Performing the Jewish Archive

Performing the Jewish Archive

Joseph Toltz

Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) Large Grant, November 2014 to January 2018

During the long 20th century, displacement has affected the musical, theatrical and literary output of Jewish artists in myriad ways. Many works are thought to have been lost or have, until recently, languished in obscurity. Performing the Jewish Archive is a multidisciplinary project involving eleven academics on four continents, motivated by a desire to recover and engage anew with these creative artefacts, via the following objectives:

  1. To theorise and reconceptualise the Jewish archive. We engage with creative works, traditional archival documentation, and ethnographic archives (oral history and testimony) that provide historical information and illuminate the subjective meaning of events to past and present generations. Rather than privileging some of this material as ‘text’ and others as ‘context’, we view the material as components of a non-hierarchical, non-linear system that destabilises the relationship between past, present and future, origin and diaspora.
  2. To explore archives that have recently come to light and seek out archives which have yet to be located.
  3. To disseminate the results of our research through scholarly outputs for academic beneficiaries and performance practices that create impact for a wider public, measured by audience response testing.
  4. To create a new, sustainable archive for the future and pathways for the perpetuation of our scholarly and performance related outcomes.

Our case studies include cultural works created from c.1880-c.1950, the most intense period of Jewish displacement in the modern era. Our case studies include recently recovered theatrical manuscripts from the Terezin Ghetto near Prague, musical works from Eastern Europe uncovered in private collections in Australia, South Africa and England, and literary accounts of survivor experiences written immediately after the Holocaust. Via these case studies of Jewish artistic creation in diverse situations of internment, exile or migration, we will illuminate more broadly the role of art in one of the paradigmatic experiences of the modern age: displacement. When do artists use creative works to represent the rupture of displacement, and when do music, theatre and literature create continuity with their former lives, or a bridge between the old life and the new?

Our Australian partners include the National Library of Australia, National Film and Sound Archive and the Sydney Jewish Museum.  As well as generating significant research outputs and building a sustainable website, we will hold five festivals: Madison Wisconsin (USA), Leeds/York (UK), Terezín and Prague (Czech Republic), Cape Town (South Africa), and Sydney (Australia).  These festivals will attract audiences from widely diverse constituencies, featuring world-leading practitioners such as the Goldner String Quartet and Nash Ensemble alongside amateur and student performers.  We will stage performances in historically significant venues such as the Terezin Memorial (the site of the former WWII Jewish Ghetto) and Clifford’s Tower in York (the site of a 12th-century pogrom). We will perpetuate engagement with these archives by encouraging arts practitioners, policy makers and cultural event programmers to engage with them, and through educational projects in which participants create their own performances based on archival co-texts.

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