AU History professor and director of the Jewish Studies Program Pamela Nadell sits down with Justin Jacobs to discuss her new book, America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today(Norton, 2019). In this interview, Prof. Nadell reveals what inspired her to write this book, how she managed to trace a common thread of Jewish identity across time and space, and which of the many stories she tells resonated with her the most.
Back in the early 1980s, the Statue of Liberty, one of the country’s most prominent icons, was in urgent need of repair. In 1982, Lee Iacocca, chair of the Chrysler Corporation, backed a proposal to combine the restoration of the Statue of Liberty with the development of Ellis Island, where million of immigrants had once disembarked after sailing past the iconic statue, into a historical site. Just two years later, Alan Kraut, a professor of American history at AU and expert on the history of immigration, was asked to join a team of prominent historians who would offer advice and feedback for these two monumental projects.
Thus was born the History Advisory Committee of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Foundation. Since 2003, Prof. Kraut, a member of the committee since its inception, has served as its chair. The History Advisory Committee (HAC) is appointed by the Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation, which raised the funds for the renovations and museums on Liberty and Ellis Islands. Composed of fourteen scholars from across the country, the HAC offers the museum designers and the National Park Service crucial feedback on the historical content of the exhibitry and how best to present complex historical information to the general public. “It gives me great pleasure to bring the history of the country to a broader public through exhibits in museums,” Kraut said of his work, “and of course through work on the Statue of Liberty, which has come in many ways to replace Uncle Sam as the symbol of America.”
At the moment, Prof. Kraut is closely involved with the creation of new museum exhibits on the Statue of Liberty site. So many tourists now visit the site that many are unable to gain admittance into the statue. In response to this situation, Prof. Kraut has worked together with ABC News Documentary Division and Walt Disney Imagineering Division to develop a new introductory film to the Statue of Liberty Museum. “The purpose of this film is to give people a sense of the statue, its significance, and to introduce them to the tremendous visuals that they are going to engage with,” Kraut said. “We hope to give all visitors to the museum a sense of the majesty of the statue and a flavor of the excitement, even if they cannot get inside.”
The new museum and film are scheduled to open on May 15. The goal is to encourage visitors to this iconic monument to reflect on the evolving meanings of liberty in America. “We want people to really think about what liberty means and how it has developed in America,” Kraut said.
The Silk Road, an open-access online annual publication of The Silk Road House, has just published its first issue under the editorship of Justin M. Jacobs, an associate professor in the History Department. Jacobs took over editing duties of the journal in 2018, after more than fifteen years in the capable hands of former editor Daniel C. Waugh, professor emeritus of history at the University of Washington. Once a print and online publication, The Silk Road now appears exclusively on a customized Edspace website hosted by AU.
AU History Professor Pedram Partovi sits down with Justin Jacobs to discuss his new book, Popular Iranian Cinema before the Revolution: Family and Nation in Fīlmfārsī. In this engaging book and lively interview, Partovi offers insights into what popular Iranian cinema can tell us about the history and culture of modern Iran.
Every summer, a small group of students from AU and beyond gets the opportunity to embark on a life-changing trip to Russia. Their guide is Anton Fedyashin, an associate professor in the History Department. Since 2012, Prof. Fedyashin had led 8-10 students to St. Petersburg and Moscow to explore the history, culture, and literature of Russia. The program is fully funded by the Carmel Institute, which covers round-trip airfare, lodging, entrance fees to museums and concerts, breakfast, and dinner for each lucky student. The only cost incurred by participants is their daily lunch.
Admission to this summer program is competitive: of the approximately forty applications that are received each year, no more than ten are selected by Prof. Fedyashin to go to Russia. In addition to GPA, applicants must also write two essays explaining how a visit to Russia fits within their academic or professional plans. Prof. Fedyashin then interviews each student personally to ensure his or her suitability for the trip. Their reward is ten days of intense sightseeing, readings, and discussion with Prof. Fedyashin on the streets of St. Petersburg, Moscow, and beyond. Each trip is organized around a specific theme, which changes every year. In the past, students have gotten to learn about “Dostoevsky’s Russia” (2012), “Romanov Russia” (2013), “Literary Russia” (2014), “Twentieth-Century Russia” (2015), “Musical Russia” (2016), “Revolutionary Russia (2017), and “The Human Figure in Russian Culture” (2018).
According to Prof. Fedyashin, participants come away from this experience with a radically different view of Russia than they receive from the mainstream media. “They are struck by how modern and dynamic Moscow and St. Petersburg are,” Fedyashin said, “how warm the people are, how proud the Russians are of their history and culture, and how much effort they put into preserving all these things.” Elena Vernikos, an AU senior in the School of Public Affairs, admitted to knowing little about Russia before applying to the program. “At the beginning of our journey I had no idea what to expect,” Vernikos said. Having long viewed U.S.-Russian relations through an “us vs. them” lens, Vernikos came away from her trip with a more “humanized” view of Russian society. “I feel lucky to have had this experience, and also grateful that I now have a different, more nuanced view of Russia and its history, culture, and people.”
This was the goal of the Carmel Institute from the beginning, Fedyashin notes. “I’m very grateful to Ms. Carmel for funding the Carmel Institute because it allows American students to see Russia as it is, not as it is not or as it should be. And that is a very important component of informed dialogue and intelligent foreign policy.”
AU History Professor Michael Brenner, who also serves as Director of the Center for Israel Studies, sits down with Justin Jacobs to discuss his new book, In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea. This fascinating book analyzes the history of Zionist movements and issues surrounding the evolving identities of Jewish people in the modern world.
For the 2018–19 academic year, Paul Behringer, a Ph.D. student in the History Department, was awarded the prestigious Ernest May Fellowship in History and Policy at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, which is housed in Harvard University’s Kennedy School. As part of the Belfer Center’s commitment to making historical research relevant for policymakers, Behringer is using his time at Harvard to hone his understanding of American military intervention in Siberia during the Russian civil war. Behringer’s dissertation, “U.S. and Japanese Intervention during the Russian Civil War: Violence and Barbarism in the Far East,” is the first in-depth study to examine both the actions and perceptions of complex developments on the ground from the tripartite perspective of American, Russian, and Japanese policymakers. The Japanese role, in particular, has often been marginalized in previous accounts of the war. “Although plenty has been written on the American intervention in the context of U.S.-Russia bilateral relations,” Behringer says, “no one has written a full-length treatment that takes Japan’s role into account. Whereas the Americans sent in about 10,000 soldiers, who were mainly tasked with guarding the railroads, the Japanese dispatched over 70,000 and engaged in combat operations.” The Japanese also stayed in Siberia much longer: while the Americans pulled out in 1920, the Japanese didn’t leave the Russian mainland until 1922.
In his quest to narrate a fuller picture of the Russian civil war in Siberia, Behringer has traveled throughout the world in search of rarely consulted archival material. In addition to files held at the National Archives, Library of Congress, Stanford, Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard, he has also examined papers and reports in the National Diet Library in Tokyo. In Russia, he has obtained access to archives as far afield as Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Chita, in addition to Moscow. Amid such a large amount of historical data, Behringer continues to be fascinated by the unexpected twists and turns of history, particularly when they can be illustrated by the dramatic life stories of individual people. To Behringer, one of the most fascinating figures is Grigorii Semenov, a Buriat Cossack who first saw combat duty on the Eastern Front during World War I. When the Russian civil war broke out, however, Semenov, with Japanese assistance, managed to establish a short-lived anti-Bolshevik state based in the Siberian city of Chita. When the Japanese withdrew their armies in 1922, Semenov fled to the United States, only to return to Japanese-held Manchuria, where he was finally captured and executed by the Soviets after World War II. “I think his story is a great metaphor for the strange twists and turns of the Russian Civil War and foreign intervention and its lasting impact on Northeast Asia,” Behringer observed.
As part of his research in Russia, Behringer spent six months living in the far eastern city of Vladivostok, just across the border from North Korea. He believes that living in the places that he studies makes history come alive in a way that is otherwise unattainable. “It was important for me to live in Vladivostok to get a better sense how people experienced the intervention there a hundred years ago,” he says. “I know what it’s like to have hiked its steep hills, and I’ve felt the piercing wind and seen the mist rising off the frozen Golden Horn on a sunny winter morning. I’ve been to the train station, which is still standing from the period, and walked down the streets where American and Japanese soldiers marched on parade.” Behringer currently expects to complete his dissertation in Spring 2020.
On August 28, 2018, Kathryn Morgan, a junior history major, got a rare opportunity to learn about presidential history first hand through her participation in the inaugural Presidential Sites Summit. The semi-annual three-day event, organized by the White House Historical Association, brings together historians and scholars whose work concerns famous and not-so-famous presidential sites, such as homes, archives, and museums. Participants get to learn more about the history and stories associated with these sites, some of which is revealed by the living descendants of presidents. At this year’s event, Morgan was able to rub shoulders with the great granddaughter of James Monroe, the great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, the grandson of Harry Truman, and Gerald Ford’s daughter, Susan, who talked about what it was like to have her prom at the White House.
Morgan first learned about the Presidential Sites Summit application process through the White House Historical Association’s Facebook page. Prof. Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska, Morgan’s undergraduate faculty mentor, urged her to take the class, “A History of the White House,” which was taught by Matthew Costello. “I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to do this if I wasn’t in the History Department and had the resources and mentors that I have had to make those connections,” Morgan said. For Morgan, one of the highlights of the experience was the opportunity to walk through the White House, visit the Oval Office, and eat dinner on the premises. “I was excited to sit in historical chairs because the ropes are all down,” she said. After she graduates from AU, Morgan, who is interested in public history, hopes to gain experience working in a museum. “I am grateful for the opportunity to do this because I got to meet presidential descendants, journalists, and other professionals who are doing what I want to do one day.” The next Presidential Sites Summit will be held in 2020.
History Professor Katharina Vester sits down with Justin Jacobs to discuss her book, A Taste of Power: Food and American Identities (University of California Press, 2015). Prof. Vester’s fascinating monograph analyzes how food has come to serve various political, social, and cultural agendas in American history.
In National Duties: Custom Houses and the Making of the American State (Chicago, 2016), Gautham Rao makes the case that the origins of the federal government and the modern American state lie in the conflicts at government custom houses between the American Revolution and the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Lauded as “brilliantly researched and smartly argued,” Rao’s book “shows how the early republic depended overwhelmingly on customs revenue to pay its debts, fund its wars, and finance governance,” thus giving merchants involved in overseas trade an outsized role in the shaping of the contours of the federal government.
Justin Jacobs’s new monograph, Xinjiang and the Modern Chinese State (Washington, 2016), views modern Chinese political history from the perspective of Han officials who were tasked with governing Xinjiang, a Muslim border region inhabited by Uighurs, Kazaks, Hui, Mongols, Kirgiz, and Tajiks. His analysis of relations between Han and non-Han peoples within modern China has been praised as representing “a quantum advance in sophistication and precision.” Prof. Jacobs is currently working on Indiana Jones in History: From Pompeii to the Moon, a book and documentary series inspired by a course he teaches at AU (HIST 330 – Antiquities, Exploration, and Empire: From Pompeii to the Moon). The course, documentary, and forthcoming book all provide a cultural history of Euro-American imperial expansion in the modern world, as seen through the lens of political controversies surrounding archaeological digs, expeditions, and exploration.