Leslie Berlin’s lawn decorations show children from diverse backgrounds celebrating peace and joy. (Rick Dodd)
Leslie Berlin’s lawn decorations show children from diverse backgrounds celebrating peace and joy. (Rick Dodd)

Q&A: A Jewish Silicon Valley historian who lights up at Christmas

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Leslie Berlin, 50, is a project historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University. The Palo Alto resident is the author of two books, “Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age” and “The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley,” and has been featured regularly on NPR, in the New York Times and Wired and many other outlets.

J: What’s the difference between a project historian and a historian?

Leslie Berlin
Leslie Berlin

Leslie Berlin: The Silicon Valley Archives started out as a project of the Stanford library, and since I was its historian, I got that title. However, it’s really not any different. I have a Ph.D. like any trained historian.

You’ve written two books about the valley. How did you first get interested in its history?

There’s an intellectual reason and a practical one. The intellectual one is that I’ve always been interested in power and where it comes from in a society. It’s now hard to imagine, but at one time, people didn’t think of technology as a source of power. On a practical level, I took my oral exams the week before my son was born, and so I really needed local archives that enabled me to do deep dives into research without leaving the area. So it worked from both those perspectives.

We tend to think of history as events much further in the past, but you are interested in people who are often still alive and events that took place in our lifetime. How does that change the study of it?

Actually, Silicon Valley’s roots were first laid during World War II. My first book was about someone who was no longer alive, and in my second book, all but one of my primary subjects were alive. There are both benefits and drawbacks to the person being alive. You can talk to them to get a sense of who they are and they can explain why they did things, but the benefit of having someone no longer with us is that other people are more willing to speak about them more openly. More importantly, distance allows us to assess that person and his/her accomplishments a bit more objectively.

You first came to our attention when you appeared in a story last year about chairing the decorating committee of Palo Alto’s Christmas Tree Lane, a residential street known for its elaborate holiday decorations. How do you decorate, and how did a Jew end up chairing this project?

There are people of all different faiths who live on the street, including other Jewish families. It’s a wonderful activity that we all do together, and we take turns chairing it each year. My husband is not Jewish, so it’s much less of an issue in our home than it was for me growing up. When it’s Hanukkah we put a menorah in the window, but we don’t if it’s not. Our lawn decorations are children from all over the world holding hands next to a sign that says “Peace and Joy.” People often think of “It’s a Small World” from Disneyland, or ask us where the children are from, and we always say they are all Americans, but this last year, we’ve added a little girl from Pakistan. My favorite part is that every year there are real little children who come to see the decorations and add themselves to the chain. It’s been a remarkably cool thing for our kids to grow up on this street, and the other great thing about it is that we have a neighborhood potluck on the day the lights go up. Our street is only two blocks long, but we know all of our neighbors because of this, and our doing it feels like a gift to the broader community.

You grew up in Tulsa. What was that like?

There’s a very old Jewish community in Tulsa that no one outside of Tulsa believes is there, but it is. I now belong to Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills and there are more Jewish families who are members there than there were Jewish people in my entire city. I never experienced any prejudice, but of course I was aware of not being part of the mainstream. But that’s good for writers.

In addition to your books and articles, you wrote an article for American Scholar about your grandmother called “Sophie: A Life in Five Moves,” which begins with her helping to get her husband, Walter, out of Buchenwald on the condition that they immediately leave Germany for La Paz, Bolivia. She then moves to Baltimore, West Palm Beach and Tulsa. Might you feel compelled to write more about your family some day?

My historian side is showing. But even if I wanted to write more about it, the primary sources are all in German and Spanish, two languages I can stumble around in but am not fluent in. Now that my mom has died, I have all of my grandmother’s things, but I can’t read any of her documents. I knew I wanted to write that article, though. She had died not that long before, and I was thinking about the world that was disappearing with her.

Your website says you’ve known your husband since you were 12.

In seventh grade, he showed up at my school, but we didn’t start dating until we were 21. He always had a girlfriend, so I had to bide my time.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."