Archival Research

The Transformational Archive (And Some Thoughts About Bullet Journaling)

[7 minute read]

As I’ve discussed in my last two posts, I recently visited the Rubenstein Library at Duke University to complete research on the Abraham Joshua Heschel Papers. Visiting the archive helped me reorient myself towards my subject matter – the life and work of Abraham Joshua Heschel – and gave a much-needed boost of energy and excitement into my project at a time in the academic year – Spring Break – where my zeal for academic works often wanes in favor of other, more plebian pursuits (like sleeping a lot).

I struggle with academic labor. It’s not something that comes naturally or easily to me (although I’m not sure academia is an easy field for anyone!). But, as someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, I often find both the individualistic nature of academic work and the reliance of one’s own thoughts to be a paradoxical recipe for disaster.

My depression and anxiety have been rearing their ugly head this year. It felt like it snuck up on me: I didn’t notice that these parts of my health were getting worse until I realized it was hard for me to drum up the energy to shower more than two times a week. Instead, I just wanted to sit in bed and tremble and worry. So I told myself I needed to shower more – every other day at minimum – and that self-imposed rule helped me.

“Getting outside of yourself” or “thinking about other people instead of yourself” are both adages for dealing with depression and anxiety. I suspect some people hate hearing this, as it may not be helpful for everyone. But this line of thinking (alongside medication and therapy, I should add) does help me. Get up. Move. Ask someone else how they are doing. Volunteer. Think about someone else.

And the archive helped me do that. While I did miss my family and friends during my solitary week at the archive, spending day after day reading someone’s personal papers, letters, photographs, I felt like I was communicating (communing, perhaps?) with Abraham Joshua Heschel in a different, more personal, way than when I read his published works.

Another thing the archive helped me do was to begin journaling again, by hand. Paging through the boxes upon boxes of largely handwritten materials caused me to spend some time thinking about the materiality of handwriting, as well as the personality of that materiality, that is becoming lost as we move to a more typed-based society.

This move towards handwriting and journaling has had a therapeutic effect on my own mental health. It helps me wind down before bed, or gets me more prepared for the morning. I love it.

One of the first things I looked at while spending time at archive were some small diaries by Uncle Jacob Heschel. I couldn’t read them; they were in Yiddish and I’m not proficient in that language. However, when I gingerly opened the cover of one and took a quick glance at it, I was bowled over.

It looked exactly like a small graph-paper Moleskine cahier.

I’m very familiar with the look and feel of Moleskine’s graph paper journals because they are very often used for bullet journaling. Bullet journaling, “the analog system for the digital age” is a very popular journaling system that combines lists, personalized symbols, and a personal calendar.

bujo1

The above picture is an example of a basic, no-frills bullet-journal spread. If you look closely, that journal above is comprised of graph paper, just like Uncle Jacob’s small little cahiers.

But any search of “bullet journal” or the shortened, hashtag-appropriate version “BuJo” in Pinterest or Instagram will show much more artistic and self-reflexive bullet journal spreads.

bujo2

Although this image bears the hashtag #plannertip and #plannercommunity instead of the typical #bulletjournal or #bujo hashtags, I did find if on a bullet journal board on Pinterest. Here we see that the bullet journal system has now morphed into a way to combine more traditional journaling or diary writing with the scheduling of daily life. “When you’re not feeling a 100% [sic] or having a rough day, it’s always a good idea to reflect on all the things that make YOU happy!” reads the caption of this image. Others besides myself have been turning, or are being encouraged to turn to handwritten journaling as a way to feel better.

I’ve tried bullet journaling in the past, but much to my surprise, it made me less productive. I missed some appointments and deadlines because I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the no-calendar calendric system of the bullet journal. Now I use a more traditional planner, but have been thinking of moving to a bullet journal for keeping track of long-term to-do lists, and for personal diary writing and journaling.

I’m not sure if I would have had the emotional energy to try journal writing (especially by hand) without looking at all the handwritten materials in the archive and deciding it might be worth it to force myself into the habit.

I feel thankful for the archive, and for Abraham Joshua Heschel, and even for Heschel’s Uncle Jacob, whose words I couldn’t even read! Thanks. Your memory helped me.

Looking for Sylvia Heschel at the Archive

As I wrote in my previous post, I spent the last week perusing the Abraham Joshua Heschel Papers at Duke University.

One of my major goals of the trip was to glean as much information as I could about Sylvia Heschel (nee Straus), Abraham Joshua Heschel’s wife. I knew very little about Sylvia Heschel before going to the archive – I knew she was a concert pianist, but not much more than that.

One of my favorite books on American Judaism is called The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture 1880-1950 by Jenna Joselit Weissman. One of the things she does throughout the book is look towards pieces of material culture often overlooked by more traditional scholarship. This hermeneutic of “uncovering” previously under- or un-studied material often looks towards “women’s things”: cookbooks, synagogue gift shops, matchmaking practices, etc.

In a chapter of this book about home decorations and furnishings called Home Sweet Haym, Joselit Weissman writes:

“Most extant American Judaica [at the time, pre-WWI] possessed little aesthetic appeal; fashioned out of cheap materials like tin and inexpensive fabrics like “sleazy” white satin, American Judaica simply didn’t lend itself to being proudly displayed. […One rabbi] witheringly compared the willingness of Christian Americans to spend lavishly on Christmas tree decorations while ‘the average Jew… contends himself with the fifteen-cent tin Menorah.’ Not everyone, however, was contend with the apparent triumph of this neutral idiom of home décor. […] Seeking to make as much room for King David as for Louis Quatorse, Jewish public figures like Mathilde Schechter, a founder of the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism, and writers like Trude Weiss Rosmarin championed a new cultural understanding of style…”[1]

When I read Mathilde Schechter’s name in that paragraph above a little chill of excitement ran through me. Mathilde Schechter, beyond being one of the founders of the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism, was married to Solomon Schechter. Solomon Schechter was a significant thinker of American Conservative Judaism, one-time president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and founder of the United Synagogue of America. (More about him can be found at the Jewish Virtual Library.)

What stunned me so much about the above quote from Joselit Weissman, then, is not only its focus on material Judaica, but how she talks about Mathilde Schechter. Mathilde isn’t immediately described as being the wife of Solomon Schechter! Instead, she and her work are written about as important in their own right to American Judaism. This, I thought to myself at the time, is important. The way we write about wives is important.

And so I had the idea to try and write something about Sylvia Heschel. So, while at the archive I pulled a lot of folders with her writings, notes, and personal effects.

It was thrilling. I felt like a detective. I started to feel close to Sylvia Heschel. I started to recognize the way she doodled in the margins of her notes. I recognized her handwriting. I looked at holiday cards she had saved, letters from her family, letters of congratulations when she married Abraham. I scanned in cards, letters, and her notes that I thought might be useful to me and my research later.

It wasn’t until I was at back at my hotel after a long day of scanning, reading and feeling that I realized what I had done.

***

“How was your day?” My husband asked me on the phone. (I, like Mathilde Schechter and Sylvia Heschel, am a wife.)

“Oh, fine. I’m a little concerned about all the things I didn’t scan in about Sylvia though. I think I sort of re-created a patriarchal approach to looking at Sylvia.”

“What?”

“Well, she had all these notes about music – she was a pianist, and took advanced classes at the Manhattan School of Music – but I couldn’t make heads or tails of the notes, they were handwritten and I don’t know music theory so I sort of concentrated my research and my scanning in things which were about her role as a wife and mother and I might have been discounting her scholarly work as unimportant. But maybe it is!”

“What kind of music theory was it?” My husband asked me, interested. “I know some of that, you know. And my dad does, too…”

“Well, I’ve already told them to take the box back to storage,” I said, resigned. “I think I’ll need to plow ahead and finish the original plan for my next day here…. Next time I’m back here maybe I’ll look at those notes again. She did have an essay about religious music I copied, but it was missing a page…”

***

The next day I was continuing to sift through more cards and letters to Sylvia. Many of the envelopes had little notes or doodles on them – she was a big doodler. I got into the habit of checking the envelopes to see if there were any significant doodles or notes on them when looking over the letters. I flipped over an envelope of one of them and saw a list. “Eggs, milk, bread,” the note read. A grocery list. Part of her life as a wife and mother, relegated to the in-between and transitory place of an opened envelope: scrap paper. I sighed, and wondered to myself how much of Sylvia Heschel was a wife and mother, how much of her was a pianist, how much of her was a student. All impossible questions.

And what would she think of me, a graduate student doing archival research for the first time in my life, worrying over one of her grocery lists?


[1] Joselit Weissman, Jenna. The Wonders of America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 194.

Touching an “Authentic” Swastika

[7 minute read]

CW: Nazism, Neo-Nazism, Swastikas

I’m currently writing this blog post from a hotel room in Durham, N.C. I’m here over Spring Break to do some archival research at the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The Abraham Joshua Heschel Papers live here, and it is an overwhelming and expansive collection. The collection guide here shows a preview of the breadth and depth of the papers in the archive.

This is my first time doing archival research. It is amazing.

It is hard for me to put into words why I like it so much, but I want to share an experience I had while here at the archive.

(I am still learning about archival research, and I know that all the unpublished material in the collection is under the copyright of Dr. Susannah Heschel, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s daughter. So I won’t be sharing anything too specific here, and of course won’t be sharing any photographs or scans of my work.)

I am looking at Folder 3 of Box 19, described on the finding guide as containing

Officials documents including a Polish citizenship document tracking movement between Germany and Poland; Anmelde-Buch (enrollment book) which lists several of Heschel’s professors at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentems zu Berlin including Leo Baeck , Ismar Elbogen, and Julius Güttman; Arbeitsbuch, which lists Heschel’s professional training in Frankfurt am Main; Heschel’s Ausweiskarte (identification card) at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentems; and a certificate (Zeugnis) for the Deutches Institut für Ausländer an der Universität Berlin which attests to Heschel’s satisfactory completion of requirement at Realgymnasium in Vilna.[1]

I have earbuds in my ears and am half-listening to a podcast episode I’ve listened to about a hundred times before as I carefully, and nervously, flip through the materials. I feel a bit like an imposter. I wonder if everyone else here has done plenty of archival research before. They probably have lots of articles published in peer-reviewed journals, and may even have jobs. They are probably almost done with their dissertations, and even their first books.

I smile as I look through the materials surrounding Heschel’s early academic education in Berlin. I feel almost proud of Heschel for these early academic achievements, as if I knew him personally. I continue flipping through these materials. I flip another page over and look down and – freeze.

There is a small book, it looks about the size of a passport, staring up at me. It is an official document. Arbeitsbuch, it reads. In the center of it is a crest, an eagle perched atop a swastika.

***

I knew that Heschel fled Nazi Germany. I knew this. I suppose if I had been asked if Heschel had any official documentation from the Reich, I would have shrugged and said, “Well, probably.” But seeing this document – and seeing it nestled in a folder amongst more cheerful documents about Jewish Studies in Berlin made my stomach turn.

When I gingerly touched this document I thought to myself that this was the first “authentic swastika” I had ever touched. The first swastika was on a document made by The Third Reich.

***

In the days leading up to my trip to Durham, I restarted playing the video game Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. In it, the Nazis won WWII. You play a supersoldier with an artificially engineered body trying to start a revolution in the United States, which now operate as a colony of the Reich.

My husband was originally interested in the game after it generated some Internet buzz. Apparently, some White Nationalists were disturbed about a game centering on killing Nazis. Adi Robertson, writing for The Verge, published an article entitled “Watching internet Nazis get mad at Wolfenstein II is sadder than the game’s actual dystopia.”

Robertston writes:

“The saddest thing about Wolfenstein’s YouTube comments isn’t the offended white supremacists. It’s the fact that in 2017 you can write “I can’t wait to kill some Nazis in a video game” as though that’s a meaningful political stance — which is exactly what a lot of the most popular comments are about. The second saddest thing is that you’ll be proven right by someone named “Pepe Von Europa.”[2]

And it’s true that the game is very overt with its message that killing Nazis in order to overthrow their regime is moral. As Kallie Plagge writes in her review of the game:

“Above all else, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus takes a very hard stance on the righteousness of killing Nazis. It never falters, not once asking whether violent resistance is the wrong way to fight back against oppression – and the game is stronger for it.”[3]

And so, while playing the video game, I “killed” Nazis. A lot of them. And I saw a lot of swastikas. Some were on people I “killed,” others were on buildings I “crept” by, and still others were on “official” materials I “found” and “examined” in the game. Occasionally the swastikas even seem to shout out to you: all bold and startling against a bright white or black backdrop.

This swastika is different than the other swastikas in that game, I thought to myself when I saw the swastika on Heschel’s Arbeitsbuch. It’s more… subdued. The lines are thinner. It looks… ordinary. And it was ordinary, in a horrifying way. It was a piece of official documentation, and even though it had a swastika on it, it still looked like something bureaucratic, ordinary, and everyday.

And in all its ordinariness, in all its slight bizarre delicateness, it was terrifying. Much more terrifying and startling, somewhat paradoxically, that the swastikas that seem to bombard you as you play Wolfenstein II.

After I saw it, I needed to step out of the reading room and get a drink of water.


[1] Description of File 3, Box 19. Guide to the Abraham Joshua Heschel Papers, 1880, 1919-1998 and undated. https://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/findingaids/heschelabraham/#aspace_ref478_be8

[2] Robertson, Adi. “Watching internet Nazis get mad at Wolfenstein II is sadder than the game’s actual dystopia.” The Verge. June 12, 2017. Accessed March 14 2018. https://www.theverge.com/2017/6/12/15780596/wolfenstein-2-the-new-colossus-alt-right-nazi-outrage.

[3] Plagge, Kallie. “Rise: Review of Wolfenstein II: The New Collossus.” Gamespot. October 26, 2017. Accessed March 14, 2018. https://www.gamespot.com/reviews/wolfenstein-2-the-new-colossus-review/1900-6416796/.