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Conversation with… Jane Kaufman Author of “Our Stories”

By Stacey Dresner

A little over a year ago, Jane Kaufman, a copy editor at The Republican in Springfield was asked to edit the Republican’s book on the local Jewish community. As part of its “Heritage Series”, which takes a look at the various immigrant communities in the Springfield area, The Republican has also published books on the Irish, African-American and Hispanic communities.
Our Stories: The Jews of Western Massachusetts was published in November and features a look at several facets of the Western Massachusetts Jewish community – from synagogues and ritual life to Jewish organizations, day schools and Jewish businesses.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Kaufman has lived in Western Massachusetts since 1987, first in North Adams and now in Northampton. A graduate of Grinnell College with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she has been a newspaper reporter and editor for more than 20 years. She writes occasional travel pieces and columns for The Republican and tutors college students in writing skills and adolescents in preparation to become b’nai mitzvah. She served as co-president of Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton for two years at the turn of the century. Kaufman recently spoke to the Jewish Ledger about her work on Our Stories: The Jews of Western Massachuetts.
Q: How did you become involved in this project?
A: The brainchild of the entire series is Wayne Phaneuf, the executive editor of The Republican. He asked me if I would be interested in editing the history of the Jews of Western Massachusetts book a little more than a year ago. I said yes.
Q: How did you even begin this undertaking?
A: With procrastination and a great deal of trepidation. The first kind of formal step that took place was that we sat down with Joseph Carvalho III, who is a consulting historian on the series. Joe actually laid out what he considered to be the great immigration waves of Jews to this area. It was quite helpful. He suggested I try to interview people who had arrived or whose families had arrived during those different immigration waves. He laid out a sort of world history as it related to Jews very quickly. It was right off the top of his head and was pretty impressive. So that gave me a rough outline of the chronology.
The next substantive conversation that took place was with Jane Trigere and Ken Schoen, who lead the Jewish Historical Society of Western Massachusetts. Jane and Ken turned out to be quite instrumental in the writing, the compiling and the organization of this book. In fact, they together wrote the foreword to the book and Jane wrote a piece about the history of synagogues in Springfield for the book.
I puzzled and puzzled and puzzled over the outline. I was miserable. I have to admit that the book is not comprehensive, it is not exhaustive, there are gaps. Essentially I was working on a six-month deadline. There were 16 contributors. One of them was Michael Hoberman, who has written three books. He teaches folklore and is an English professor at Fitchburg State University. His involvement was also critical. So Joe, Jane, Ken and Michael were all exceedingly helpful in terms of their contributions, but there were 16 contributors. And I must mention Elizabeth Rome as well, who almost single-handedly wrote, within a very short period of time, a chapter on business and contributed a great number of pieces in the chapter on the Holocaust and its aftermath. So there were a lot of people who influenced the design of the book, and I have mentioned just a few key people.

Q: You say the book is not comprehensive. What do you wish you had included that you didn’t?
A: I wish I had been more able to focus on Chabad Lubavitch. I wish I had more time to get more stories in. There are dozens of people with interesting stories. Also, in my initial interview with Joe, he suggested that we include Iranian Jews. There is no inclusion of Iranian Jews in this book (I was unable to connect with them). I also think that the book lacks a heavy enough focus on conversion and it doesn’t focus heavily enough in my opinion on alternative movements, such as Renewal.
And I wish I had been able to focus more on education in all of its facets. I only touched on day schools, and the movement of Hillel, for example, at colleges is not evident. Judaic studies doesn’t really show its face in this book. So the whole aspect of education kind of eluded me and I had a hard time with that.

Q: You mentioned that there were 16 contributors from around the community. How important was it to get their voices into the book?
A: It was exceedingly helpful to have community voices in the book. I would say that their influence was also felt. It was both necessary and really helpful.

Q: What are your favorite chapters?
A: I think the chapter on the Holocaust and its aftermath, which I did very little writing for, is quite moving to me. I think the stories in it were really well done. I think Elizabeth Rome did a good job. As to my own writing, I want to plug chapter one, which is “Rituals.” It was very fun to write and I think it would surprise people to open the book and see the mohel on essentially the first page. So it went from mohel to bar mitzvah, wedding, and funeral. I thought that was a refreshing organizational decision.

Q: Was there anything that surprised you about the Jewish community?
A: I particularly enjoyed interviewing Avie Friedman, who is a moshgiach with the Sprigfield Vaad HaKashruth. I had no idea what it took to be a moshgiach. I still don’t think I understand that at all, but I was really curious about that.
I also was really moved by so many of my interviews, in fact, almost all of them and that to me was the biggest surprise – how inspiring it was to speak with people about their lives and about how Judaism shaped their lives and how their lives shaped their Judaism. How the two intersected and kind of formed each other.
The biggest surprise to me was the ability in this project to have an intersection in my own life between my professional life and my religious life. I have always felt that I have led a bifurcated existence. This project allowed me to feel that work at the newspaper and my life as a Jew were in some way whole.

Q: What do you hope the community takes from this book?
A: My hope is that through conversations about the book that people are able to explore the issues I was just talking about – which is how their religion shapes their life and how their life shapes their religion, or how their ethos shapes their life and how their life shapes their ethos – how these two parts of them connect.

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