Friday, September 12, 2014

Object of the Month: September 2014

Object No. 2014.06.01
Donor: Frank Gilbert
Description: Louis D. Brandeis (1856-1941) used this notebook during his final semester as a law student. Nearly four decades later, he became the first Jew appointed to the Supreme Court.



Born in Louisville, Brandeis cultivated a love of law and legal debate under the strong influence of his uncle Lewis Dembitz, a scholarly lawyer. He attended Harvard Law School (1875-1877) where he achieved the highest grade point average in the school's history – a record that stood for over 80 years – and graduated before his 21st birthday. At Harvard, Brandeis had reveled in the “almost ridiculous pleasure which the discovery or invention of a legal theory gives me.”

In 1907, Brandeis put that creativity to use in a case involving the constitutionality of limiting the hours that female laundry employees could be asked to work. His sister-in-law, Josephine Goldmark, worked for the National Consumers League in New York City, and provided Brandeis with data on the workers. He combined this information with data from medical and sociological journals that showed that working too many hours was detrimental to the women's health. Brandeis used this information to supplement his legal reasoning and argument. Brandeis won the case (Muller v. Oregon).His unprecedented use of extra-legal information before the Supreme Court quickly became routine and such arguments became known as a “Brandeis brief.”

Brandeis was attracted to “the ethic, or prophetic standards of Judaism,” as biographer Melvin Urofsky explains.1 Brandeis contributed to Jewish philanthropies, and his advocacy for workers led him to support causes of great importance for millions of Jewish immigrants. As a mediator for a garment workers strike in 1911, Brandeis felt a kinship with the mostly Jewish immigrants on both sides. This sentiment stoked a sense within Brandeis that Jews and Judaism could only survive and grow with the establishment of a Jewish homeland. In 1914, he became President of the Zionist Organization of America, and, for years after, one of American Zionism’s leading intellectual forces. His close relationship with President Woodrow Wilson, who trusted Brandeis’s counsel and intellect, was instrumental in winning U.S. support for the Balfour Declaration, the British government’s expression of support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Louis D. Brandeis, 1930s.
JHSGW Collections.
PRESIDENT WILSON NOMINATES BRANDEIS TO THE SUPREME COURT
That Brandeis had argued on behalf of the workers against corporate interests was expected. He was such a defender of the rights of labor and consumers that he became known as the “People's Attorney.” According to Melvin Urofsky's acclaimed biography, Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, Woodrow Wilson had considered asking Brandeis to be his Attorney General shortly after his election in 1912. Ultimately, the new president was dissuaded by his advisors because of concerns about the reaction of the business community.

So when President Woodrow Wilson nominated Brandeis to the Supreme Court on January 28, 1916, the opposition was heated because of both the nominee's progressive politics and his religion. The confirmation battle raged for four months. Brandeis' nomination was the first that included a public hearing. Former President – and future Chief Justice -- William Howard Taft opposed Brandeis as did former Secretary of State Elihu Root, and seven of the 16 former presidents of the American Bar Association. Taft referred to Brandeis as "a muckraker … a man who has certain high ideals in his imagination, but who is utterly unscrupulous."

Various business leaders veiled their antisemitism with such phrases as “a self-advertiser” and “a disturbing element in any gentleman's club.” Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell signed a petition which said Brandeis lacked “judicial temperament.” Still, some opposition referenced Brandeis's Jewish background, but did not necessarily emerge from antisemitic perspective. The New York Times, owned by a Jewish family, argued against Brandeis on the basis of his Zionism.

Early during the fight over his nomination, Brandeis wrote to his friend, Harvard Law School Dean Roscoe Pound, “I doubted very much whether I ought to accept, but the opposition has removed my doubts.”

After months of unprecedented debate that included veiled antisemitic accusations, public letters from President Wilson and former Harvard President Charles W. Eliot, who had known Brandeis for more than 40 years, carried the day. It was an election year and conservative Southern Democrats ultimately supported their President. On June 1, the nomination was approved by a 47-22 margin. Only one Democrat, Nevada's Francis Newlands, voted against Brandeis.

BRANDEIS ON THE COURT
If Taft and Brandeis were uncomfortable serving together on the Court from 1921 to 1930, imagine how the latter felt during his 23 years on the bench alongside Justice James McReynolds, who expressed his antisemitic feelings boldly: he would leave the conference room when Brandeis began speaking and would not return until the more junior justice was finished.

However, by the time Brandeis retired from the Court in 1939, his wise service had changed the minds of many of his detractors. The Times, which, in 1916, accused Brandeis of seeking “to supplant conservatism by radicalism,” termed him “one of the great judges of our time.” The paper praised him for treating the Constitution, “as no iron straightjacket, but a garment that must fit each generation.”

Page of Brandeis's law school
notes, May 1977
THE NOTEBOOK'S SIGNIFICANCE
In 1915, the year before his appointment to the Court, Brandeis gave this notebook to his daughter Susan Gilbert (née Brandeis) when she entered University of Chicago Law School. Like her father, Gilbert faced discrimination, but hers was not just because of her religion, but also her gender. Nevertheless, she went on to a distinguished legal career, first as a special assistant to the United States attorney in New York City, and later in private practice. When she argued a case before the Court in 1925, her father recused himself.

It was Susan's son, Frank, a past JHSGW President, who recently donated this notebook to the Society's collection. In 2003, Gilbert wrote a reminiscence about his grandfather for the Society's journal, The Record. Gilbert described the warmth and intellectual stimulation that he felt visiting his grandfather's apartment on California Street, NW, as well as his grandparents' home in Chatham, Massachusetts. Gilbert wrote, “Although we were very young, Grandfather treated us as persons who had minds.”

The Society recently completed an oral history interview with Gilbert, who is among the leading figures in the field of historic preservation. Among his many achievements, Gilbert is known for his leadership in the effort to rescue New York's Grand Central Station from demolition.

1. Melvin Urofsky, Louis D. Brandeis: A Life (New York: Schocken Books, 2012) pp. 18-19, 401.

Friday, June 27, 2014

A Day in the Life: Reflection on My Internship

Director of Collections Wendy Turman quips that she never knows what to expect when she answers the phone at Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. The Society has many functions: answers about life-cycle events of Jewish Washingtonian ancestors, organizes programming events and walking tours, or recently the State Department called to confirm details about a Jewish veteran of Normandy for the anniversary of D-Day. Similarly, a day in the life of a JHSGW intern is full of adventures and surprises.

I love being an intern because I feel like Mystique, the shape-shifter in X-Men who can mimic any role. Beyond mimicking though, the intern has the opportunity to become each role. During my time at JHSGW, I have been an archivist, editor, and a writer, deliverer of challah, paper-folder, paper-cutter (cutting paper and getting cut by paper), historian, researcher, tour guide, and deliverer of brochures. I have spent most of my time learning archival arrangement, description, and organization, but like any life experience, small details become highlights: caramel coffee, quickly mastering the postage machine, slowly mastering the photocopier, delivering challah for Jewish American Heritage Month in May, and select pieces that caught my attention in the archives.

I assisted with the papers of Rabbi Tzvi Porath, Rabbi Marvin Bash, Martin Miller, and the National Jewish Democratic Council. I appreciated the opportunity to learn archival techniques by engaging with these charismatic figures. I blogged about a few of my findings, including a Hebrew note from Golda Meir to Rabbi Porath, as well as the story of the bar mitzvah of 70-year-old Harry Koenick in 1976. Yesterday in the archival material of Rabbi Porath, I read Jewish Digest, a digest of general Jewish publications, from 1959, which included a piece about Otto Frank, as well as a series of essays on what qualifies a Jew.

Do you notice brochures in hotels?  Do you know how brochures arrive at hotels?  Interns. Last Monday, I thoroughly enjoyed delivering "Downtown Jewish Washington" walking tour brochures to most of the hotels in downtown D.C. It was truly my privilege to discover each beautiful hotel and share a bundle of our walking tour brochures with them.

Although I have learned archival description, I can barely describe the fantastic work environment at JHSGW. In the white office building across from Adas Israel historic synagogue, Claire, Laura, Mary Ann, Wendy, Sam, and Zachary are a terrific team. They each contribute their background and expertise, and it is amazing how much six people do. I have been beyond fortunate to work with them. Before this summer, I had professional experience in Philosophy and Politics but only academic experience in History. As an undergraduate History and Philosophy double major hoping to enter a History PhD program directly after college, my objective for this summer has been to gain professional experience in History, specifically archival work. I applied to JHSGW because I am passionately interested in Judaism, History, and Washington, D.C. This experience has exceeded my high expectations.

Rebecca Brenner is a senior at Mount Holyoke College, working on a B.A. in History and Philosophy.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

An Afternoon of Artistic, Cultural, and Historical Exploration

EE/JCA students engage in discussion. 
On Tuesday, we had the pleasure of hosting the inaugural class of the Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts (EE/JCA) program from The George Washington University for an afternoon of artistic, cultural, and historical exploration. Professors Jenna Weissman Joselit and Carol B. Stapp led their students and colleagues into JHSGW’s historic 1876 synagogue (the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum) for the program on the Society today and in the future as it develops into a regional museum. Director of Collections Wendy Turman started by providing the students with basic information about JHSGW, including the history behind the synagogue and the current activities of the Society.

President Grant seems to want
to join the discussion.
The students appreciated the period-specific layout of the synagogue, from the structure to the life-size Ulysses S. Grant cut-out in the corner to commemorate the president’s visit to the opening in 1876. While life-size Grant never ceases to capture my attention, the EE/JCA students offered valuable insight about the architecture and fine details of the synagogue. Then, everyone had the opportunity to explore the outside grounds and the interior of the building, including the balcony on the second floor where Orthodox Jewish women once prayed, which is usually off-limits to visitors.
Professor Joselit waves down from the balcony,
joined by Professor Stapp and
EE/JCA Project Director Allison Farber.

 Wendy Turman shows where the synagogue
will move – across the street from the FBI's
DC Field Office in the background.
Despite the oven-like weather, we all ventured to the future location of the synagogue, which will move down the road in a few years (the second time since 1969). Upon our return, Curator Zachary Paul Levine led a discussion about how the space appears to visitors and how it might appear as part of the Society’s future museum. Students engaged with issues regarding how to arrange information in a museum: chronologically or thematically. Finally, Wendy expanded on current activities of the Society, such as arranging the archives of Rabbi Tzvi Porath and analyzing artifacts, including a bracelet from Camp Louise. For me, the major highlight was Zachary’s presentation of a signed Beatles photograph from the Washingtonian Jew who hosted the first Beatles concert in the United States. This photograph caught my eye online when I was applying to summer internships, so it was amazing to see it up close in person (and I got to carry it back to the office).

I am thoroughly enjoying my internship at JHSGW, and I loved learning more about the Society through the eyes of the EE/JCA students. We were only one stop on their busy schedule, but it was a fantastic afternoon.

Rebecca Brenner is a senior at Mount Holyoke College, working on a B.A. in History and Philosophy.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Harry Koenick: Bar Mitzvah at 70

Last week, I was sorting the bar and bat mitzvah records of Rabbi Tavi Porath from Congregation Ohr Kodesh. Even after an informative, inspiring experience at the Soviet Jewry exhibit by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington at the D.C. Public Library, I could not imagine this particular story.

Harry Koenick was born in Russia in 1906. He escaped the Bolshevik Revolution by fleeing with his family to the United States in 1920. Although Koenick longed to perform his bar mitzvah at age 13 in 1919, famine, epidemics, and preparation for immigration kept him from this milestone. According to an article from The Washington Star, Koenick survived the typhoid epidemic that killed his mother in 1919, but it left him in poor health for a while. What is more, he was always hungry because of the famine.

Koenick settled into the United States and deeply appreciated his life with his wife and children. Throughout his life, he was very involved at Ohr Kodesh with Rabbi Porath. According to The Washington Star, “He has blown the shofar – a ram’s horn used in major Jewish holidays – at Ohr Kodesh for 27 years. He has recited the Bar Mitzvah service – but not as a formal Bar Mitzvah – at least two dozen times. But never, never was Harry Koenick the traditional Bar Mitzvah boy.”

In 1970, Koenick visited his hometown in Russia. He discovered the fate of all the Jews who grew up with him, according to the article mentioned above, “The German army had rounded up what was left of Shatsk’s Jewish population in the 1940s, stood them atop a hill three miles outside of town, and shot them, their bodies falling into a pit filled with lime.” During his visit, Koenick decided that he wanted to have a formal bar mitzvah at Ohr Kodesh when he turned 70. Specifically, he wanted a tune that he remembered from his childhood to ring from his new home congregation in the D.C. area.

On December 11, 1976, Harry Koenick was the traditional bar mitzvah boy at Congregation Ohr Kodesh with Rabbi Porath. He heard the tune from his childhood in his new home congregation. This event exemplified the warm American reception of Soviet Jewry, especially under the leadership of Rabbi Porath. The archives of Rabbi Porath contain extensive material from this event, including articles, correspondence, invitations, photographs, programs.

Rebecca Brenner is a senior at Mount Holyoke College, working on a B.A. in History and Philosophy.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

An Initial Encounter with the Archives of Rabbi Tzvi Porath

On the first two days of my internship at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, I was very pleasantly surprised to dive into the archival materials of Rabbi Tzvi Porath. I had the opportunity to learn archival organizational skills by sorting a special selection of his materials. Rabbi Porath was a prominent Jewish figure in Greater Washington in the second half of the twentieth century. His letters and other archival material reveal a man who reached out to community members at times of celebration, such as anniversaries and holidays, as well as times of sorrow, such as death and the Iranian Hostage Crisis. As the spiritual leader of the Ohr Kodesh Congregation from 1952 through 1984, Rabbi Porath displayed boundless charisma. He brought together community members and corresponded with American Presidents, Israeli Prime Ministers, and other important leaders.

I have sorted Rabbi Porath’s archival material into categories, including the presidential administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton; the presidential inaugurations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon; correspondence with Israeli Prime Ministers Meir, Begin, and Rabin; correspondence with United States Supreme Court Justices O’Connor and Arthur Goldberg; a category for family or personal correspondence; and then I sorted the significant pile of remaining material, according to decade.

Although Rabbi Porath seems to have written most of his correspondence during the 1970s, the material from the 1957 Inauguration of President Eisenhower stands out to me. There is so much material from this historic moment that after I finished sorting, I actually felt as if I had attended the Presidential Inauguration of 1957. I learned that both the rabbi and his wife had tickets to the ball, ceremony, and parade, but only one ticket permitted entrance into the Capitol rotunda. Furthermore, I found that the guidebook, invitation, press release, program, and tickets from the weekend are each unique pieces of history. Rabbi Porath had all these items because he proudly served as Co-Chairman of the Religious Participation Committee. Below is a card from the Inaugural Committee of 1957 thanking Rabbi Porath for his valuable contributions in that role.


In the fall of 1975, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir addressed Rabbi Porath in Hebrew, “I was impressed with the artistic work of Ms. Marker and naturally am pleased… I send you and your congregation greetings for a good year, a year of peace for our people.”  She referred to a photograph of a bust of Meir that the rabbi had sent to her. I visited the final resting place of Meir at Mount Herzl in Israel last January, and I admire her as a strong female leader, so I appreciated the opportunity to engage in her correspondence with charismatic American spiritual leader Rabbi Porath.
Note to Rabbi Porath from Golda Meir

Overall, Rabbi Porath emerges from this material as a lively figure who consistently reached out to community members in need. The archives contain various cards and letters that he wrote to community members who lost a loved one or needed his help. Strikingly, there was little to no change in his attitude or tone, whether he was addressing community members or world leaders. Rabbi Porath engaged members of his congregation and the surrounding community with the same level of earnestness that he used to address Americans Presidents and Israeli Prime Ministers. With invaluable hand-written notes and various content, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington is fortunate to possess the archival material of this extraordinary Washingtonian Jew.

Rebecca Brenner is a senior at Mount Holyoke College, working on a B.A. in History and Philosophy.


Monday, February 10, 2014

Note from Beatles' First U.S. Concert Unearthed on Eve of Show's 50th Anniversary

The Beatles!
Gift of John Lynn.
JHSGW Collections.
Braving a freezing snowstorm the night of February 11, 1964, thousands of fans streamed to the Washington Coliseum to see the Beatles perform their first concert in the United States. The venue's owner, Harry Lynn (1916-2006), kept a promotional photo of the "Fab Four," which he included in voluminous scrapbooks, added just this week to the Society's collection.

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the concert, JHSGW archivists have discovered a personal note on the back of this photo, written to Lynn and signed by the band.

Sometime along the way, however, this photo, along with dozens of other photos and notes given to Lynn over the years, was glued on to rigid board. The note and signatures are visible as mirrored indentations made by the pen.

Harry Lynn.
Gift of John Lynn.
JHSGW Collections.
Removing the board and the glue adhering it poses a difficult preservation and conservation problem. However, picking out the note will be possible with specialized imaging equipment, which the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute will provide to assist JHSGW next week.

As the city and country gear up to celebrate 50 years of Beatlemania in the U.S., JHSGW is adding to that story. The recent donation of Harry Lynn's Washington Coliseum scrapbooks, contributed by his son John and facilitated by JHSGW president Sam Brylawski, will be our February Object of the Month. They will reveal even more of our city's fascinating part in one of the last century's most important cultural movements.

LEARN MORE!

  -- WUSA-9 video
  -- Tomorrow, 1:00 p.m., Kojo Nnamdi Show, WAMU
  -- Tomorrow, John Kelly's Washington Post column

Friday, December 27, 2013

Object of the Month: December 2013

Object No.: 2006.3.1
Donor: Stephanie Silverstein
Description: Menu from Comet Liquor and Deli, 1815 Columbia Road, NW, 1990s.

Comet Liquor menu, 2000s

Photography of Comet Liquor store front, 2005
Fisher Photography
Do you remember Comet Liquors in Adams Morgan on Columbia Road between 18th and 19th Streets? It had a distinctive neon sign. Most who remember the business don't realize it was opened by a Jewish immigrant in 1940 and continued to be Jewish-owned throughout its existence.

When Oscar Gildenhorn opened Comet Liquor in 1940, the neighborhood was not yet called Adams Morgan. The name had caught on by the time Gildenhorn's son-in-law Howard Speisman took over management 25 years later. Sidney Drazin bought Comet in 1980. Drazin, a native Washingtonian, had served in World War II and then run a few different businesses before buying Comet.

In 1989, as neighborhood demographics changed, Drazin added a deli counter. Earlier in the 20th century, it was common for Jewish grocers in Washington to move into the liquor business, but now, a few decades later, a liquor man was adding food to his business.

Sidney Drazin at the Comet Liquor counterShortly after this change, Drazin (seen left) brought in a chair so he could sit while at work. He quickly found that customers wanted to sit and chat, so he set up a table and a few chairs by the entrance. These extra pieces of furniture changed the atmosphere of the store. The Washington Post wrote that Comet became a "kind of plastic-chaired neighborhood salon." Regulars came from all walks of life – from blue-collar workers to investment bankers – and they sat around the table to socialize and debate. Drazin was a popular neighborhood personality. One regular told the Post that "Sid was the surrogate parent to all the lost souls of Adams Morgan, all the single people who needed a confidence boost."

When Drazin died in 2005, in a show of community affection, Rabbi Ethan Seidel's eulogy ran in The InTowner newspaper. Drazin's widow Bernice shut Comet while the family sat shiva, and a shrine of flowers and cards grew outside the door. After running the store for a few months, Bernice decided to close Comet permanently. The above menu highlights the deli offerings at the time – with whitefish salad and lox served on a bagel hinting at the Jewish ownership.

Drazin's niece, Stephanie Silverstein, who worked for the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington at the time, alerted the Society's archivists to the impending loss of Comet's historic materials. JHSGW staff embarked on a rescue mission to document the business – Jewish-owned for 60 years. We arranged for a professional photographer to take exterior and interior photographs before the store closed. The iconic neon sign was purchased by a local restaurateur and now hangs at his restaurant, Comet Ping Pong on Connecticut Avenue, NW.

This year, in conjunction with the Jewish Food Experience, our Objects of the Month feature DC's rich Jewish food history. For stories about this history and the latest on the local Jewish food scene – recipes, restaurants, chefs, events, and volunteer opportunities – visit jewishfoodexperience.com.