Monday, July 22, 2013

Object of the Month: July 2013

Accession No.: 2012.36
Donor: Sheldon S. Cohen
Description: Videotaped oral history of the Honorable Sheldon S. Cohen featuring stories of growing up in Jewish Washington, his career in the federal government, and his leadership in the local Jewish community. Recorded in 2011.

Background: For many Jewish immigrants, the "mom and pop" business was vehicle for upward economic and social mobility. The dream of Jewish immigrants was to see their children become doctors, lawyers, teachers, and businessmen.

Sheldon S. Cohen certainly fulfilled this dream. His father, Herman, a Lithuanian immigrant, bought a business the year Cohen was born. Cohen grew up helping his father in the family business, Potomac Butter and Egg Co., which sold dairy products and eggs to grocery stores and small restaurants. Here are his recollections of working with his father:

[Dad's] warehouse was directly behind our house on Morse Street. It was an old stable. My mother kept the books. She had a little office in the basement of our house. I used to help her. My dad's business was just across the alley from our backyard, in this old hay warehouse. There were two or three other warehouses. And, in fact, the Sunshine Bakery was down the street in another old warehouse building behind another homes on that street.
[Dad] would have the eggs delivered from the farms or from wholesalers down in Shenandoah Valley, who would gather and deliver them to him. He would process them, clean them up…I used to grade them for size. I could pick up an egg and tell you whether it was a small, medium, or large and, if you weighed it, you'd find out I was right 99% of time. Cracked eggs went to the bakers.
To tell if an egg was good, you would candle the egg… If you hold the egg up to a light close by, you can see the yolk. You can see whether the yolk is formed properly, or broken, or if there's blood or albumin in the egg. [You need to do this to every egg.] I got so that as a teenager I could do almost as fast as the professionals would do it.
I was the cleanup man or I was an egg candler, when I had to be… [This was] a regular part of my existence... I would help with the cheese or I would help with the smaller things that didn't take up a lot of time and weren't too big to carry around.
Cohen (left) with President Johnson
in the Oval Office, 1968.
Courtesy of Sheldon S. Cohen.
Eleven years after graduating first in his class at GW Law School, Cohen became chief counsel for the Internal Revenue Service. A year later, at age 37, he was nominated by President Johnson for the position of IRS Commissioner – making him the youngest to hold this post.

In the week after the nomination, Cohen's childhood work with his father at Potomac Butter and Egg appeared twice in Washington Post storiesshowing everyone's love of a good "American Dream" story.

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

Monday, July 1, 2013

Object of the Month: June 2013

Object No: 2012.30.1
Donor: Froma Sandler
Description: World War II ration book for Jacob Sandler, age 35, 5221 Chevy Chase Parkway, Washington, D.C., early 1940s.

During World War II, Washington’s Jewish community supported American troops both at home and abroad. Wartime food shortages required Washingtonians to save and reuse everything. To limit consumption of products like butter, coffee, liquor, and sugar, the U.S. Office of Price Administration distributed ration books to individuals and families. Households exchanged specific ration stamps for limited amounts of a given food item at grocery stores. Rationing at home enabled more food to be diverted to the war effort. Hardships at home were a low price to pay if they led to victory in Europe and the well-being of American soldiers.

Pages of ration stamps in Lena Chidakel’s ration book.
JHSGW Collections. Gift of Edith and Charles Pascal.

As American factories shifted their attention to manufacturing goods to support the war effort, production of liquor, like other luxuries, slowed. "There were always shortages," recalled Washington liquorman Milton Kronheim in an oral history, "[It] became difficult to get the popular brands we were selling."

Fred Kolker (center) ran a poultry business
at 1263 4th Street, NE. Shown here with cantor
and shochet (ritual butcher) Moshe Yoelson.
Courtesy of Brenda and Paul Pascal.
Local businesses also supported troops overseas with food from home. Fred Kolker's wholesale poultry business at Union Terminal Market sold to the U.S. Army during the war. In his oral history, Kolker remembered fondly, “My chicken went to our soldiers who were located all over the world…Boys from Washington, D.C. wrote me letters thanking me for the good poultry they received.”

Washington's Jewish community also welcomed soldiers and war workers who flocked to the city to work in the war effort. When severe housing shortages forced workers to share scarce rooms in boarding houses and private homes, the Jewish Community Center provided housing references to thousands of newly arrived "government girls" through a Room Registry. Roselyn Dresbold Silverman came to Washington in 1941 to work for the Navy Department. She lived at Dissin's Guest House, a boarding house in Dupont Circle that catered to young Jewish women. Each month, Roselyn paid $35 for her room, two kosher-style meals a day, and maid service.

Ninth Annual Passover Seder by the
Army and Navy Committee of the Jewish
Welfare Board and the Jewish War
Veterans of the United States.
Willard Hotel, April 19, 1943.
JHSGW Collections.
The Jewish War Veterans' Washington Post No. 58 and the Jewish Welfare Board sponsored High Holiday services and Passover seders for military personnel stationed far from their families. The Jewish Community Center at 16th & Q Streets, NW offered a full program of activities including daytime jitterbug contests for nighttime shift workers. Its policy was: "Your uniform is your admission to all activities and facilities."

Washington's Jewish community was very much a part of the war effort. As Henry Gichner said when he accepted an award for exceptional efficiency and production on behalf of Gichner Iron Works, "Let's keep right on going until we get the V-Flag for Victory."