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Historical Sources

Once upon a time, I was a historian who regularly thought about primary and secondary historical sources. In my new life, this doesn’t come up unless I run into a fellow academic (former or otherwise) or something historical hits the news.

Until it comes time to clean my attic, that is, an occasion marked by the discovery of a whole box of primary and secondary historical sources that have left me with some questions.

First there was the 20-page account by Eddie Baer of my Bubbie Pearl Wolfson’s life. Eddie was an in-law, and he cobbled together the story of my Bubbie from interviews with her and his own knowledge as part of his Temple’s tikkun olam (service) project. I have questions. Like the depiction of my Bubbie and her siblings living in desperately poor—brink of starvation!—conditions in Moldova, eking out a meager subsistence on what my great-grandfather Nathan Kahn brought in from trading and made tolerable only by the prodigious domestic talents of my great-grandmother Freda Leah Kahn.

In versions of the story told to me by my mom, also via my Bubbie I assume, the family was traumatized by pogroms and outbursts of antisemitism, but were not desperately poor. There was always enough food, as Zadie Kahn made a good living as a men’s suit tailor.  So which is it? Did Bubbie embroider the truth to Eddie? Did Eddie infer or mis-hear? Or did my mom get a feel-good version of the truth?  Based on my Zadie Kahn’s manifest skill, I think the first two possibilities are the most likely. Similarly, I’d really, really, really like to know the identity of my Bubbie’s mystery suitor prior to meeting my Zadie, a person alluded to but unnamed in the account, but someone who allegedly proclaimed he might die if my Bubbie didn’t marry him.

Then there were the primary historical sources very much challenging my memory of my own younger self. Matt, as some of you may know, is a bit of a hoarder. Buried upstairs in two or three dirty and partially open boxes were the dusty mementos of his middle and high school years, including diplomas, photos, short stories with questionable titles, Bible Bowl trophies, the hilariously named “I Dare You” award (for untapped potential), year books, and letters and class notes from his high-school sweetheart.

Who would be me. Not that you could really tell it from the loopy handwriting attempting to be girly and pretty, the references to high school intrigue I cannot remember, or the alternatively overly dramatic and overly silly tone. They all sounded so teenage! I know I was 17 or 18 when I wrote them but gaaaah! I didn’t know I sounded just as idiotic as all those other teenagers. I thought I was so above all that drama. Don’t even get me started on the sorry-you’re-grounded care package I made for Matt back in 1987. One word: glitter. Two more words to describe the back-story: broken curfew.

We have a house now. And a child. Our last curfew came over 20 years ago. The only glitter in use is being wielded by our kindergartener. We’re both much better writers now. Who are/were those children? Could that really have been us?

These notes, cards, and glitter adornments made me flush with embarrassment. I gave very serious consideration to trashing them all, picturing Simon sorting through all our junk one day at marveling at how young and ridiculous his parents sounded. Then I decided that that was the point: Look at how young and ridiculous we sound! Perhaps he’ll be charmed. So I tidied up the heap, found a lid for the box, and put it next to the box holding my diplomas, certificates, and old family photos. You’re welcome, Simon. Also, don’t get too smug. One day you will sound just as ridiculous, even if our all-digital world won’t preserve the evidence.

One Response to “Historical Sources”

  1. goldsteinrita says:

    I’ve never been a keeper as you know, but reading this makes me wish I had kept just a little of the high school stuff. Then you could see that we’re all the same. Just different clothes and slang expressions.

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