Oral Histories

Rabbinic Judaism teaches that the Torah is comprised of a written Torah (תורה שבכתב) and an oral Torah (תורה שבעל פה) that illuminates the former. In a similar way, the OJA’s holdings can be regarded as comprising two different but complementary sources of information: archival records and oral histories.

Traditionally, the role of archives has been to acquire, preserve, and make available historical records. For a community archives like the OJA, historical records might include anything from a handwritten letter to a synagogue’s articles of incorporation. Such records are valuable because they provide evidence of past activities. But while providing access to historical records lies at the heart of its mission, the OJA does not limit itself to this.

Since its founding in 1973, the OJA has overseen an oral history program that seeks to supplement the information found in records. To be sure, archival records are rich sources of information for the past, providing as they do a more-or-less objective account of what took place. At the same time, this quality comes at a cost: some archival records—meeting minutes, for example—can feel impersonal, even cold. By way of contrast, an audio recording of an individual recalling the same meeting later may allow us to gain a sense of what it was like to attend that meeting: was it boring? contentious? full of laughter?

It is precisely the subjective quality of oral histories that leads certain historians to dismiss their value. In one of his major works, the Israeli historian Benny Morris wrote, “I believe in the value of documents. While contemporary documents may misinform, distort, omit, or lie, they do so, in my experience, far less than interviewees recalling highly controversial events some 40–50 years ago.” But even if we allow that interviewees may sometimes misremember the past, this does not mean their memories are without value; they may, for example, offer important insights into how a major historical event was remembered years or even decades after it took place.

A good example of this is the Christie Pits Riot. Despite being one of the worst outbreaks of ethnic violence in Canadian history, the riot left little behind in the way of documentary evidence. Indeed, to the best of our knowledge, only one photograph of the riot has survived, and this is held by the City of Toronto Archives. Thus, if one were to rely solely on contemporary documents, researchers would be quite limited. Happily, the OJA can point researchers to its oral history collection, which, among other things, includes an oral history with Jack Abel, a participant in the riot. The interview was done in 1986, and while Jack’s account is not objective, it is precisely his participation that enables him to relate such vivid details—details which might be missing from an official report written closer to the time of the events.

As of 2024, the OJA’s oral history collection is made up of over 450 interviews. As for the interviewees, they range from ordinary people to well-known leaders of the community. The image chosen for this post shows Harvey Brownstone and Howard Levine. Appointed a provincial judge with the Ontario Court of Justice in 1995, Harvey was a Canada’s first openly gay judge, while Howard served as a city councilor for Ward 14 from 1988 to 1994. The two men were early members of Chutzpah, an early advocacy group for gay Jews that operated between 1982 and 1991. It was through Chutzpah that the two became good friends, and the warmth of their friendship is visible in the oral history they did together.

Archivist Notes

The OJA’s first oral histories were recorded onto audiocassette. Since then, technology has advanced considerably. Nowadays, many of the OJA’s histories are recorded digitally, with viewers able not only to hear the interviewee’s voice but to see their facial expressions and mannerisms. But while the newer oral histories may be slicker from a production point of view, there is something to be said for the older ones, with their snaps, crackles, and pops!

Speaking of snap, crackle, and pop, check out a playlist of OJA oral histories here!

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