Abby Glogower had one busy February.
First, she taught a two-part class at Keneseth Israel for people interested in archiving their family histories.
Then she moderated a talk-back session following a CenterStage performance of Hair.
She spoke after the Film Festival’s screening of Carl Laemmle about absorption of refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe in Louisville.
And she organized a private event honoring the life and legacy of Julius Friedman.
In addition, she has spent hours in the basement of the Standard Club since November, assisting a committee of Jewish Community of Louisville leaders in organizing boxes full of photos into what will become part of the new Jewish Community Archives (JCA).
Asked if she’s ever been this busy in a single month since coming to Louisville, Glogower, curator of the Jewish collections at the Filson Historical Society, gave an emphatic one-word answer: “No!”
But that’s OK with this expressive, energetic curator who talks with her hands. After two years on the job, Glogower said, “business is finally booming,” putting the word “business” in air quotes. (The Filson is hardly a business, she noted.)
The Filson hired Glogower in 2017 to be its curator of Jewish collections, tasking her with creating a Jewish archive at the Old Louisville-based history center from the ground up.
“It was completely unlike any other job,” she said.
The 2017 Ph.D. graduate of the University of Rochester said recent graduates are typically offered work as apprentices or assistant curators – rarely given the chance to build an archive from scratch.
Naturally, she jumped at the chance.
Jennifer Cole, director of collections access at the Filson, who sat on the hiring committee, said its members liked Glogower’s scholarly and Jewish backgrounds, but her communication skills especially interested them.
“She is such a storyteller,” Cole said. “She instantly captures your attention and begins a conversation with you under the guise of storytelling.”
Glogower comes honestly by her interest in Jewish history.
The daughter of a Modern Orthodox rabbi and a schoolteacher turned chaplain, she and her five younger siblings grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where her father was on the staff of the University of Michigan Hillel.
“My upbringing is pretty unique, even among Jewish communities,” Glogower said. “On the one hand, I grew up very frum – going to Jewish day school and in a completely kosher and Shabbos observant home all the way.
“But my parents also made this really incredible decision to raise us in a college town,” she continued, “so we were fully immersed in the world of secular ideas and the life of the mind that comes with a university community”
Her parents didn’t push her into Jewish communal work, she said. “They encouraged us to do what we wanted to do.”
So she did.
After graduating from Oberlin College in 2002, she moved to the Bay Area, where she worked for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and in the Oakland Public Library. She joined artistic co-ops, wrote and self-published poetry, played guitar and sang.
“I think I’ve always been curious and open to the opportunities that life presents,” Glogower said. “My joke is, if you want to land on your feet, you need to grow a lot of feet.”
When she returned to the Midwest, she took a job at Chicago’s Spertus Museum at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership from 2007 to 2009 as a research and education assistant.
Now, she’s building a Jewish collection at the Filson.
That’s no easy task, said Cole, who previously worked at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati. Beyond collecting and organizing documents, the curator must instill public interest in the project as “an active site of community,” finding ways to involve people as volunteers, donors and regular users.
“There was a basic expectation that whoever filled this position would be doing outreach to build the JCA,” Cole said.
When the Filson offered Glogower the archive position, it was pretty much hers to define.
“It was hard for them to articulate what the job was because it had never existed before, and they were also relying on me to figure it out,” she said.
The job, as she sees it, is doing several things at once.
“I’m building Jewish archival collections – the actual stuff – but I’m also forging relationships; I’m working to excite and cultivate a passion for and an investment in history”
More specifically, she’s “building collections, building constituents, building programming, building trust, building enthusiasm and buy-in for preserving Jewish history.”
She sees historic preservation, not as a means in itself, but as a “useful tool” for celebrating history, and for “interrogating” it.
“I think it’s important to ask tough questions about history: Were other options possible? Did we make the best choices?” she said. “We don’t just learn from history by patting ourselves on the back.”
The JCA is currently composed of approximate 25 cubic feet of photos records, documents, albums – all housed throughout the history center.
There are even some “chachkes” in the collection, physical items that are unique to Louisville Jewish history. So far, though, Glogower has prioritized collecting records because they are “easier to store” and more “information rich.”
Since coming to Louisville, much of Glogower’s time has been divided between two projects: the archiving of Jewish Hospital records, which is complete; and now The Federation Archive, (the photo sifting currently happening at the Standard Club).
“That’s a big project; I would say, maybe about four to five hours a week,” she said. “I’m normally out there Wednesday afternoons; it’s a lot of work.”
Her job also includes overseeing digitization of back issues of Community, which has already been completed through the 1990s.
“They’re very information-rich. A lot of people might want to search the newspaper for many different things. So we knew that was a priority.”
In the long run, Glogower sees the work at the Filson as not just cultivating a Jewish archive, but building a “model” the Filson can use to collect the history of other communities in Louisville.
“We’re piloting this; we’re figuring out how to do it at the Filson,” she said. “Our hope is to create a cascading effect of expanding and deepening our documentation and understanding of our city, state, and region.”
She also sees herself as a teacher, dispelling stubborn notions that history is just a series of dates and events lined up in chronological order.
“What I like to do is try to complicate how we think about history,” Glogower said. “History is about what happened, it’s also about paths not taken. That’s really what records allow us to do.”
Abby Glogower had one busy February.