Home and Freedom
My current book project is a microhistory of Black/Jewish interconnection in the 20th century.
Microhistory takes a small topic of study - like an unusual event or a little-known community - and untangles the details of the story to reveal what they meant to the people at the time, and how they relate to larger issues in history. Although I am primarily focused on the United States, this topic - and the story at the center of my research - cannot help but be connected to global events and debates.
I begin to peer into the issue by examining a crime that occurred in 1970s Philadelphia. But my real interest is in the unique relationships between the people who were impacted by it: an elderly, white Jewish couple and a group of young Black radicals, not Jewish, who coexisted on one block in North Philadelphia. While North Philadelphia’s history of white flight and economic desolation follows a path that may be familiar to many, the relationships which I study here do not.
Because my educational background is in Jewish history, I am especially drawn to looking at all of the different ways that the Jews in this story - the radical white Jews, their more traditional Jewish family members and acquaintances, the Black Jews or Israelites in the neighborhood and, ultimately, the North African Jews that enter the story as it moves across an ocean - think about issues of home, family, belonging and liberation.
Less familiar to me, but equally important to this story, is the history of how activists in the Black diaspora - in the U.S. and throughout the world - increasingly reached across borders as they shaped new visions for their self-determination over the course of the 20th century. The relationships between Black gentile, white Jewish and Afro-Jewish communities in American neighborhoods and cities profoundly impacted, and were impacted by, the choices that all of them made about their place in the world.
"We rarely look each
other in the eye":
The Making of an
Invisible Jewish Left
in the 1960s U.S.
Jewish activists were a conspicuous presence in the U.S. New Left of the 1960s. Yet in contrast to the large and influential Jewish Left that preceded the Second World War, Jews in the U.S. New Left rarely presented themselves as a collective force. Postwar Jewish radicals came of age in the wake of the Red Scare, when much of the historic working-class ethnic base of Jewish activism was being rapidly incorporated into America’s white middle class.
As these Jews embraced universalist social justice efforts in the 1960s, many of them continued to feel deep personal connections to Jewishness. With notable exceptions, however – such as Abbie Hoffman and his Jewishly-inflected political theatre – they tended to express these sentiments privately. The outlines of a collective identity become more clear when we look at patterns in Jewish New Leftists’ lives.
This research looks at memoirs, oral histories and press accounts of Jews from a variety of backgrounds on the New Left to unpack the factors that muted radical Jewish public identity, to ask what the consequences of this might have been, and to reconsider these activists’ choices as a collective Jewish phenomenon.
Above: Map of Philadelphia's 1964 riot zone, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University.
Below: Newsreel Collective Third World Cadre member Roz Payne (with Bev Grant) at Young Lords office in New York, photograph believed to be taken by Juan Julian Caicedo.