Joseph Weisberg

February 12, 2024

Abigail Arnold | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Geeking Out With…is a new feature in which we talk to GSAS students about their passions. You can check out past installments here.

Joseph Weisberg is a third-year PhD student in History. His research focuses on eighteenth-century Sephardic merchant Aaron Lopez and his descendants in order to trace their intergenerational legacies of Judaism and slavery from colonial Newport to Confederate South Carolina. He joined Geeking Out With…to talk about his passion for his research and how it has taken shape over the past few years.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Tell us about your research project.

For my dissertation project in progress, I am researching a Sephardic merchant family–the Lopez family–and their relationship with slavery. My project is designed to analyze Jewish relationships to slavery through the lens of this family–I think it’s a beneficial way to do this because it allows me to move through time and space. Aaron Lopez, the family patriarch, was a merchant and a slave trader in colonial Newport, Rhode Island, but after Newport’s influence waned after the American Revolution, members of his family moved to South Carolina. There, in later generations, a father and son both named David Lopez remained involved with the Jewish community and slavery. Most notably, David Lopez Jr. used enslaved labor to rebuild the synagogue in Charleston after a fire devastated the city. David Jr. later employed eighty enslaved people as the superintendent of a Confederate armory during the Civil War. I use these two men—Aaron Lopez and David Lopez, Jr.—to trace the twin legacies of Jewishness and slavery in the family.

Did you always know you wanted to focus on this area?

I came into Brandeis knowing that I wanted to look at Jewish identity in the American South and West and was looking to do Southern and small-town Jewish history. I wanted to do a project that took me away from the paradigm of the urban north in the late nineteenth century—if we want to understand the Jewish experience in America, what happens when we move away from these canonical centers into the small towns? I looked at Lee Shai Weissbach’s Jewish Life in Small-Town America: A History, which deals with related topics, when I was writing my first major research paper here, but at the time I still thought I’d be focusing on the late nineteenth century. But I’ve been creeping back further and further, first into the antebellum era and now into the colonial era. As I move in chronology, the questions I ask have changed, and, like other scholars, I’ve thought a lot about Jews and race in every context where I work. This undergirded my early interests, but through working with Professor Abby Cooper in the History Department, who is an African American historian, I’ve trained myself to also be a historian of slavery, race, and place.

What aspects of your experience in your PhD program led you to shift your focus?

During the first couple years of time in the History PhD program, during coursework, you have to write two article-length research papers. My first one was about mixed-race children of Jewish men in late nineteenth century Louisiana—I followed a footnote from Weissbach’s book to get to this topic. I was intrigued by the topic of Jewish relationships with slavery, but the more I looked the less I found. So I thought it was something that really needed to be written about! For my second paper, I wrote about family connections based on a particular Jewish doctor in antebellum Charleston. I found that Jewish ethnic and kinship networks were one pool of resources available to Jews who wanted to protect their interest in the institution of slavery. Extended family members weren’t necessarily buying and selling enslaved people from each other, but they had connections that informed their interest in the institution of slavery. They performed an array of other tasks like witnessing bills of sale, brokering transactions, appraising the value of estates, and serving as executors of wills that safeguarded their investment in slavery and ensured that the system worked for them. I argued that these connections were formed in Jewish organizations such as synagogues, benevolent societies, and schools. I was able to use that paper as a test case that my research questions and methods were actually viable for a broader topic. I wanted to have a better look at the topic, and I’m looking at the Lopez family because it’s a big family with a lot of connections. In addition, I’ve worked as a research fellow at the Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery research project, and there’s been a recent boom in research on New England slavery, including public projects in Boston, Cambridge, and other towns throughout the region. I want to change the ways we talk about American Jewish relationships to slavery by interrogating the idea that slavery is synonymous with the antebellum south, which is really not true. Slavery was not limited to a six or seven decade period in the eleven states that eventually formed the Confederacy.

You’ve mentioned the idea of place a lot in talking about your research. Can you say more about why that’s important to you?

From my conversations with Professors Cooper and Jonathan Sarna, I’ve come to see that just the word place itself is very interesting because it has so many meanings. It can be a literal geographic setting; it can be your metaphorical positioning in society, which is a constant topic among American Jewish historians; it can be used chronologically; it can be a shorthand for context. So I’m really looking at Jews in different contexts. As you move across time and space, are there things undergirding Jewish relationships to slavery that are continuities and are there ones that are changing? That’s what I’m asking questions about.

What stage are you currently at in your research, and what’s coming next?

I’m in the prospectus stage. Most of what I’m trying to do now is think through the prospectus and where all the archives are located. Aaron Lopez is both easy and difficult to research. He died prematurely, which means a lot of papers that might otherwise have been lost have been preserved. But it’s complicated because, over the last 200 years, they have been separated and scattered. That’s not even taking into account the papers of all the different people he wrote to! One historian in the 1970s identified ten different archives that have his papers. Now I’m trying to figure out, first of all, are they still there? Have they moved to other archives? Fortunately, because he was based in Rhode Island and then in Leicester, Massachusetts, a lot of the papers are in New England and adjacent locations, such as New York. I will be able to do a lot of research locally or in adjacent areas. I will also go to Charleston; there are great people there at Jewish Heritage Collection and the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture. As someone who now lives in New England, I try to time my visits to Charleston for the late fall or spring to take advantage of the weather.

What resources have helped you in this process?

Brandeis is unique because of the way it’s set up. I don’t think there are many places with as many people who do Jewish history. I wrote my first paper under Professor Cooper’s guidance and my second under Professor Sarna’s, but I’ve also presented in Professor Eugene Sheppard’s NEJS proseminar and taken Professor ChaeRan Freeze’s course on Jews in early modern Europe. There are really so many people I can talk to, both among faculty and among students. I have a colleague who works on logging and industrialization in native lands in Maine. His topic seems quite different from mine, but we’re applying to similar fellowships and trade notes on that process. I’m mainly working with two faculty members with whose work mine overlaps, but there are many people—I’m probably omitting some—who are good to talk to about American history or Jewish history. I knew this when I applied because there weren’t very many places with this similar expertise—you can walk the halls and see many people who have similar interests.

When you’re not working on your research, how do you like to spend your time?

I played lacrosse in college; now I have some friends who have moved into the area, so we play men’s league usually once a week. I go running, and my partner and I try to go on a hike at least once a month (not in the winter). I also like to explore the city of Worcester. The day before my comprehensive exam, I had all my notes but wanted to process them. So I took a three or four mile walk through the city talking about historiography to myself, which seemed to be an efficient study strategy. I like to walk through the park as the weather gets nice and everyone comes out of their bunkers. I also go to a lot of baseball games in the summer.

What advice do you have for other students exploring their passions?

Do what you want! I recommend wandering around—intellectually or physically. I learned so much as a researcher when I was in Charleston by just wandering around the city, especially the parts I knew dated from the time that I was researching. You can wander through a place to learn about it, and you can wander in your research—going away from what you initially thought you would focus on. Just walk around.