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Kenneth Libo; documented Jewish immigration

Paul Duckworth

KENNETH LIBO

NEW YORK - Kenneth Libo, a historian of Jewish immigration who, as a graduate student working for Irving Howe in the 1960s and ’70s, unearthed historical documentation that informed and shaped “World of Our Fathers,’’ Howe’s landmark 1976 history of the East European Jewish migration to the United States, died March 29 in New York. He was 74.

The cause was complications of an infection, said Michael Skakun, a friend and fellow historian.

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Dr. Libo’s contribution was acknowledged by Howe and the publishers of “World of Our Fathers,’’ who listed his name beneath the author’s on the cover of the book: “With the Assistance of Kenneth Libo.’’

Scholars familiar with his archival work credit Dr. Libo with adding a level of emotional detail and a view of everyday life in the teeming tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York that the book might have lacked without his six years of work.

“I don’t think ‘World of Our Fathers’ could have been written without the spade work done by Ken Libo,’’ said Jeffrey S. Gurock, a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University. “He had a certain researching genius, a feel for visceral detail.’’

Dr. Libo worked with Howe on two more books and shared billing on both as coauthor: “How We Lived,’’ a 1979 anthology of pictures and documentary accounts of Jewish life in New York between 1880 and 1930, and “We Lived There, Too,’’ an illustrated collection of first-person accounts by Jewish immigrant pioneers who moved on from New York to settle in far-flung outposts around the country, including New Orleans; Abilene, Kan.; and Keokuk, Iowa, between 1630 and 1930.

He became the first English-language editor of The Jewish Daily Forward in 1980, lectured widely, taught literature and history at Hunter College, and later in life helped several wealthy Jewish New York families research and write their self-published family histories.

But Dr. Libo was best known for his involvement in “World of Our Fathers,’’ a best-seller that Howe, a socialist and public intellectual, once described in part as an effort to reclaim fading memories of Jewish immigration from the clutches of sentimental myth, Alexander Portnoy, and generations of Jewish mother jokes.

The book was a large canvas - depicting a lost world of tenements, sweatshops, and political utopianism - written with elegiac lyricism.

By most accounts, Howe gave the book its vision, its voice, and its intellectual legs. Dr. Libo gave it people and their stories.

He mined archives of Yiddish newspapers like The Forward, Der Tog, and Freiheit; the case records of social service organizations such as the Henry Street Settlement House, the letters of activists including Lillian Wald and Rose Schneiderman, and memoirs by forgotten people whose books he found in the 5-cent bins of used bookstores. He interviewed old vaudevillians such as Joe Smith of Smith and Dale (the models for Neil Simon’s “Sunshine Boys’’) for the story of Yiddish theater.

In an essay about the book, published in 2000 in the journal of the American Jewish Historical Society, Dr. Libo wrote that in the summer months “Irving did the bulk of the writing, while I remained in New York with an assistant to run down facts.’’

Kenneth Harold Libo was born in Norwich, Conn., one of two sons of Asher and Annette Libo. His father was a Jewish immigrant from Russia, his mother American-born. His parents operated a chicken farm, friends said.

He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1959, served in the Navy, and taught English at Hunter College of the City University until he began work on “World of Our Fathers’’ in 1968 with Howe, who died in 1993.

He never married, and no immediate family members remain.

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