Number Our Days
In the 1970’s Barbara Myerhoff received a sizable grant to study the anthropology of an ethnic group in an urban environment. While most anthropologists were studying far of lands and people in remote rain-forested parts of the globe (think Napoleon Chagnon), she decided to study a group of elderly Jews in Venice Beach, California, just a few miles from where she lived. The resulting book (and film, which won and academy award for best short documentary) is an enlightening peak into the lives of a generation of Jews who came to America between 1900 and 1935, mostly in an attempt to escape poverty and persecution at the hands of Hitler and also various Russian and Eastern European leaders. Myerhoff spend countless hours with the members of this small and poor community of elderly Jews. She applied the principles of Anthropology and Sociology to uncover and explain a culture that was just as unique and richly woven with traditions, hierarchies, social processes, and shared history as any untouched tribe in a remote jungle. Myerhoff not only showed that valuable Anthropology and Sociology can be done right down the street, she also uncovered part of her own culture and has inspired a whole generation of professional and amateur Anthropologists to strive to understand their cultures and those they came from. The book has become a classic in the study of Anthropology. There is also much that is uplifting in the description of these old people clinging to their culture and their community in the final years of their lives. Most of the community members have great pride in the struggles they overcame and, though quite poor, many of them donate time and money to causes they deem worthy. I recommend this book for anyone in Jewish studies, but also for folks who find themselves struggling to understand their elders and requiring a reminder of how the lives of older people could have been and can continue to be so very different from their own.