Ensuring History Remains Preserved and Valued
At this point, many of us are getting tired of living through historical moments. Yet even without politics and pandemics erupting all over our lives, we live through history just by going about our regular daily lives. As strange as it seems, one day students might study our tweets and TikToks as primary sources in history class. Hydro Flasks, coated with dust, could sit encased in glass inside a museum. For show-and-tell, a first grader might bring in her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother’s selfie stick.
But history is not automatically preserved. Without deliberate care, there is no guarantee that our Hydro Flasks and selfie sticks will live on for our descendants to see. History often lies forgotten in attics, basements, and closets. Other times, history ends up in the trash.
For the past thirty-five years, century-old Yiddish and Hebrew records have sat in Mr. Eric Cohen’s basement. Years ago, his father used to play these 78 vinyl records. Though mostly indecipherable to Mr. Cohen, the music held meaning for his Yiddish-speaking father.
Packed inside boxes, these records’ value goes unused. Though Mr. Cohen himself does not have any use for them, he said, “It would just be a shame to throw them away… it just wouldn’t be right.” He hopes to give them to someone who would enjoy their historical, religious, and musical value. “I wanted to do something with them for years,” he explained. A while back, he considered sending them to an organization in Florida that studies Yiddish history, but he said, “I was afraid they would just get broken” in the shipping process.
This situation is not unique to Mr. Cohen. Many face the dilemma of owning a significant or historical object, but do not know anyone to give it to so that its value is appreciated and lives on. In the 1980s, the Georgia Jewish community advocated for the establishment of a Jewish archive to provide a solution to this issue. For the sesquicentennial of Jewish life in Georgia, an exhibition collected historical objects from people around the state. After the exhibition, however, people did not want to reclaim their belongings. They felt that an archive or museum would best preserve and value them.
“That was really the seed that was planted to start the archives,” said Mr. Jeremy Katz, Senior Director of Archives at the Breman Museum. He explained, “Our founding is tied to people wanting to donate their materials to someplace where it will be preserved indefinitely, and not be stored in their closets, basements, or attics… Our focus is to honor that mission.” Initially founded by the Atlanta Jewish Federation, the archive began “in a closet.” Now an element of the Breman Museum, Mr. Katz stated, “We are now the largest repository for Jewish history in the region.”
The archives work to document the history of Jews in the state of Georgia, Mr. Katz said. “A lot of things that you think about Atlanta — Coca Cola, Georgia Tech, Emory, Mercedes Benz Stadium, the Atlanta Braves — all these iconic things have roots in the Jewish community. So we focus on collecting those stories and showing Jewish contributions to Atlanta, as well as throughout the region.” A prized possession in the archive is the correspondence among the Minus family — one of the first Jewish families to settle in the South — from the colonial period through the civil war.
The archive preserves thousands of manuscript collections, over a thousand artifacts, hundreds of textiles, over a thousand oral histories, and roughly fifty-thousand photographs that document Jewish life in Georgia and surrounding states. The ability to find historical objects almost anywhere contributes to this huge collection. “Through just the strangest methods and ways people find history,” Mr. Katz explained, listing possible locations such as basements, attics, estate sales, and even eBay. People continuously stumble upon historical objects, and the Breman Museum continues to engage with donors daily.
The environment of the archives specifically caters to the needs of preservation. “Our archives [are] climate controlled… we try to maintain 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50% humidity really across the board. That’s kind of what the sweet spot is for documents, photographs, metals, things like that,” said Mr. Katz. Without these accommodations, documents and objects absorb and release moisture which causes deterioration. Mr. Katz continued, “And even beyond that, we try to create as many buffers between the materials and the environment — light, temperature, humidity — so we want to enclose everything in boxes and folders or cabinets.” Even just layering documents upon one another can cause discoloration.
In addition to simply preserving the archives, the Breman Museum continues to value and make use of the historical objects. They display some of the archives in their three rotating exhibitions. In addition, students, researchers, and community members can access the rest of the papers and objects in the archives. “We want to be as accessible as we possibly can. Because once you collect these materials and preserve them, they don’t really do any good if they’re just sitting on the shelves not being utilized,” notes Mr. Katz.
There exists a concept in Judaism of preserving a valuable or holy object. Many families continue to use or keep their ancestors’ old menorahs, siddurim, or candlesticks. Rabbi Adam Starr of Congregation Ohr HaTorah said, “I think people want to feel, when they practice Judaism, that there is a link in the chain — that this connects to something that happened before.”
While passing down these religious objects makes a nice family tradition, Judaism actually obligates us to preserve some religious items. For example, someone cannot throw away a Torah. Rabbi Starr explained, “There’s a strong sense of keeping it around until literally it’s too old.” Only once it reaches this point it becomes permissible to bury the Torah — but it is never permissible to place it in the trash. He adds that even “anything that touches something intrinsically holy,” such as the covering of the Torah, can never be thrown away.
In addition to preserving old religious items, another strong custom in Judaism is to preserve someone’s memory and values through a new religious item. Shuls often receive Torahs in memory of lost loved ones. “It’s really this idea of keeping the memory of the people alive through a way that’s expressive of some of the most important things in life,” Rabbi Starr said. “If you go to the shul and you open up the aron kodesh… every single [Torah covering] says in Hebrew, ‘Leilui nishmat — for the elevation of the soul — of so and so.’” Rather than keep an object itself, this preserves memories and values.
Historical objects contain value, but unless they receive intentional care, they end up in the trash, forgotten, or destroyed by exposure. Often we might not even realize the value of some of the belongings passed down for generations. To just throw them away or leave them in closets deprives others of their potential.
If you are interested in receiving Mr. Cohen’s records or would like further information about them, reach out to Palette at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you own or know of something with historical value, contact Mr. Katz at email@example.com.