Friday, December 13, 2013

Detroit Jewish News Archives - So Much Nostalgia

Nostalgia is in. One of the most common memes on Facebook these days is the Throwback Thursday, in which individuals and organizations post old photos from yesteryear and allow viewers to tag people they recognize and be amused at how things have changed over the years including hairstyles and fashion. One local company making good use of this is Joe Cornell Entertainment, which has been posting photos from their archives of Joe Cornell’s pre-bar mitzvah dance classes from the past few decades.

Metro Detroiters, as well as former Metro Detroiters, have found themselves getting lost in time on the Web since the Detroit Jewish News Foundation launched its digital archives in mid-November. Residing on the DJN Foundation’s website at, the archives have allowed local members of the Jewish community to scratch their nostalgia itch by searching for friends and family in the archives’ search function. Every weekly issue of the Detroit Jewish News over the past seven decades is included in the digital archives and even advertisements can be searched.

Detroit Jewish News Foundation Archives

Arthur Horwitz, publisher of the Detroit Jewish News, recognized the importance of digitizing the thousands of old issues of the paper after a devastating fire occurred in the Detroit Jewish News offices back in 2002 and destroyed nearly all of the paper’s print archives. Horwitz and the new nonprofit foundation turned to Media Genesis, an internet services provider, to create the searchable index on the new website which lets users perform quick and accurate searches on the more than 260,000 dating back to 1942. The archives are available to the public at no cost and they have already proven useful to local historians, educators, students and community leaders.

Like internet search engines such as Google, Yahoo or Bing, the DJN Foundation’s digital archives are fully searchable by date, name, and other keyword searches including advanced Boolean searches, which are a type of search allowing users to combine keywords with operators such as “and,” “not” and “nor” to produce more relevant results.

As word of the power of these digital archives began to spread around the community, individuals began posting news clips on social media sites such as Facebook. It has now become commonplace to see birth announcements published in the Detroit Jewish News from the 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s in our Facebook feed. And just as people began to Google themselves in the past decade, now members of the Detroit Jewish community have begun doing searches on their own name in the archives. It has also become a fun way to do genealogical research on one's family by learning about departed relatives. One of the first searches many users perform is to look up the death notices of great-grandparents and other family members.

When I typed in my grandparents’ name in the search I was amazed at how quickly one of  Danny Raskin’s “Listening Post” columns popped up on my screen. The page is an easy-to-read scan of the original page from the paper dated Friday, January 2, 1959 – 55 years ago. Of course Danny Raskin is still writing for the paper! In this column which is neighbored by advertisements for such historically famous locales as Leon and Lefkofsky’s deli, Boesky’s deli and Marlen’s deli and snack shop, Raskin writes, “A proud feather in the caps of the leaders of our Jewish community will bloom brightly at the ground-breaking ceremonies of the new Town and Country Club. Sunday, on the beautifully wooded 13 ½ acre site at Southfield and 12 ½ Mile Rd… It started three years ago when Dr. and Mrs. Morris Bachman and Dr. and Mrs. David Gudes (my grandparents) were sunning themselves by a pool at one of Florida’s sumptuous hotels.” That country club isn't around anymore, but Raskin’s well-known ellipses still are.

Rabbi Jason Miller - Detroit Jewish News Archives

Some interesting things that early users of the digital archives have noticed about how things have changed include the fact that decades ago married women had no first names in the Detroit Jewish News. I found many articles written about my grandmother and her leadership in various organizations and yet her first name is nowhere to be found. All of these women are referred to as “Mrs.” and then the husband’s name. This makes it difficult to search for our grandmothers and great-grandmothers by their first names, but it also proves to be an interesting historical exercise to look back and see when that publishing standard ended.

The digital archives are also proving to be a resourceful way to learn about our local Jewish community. For instance, on a typical page from the 1970s or 1980s one can easily see how many mohels (ritual circumcisers) there were at that time compared to today? One can be reminded of the community’s favorite restaurants that were once popular, but have since closed. Of course, one notices that area codes and website addresses are missing from advertisements up until a couple decades ago. And it is interesting to see advertisements for services that we no longer use as frequently anymore such as hand written calligraphy invitations and envelopes.

After searching for my grandparents in the archives I typed in my own name and found the blurb announcing my bar mitzvah in October 1989. Occurring just before the fall of the Soviet Union, the blurb announced that Cory Trivax, with whom I shared my bar mitzvah date at Adat Shalom Synagogue, and I would be twinning our bar mitzvah with a young man named Alexander Proekt of Leningrad. Just as performing a mitzvah project has become the norm today for b’nai mitzvah youth, having a bar mitzvah twin in the Soviet Union was de rigueur for the time. The blurb in the Jewish News mentioned that Alexander’s family had been refused to emigrate on the grounds that his father Mark had been exposed to state secrets during his two years of employment at the Institute of Radio Communications twelve years prior. In the days before my bar mitzvah I remember sitting with Rabbi Efry Spectre and unsuccessfully trying to contact Alexander in Leningrad by phone. I also sent him a couple of unanswered postcards.

Rabbi Jason Miller - Bar Mitzvah - Soviet Twin

Based on the information in the DJN archives I was able to track down Alexander Proekt who is now a 38-year-old medical doctor doing research at the Weill Medical Center at Cornell. He quickly responded to my invitation to connect on the social network LinkedIn and we have been in touch for the first time ever. It turns out that Alexander wasn’t aware that Cory and I had been designated as his bar mitzvah twins back in October 1989 and seemed surprised that I had worn a metal bracelet with his name on it. He expressed his gratitude to me almost 25 years later.

I’m grateful for the gift of these digital archives. Just imagine how many people will learn new things about their family history. People will become reunited thanks to these archives and historians will find a searchable treasure trove of information. Kudos to Arthur Horwitz and the Detroit Jewish News Foundation for this wonderful gift to our community.

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News

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