Embarking on a new archival project: left to right, Ye’ela Eilon-Heiber, Lily Hoenig, Mickey Morgan, Madison Slobin, Carmel Tanaka, Holly Steele, Avi Grundner and Alysa Routtenberg. (photo from JQT and JMABC)
The Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia (JMABC) and JQT Vancouver are seeking to document the history of local LGBTQ+ Jews through a joint initiative called On the Record: The BC Jewish Queer and Trans Oral History Project.
While the JMABC has an extensive – closing in on 1,000 – and diverse collection of oral histories, the experiences and stories of LGBTQ+ Jewish community members are not prominently featured. This is something the museum would like to change.
“We do a lot of oral histories and we typically target people in their 70s and 80s, for a number of reasons,” explained JMABC archivist Alysa Routtenberg of the process. “Generally, it’s a good age because people begin to feel reflective. They may have grandchildren with whom they would like to share their stories, they have wound their professional lives down and they are not yet suffering from memory or health issues.”
In addition, she said, given that a whole life history requires a significant story to tell, the interviews tend to feature older people.
And this might be one of the reasons why many of the oral histories of LGBTQ+ Jews have not yet been shared, according to Carmel Tanaka, JQT project coordinator.
“I have a friend who takes oral histories of LGBTQ seniors through UBC,” Tanaka told the Independent. “She says it’s hard to get people to stop talking about their lives once they get started. That is not the Jewish experience. We have a close-knit community and many older members fear being out in the Jewish community. They may be out in other aspects of their lives but not in the Jewish context, so many of them have remained silent.”
JQT (pronounced J-cutie) is a relatively new Jewish queer and trans group. Established in 2018, it aims to promote diversity and inclusion by “queering Jewish space and Jewifying queer space,” said Tanaka. The group approached the JMABC about the oral history project last year and interviewer training for the project was completed in January.
“We had six JQT members who trained as interviewers. They were ready to go and then COVID hit,” said Tanaka. “We had hoped to get 30 interviews done in three months. It’s been hard to get interviews done because the technology is difficult for some of our interviewees.”
Routtenberg agreed that people tend to prefer an in-person interview than one over the phone or via Zoom. “The interviews take between one and two hours,” she explained. “It’s a long time to be on the phone or in front of a computer.”
That said, a number of interviews have been completed, so the first phase of the project is underway, with the goal of 30 interviews conducted and transcribed. “Our objective is to reach a cross-section of LGBTQ Jews from across the province,” said Tanaka.
Both Routtenberg and Tanaka stressed that anonymity is provided for those who would prefer to keep their identities private.
The next phase of the project is to translate the interviews into a public program.
“What the interviews tell us will inform us as to the most appropriate form the material will take,” said Routtenberg. “Among our options are an online exhibition, a podcast, a physical exhibition…. There are so many possibilities. Hopefully, there will be many phases over many years.”
Routtenberg explained that the JMABC is always looking to build relationships with individuals and organizations both within and outside of the Jewish community. She said she was thrilled when Tanaka approached her to do this project together, and Jewish Family Services Vancouver is also helping, supporting the interview experience as needed.
Having the oral history of LGBTQ+ Jews as part of the JMABC records is helping accomplish the mission of JQT. “LGBTQ people have always been in our community,” said Tanaka. “This is an opportunity to make them feel included.”
For more information on how to participate in this project, or to nominate someone to be interviewed, contact Routtenberg at [email protected] or 604-257-5199.
Michelle Dodek is a freelance writer living in Vancouver.