Everybody has a tale to tell, and Ellie Kahn wants to hear and hand down as many as possible

July 28, 2017
Ellie Kahn (right) with Louise Polansky, whom she interviewed for an oral history in 2013. Photo courtesy of Ellie Kahn

Actor Jon Voight walked into Jerry’s Deli in Studio City on a recent afternoon and made a beeline for Ellie Kahn, a sprightly 68-year-old with tight, red curls. The two had met before at another San Fernando Valley deli. After shmoozing for a bit, Voight, 78, moved on, making the rounds. It was a Friday afternoon, and Jerry’s was full of old folks taking long lunches.

This is Kahn’s target market: elderly people with plenty of stories to tell.

Kahn, once a contributor to the Jewish Journal, makes her living as an oral historian, a job that mostly entails interviewing elderly Jewish folks and summing up their life stories in a book or video presentation. Her 25-year career arose largely out of her natural attraction toward senior citizens and their stories.

“My ex-husband always said he had to stop me from picking up old people in the park, because I just was very drawn to them,” she said during a recent interview at Jerry’s. If she happened to be seated next to an old person at a Jewish deli, she said, “I’d end up hearing their whole life story, because everyone has one.”

Kahn’s career is built on the idea that everybody has stories to tell that might be of interest to their descendants. She draws on experience from her past careers as a journalist and a therapist to get people to open up about their lives. And she worries that each day that passes, people who haven’t had the benefit of an oral history are taking their stories to the grave.

“When I started doing this work, I said that my mission was for every person to have a chance to tell their life story,” Kahn wrote in a follow-up email. “It makes me sad that so many people don’t get that chance.”

She discussed her work and philosophy with the Journal in an interview that has been edited for clarity and length.

Jewish Journal: How did you get into this line of work?

Ellie Kahn: I was writing for Travel + Leisure, for medical publications, for the L.A. Times, for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Oral history was a very unknown field at the time — 25 years ago — but I was writing about older people a lot, and if I met some interesting older person, I would want to write about them for whatever magazine I was writing for. So one day a friend said to me, “You know, there’s this field called oral history?” And I had never heard of it. My first clients were my parents. They were my guinea pigs, and I was very lucky that they were because, 25 years ago, I interviewed them when they both still had their faculties, and my mom’s been gone for 12 years.

JJ: What is your favorite part of the job?

EK: The intimacy that I feel with the person, spending that many hours with them. You know, five hours, 10 hours, 20 hours — it’s very intimate. The other fun thing is when the family gets the book or the video and they say, “Wow, we never heard this story.” One of the Holocaust survivors I interviewed, it was a couple, and their daughter-in-law hired me to do it as a surprise for her husband, their son. And he got the book and called me the next day and said, “I was up all night reading this book.” He said, “I never heard these stories because my parents wouldn’t talk about it, and there was so much I didn’t know before.” That’s fun.

JJ: Twenty hours is a long interview. What happens to all that tape?

“When I started doing this work, I said that my
mission was for every person to have a chance to tell their life story.”

— Ellie Kahn

EK: I’ve interviewed about 150 people over the years. If it’s an audio recording, I can either provide the family with the CD and that’s it, or I can have it transcribed and make it into a book. If it’s a video recording, I can either just hand them a DVD of however many hours, five to 20 hours of interviews, or I can have it transcribed and made into a book or edit the video interview into a shorter final product. And the edited videos and books incorporate photos as well. If the recording is for a larger project, like a documentary or a tribute for a fundraising dinner, where I’m interviewing a number of people, then it is always edited into either a book or a video. For instance, the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California hired me years ago to produce a film, “Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto” which involved interviewing 50 people, and editing that into a one-hour film. For family histories, my fees start at about $400 for a voice only interview, and edited books and videos can end up costing from about $5,000 to $10,000.

JJ: What do you think is the value of the work you do?

EK: I think everyone should have a chance to tell their life story. I think it’s therapeutic and I think it’s healing, and I think that far too few people ever get a chance to talk at length about themselves. People need to know about their heritage and their roots, and they need to know about the people who came before them.

JJ: You most often interview people who, because of their age, are confronting their own mortality. What lessons have you drawn from that?

EK: People need to have a chance to talk about the fact that they’re facing the end of their life. It’s very helpful. And I think it’s a little bit like the Holocaust: If a survivor is protecting their children from telling them what happened, and the children are protecting their parents from asking them about what happened, there goes the connection that they could have had through sharing those stories. And similarly, too many people, when they have a parent who’s dying or a spouse who’s dying, think they’re doing a good service by not bringing up the subject, and they’re afraid that they’re going to upset the person or make them sad. But really the person ends up feeling isolated.

JJ: What do you do when you’re not doing oral histories or kibitzing with Jon Voight at Jewish delis?

EK: I hike, I go to the bird sanctuary, I do nature photography — that’s what I mostly do. And I obsess about wildlife in my backyard, take pictures of every baby dove and every squirrel.

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