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State’s Jewish History Comes to Life

Professors Kinder, Deverell, Zuckerman and Miller head a USC interactive project recounting California’s vibrant diversity.

State’s Jewish History Comes to Life
A new interactive media project covering the history of Jews in California will be overseen by four distinguished USC scholars.

The project – which combines a museum installation with an online archive and a DVD containing a teacher’s guide – will highlight more than 150 years of diverse experiences in the nation’s most populous state.

The two-year venture called Jews in the Golden State is a collaboration among Marsha Kinder, professor of critical studies in the USC School of Cinematic Arts; William Deverell, professor of history in USC College and director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West; Bruce Zuckerman, professor of religion and linguistics in USC College and director of the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life; and Donald Miller, professor of religion and sociology in USC College and executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

In addition to drawing materials from repositories across the country – among them the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, the Smithsonian Institution, the New York Historical Society and the National Archives – the project will include video testimonials from the USC Shoah Foundation Institute.

“Our projects are rigorous cultural histories, yet they present a compelling sensory experience,” said Kinder, founding director of the Labyrinth Project, a research initiative on interactive narrative. “The range of people involved with this project is extremely impressive.”

With seed money from the Casden Institute and grants from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund and the Righteous Persons Foundation, the research and conceptualizing has begun.

Labyrinth’s creative directors Rosemary Comella and Kristy H.A. Kang are now obtaining visual assets, completing technical research on the latest archiving tools and familiarizing themselves with the Shoah archives and their methodologies.

Kinder, whose uncle was a cowboy when her family settled in California in the early 1900s, is thrilled that the team will be gathering photos, home movies and stories from people’s personal collections, creating a form of “homegrown history” that will make the project a more indelible experience.

Once Jews in the Golden State goes online in 2008, those willing to share their history will be able to upload their images and memories.

Of particular interest to Kinder is the way the project will highlight the stories of Holocaust victims who came to California after World War II.

“It’s fascinating to find out why certain survivors chose to come to the Southland or settle in the Bay Area after they were liberated,” said Kinder, whose interest in Jewish diasporic culture is manifested in several Labyrinth projects. Among them is “The Danube Exodus,” which premiered at the Getty Center in Los Angeles and was exhibited at several European venues, including Berlin, where it will open at the Jewish Museum in March.

Based on the success of the “Danube Exodus,” the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley has “shown a great deal of confidence in our work” and offered to make Jews in the Golden State part of their permanent collection in its new facility, Kinder said.

In addition to telling individual stories, Kinder also sees the project as a catalyst for greater understanding of Jewish contributions to making California such a dynamic force.

“Once people recognize the Jewish role in our state’s history, we’re hoping they have a much richer understanding of California,” she said. “It will make the Jewish community more accessible and hopefully work against persistent negative stereotypes.”