Back in the 1970s, Judith Schiff attended a conference about an emerging idea called “history from the bottom up.” Forty years later, New Haven is celebrating the results.
Schiff came home and with a group of like-minded New Haven Jews launched the Jewish Historical Society of Greater New Haven. At a 40th anniversary brunch Sunday, a crowd celebrated the amazing work the society has done since then documenting the lives of everyday Jewish New Haveners and the rise of the community over the years.
Schiff, a Westville native, has made a career of preserving, interpreting and cataloging the past. She is New Haven’s official city historian. She has worked for 55 years at Yale’s Sterling Library, where she is the chief archivist. She has also contributed to the growth of the Jewish Historical Society and contributed to some of the nine indispensable books the society has published about the lives of New Haven Jews who peddled fruits or bagels in the Hill or on Grand Avenue in the old days or helped build venerable congregations.
Sunday’s event, held at the Jewish Community Center, also honored another Jewish historical stalwart in New Haven, Barry Herman. Herman has written widely about New Haven’s Jewish community, hosted a public-access TV show, and led tours. He also taught in New Haven’s Katherine Brennan School, served as principal of Winchester School, then worked in the public school system’s central office as K-8 director, Health Start director, reading director, and public information chief. After he retried, he launched a second career as an education professor at Sacred Heart University.
Herman, who has given out so many awards as an emcee, couldn’t attend Sunday’s event to receive his own lifetime award, because he is in ill health. Outgoing society President Al Harary accepted the award for Herman and read an acceptance speech Herman wrote from the hospital. The crowd said a prayer for Herman’s recovery.
The Jewish society joined with other historical societies in New Haven to launch the Ethnic Heritage Center at Southern Connecticut State University. Its work goes on: member Rhoda Zahler is overseeing a current project, about to launch, to create digital walking historical tours of New Haven neighborhoods (available on your phone) complete with remembrances from Italian-American, African-American, Jewish, and other old-timers. (This story offers more details on the project.)