Over 156,000 pages of transcripts, 6,000 hours of taped interviews, 2,250 informants: form this repository of unique and unpublished primary source material for the study of what is often called “the American Jewish experience in the 20th century.” The collection provides a definition of American Jewish oral history, and is a monument of American Jewish culture.
Participants in these extended, ethnically-focused, interviews run the gamut from feminist pioneer Congresswoman Bella Abzug to Paramount founder Adolph Zukor, last of the original Hollywood movie moguls, recorded in 1972 at the age of 99. The informants, each of them interviewed separately, together make up a cast of considerable diversity: Marv Albert rubs shoulders with Salo Baron, Abe Beame with Henri Bendel, David Ben-Gurion with Jack Benny, Hank Greenberg with Al Jolson, Alfred Kazin with Larry King, Groucho Marx with Jackie Mason, Arthur Miller with Bess Myerson, Roberta Peters with Molly Picon, and Bashevis Singer with Barbra Streisand.
These freestanding interviews are complemented by interviews conceived in thematic groups and intended to explore accomplishments of specific kinds. Hence, the collection contains a number of sub-collections, such as those titled American Jews in Sports; the Louis G. Cowan Broadcasting Collection; the Max Wilk [Theater] Collection; and the huge (and hugely important, if already quaint-sounding) sequence, American Jewish Women of Achievement. Equally important are the sub-collections devoted to those who had their commonality thrust upon them, former residents of the Eldridge Street Hebrew Orphan Asylum, for example, and the Holocaust survivor testimony project, progenitor of a succession of undertakings culminating in the work of Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation.
There are series, too, of interviews with informants deemed representative of some shared but by no means necessarily traumatic experience, such as South African Jews in America; American Jews in Israel; Jewish farmers in America; American Jews of Sephardic origin; Soviet Jewish émigrés in America; not to mention Jews of Weequahic, the one-time “Jewish quarter” of Newark, New Jersey. Finally, this composite picture of an American minority is completed with a number of genuinely regional collections, inspired by and providing something of a corrective to the New York-centered and -centric core operation. Conducted under the auspices of bodies such as the Bancroft Library at the University of California-Berkeley and local chapters of the American Jewish Committee, these projects provide perspectives on the Jews of the Bay Area, Chicago, Atlanta, Cleveland, and so on—even a collection titled Jews of Maine (one interview, albeit with a couple of informants).
Biographical/historical: This undertaking became possible as the result of a bequest from the estate of William E. Wiener to the American Jewish Committee. As the ensuing oral history project began to snowball, additional funds came from other private philanthropic sources, such as the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation, and from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Fifteen professional historians volunteered their services to steer content-formation, and they were assisted by a cadre of interviewers whom they trained. At first, the thrust was toward recording the Jewish-interest autobiographical reminiscences of individuals of conspicuous distinction, and a glance through the names in the table of informants provides testimony both to the judgment of the fifteen experts and to the prestige of the AJC as sponsor. Later informants, many great talkers among them, were sought out as much because their life stories were representative as because they were remarkable.
In 1990, with its sense of mission accomplished, the William E. Wiener Oral History Library wound down its program and the entirety of the tapes and transcripts constituting the American Jewish Committee’s Oral History Collection was gifted to the Jewish Division of The New York Public Library, with the objective of making it “more broadly available to students, scholars, and researchers” as the Library saw fit. Two series of abstracts had appeared already (in 1978 and 1987) and two more were forthcoming (1993 and 1995). The last of the regional projects moved toward completion and a final special project was conducted to record the experiences of Jewish veterans of the Gulf War.