A Time to Gather: Archives and the Control of Jewish Culture

by Jason Lustig, Oxford University Press, 2021, 280 pp. 
Hardcover $74, ISBN 978-0-1975-6352-6

Trusted Eye: Post-World War II Adventures of a Fearless Art Advocate by Claudia Fontaine ChidesterWhat does it mean for the marginalized and the persecuted to control their data, and thus shape their destiny? In his book, A Time to Gather: Archives and the Control of Jewish Culture, Jason Lustig explores this very twenty-first-century question through the lens of the history of twentieth-century Jewish archives. The desire to preserve and archive the Jewish past, in order to both authenticate and substantiate Jewry’s very existence, is the subject of this fascinating study, which examines the effort to create a “total” German Jewish archive in pre-WWII Berlin and the evolution of this concept in the wake of the near total destruction of European Jewry. 

Lustig posits that Jewish records and Jewish archives are not merely passive tools for the historian but are themselves historical actors. The exchange of power is central to this role. For example, the initial creation of a Jewish archive in pre-Nazi Germany, known in German as the Gesamtarchiv der deutschen Juden, put control of the writing of Jewish history into the hands of the Jewish owners of the archive. The subsequent transfer of control of the Gesamtarchiv into Nazi hands illustrates how the shift of power over an archive can turn it against the people whose history it was meant to preserve. The post-war struggle over the ownership of the scattered remnants of the Gesamtarchiv demonstrates the power of archival ownership to legitimize identity and determine the future. Archival power is one of the many topics Lustig explores in this well researched book about the history of three significant twentieth-century Jewish archives: the aforementioned Gesamtarchiv in Berlin, the Jewish Historical General Archives (JHGA) in Jerusalem, and the American Jewish Archives (AJA) in Cincinnati. In so doing, he shows how the Jewish archival drive has played a role in shaping Jewish history and culture into the twenty-first century and highlights archival themes of universal significance. 

The Gesamtarchiv, Lustig’s first case study, was established in Berlin in 1903 with the intent of becoming the “total” archive of German Jewry. Lustig explains the political historic forces which led up to the creation of, and ultimately the dissolution of, this archive. He locates the origin of the ideal of the “total Jewish archive” in the all-encompassing aspirations of nineteenth-century German Jewish historians who attempted to study the totality of Jewish history, and in the political attempts to create a legal representative body of the totality of German Jewry. At the same time, Lustig points out that contemporary archival practice also emphasized organic completeness. He argues that the convergence of these different impulses formed the aspirational vision of the Gesamtarchiv and then traces how this vision of the “total Jewish archive” became a template for the other twentieth-century Jewish archives discussed in this book. 

If the vision of the Gesamtarchiv was broad, the vision of the JHGA was even broader. Established in Jerusalem in 1947, this archive aimed to be the global central archive for world Jewry, expanding the concept of “total archive” well beyond even the aspirational scope of the Gesamtarchiv. The idea of a cultural center in the Land of Israel had been part of the Zionist vision since the early days of the movement, although it was later sidelined by a more practical political agenda in the face of the pressing need to save Jewish lives. Nevertheless, the cultural agenda lingered. After the establishment of the state, Israel aspired to become a global Jewish cultural center, in part in order to signify and legitimize its central standing as a Jewish State. Lustig’s discussion of the way in which the rhetoric of the founders of the JHGA co-opted the Israeli rhetoric of Jewish immigration and applied it to their archival project makes fascinating reading, highlighting the context in which the JHGA attempted to align its self-image with the larger vision of the Jewish state by battling for control of European archives after the war. 

The trauma of the Holocaust led to the Israeli view that Jewish life in the Diaspora was over. Ben Gurion, the first Israeli Prime Minister, was unabashed in declaring that every Jew in the world had an obligation to move to Israel. Yet, in this same period, Jewish life in America was flourishing. American Jews, as they broke through many social barriers to acceptance in American society, found themselves at the center of a thriving Jewish culture that, they believed, shared the values of America, and was firmly rooted in her soil. In this climate, Jacob Raider Marcus founded the AJA in Cincinnati in 1947, the same year as the opening of the JHGA in Jerusalem. 

Lustig notes that, like the Jerusalem archive, Marcus’s American project was rooted in an elusive past. Marcus looked to the AJA to validate the vitality of diaspora existence in the face of Israel’s vision of a new Israel centered Jewish future. He also defined the boundaries of the scope of the AJA as the western hemisphere, in what Lustig calls “a kind of Monroe Doctrine of American Jewish history.” In so doing, Marcus was certainly within the tradition of the “total” archive. At the same time, Marcus represented an alternate approach, encouraging the cultivation of community archives across America, and frequently expressing the opinion that he would rather have copies than original documents at the AJA. Lustig sees this focus on informational content as opposed to original documents as prophetic, a harbinger of the turn to digital archives in the twenty-first century.

A Time to Gather: Archives and the Control of Jewish Culture is an interdisciplinary academic achievement that is firmly grounded in a deep knowledge of twentieth-century Jewish history, world history, archival history, and even Jewish rabbinic literature. The book contains extensive useful notes and a comprehensive bibliography. However, this is not only an academic tome. By focusing on such essential issues as identity, power, memory, and destiny, Lustig has written a captivating book with broad and lasting appeal. 

Aliza Spicehandler, the American Jewish Archives, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion