Nostalgia is trending on the web and the Detroit Jewish News’s digital archive, launched in November, is a prime example. I am famously fond of my hometown, where I now serve as a rabbi, so poking around on the site is fun for me, but the archive also connected me with someone I have longed to meet since my Bar Mitzvah and thought I never would.
Arthur Horwitz, publisher of the News, recognized the importance of digitizing the thousands of old issues of the paper after a fire destroyed nearly all of the paper’s print archives in 2002. Horwitz and the paper’s nonprofit foundation turned to Media Genesis, an Internet services provider, to create the searchable index on the new website. It functions like Google and lets users perform quick, accurate, gratis searches on every issue of the paper dating back to 1942, including advertisements.
As word of these digital archives spread, individuals began posting news clips on social media sites such as Facebook. It has now become commonplace to see birth announcements published in the Detroit Jewish News from the 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s in Facebook feeds. And just as people began to Google themselves in the past decade, now members of the Detroit Jewish community have begun doing searches on their own name in the archives. It has also become a fun way to do genealogical research. One of the first searches many users perform is to look up the death notices of great-grandparents and other family members.
When I typed in my grandparents’ name in the search I was amazed at how quickly one of Danny Raskin’s “Listening Post” columns popped up on my screen. The page is an easy-to-read scan of the original page from the paper dated Friday, January 2, 1959 – 55 years ago. Amazingly, Danny Raskin is still writing for the paper! In this column, bordered by advertisements for such historically famous locales as Leon and Lefkofsky’s deli, Boesky’s deli and Marlen’s deli and snack shop, Raskin writes, “A proud feather in the caps of the leaders of our Jewish community will bloom brightly at the ground-breaking ceremonies of the new Town and Country Club. Sunday, on the beautifully wooded 13 ½ acre site at Southfield and 12 ½ Mile Rd… It started three years ago when Dr. and Mrs. Morris Bachman and Dr. and Mrs. David Gudes (my grandparents) were sunning themselves by a pool at one of Florida’s sumptuous hotels.” That country club isn’t around anymore, but Raskin’s well-known ellipses live.
After searching for my grandparents in the archives I typed in my own name and found the blurb announcing my bar mitzvah in October, 1989. Occurring just before the fall of the Soviet Union, the blurb announced that Cory Trivax, with whom I shared my bar mitzvah date at Adat Shalom Synagogue, and I would be sharing our ceremony with Alexander Proekt of Leningrad. Just as performing a mitzvah project has become the norm today for b’nai mitzvah youth, having a bar mitzvah twin in the Soviet Union was de rigueur for the time. The blurb in the Jewish News mentioned that Alexander’s family had been refused permission to emigrate on the grounds that his father Mark had been exposed to state secrets during his two years of employment at the Institute of Radio Communications twelve years prior. In the days before my bar mitzvah I remember sitting with Rabbi Efry Spectre and unsuccessfully trying to contact Alexander in Leningrad by phone. I also sent him a couple of unanswered postcards.
Based on the information in the DJN archives I was able to track down Alexander Proekt, now a 38-year-old medical doctor doing research at the Weill Medical Center at Cornell. He quickly responded to my invitation to connect on the social network LinkedIn and we have been in touch for the first time ever. It turns out that Alexander wasn’t aware that Cory and I had been designated as his bar mitzvah twins back in October 1989 and seemed surprised that I had worn a metal bracelet with his name on it. He expressed his gratitude to me almost 25 years later.
I’m grateful for the gift of these digital archives. Just imagine how many people will learn new things about their family history. People will become reunited thanks to these archives. Historians will find a searchable treasure trove of information. Kudos to Arthur Horwitz and the Detroit Jewish News Foundation for this wonderful gift of nostalgia. Perhaps Jewish newspapers in other cities will follow suit.