Briv funem arkhiv: Far hashem, yivo un yeyl

Stephen Naron


In geveb​’s briv funem arkhiv (let­ters from the archive) series high­lights archival finds that are too good not to share. You can learn more and sub­mit your own briv here, or see all briv posts here.

Two summers ago, I had the honor of participating in the Naomi Prawer Kadar International Yiddish Summer program at Tel Aviv University. As usual, I was hovering at a strong intermediate level, dipping my toes occasionally into the waters of the advanced classes. My second summer Yiddish program, it was intellectually thrilling. The professors and instructors were inspirational, as was the camaraderie with students from across the globe. Learning Yiddish and shvitsing together in Tel Aviv was an experience I won’t soon forget. During one of my dips in the advanced course, I had the pleasure of listening to Dovid Roskies give a lecture, af yidish, about the life and intellectual evolution of Max Weinreich.

In his lecture, Roskies sketched a rich and impressive picture of a man, a Jewish folk hero, who continues to capture the hearts and imaginations of a new generation of scholars and Yiddishists. Although wholly captivating, there was one moment in his lecture that truly took me by surprise. Apparently, in the academic year 1932-33, Dr. Max Weinreich joined thirteen social science scholars funded by the Rockefeller Foundation as a fellow at Yale University. As a fellow, he participated in an “International Seminar on the Impact of Culture on Personality” with John Dollard and Edward Sapir. According to Roskies, this intense seminar would radically change Weinreich and YIVO’s direction, and “throw a lifeline to a generation of Eastern European Jews that had lost its way.” 1 1 See David Roskies The Legend of Max Weinreich in Tablet.

Until then, Weinreich and his colleagues had been leading an “army of zamlers, amateur collectors” who had been focused on systematically documenting “everything from folk art, recipes, folk medicine (remedies and exorcisms), folk meteorology (fortune telling, omens), children’s lore (counting-out rhymes, circle dances, riddles), to Purim plays, folktales, jokes, songs, and proverbial sayings.” 2 2 See David Roskies The Legend of Max Weinreich in Tablet. At the Yale seminar, Weinreich learned about the use of “auto-ethnography.” As Roskies writes:

The Yale seminar was designed to be a collaborative venture in which the participants, carefully chosen to represent a distinct country and culture, were to act in a triple capacity: as scholars, informants, and as students. Where but in America would a roomful of highly credentialed male academics be expected to turn itself into the precursor of a 1960s encounter group, in which, by plumbing the depths of their own life experiences, they not only came to know themselves better, but also came to understand each other better? At Yale, ethnography merged with psychoanalysis; streamlined for a seminar, the psychiatrist’s notebook was replaced by the analytic questionnaire. 3 3 See David Roskies The Legend of Max Weinreich in Tablet.

You can imagine my delight when I learned that Weinreich’s time at Yale (boolah boolah) had sent him down the path of Jewish auto-ethnography. As the director of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, to me Weinreich’s time at Yale represented a tentative but concrete connection or bilateral influence. After all, I have always understood the work of the Fortunoff Archive to collect first-person accounts of Holocaust witnesses and survivors as a late expression of the same spirit that drove the ethnographic traditions of first-person documentation of the Jewish European experience. When I got back to campus, I turned to Yale’s University Records division and asked my colleague, archivist Michael Lotstein, to search the student records for materials from this seminar and any sign of “Yale alum” Max Weinreich. Below is what I found. Weinreich’s student records offer us a limited biographical sketch, and a description of his productive participation in the seminar, as one of “the valuable members of the seminar.” A little piece of bureaucratic university paperwork gives us a list of family members, dates and places of birth of his siblings, and a brief curriculum vitae — all the usual fields we might ourselves encounter when applying for admission to a Yiddish summer program (like YIVO’s program, named in honor of Max’s son Uriel). Although pretty banal as an archival find, it nonetheless reminds us of the international scope and depth of the work of great Jewish scholars like Weinreich. Weinreich’s attendance of this program at Yale gives us a sense of the influence of methods and scholars from, quite literally, beyond the pale on the zammlers under Weinreich’s direction at YIVO. More importantly, for me, and for the Fortunoff Video Archive, it feels a little like a symbolic intellectual handshake between the Yale’s Fortunoff Archive and YIVO.

I do wonder what Weinreich himself would have thought about his Connecticut “alma mater” embarking on an effort to record first-person accounts of survivors of the Holocaust, this time without a written autoethnographic questionnaire but with a semi-autoethnographic interview methodology on videotape. The Fortunoff Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, and its predecessor the Holocaust Survivors Film Project (HSFP), prides itself on creating an interview atmosphere in which the survivor feels empowered to tell their entire life story exactly as they see fit, with very little interruption or intervention by the interviewer. According to the Fortunoff method, the witness is the expert in their life story. The witness is considered the teacher, and the interviewer acts as a student. In that sense, like the autoethnography approach, the witness is in the driver’s seat in this documentation process. Moreover, like YIVO, the HSFP was formed as a grassroots effort by and for dos yiddishe folk, but with the aim of educating a wider, non-denominational audience. Sadly, Weinreich died in 1969, a decade before the launch of the HSFP in New Haven. Nonetheless, the work of the Fortunoff Archive undoubtedly owes an enormous debt to the ethnographic and documentary work of Weinreich — and Sh. Ansky, Shimon Dubnow, Emmanuel Ringelblum, Rokhl Auerbach and many others — whether it has been stated openly or not.

Naron, Stephen. “Briv funem arkhiv: Far hashem, yivo un yeyl.” In geveb, January 2024:
Naron, Stephen. “Briv funem arkhiv: Far hashem, yivo un yeyl.” In geveb (January 2024): Accessed Feb 26, 2024.


Stephen Naron

Stephen Naron is the Director of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testomonies at Yale University.