Kenneth Libo, an award-winning American historian of the Jewish immigrant experience and a former editor at the Forward in the early 1980s, died in Manhattan on March 29 of complications from a fall following a period of ill health. He was 74.
Born in Norwich, Conn., Libo, grew up on a chicken farm, his Jewish family living largely in isolation. A Navy veteran, he graduated Dartmouth College and held a doctorate in English literature from the City University of New York. Most recently, he taught American Jewish history at Hunter College and lectured widely.
Libo co-authored the landmark 1976 volume, “World of Our Fathers,” a gripping, readable narrative of the secular immigrant Jewish experience in New York City, for which he shared a National Book Award with Irving Howe, the noted literary critic, editor of Dissent magazine and leading New York intellectual. Libo’s vast archival research and knowledge contributed to the book’s acclaimed scope and range. Both authors, as Howe later wryly reflected, achieved popular fame by affording their audience the chance to “cast an affectionate backward glance at the world of their fathers before turning their backs upon it forever and moving on, as they had to, to a world their fathers would neither have accepted or understood.” Together with Irving Howe, Libo also wrote “How We Lived,” a documentary history of the Lower East Side. He later went on to author “We Lived There Too,” a companion piece of Jews in the American West.
In the last 25 years, Libo, a deliciously witty observer and conversationalist, authored a number of documentary family biographies, including “All In A Lifetime,” an oral memoir of John and Frances Lehman Loeb, a journey into the realm of business, culture, politics, philanthropy and education; “The Obermayers,” a history of a Jewish family in Germany and America from 1618-1909; and “Lots of Lehmans,” an anecdotal history of the Lehmans of Lehman Brothers. At the time of his death, he was at work on a family biography of Robert Goldwater, pioneer scholar of tribal art and Louise Bourgeois, his French-born wife and leading sculptor.
Articles by Libo appeared in the New York Times, American Jewish History, and Midstream. Formerly first English editor of the Jewish Forward from 1981 to ‘82, he curated exhibitions at the Jewish Museum and the Center of Jewish History in New York, the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadephia and Beth Hatefutsotin Tel-Aviv.