Heritage or History?

History is the study of past events.  Histories usually consists of “a chronological record of significant events (as affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes” (Merriam-Webster).

share poster

Share–Jewish Relief Campaign (Wilhelms Corporation, Brooklyn, N.Y, 1917). Click on image for source

Heritage refers to something one has inherited from the past.  People who investigate the past in search of a heritage often are in search of a “memory of a common past…[that] can help forge a sense of belonging through the integration of past events in which the present finds its roots” (Gouriévidis 176).  There is nothing inherently evil about heritage*–in fact it may be a useful way to “encourage a sense of cohesion through the understanding of past experiences” (Gouriévidis 176). However, it is  worth being aware when one is looking to the past to create a heritage, since for the heritage seeker, events in the past that challenge one’s sense of who one wants to be today may instigate either denial or difficult conversations.

David Lowenthal’s distinctions between heritage and history are useful:

history differs from heritage not, as people generally suppose, in telling the truth, but in trying to do so despite being aware that truth is a chameleon and its chroniclers fallible beings.  The most crucial distinction is that truth in heritage commits us to some present creed; truth in history is a flawed effort to understand the past on its own terms (Lowenthal 119).

history [seeks] to explain through critical inquiry, heritage to celebrate and congratulate (Lowenthal 168).

Test case: does the following comment (one I actually received on a book proposal!) suggest the critic is looking to the past for heritage or history?

“I find … [the idea of Jewish secrecy] to be  a very unappealing portrayal of those [early American Jewish] communities, as it would be of orthodox Jews today.”

This comment intrigued me, in part because I felt it was based on a misreading: I wasn’t speaking about “orthodox Jews” in the colonial era, as that category hadn’t yet been invented.  More importantly, I had claimed that secrecy was a useful strategy for dealing with the Inquisition, rather than a deviant behavior.  Yet, as an orthodox Jew, I was hardly seeking to denigrate my own group! What if the reviewer were correct that I had unintentionally presented Jews who might be understood as “orthodox” in an “unappealing way”? To what extent is our job as Jewish scholars to create a “memory of a common past…in which the present finds its roots”?  What should we do when we encounter trends in the past that aren’t “useful” to today’s self-conception of what it means to be a Jew, or one particular kind of Jew? (I’d love to hear thoughts on this in the comments field.)

Acknowledging a gap between the past and present (rather than insisting upon a continuing line of inheritance) may help diffuse the desire to ignore past atrocities such as slavery (or even uncomfortable ideas such as secrecy).

Alternatively sometimes it is worth noting–even if one is interested in history rather than heritage–that inheritance comes with baggage.  Certain ethnic groups or individuals may have inherited privilege from their ancestors and their experiences in the Americas.  Having privileges does not make you “bad,” but it may make other people resentful if you don’t recognize that some of your accomplishments may be due in part to inherited privileges that others lack. A quick example:  I am a hereditary academic–both of my biological parents and both of my stepparents are successful academics.  I grew up learning by osmosis some basic rules about academia as well as a ton of information about their fields and how to do field work.  This doesn’t make me a bad person, but understanding this past can help me recognize that some of my younger colleagues who are first generation college students (let alone first generation academics) probably lack this informal training.  I can help “even the playing field” by making myself available as a faculty mentor.


The “Golden Flats,” South Side, Chicago (1950)
Andreas Feininger (American, born France. 1906–1999). MoMA. Click on image for source page.

A more complicated example:  my grandparents left the South Side of Chicago for the North Shore during the 1950s.  Because of this move, my mother was able to attend better schools which probably helped her achieve academic success and enhanced her ability to become an academic (which in turn increased my ability to become an academic). Yet the overall process of “white flight” also led to urban decay on the South Side. While my grandparents were obviously not solely responsible for this decay, their migrations contributed to the problem, and I as a hereditary academic continue to benefit from this legacy in ways that many African Americans who stayed behind on the South Side probably do not.  When I (or my cousins) lived on the South Side in the 1970s-80s, we did so as the children of employees of University of Chicago.  Would our parents have been connected to the University if our grandparents hadn’t left the South Side two to three decades earlier?  It is hard to know for certain, but recognizing privilege may lead to sympathy, empathy, and a sense of shared responsibility for change.

Some Resources:

*In contrast to what I claim here, David Lowenthal argues that heritage is inherently damaging.  See The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History.

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