January 17, 2007

Golden State

USC Project Examines The History Of Jews In California

By James Tella

One of the interviews in Jews in the Golden State.
Though the roles of Jewish people throughout California are undeniably important to the state’s cultural development, until now, Jewish California has been a little studied aspect of American history. That’s all about to change as a new interactive media project between four distinguished USC scholars called Jews in the Golden State gets underway. A combination museum installation, DVD with teacher’s guide, and an online archive, the project will bring to light over 150 years of historical richness, diversity and complexity of the Jewish experience in the nation’s most populous state.

The two-year venture is a collaboration between Marsha Kinder, professor of critical studies in the School of Cinematic Arts and founding director of the Labyrinth Project, a research initiative on interactive narrative; William Deverell, professor of history in the USC College and director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West; Bruce Zuckerman, professor of religion and linguistics in the USC College and director of the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life; and Professor Donald Miller, professor of religion and sociology in the USC College and executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture 
Jewish Wedding in Los Angeles, 1929

In addition to drawing assets from key repositories in the state and across the country—among them the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, the Smithsonian Institution, the New York Historical Society, and the National Archives—Jews in the Golden State will take advantage of testimonials in USC’s Shoah Archives as a way of navigating the materials.

“Our projects are rigorous cultural histories, yet they present a compelling sensory experience,” said Kinder. “The range of people involved with this project is extremely impressive.”

With seed money from the Casden Institute, grants from the Walter &  
Army-Navy Goods on Broadway, Los Angeles, 1931
Elise Haas Fund, and the Righteous Persons Foundation. Labyrinth’s creative directors Rosemary Comella and Kristy H.A. Kang are now obtaining visual assets, completing technical research on the latest archiving tools, and familiarizing themselves with the Shoah archives and their methodologies.

Kinder, whose uncle was a cowboy when her family settled in the state in the early 1900’s is thrilled that the team will be gathering photos, home movies and stories from people’s personal collections, a form of “homegrown history” that will make Jews in the Golden State an even stronger experience. Once the project comes online in 2008, those willing to share their history will be able to upload their images and memories.

Of particular interest to Kinder is the way the project will highlight the stories of Holocaust victims who came to the Golden State after the Second World War.

“It’s fascinating to find out why certain survivors chose to come to the Southland or settle in the Bay Area after they were liberated,” added Kinder, whose interest in Jewish diasporic culture is manifested in several Labyrinth projects. Among them, The Danube Exodus, which, after premiering at the Getty Center, was exhibited at several European venues—including Berlin, where it will open at the Jewish Museum in March. Based on the success of The Danube Exodus, the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley has “shown a great deal of confidence in our work” and offered to make Jews in the Golden State part of their permanent collection in its new facility, Kinder said.
More from Jews in the Golden State.

In addition to telling individual stories, Kinder also sees the project as a catalyst for greater understanding of Jewish contributions to making California such a dynamic force.

“Once people recognize the Jewish role in our state’s history, we’re hoping they have a much richer understanding of California,” Kinder said. “It will make the Jewish community more accessible, and hopefully work against persistent negative stereotypes.”