University of Minnesota archives the oldest Jewish newspaper in Minnesota

Through this effort, archivists hope to preserve a part of Jewish history.

Unbound+pages+of+the+American+Jewish+World+await+scanning+on+Tuesday%2C+March+16+at+Elmer+L.+Andersen+Library.

Audrey Rauth

Unbound pages of the American Jewish World await scanning on Tuesday, March 16 at Elmer L. Andersen Library.

Becca Most, Campus Activities Reporter

In the basement of Elmer L. Andersen Library on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota campus, third-year math and computer science student Nhung Pham carefully places a yellowed sheet of newspaper on the base of a large scanning machine. Pressing down on the crease in the center, she spreads the page open and crops the image on the computer to ensure the scan includes the entire sheet.

Beside her is a stack of other issues from the 1964 editions of the American Jewish World, the oldest Jewish newspaper in Minnesota, which has run from 1912 to the present.

Pham is part of an effort to digitize the entirety of the paper’s print editions by hand, a labor-intensive task undertaken by University librarians and undergraduate students as part of Andersen Library’s Upper Midwest Jewish Archives.

Almost half of the archival work is finished so far, said Jennifer Claybourne, the digital projects specialist at the University and an overseer of the project. The archived issues of the American Jewish World Newspaper are available for view on the library’s website.

Nhung Pham, a student at the University of Minnesota, scans volume pages from the American Jewish World on Tuesday, March 16 at Elmer L. Andersen Library. Pham says references to her country Vietnam usually catch her eye as she works with the various archive materials. (Audrey Rauth)

Digitizing the collection will not only make the information in these articles more accessible to historians and researchers, but will also help people find information about the Jewish people who lived in Minnesota, said University archivist Kate Dietrick, who is leading the project.

Dietrick said she will often get anywhere from 20 to 40 questions a month about Jewish history in the state. Some are from people who are curious about their family history; others ask her about how people in the Midwest reacted to and perceived events like the Holocaust at the time it happened.

With this information available online, people will no longer have to visit the collection in person, which will give the collection a broader audience, she said.

“When we think of Jewish Americans, we might think of places like New York. We don’t necessarily think of the Jewish community in Duluth,” Dietrick said. “So by digitizing this, we are kind of breaking open this story to anyone, to remind them that Jewish communities do exist in Minnesota and have existed in Minnesota, and here’s their story.”

Housed in these yellowed pages are news stories and editorials, but also extensive personal sections that detail marriages, bar and bat mitzvahs, and births, as well as other personal stories about trips people went on and visitors who came to the Twin Cities. One of Dietrick’s favorite postings was a personal advertisement where a woman implored the public to help her find a cameo pin she had lost at a dance.

Another favorite was a 1933 advertisement for an underground nightclub in the Wabasha Street Caves during Prohibition. In lieu of an address, the directions to the club told the reader to cross the Wabasha Bridge to Fillmore Street, turn right and follow until they got to a skull and crossbones sign, Dietrick said.

“There’s all sorts of really fun personal stories in there. It’s very easy to get lost in those pages,” she said.

Although now many people think of larger papers like the New York Times and the Star Tribune, Dietrick said at this time there were thousands of smaller hyper-local newspapers around the country catering to different communities, especially ethnic and religious minorities.

“You might not get Jewish voices in the Star Tribune in 1912, you might not get Black voices. So, if you aren’t getting those in these larger newspapers, looking at these smaller community papers is even more valuable,” she said. “This is where you’re going to find these stories. And that’s why I think paying attention to smaller publications can be important, because why did these publications pop up in the first place? Probably because they were being ignored.”

In 2018, Dietrick reached out to Mordecai Specktor, the current editor of the American Jewish World, to see if the paper would be interested in donating their collections to be archived at the University. A year later she remembers that it took two trips to fit 70 bound volumes of the newspaper into the back of her car, many sections of which were physically crumbling with age.

“Some of the early volumes [from the early 1900s] were kind of crumbling to pieces. And when people have come in the past to look at those old volumes, they’d leave paper crumbs all over the floor. We had to vacuum up afterward,” Specktor said. “Time wasn’t on our side — we had to get this done before they literally crumbled to dust.”

Dietrick started fundraising for the digitization work in September and raised $25,000 in three weeks, a task she thought would take nearly a year. The team started the digitization process in earnest in October.

Specktor said the history of the Jewish people in the Midwest is incredible and complex, and that many Jewish people settled in cities around the country and landed in farming colonies in North Dakota.

“There’s not much left of that except for the cemeteries,” he said. “Jews made lives for themselves all around Minnesota, all over the North Country. And you find those stories in the Jewish World.”