Hidden Treasures Event
At the start of November, we brought together fifty archives from across the UK to officially launch the Hidden Treasures network. Our main aim was to give people working with Jewish material the chance to meet and make connections but we also wanted to provide practical advice, professional development and inspiration. We were delighted to have such a broad range of archives represented, from national institutions and University special collections to Jewish community archives and some just starting out on their archiving journey.
We believe these archivists are the custodians and guardians of the Jewish experience in the United Kingdom, helping to collect, preserve and disseminate Anglo-Jewish heritage. It’s not an easy task, especially when you may only have a limited amount of Jewish knowledge and there may not be much support from within your organisation. The day was a fantastic opportunity to spend time with people working in similar fields, network and learn more about Jewish archives in Britain.
An introduction to Jewish Archives
We started with the question of what makes a Jewish archive and some of the unique challenges they pose. Dr Hanna Gentili, Curator Hebrew Collections at the British Library, gave an overview of Jewish archival material, their characteristics and how Jewish archival practises have developed. She also spoke about the scattered nature of Jewish archival material across different repositories, not necessarily just archives and often within non-Jewish institutions. Using beautifully illustrated items from the British Library’s collection, Dr Gentili also spoke about the wide variety of different languages found in Jewish archives and the challenges that brings.
Jeff Gerhardt, Senior Archivist at the London Metropolitan Archives, described the wealth of Jewish material at the LMA archive dating back to the readmittance of Jews in the seventeenth century. He also touched on some of the major challenges for researchers working with Jewish material including deciphering cursive Hebrew, multiple languages and the use of Jewish names. He also addressed access issues concerning archives of the Jewish community held by the LMA (many of its Jewish holdings are long-term loans from other institutions that restrict access) and uncatalogued material.
Alexandra Cropper, Curator and Deputy Chief Executive of the Manchester Jewish Museum, joined the museum 15 years ago and talked engagingly and openly about the challenges of working with Jewish material when you don’t have a Jewish background. Alexandra’s many impressive educational tools and strategies included strong community engagement and befriending but began with a copy of ‘Judaism For Dummies’.
Finally, Dr Gabor Kadar, Director of Yerusha at the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe, spoke about this innovative online platform which unites thousands of descriptions of Jewish archival heritage from across Europe. Dr Kadar illustrated the intertwining of Jewish archives with Jewish experience in his recollection of approaching a leading Hungarian family who had converted from Judaism to Christianity. He had hoped to include their story in an exhibition about Hungarian Jews but was rebuffed: the family explained they could not be included because they were not Jewish.
Understanding the Jewish material in your collection
Miriam Marson, Head of Heritage at The United Synagogue and Professor Philip Alexander, Emeritus Professor of Jewish Studies at the Centre for Jewish Studies at The University of Manchester led a hands-on session about Jewish life and how it’s reflected in archives and manuscripts.
One of the challenges of working with archival material from a minority community is lacking a significant working knowledge of their culture, faith or religious practice. This session gave people working with Jewish material the opportunity to learn about aspects of Judaism that would help them better understand and care for this material and give them the chance to ask questions about the items they encountered.
Miriam laid out a selection of Jewish books central to Jewish life and religious practice including a siddur used for daily prayer, machzorim used on festivals, Passover haggadot and a miniature torah scroll no longer used ritually. She explained how each one was used, their importance as holy objects and the prescribed modes of care, disposal and retirement. Using her own lived experience, she demonstrated how many Jewish ritual items found in archives are still used by Jewish communities today.
Professor Alexander then wowed the participants with some incredibly detailed items from the John Rylands Library, including a facsimile of the world-famous Rylands Haggadah, stressing how manuscripts are also artefacts, bearing witness to their own history.
The second workshop was the first time Jewish organisations had come together to share experiences on establishing and running successful archive programmes. We heard from experienced Hidden Treasures members including Dr Bea Lewkowicz, Director of the AJR Refugee Voices Testimony Archive, Dr Angela Shapiro of Gathering The Voices and Harvey Kaplan from the Scottish Jewish Archive Centre. It was clear that many small community organisations often don’t have the professional skills to establish and run an archival programme and this support was greatly appreciated.
Share your archive
Over the course of the day, many participants admitted they hadn’t appreciated the enormous diversity of Jewish archival material in collections across Britain. This was illustrated in the afternoon, when each person had an opportunity to share a Jewish item from their archive and talk about it. Some archivists had detailed information about the item, its provenance and its purpose. Others still had questions about their own material and were delighted to find other people could help fill the gaps in their knowledge. An absolute highlight was Dr Vivi Lachs singing an alternative version of the Marseillaise in Yiddish, sung by Jewish workers in the East End of London.
Whirlwind Tour of Anglo-Jewish History
The history of Jews in Britain is long and rich, and Professor David Latchman, Vice-Chancellor of Birkbeck University of London, managed to move from the Norman Conquest to the present day in just 45 minutes, with special reference to his personal archive of Judaica. It was one of the highlights of the day, introducing many people to aspects of Anglo-Jewish history of which they hadn’t been aware.
Talking about your Jewish material and engaging audiences
The end of the day was an opportunity to enthuse and inspire. Dr Vivi Lachs, independent scholar and performance artist, performed hearty renditions of Yiddish songs along with engaging explanations of their fascinating history and even got the audience singing along with the very Yiddish refrain ‘in Viktorye park‘. Keren David, Managing Editor of The Jewish Chronicle offered advice on how to make an archive item newsworthy. She stressed the need for a human interest angle, high resolution images and a good ‘hook’: an anniversary, current event, new book or exhibition to peg the story to. Hari Jonkers, Archivist at Holocaust Centre North, spoke about recent projects her archive has undertaken with resident artists. Daniela Greiber, Grants Programme Manager at the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe, talked exclusively about Kaleidoscope, a new project collecting contemporary autobiographies of young Jews in Europe and based on a competition held by YIVO in the 1930s.
How you can contribute to Hidden Treasures
The Hidden Treasures website and social media is a fantastic way for archives to talk about the Jewish material they hold and Susanna Kleeman, social media manager for Hidden Treasures, has some top tips on how to do this. Whether that’s making sure your archive page is up to date, telling us about the highlight of your collection, contributing to the blog, inviting us to take part in a ‘Collection Encounter’ or just tagging us on social media (find us on all platforms as @seethetreasures).
We want to thank everyone who took part in the event, especially the speakers who brought all aspects of Jewish archives to life. Hidden Treasures is a project providing support to anyone with Anglo-Jewish heritage material so please do not hesitate to get in touch if you’d like to know more about joining our network or have any questions about Jewish archives.