Dr. Josh Parshall conducting an oral history interview in Shreveport, LA

Why Study Jewish History?

The reasons are absolutely academic - and profoundly personal

This summer, I  had the pleasure of working with two exceptional summer history interns at the ISJL. In addition to helping me with research and writing for the forthcoming Florida section of the online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, we each reflected on our work by answering the prompt “why study southern Jewish history?” for the Southern & Jewish blog. Margaret and Jacob published their pieces in August, and now it’s my turn.

Like Margaret, my interest in southern Jews began with a personal connection. Spending holidays with my mom’s parents at Temple Israel in Blytheville, Arkansas—an aging, small-town congregation—deeply influenced my Jewish identity. As a graduate student, my first foray into southern Jewish history was an oral history project with my grandparents and the remaining members of the Temple Israel community. That initial research was a salvage project, begun after my grandmother’s dementia diagnosis and several years after the closing of the synagogue.

As I continued to study southern Jewish history, first as the ISJL’s oral historian, then as a PhD student in American Studies, and now as the Director of History (back) at the ISJL, my interests became less obviously personal. The communities I study now are not, for the most part, ones that I have experienced first-hand. 

Like Jacob, I advocate for a bottom-up approach to southern Jewish history that demonstrates the field’s significance to broader histories of the South and of the United States as a whole. My current projects include the Florida section of the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, which consists mostly of local Jewish histories, and ongoing work related to my dissertation topic, the Southern District of the Workmen’s Circle.

The questions that drive my research remain personal, however. As I study Jewish communities and Jewish individuals in the South, I seek not so much to celebrate their successes as to explore their roles in the troubled histories of the region and the nation. How have Jews participated in or benefited from the worst aspects of these histories—displacement and removal, enslavement and exploitation? How have we critiqued, reformed, or resisted these systems, and under what circumstances? How has Jewishness, in whatever form, affected our actions and inactions? How might Jewishness prove useful now and in the future? These are also questions I ask about myself, of course.

I have two hopes for this line of questioning. The first is that I can make southern Jewish history matter within broader fields. One way of doing so is to use the particular interactions of religion, ethnicity, class, race, and gender that play out in southern Jewish history to demonstrate some general truths about southern history and U.S. culture.

The second hope, the personal one, is that the southern Jewish past, with all its successes, failures, and complexities, can become useful in the present, as we struggle to understand where we are, how we got here, and how to move forward.

Dr. Josh Parshall with 2018 summer interns


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