Friday, December 18, 2009

"History in Transit: 'Wild Bill' Patram’s Job to Remember"

(originally published in The Record, May 1970)

There are many things Jews might consider a moving experience: the bar mitzvah of a precious child, the loving embrace of a friend in a time of mourning, even a simple taste of Bubbe’s perfect chicken soup on a frigid winter day.

It was during such a day—December 18, 1969—that William B. “Wild Bill” Patram organized the passage of an antique building just right, thereby realizing a rite of passage for a whole community. The wind-chill factor may have dipped below the 20s on that bitter morning, but the warmth of the occasion made it a moving experience in more ways than one. Structural moving engineer Bill Patram of Fairfax, Virginia, now a retired silver-haired septuagenarian with a booming baritone voice and a vivid memory, recalls the job to move the old Adas Israel synagogue as a “good project.” Despite the challenges of the weather, a miniconflagration, the usual hassles with city bureaucrats, and one collateral casualty—in the form of a dead pigeon—the transition of the 237-ton object from Sixth and G Streets to Third and G Streets, NW, went mostly according to plan. Saved from destruction by an act of Congress after Metro officials appropriated the original site, the future home for the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington and the Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum would never have survived without the crafty logistical skills of a specialist like Patram.

Download interview with "Wild Bill" Patram (PDF)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Our first annual report!

We're thrilled to introduce our first annual report! Inside its pages, you will read about our 2008 major achievements, exhibitions, public programs, youth programs, member/donor benefit events, professional development, archival accessions, grants and contributions, new members, volunteers, and finances. It's chock-full of photos and details. We hope you enjoy it and welcome any feedback.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

New Book on Library of Congress' Shelves

It's a thrill to visit the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room at the Library of Congress. I always feel like Belle in the Beast's library with the mahogany bookcases and stairs to the upper shelves!

Yesterday JHSGW staff and leadership formally donated copies of Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln's City to the Library. That's Mary-Jane Deeb, Chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division with our very own Peggy Pearlstein (center), Head of the Hebraic Section (and JHSGW past president) accepting the book from JHSGW President Sidney J. Silver.

Vice President Bill Rice and staff members Claire Uziel (co-editor of the book), David McKenzie, and Joel Wind were also on hand.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Visit to Jewish Greece

Just before Thanksgiving I was a conferee at the Association of European Jewish Museums conference in Athens, Greece.

Six years ago Zanet Battinou, the Director of the Jewish Museum of Greece, visited our Museum where I hosted a luncheon for her to meet DC museum professionals. Since then, we have shared ideas especially since the Jewish Museum in Athens is in a small, historic building. That's Zanet on the left in the photo with me during my trip to Greece.

It was exciting to see the Museum in person. A beautiful neo-Classical structure in the historic Plaka was totally gutted and an amazing spiral floor plate installed to create seven levels of exhibitry tracing the history of the Jews in Greece from ancient times to today.

Today, 5,000 Jews live in Greece. We toured the city visiting a synagogue and cemetery as well as the ancient city of Chalkis. At the Chalkis cemetery extraordinary excavations have revealed 15th century tombs of Kaballists. Their synagogue has stood on the same site since ancient times. What will become of this small community now numbering only 50 Jews?

Presentations on exhibitions in Europe showed two standouts about the history of keeping Kosher created by two museums in Germany-- the Jewish Museums of Berlin and Furth. Workshops focused on collections storage in small spaces (how appropriate) and Greek synagogue religious objects. I was particularly interested in the silver amulets, unique to Greece, sewn on parochets (curtains covering the ark) and dedicated at holidays. Successors to amulets of the ancient Greeks, the curator showed examples of those ancient amulets: arms, legs and even a forehead sculpted in marble.

Two outstanding museum field trips rounded out the conference. First, the the new and acclaimed Acropolis Museum with its glass floor allowing us to see down into the excavations of ancient Athens. The windows of the Museum allow a view of the Acropolis as you view it's treasures in the Museum. The Benaki Museum tells the history of Greek culture through pottery, sculpture, jewelry and costumes from ancient times to today. The view of Athens from the cafe on its highest floor is incredible. And the traditional Greek food was great too.

If you are traveling to Athens, I encourage you to visit the Jewish Museum of Greece. I'm happy to suggest some of the places I was able to see along with some of the tastes of Athens that I enjoyed.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Unusual Book Sales

As the staff member responsible for keeping track of book sales, some times I receive an order that makes me ask, "What's the story?" Here are a few interesting sales we've had since the publication of Jewish Washington: Scrapbook of an American Community, our first book.

  • The Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen Foundation purchased Jewish Washington to give as gifts on an Israel trip
  • Machar and Fabrangen both purchased Jewish Washington to give as bar/bat mitzvah gifts to their members.
  • Researchers from Danzansky-Goldberg Memorial Chapels purchased Jewish Washington for the waiting areas in the funeral parlor.
  • Bernard Lisker of Reston, VA, purchased Jewish Washington at the Lincoln Memorial's gift shop and then ordered 80 more copies to give as party favors at his son's bar mitzvah!

As our new book, Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln's City, picks up steam, I hope to have more of these sorts of sales to share!

Both books are available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble or by contacting us at (202) 789-0900 or!

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Busy Fall of Programs

As usual, we had a Fall full of programs! Luckily, the weather held out for most—although some brave souls endured the rain to learn about local Jewish history.

The past few weeks, we’ve had some large groups of students take walking tours of downtown Washington.

On the cold, rainy morning of October 18, our new volunteer Sheryl and I led a group of 52 kids, many of their parents, and Rabbi Joui Hessel from Washington Hebrew Congregation, and on a sunny—but no less cold—Wednesday morning last week, our Archivist/Curator Wendy, Administrator Joel, new volunteer Laura, and I led 80 tenth graders from the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.

If you haven’t been on one yet, we start our downtown tours at the Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum, originally the Adas Israel synagogue, and proceed to visit the second home of Adas Israel (today Sixth and I Historic Synagogue), former home of Congregation Ohev Sholom (today Chinese Community Church), and the former home of Washington Hebrew Congregation (today Greater New Hope Baptist Church). Along the way, we talk about what life was like for the Jews who lived, worked, and worshipped in this neighborhood in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

But our walking tours don’t just cover downtown Washington.

On October 25, I had the privilege of leading a tour through Old Town Alexandria on a beautiful fall day. This was only the second we’d led this program, but, judging by the 40 people who came out, we’ll be doing it again! This tour, which we developed to coincide with our Jewish Washington exhibition at the Lyceum in the spring, highlights the sites of formerly Jewish-owned businesses, homes, and two former synagogues.

The same day as the Alexandria walking tour, I also led a program called “Synagogue Story” for a group of second graders from Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation. The 19 kids in this phenomenal group learned about our historic 1876 synagogue, then made their own models of it to use as tzedakah (charity) boxes!

And to top it all off, our new volunteers Matt and Laura gave a tour of our exhibition Jewish Washington: Scrapbook of an American Community to the new 30s-40s group at Adas Israel Congregation, and our longtime volunteer Mark gave a tour of our exhibition Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln’s City to a group from Beth El Hebrew Congregation and Temple Rodef Shalom.

As you can see, we’ve had a busy—but enjoyable—fall at JHSGW. Make sure you check out our programs page. We hope to see you at one of our programs soon!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hands on history

Spent yesterday with five great volunteers working on the Society’s archival collections. Merrill cataloged and photographed a beautiful samovar brought by Russian immigrant Rachel Polakoff in 1911. Les scanned a huge variety of photographs ranging from a 7th Street tailor shop to an image of Eleanor Roosevelt at an Israel Bonds Ambassador’s Ball.

Brenda, Steve, and Lois sorted through seven boxes of papers documenting the life and career of Rabbi Tzvi Porath at Ohr Kodesh Congregation (originally Montgomery County Jewish Community).

It’s always great to see the personal connections our volunteers make with the materials when they work in our archives – and we get so much more done with their help.

If you’d like to come help out in our archives, contact me at – it’s a great way to get hands-on with history!

Monday, November 9, 2009

New Book at Barnes and Noble and Amazon

We are thrilled to begin blogging with news that Barnes and Noble and Amazon have purchased our new book, Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln's City, to sell. To book an illustrated talk, contact us at 202.789.0900. To learn more or catch a glimpse of a book talk Wendy and I gave earlier this year at the Library of Congress, visit our website.

We sell the book for $15 per copy plus $5 shipping (a complimentary copy is in the mail for members/donors of $500 or more). We offer great discounts on purchases of 10 or more books. This is the most comprehensive book now available about Jewish life in our area during the Civil War. Hope you'll purchase a copy for your home library or buy one to donate to your school or synagogue library.