Oral history project preserves local past

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Believing that the Bay Area was losing pieces of its past, a U.C. Berkeley oral historian began interviewing a group of top Jewish leaders back in 1990.

As a result, the lives of 16 ex-presidents and two former executive directors of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation have been permanently recorded.

"Our assignment is to capture the people who shaped the culture, the movers and shakers of our Northern California culture," said Willa Baum, who heads the Regional Oral History Office housed on campus at Bancroft Library.

The project is funded entirely by the federation's Jewish Community Endowment Fund, which grants about $7,000 for each of the oral histories.

"We know that Jewish history is important in any form," said Phyllis Cook, executive director of the endowment fund.

Samuel Ladar, who served as federation president in 1965 and 1966, was the first leader highlighted. He and three others died since their interviews.

In the interviews, these leaders speak candidly about anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, women's roles at the federation, protests of the 1970s, militant Jews, Jewish day schools and the art of fund-raising.

Though the endowment fund finances the project, Cook noted, it has no control over the questions or the outcome of the interviews.

Cook cautioned, however, that "oral history is always one person's version. You never get the whole story from anybody, ever."

Eleven of the oral histories are public so far. Those volumes are available to the public at Bancroft Library, UCLA and the New York Public Library.

Running from 76 to 228 pages, the oral histories can also be purchased. The cost ranges from $50 to $60 each, depending on length.

These Jewish leaders aren't the first ones to be interviewed by the oral history office. Since the 1950s, the lives of more than four dozen other prominent Northern California Jews have been recorded. Nearly half of those oral histories have been funded by the Western Jewish History Center of Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley.

One of the constraints of the oral history office, Baum said, is that the oral histories must be funded through outside grants.

Eleanor Glaser, an oral historian, is the coordinator of the federation project and has done all the interviewing.

"There's a lot of labor involved in these," said Glaser, the wife of Ernie Glaser, a former president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.

To prepare for the interviews, she reviews minutes of federation board meetings, collects biographical material, speaks with other community leaders and reads newspaper clippings. Each person is interviewed at least three times. One person was interviewed eight times.

The bulk of each oral history is the transcribed interviews.

But each history also includes introductions written by colleagues or family members, a chronology of the person's life and Jewish involvement, an index and copies of primary sources, such as newspaper articles, speeches and board meeting minutes. After the interviews are transcribed, they are sent twice to the subject for review