Friday, May 13, 2011

Time Travel

In all those Hollywood movies about time travel, the key concept is not just that you manage to travel to some earlier era (like in Peggy Sue Got Married or The Terminator) or into the future (like in Planet of the Apes or The Time Machine) or to travel both to the past and into the future (like in the Back to the Future trilogy), but that you get to take your own personal present along for the ride when you resurface in whatever era you manage somehow to attain. Indeed, in all of the above mentioned films (and also in a thousand others, I’m sure), the plot turns on the fact that, even though the time traveler is surrounded by people who are living in their own present tense, the traveler him or herself gets to know what’s going to happen (if he or she is visiting the past) or some crucial detail about something that has already happened (if the plot concerns visiting the future). And the same is true, of course, of all the great books on the same theme: when Mark Twain’s Hank Morgan leaves 19th century Hartford (of all places) to spend time in King Arthur’s England, the plot turns over and over on the fact that he knows all about what the world will be like a millennium and a half into the future while all the people around him are moored to their own present. (Do they still read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in high school? It was briefly my favorite book when I was fourteen or fifteen!)

There is no such thing as time travel. (Oh yeah? So where are all the visitors from the future?) Or, if there is, then it exists—at least so far—solely in the speculative realm of theoretical physicists, science fiction authors, and Hollywood screenwriters, not in the day-to-day lives of actual people who, as things are, cannot take a train to 1952 the same way any of us can take the PATH train to Hoboken for the price of a ticket. But although none of us can actually vacation in the nineteenth century, it turns out that what we can do is visit from afar…and it was that truth that came home to me as I spent time earlier this week wandering around in the newly launched JTA Jewish News Archive, which lives at
JTA is the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Its very name suggests its origins in an earlier age, which is precisely correct: it was founded in 1917 by one Jacob Landau (who at first called it the Jewish Correspondence Bureau) with an eye towards collecting news stories about Jewish communities all over the world and making them available in digest form to newspapers, magazines, and other interested parties for further dissemination. In the world before the internet, this was, of course, a huge undertaking that involved the coordination and verification of correspondents’ reports gathered in dozens of different locales and under all sorts of different circumstances, including dangerous ones, and their integration with each other into some sort of coherent narrative. The JTA morphed forward through the years from telegraph to tickertape to fax machines and finally into its current status as an on-line site that now does electronically exactly what it used to do mechanically: collect news stories concerning Jews from all over the world, verify them as carefully as possible, and then disseminate them to the media and to the public. (Take a look at this week’s edition, for example, at You can also subscribe to a newsletter called “The JTA Daily Briefing,” which digests the major stories JTA is covering at any given moment by signing up at

But the archive, with its own website, is something entirely new. And also something truly remarkable because it specifically does not provide readers with anything like the kind of thoughtful analysis a university professor or seasoned author would bring to an analysis of Jewish history. Books like that obviously have their place in the world. I read them myself all the time! But this is far more in the category of raw data than processed information…and spending time on the site is truly like traveling back in time. You can read the work, for example, of reporters in Vienna in 1938 who thought they well understood the beyond ominous implications of Austria’s willing self-annexation to Germany in March of that year, but who had no way even of beginning to imagine the extent of the horrors that were soon to ensue. But it is precisely because they did not know what the future was to be that their reports are so interesting and, at least in places, so touching. In other places, particularly in Shoah-related stories, the plain way things are said—without the embellishment someone controlling the larger picture would almost inevitably bring to the account—is chilling. The Babi Yar massacre (in the course of which more than 30,000 Kiev Jews were massacred in the course of two days in September 1941) was first reported in the West by JTA, but the report, filed on November 16, 1941, is all of two sentences long. The number of the dead is incorrect—the report speaks of 52,000 victims—but it is the tag line that is truly chilling as the reporter notes almost in passing: “Similar measures, though on a smaller scale, have been taken in other conquered towns.”

One way to browse the archive is to choose a day and to see what was going on. On that same day that the report about Babi Yar first appeared, for example, JTA also filed a report on the bravery of Jewish soldiers fighting in the Red Army against the Germans. And there were also featured that day a very interesting story about the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, manned in 1941 almost exclusively by Jewish refugees from Central Europe, embarking on its first Egyptian tour, as well as one about the formation in Ottawa of the first Air Cadet Flight Corps designed specifically to encourage young Jewish Canadian men to train as fighter pilots. I chose a few dates at random just to see what was going on. On my father’s tenth birthday, which fell on February 23, 1926, for example, JTA reported that after two failed attempts the Jewish students at the University of Chicago had finally managed to open a Jewish students’ organization. And also that unknown terrorists had managed to blow up a train on the Haifa-Damascus line. (Some things change and other things don’t seem ever to change. But how cool would it be to take the train from Haifa to Damascus!) And also that the Smithsonian Institute in Washington determined finally to abandon plans to build an observatory on Mount Sinai. And also, slightly chillingly—this is what I meant about visiting from the future—that America’s rabbis were being invited to enter a contest to find the best sermon preached in America on the subject of eugenics that was being run by the Committee on Cooperation with Clergymen of the American Eugenics Society. (Nazism basically ended any popular support for the pseudo-science of eugenics, the effort artificially to manipulate the gene pool of a nation or of a group within society. But how odd to imagine rabbis being invited entering such a contest just a decade before the Nazis came to power!) The rest of the day’s affairs feel entirely regular: a brand new JCC in Washington D.C. was dedicated, the Turkish press was chided by the chief rabbi of Turkey for publishing anti-Jewish stories, a new system for delivering fresh water into Jerusalem homes was announced by the municipality, etc., but the snapshot of how things were on that specific day is itself worth contemplating, coming as it does with neither the baggage of hindsight nor the burden of ex post facto analysis. And there are a lot of these snapshots to contemplate because every single day between January 1, 1923, and December 31, 2008 is represented on the website. Trust me, you’ll love time travel!

Some dates will call out all to be visited all by themselves. I spent time the other day at May 8, 1945 to see how V-E Day felt to the reporters writing for JTA as it was actually unfolding and May 16, 1948, to see how Truman’s recognition of the newly independent State of Israel was covered. I visited June 8, 1967, to see how they reported on the liberation of Jerusalem during the Six Day War. And I went to June 22, 1953, to see how JTA covered the funeral of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Of course, I also went to the day I was born! I’ve always known that I was born on the day after Sir Edmund Hillary reached the top of Mount Everest and the day before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in London. (My mom once told me those were three very exciting days, each in its own way!) But now I also know that on the day I was born in Manhattan, vandals destroyed the stained glass windows in the sanctuary at the Fresh Meadows Jewish Center, the police in Jerusalem announced the discovery of a large cache of weapons collected by a Jewish extremist group called Brit Kanaim (Covenant of the Zealous), Konrad Adenauer’s cabinet approved the a draft regarding future reparations payments to Shoah survivors, and the South African Board of Jewish Deputies celebrated its “Golden Jubilee Congress.”

As noted above, there really is no such thing as time travel. It is a fabulous fantasy, one that has intrigued people since ancient times. But the opportunity the JTA Archive website affords to travel back to specific days in the past and to see how the events of that day seemed to the people on the ground and in the moment, while not exactly time travel in the classical sense of the term, is still an amazingly rich experience. Now that I’m done watching the Eichmann trial on youtube—or rather, now that I’m done watching as much as I could take—I’ve taken to browsing the JTA Archive and seeing what’s there. So far, what I’ve found has been endlessly intriguing, and I think you’ll feel the same way.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.