Puget Sound English Department

March 25, 2010

Jews in Early America: A blog

Many scholars are using blogs and other internet forums to publicize and popularize their work, especially its more esoteric aspects. There’s resistance among traditional scholars, as well as justified concern for the future of the scholarly press. But such blogs in their best instances allow scholars to maintain their academic and intellectual integrity while drawing on the breadth of their interests in ways conventional publications don’t yet allow. Professor Laura Leibman of Reed College is a respected and well-published scholar of early America who has chosen to create a blog “designed to provide interested lay-people, genealogists, and educators with resources on early American Jews and the communities they came from.” Her blog, Travels through Jewish History, features discussions of Jewish theology and early religious practices, comments on diasporic communities in early America and the Caribbean, reflections on (and photos of) Jewish cemeteries, and the occasional recipe. It’s lively, thoughtful, personal, and informative–especially as it brings to light an oft-overlooked element of the early American experience.

Take, for example, her post on the Letters of Abigail Levy Franks (1696-1756), in which she draws our attention to a new edition of the collected letters (Ed. Edith B. Gelles), provides a link to a brief on-line biography, and offers a fascinating–but concise–discussion of the role of the private (or, in 18th-century terms, the “familiar”) letter: a genre that not only allowed for the maintenance of familial intimacy across distances, but also served as a venue for the writer to display her social refinement and upward mobility–in part through her mastery of penmanship. As Leibman notes, “Letter writing manuals like The Young Clerk’s Guide (1708) and The Secretary’s Companion (1728) provided scripts for people to follow in order to display their social graces appropriately; handwriting guides helped the writer learn to display her refinement visually.” (Note that she provides a link to a guide to an early American handwriting guide, as well.) All this and a link to her Early American Handwriting Game, and early America starts to seem like a pretty great place to spend a virtual afternoon.

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