewish history and culture. In addition, one can speak of the records of individuals who themselves are Jews (and which may be held privately, or end up in an archival repository of any kind).
For the purposes of this research guide, we are not focusing on materials held in archives that are not specifically dedicated to Jewish history in some capacity. That is to say, it would be nice to offer details on everything. But as a practicality, this research guide cannot offer a totally comprehensive index of all archival material relating to Jewish history. (In fact, this is one of the central points of A Time to Gather—that there is constant dream of monumental, comprehensive archives of Jewish history, but of course it is impossible and it creates all sorts of problems>)
Here, we emphasize archival repositories and institutions that are focused specifically on Jewish historical topics. Usually, this means a focus on archives sponsored or connected to Jewish communities, or Jewish museums and other institutions that hold archival materials that are available for research.
Many archives, both before the COVID pandemic and especially during it, have digitized some of their materials. A great example is the Leo Baeck Institute’s DigiBaeck project, which has digitized almost the entirety of their collections and made them available via Archive.org.
You can check with an archive if some of their materials are digitized, or you can also search through online databases that bring together archives like Yerusha. Oftnetime, an archive’s online catalogue will offer an option to filter for materials which are available digitally.
It is usually easiest to download digitized materials to your own computer, if you are able to, and peruse them as a PDF or equivalent digital file. That way you can browse the materials without relying on the internet connection, and have your own copy of the materials.
Digitized collections can be very useful, but one should also be aware that it is ultimately a selective process. Digitization according to professional standards is time consuming and resource-intensive, and thus very expensive. Some archives only digitize the most important material (or rather, the collections they think are most important).
Genealogical research is different from other historical studies inasmuch as researchers are often looking for specific details on individuals. Genealogical research is also usually directed at producing a kind of historical output that is distinctive from more general historical scholarship. Genealogists frequently aim to construct family trees with specific details on individuals like dates of birth, information on immigration, marriages, etc. whereas professional historical scholarship usually produces historically narratives written as articles or books. There is thus a difference between searching out specific details, and telling a story with a big picture. As a result, the method of finding materials for genealogy and for broader historical research can be different.
The archives listed in this guide may have relevant genealogical materials, but they also might not. The best way to go about genealogical research also is often through state repositories which maintain census databases, vital records like birth and death certificates, and so on. Also, sometimes archives are not the best source for genealogical materials. One can look at cemeteries, family Bibles, and other material objects that have genealogical information.
Many archives do work to assist genealogists, and even have genealogical departments. But the files are not organized into a searchable database on the basis of someone’s name or location. If you are looking for someone specific and you know they were involved in a community, an organization, or had a professional or personal relationship with an individual whose records are held by an archive, you can often look through those collections to find materials relating to that individual. Oftentimes collections have a correspondence section which is organized alphabetically by correspondent so you might find letters from the person you are interested in that can tell you about their life, and sometimes personal details relating to family members or life events.
Genealogical societies have put together useful research guides, including: