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Ellen Eisenberg

Jewish Oregonians: Religion, Ethnicity, Community and Regional Identities, 1950-2010

In the 1980s, the Oregon Jewish Historical Society commissioned historian Steven Lowenstein to write a history of the Jews of Oregon. Lowenstein’s volume, rich in photos and stories of both individuals and institutions, covered the period from settlement to 1950. This past year, a group based at the Oregon Jewish Museum (a new incarnation of the OJHS) determined to build on that project with a second volume, covering the period from 1950 to 2010. I have been selected to write this history and will be working full time on the project from the end of this school year through the summer and my sabbatical year, 2014-2015.

I envision a book that is organized around a series of thematic chapters that aim to place the history of the Oregon community in the context of both the broader scholarship on the American Jewish community and on the region. Using an extensive collection of local primary sources, the project will examine how regional and national trends in the American Jewish community were experienced by Oregon Jews, and how the local context shaped the community. For example, one of the most notable changes in the post-War period is the change in women’s roles.  The chapter focusing on this theme will include examination of the evolution of women’s leadership roles within communal organizations and synagogues, as well as shifts in the activities of women’s and girls’ organizations. It will also look at Oregon Jewish women’s involvement in the local and regional feminist movement and the impact of the movement on women’s work and home lives. Another chapter will look at the place of Jews in Oregon’s ethnic landscape—focusing on issues of acceptance and prejudice, and the relationship of the Jewish community to both the white majority and to other ethnic minorities. Other possible chapter themes include history and memory (how has the community told its own story through the Museum, the Lowenstein book, and many smaller projects?), and “Jewish Portlandia”—an examination of the ways in which the community reflects, and has shaped, Portland’s image as a trendy, progressive, innovative, quirky center. Although I have identified some of the chapter themes, others remain open and will emerge in the course of the research.

Resources for the project include the rich archival collections of the Oregon Jewish Museum, the Oregon Historical Society, and many smaller organizational holdings. The OJM archives include several hundred oral histories recorded from the 1970s through the present day, thousands of photographs, as well as community newspapers, individual collections, and institutional records. There will also be the opportunity to conduct our own oral histories with community members and leaders.

For the summer of 2014, I am looking for student collaborators interested in delving into these rich archival holdings and developing projects of their own. These may connect to my already selected themes, or lead to new thematic areas for research. Students may choose to engage a theme across a variety of sources, or to focus on a particular type of source material, such as oral histories, that speak to multiple themes/chatpers. I am excited about having student collaborators explore these materials and possibly open up new ways of seeing them or new insights into community and individual experiences.