Monday, December 29, 2014

A New Acquisition and the Vigil for Alan Gross

Rabbi Arnold Saltzman gives "Free Alan Gross"
sign to Executive Director Laura Cohen Apelbaum.
The sign shows Gross and his wife, Judy,
at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Alan Gross's recent release from captivity in Cuba marks a moment of celebration and reflection for the Washington-area Jewish community. Among the many activists celebrating is Rabbi Arnold Saltzman, a leader of a weekly vigil for three years in front of the Cuban embassy.

In the days following Alan Gross's release, Rabbi Saltzman donated a "Free Alan Gross" sign to the Society's archival collections. We took this special opportunity to record his first-hand experience of the weekly vigil as well as his perspective on the Jewish community's responsibility to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

JHSGW (Q): What was your reaction when you first heard about Alan Gross's arrest and imprisonment, and at what point did you decide to act?

Rabbi Saltzman (A): I heard about Alan Gross's imprisonment over four years ago. My friend and neighbor, Gwen Zuares, is Judy Gross's sister. Early on, she asked if I knew about Alan, and then she kept me informed. She was distraught and greatly concerned for his well-being and for his family's well-being. Gwen let me know when the demonstrations were beginning, and I got involved as I thought this type of demonstration could have positive results.

Q: With so many worthy advocacy causes swirling around us, how were you able to attract people to this issue and get them involved in the vigil?

A: The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), its executive director Ron Halber, and staff (especially Adina Remz) deserve credit as does the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington for helping get people to the vigil in the beginning.

We do not know why some people chose to participate nor could we make it their priority. I shared some of my previous activism experience in order to interest people. From the beginning, I wrote statements to be read at the vigil. These gave focus, reminding people over and over what we were there for, what we were trying to accomplish, and how it fulfilled both a religious and civic responsibility.

Q: What is the story behind the sign that you recently donated to the Society?

A: These signs were carried every week at the vigil and were in synagogue lobbies around the Washington area. We brought one to the State Department so they would see Alan's photo – a reminder.

Originally, The Jewish Federation provided a grant to print the posters. We began to run short, though, so I spoke to one of my congregants, Ed Apple, who owns Prince Frederick Graphics. I asked him for a price for reprinting, but he said he knew Alan Gross and gave us a gift. In addition, Gwen said she would find the money to print it, but I don't think it was needed.

I donated this "Free Alan Gross" sign to the archives of the Jewish Historical Society to remind our community, now and in the future, of what we can accomplish together. Engagement with the government as well as asserting our rights to demonstrate as citizens are essential to finding a responsible resolution to a difficulty which otherwise might have been ignored or lost on someone's desk.

Q: Your leadership in this kind of advocacy work began long before the vigil in front of the Cuban embassy. How did your involvement with the vigils on behalf of Soviet Jewry, both in New York and in Washington, shape your tactics in Alan Gross's case?

A: We learned from earlier demonstrations, including those for desegregating the New York City School system, and demonstrating for Soviet Jewry both in NYC and in Washington, D.C., that there were many good results.

As a high school student, I marched in Harlem, and people applauded at the doors of their brownstone buildings. They were looking for a positive change. That was accomplished. When we demonstrated in Washington, D.C. opposite the Soviet Embassy, we demonstrated in silence. It was just the presence of demonstrators of every age group, from all walks of life, sent a message to those at the embassy. People who cared could be found at these vigils. Those who returned more than once, and those from our congregations and from the interfaith community.

Once, in front of the Soviet Embassy, we sang the "Hush of Midnight," a contemporary S'lichot service prior to Rosh Hashanah, including the prayer Ashre -- "Happy are they who dwell in Thy house, they will ever praise Thy name." We sang Sh'ma Koleinu -- "Hear our Voice, accept our prayer in mercy, have mercy upon us." We sang Mi She'anah Avraham Avinu, Hu Ya'aneinu -- "May the One who answered Abraham, May that One answer us." After that day, we were asked not to sing anymore. Perhaps they were listening at the Embassy? 

We learned that there would always be individuals who said what we were doing was a waste of time and energy. We read such opinions in the press. Yet, I never believed that, as I saw us a community strengthened by these demonstrations. Everyone sought a way to express their concern. I made sure that my children, Josh and Michael, participated in the Soviet Jewry vigil, so that they could have that experience, continuing my experience and their grandparents' experience.

Read Rabbi Saltzman's memories of his involvement with the local Soviet Jewry movement.

In this recent situation, it was more difficult in that there was misinformation coming from some media originating from the Cuban government. That created some reluctance and doubt among some in the community who did not show up or discontinued their participation. From previous experience, I knew this could be a long process requiring persistence and belief that Alan Gross and his family had a spotless record of work and commitment to the Jewish community and humanitarian work.

Q: The vigil that you lead was a critical part of a much larger effort. Where did it fit within the broader context of organizations and government institutions fighting for Alan Gross's release?

A: Most importantly, this vigil gave Alan Gross himself the hope that people cared and were not going to let up. How does one keep sane for five years in a high security prison, while you're ill, losing weight, knowing of the emotional and physical deterioration of many loved ones at home, and unable to do anything about it?

Our vigil let the Cubans know we were serious in our concern, and you know they recorded and taped us every time we were there, and their employees and diplomats exited the building as the sound of voices magnified by the bullhorn penetrated the walls of the building. Our vigil was seen by Cubans and people going to Cuba as they applied for visas across the street. This vigil let our government know that this was urgent – a priority that needed attention. We are citizens who spoke up for a fellow citizen who was not politically connected.

The JCRC and Jewish Federation used their advocacy and connections to make this a priority in the halls of Congress. We coordinated with the JCRC and the Gross family's wishes and the requests of their legal representatives, and we tried to do what was helpful and supportive while their legal team worked other channels. A group of us from the vigil went to meet with a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South America and Cuba, Deputy Secretary of State Alex Lee, to express our concern, and inquire what else they were doing for Alan Gross and what else they thought we might do.

At that meeting, I communicated that the message Alan Gross had done nothing wrong was getting lost in media coverage and that they had to find a way to correct that. Without that assurance that he was innocent, people were reluctant to act on his behalf. Shortly afterwards, there were news stories and statements steering the conversation back to where it needed to be - Alan Gross is in prison and needed to be freed. He had been sentenced unjustly.

Q: Alan Gross's release came alongside a monumental breakthrough in U.S.-Cuban relations. How do you perceive your role and the role of the Washington-area Jewish community in contributing to this change?

A: Our vigil to free Alan Gross was part of a much broader strategy to gain his release. For some it may be insignificant, but for those who participated, it has left an indelible impression. We used our right to demonstrate and assemble to good effect. We spoke out. We continued a time-honored American and Jewish tradition of not accepting the stern outcome as final, and we were determined to overcome this cruel and unjust imprisonment.

Along the way, we discovered something we already knew from previous vigils like the one for Soviet Jewry: there is a community in more than name and it does not care which denomination you belong to. We had Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Humanistic Jews, Catholics and all participate in these vigils.

We found a caring community for Alan Gross and his family. We found people with Cuban roots, such as Carlos Lumpuy who translated my words into Spanish at the demonstrations. Students from the Hebrew Academy, BBYO, and public high schools joined us and brought our concerns back to their fellow classmates. Educational Directors brought the issue to their students.

We established that even though it was difficult to park near the Cuban embassy, we could find parking, we could show up, and we could learn from each other. Some brought prayers recited by rabbis, some brought songs, sung by their cantors, some brought presence. Our message was Hineni! -- "I am here!" -- and willing to do whatever is necessary to resolve this matter, and to give thanks when it happens. We learned that it can be a lonely occupation to do this when you return every week. 

Q: Now that Alan has returned to the U.S., how do you suggest we preserve this story for future generations? What are the core lessons we need to ensure future generations learn from this story?

A: The first lesson is one of religious and philosophical responsibility. As Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) teaches, while we are not required to finish our efforts, we are not free from trying. Phyllis Margolius, Dr. Richard Morgenstein, and Daniel Mann joined us and believed in this, yet they did not live to see this wonderful day of Alan Gross's freedom. 

We learn that Pidyon Shvuyim, rescuing the hostage or captive, is the responsibility of the community and a great mitzvah. We learn that "to Save a Life, is to Save a World." We know that Alan Gross will not be the only person to be treated in this manner. Alan Gross can enjoy his life in freedom and rescuing one American gives us confidence that our government values its citizens and will do whatever is necessary to protect and defend them. 

Our government listened and responded to our concern and the concerns of the family of Alan Gross as articulated so eloquently by Judy Gross. Ultimately, President Barack Obama had to make the decision to do this, removing a stumbling block for a new day in Cuban-American relations. Alan Gross originally went to Cuba to help Cubans, and ironically, his unjust imprisonment and his being freed will result in helping Cubans by changing American policy.

Saving a good man who strongly identifies as both American and Jewish, whose first words to the public were "Chag Sam'e'ach" should give us something to ponder. The lesson of history is that we cannot be silent. Saving one man and participating in that cause gives us a reason to rejoice. There are times when good people need to know what is right and how to act on those beliefs. There are those who will minimize the relationship of our presence, and I do not want to exaggerate its importance either.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Object of the Month: December 2014

Interior of Friendship grocery, ca. 1950s.
Accession No. 2014.33
Donor: Ronald S. Levine
Description: Collection of photographs documenting Friendship Deli, 4932 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, mid-1940s-1950s.

This December, will you join the collective shopping frenzy around Friendship Heights? As you meander past bustling shopping malls and boutiques, remember the neighborhood's quieter past as a home to small, mom-and-pop businesses. One of those businesses was a grocery and later a luncheonette called ‘Friendship.'

Herman Levine opened Friendship grocery shortly after the Second World War, in a small, two-story building at 4932 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, between Fessenden and Ellicott Streets. Like many mom-and-pop groceries, the store was on the first floor, and the family lived in an apartment on the second floor. "It was a typical mom-and-pop store," remembers Herman Levine's son Ron who, with his older sister Maxine, spent part of his childhood living ‘above the store.' "It was open 7 days a week, from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. And my mother worked in the store, but would run upstairs to fix lunch and meals, and then go back to the store." Levine remembers being called home from school to help. "They would call the principal who would come into my classroom, and I knew that someone didn't show up for work that day." Herman usually took off Monday afternoons, and he and Ron would fish near the current site of the Kennedy Center.

Herman, Lillian, and Maxine Levine
in front of Friendship grocery, ca. 1940s
From its beginnings, Friendship was a family affair. Levine, who was born in Brooklyn, NY, served as an airplane mechanic in Hawaii during the war and spent some time training in D.C. He met his wife, Lillian Furash, while staying at a boarding house for government workers on Nebraska Avenue, which Lillain's family owned. Lillian was born in Washington to immigrant parents originally from Pinsk, Russia. Shortly after the war, Herman and Lillian married. Lillian's father Jacob urged Herman to go into business, and helped him establish the grocery.

Friendship grocery was nestled within a strip of shops owned by Jewish, Greek, and Italian families. "The Kahn family ran a shoe store down the street," recalls Ron Levine. "Next to my father's store was a barber shop, and that was an Italian family. The toy store was next door, and next to them were Henry and Rose Greenbaum, and they had three kids. They lived above the shop, and were in business with Henry's brother. Both were survivors of Auschwitz. Next to them was a Greek florist. All of their children would run into each other's stores, and all of our parents watched us. On summer evenings we'd all be sitting out on Wisconsin Avenue and get together and talk. Our fathers were, of course, still in the businesses, still working."

Children whose parents owned stores adjacent to Friendship grocery
on the 4900 block of Wisconsin Ave, NW, ca. 1950s

Herman Levine and patron at Friendship
when it was a grocery, ca. 1950s
In the early 1950s, a Safeway supermarket opened on the next block (it's still there). Unable to compete, Levine converted the grocery into the Friendship Delicatessen, a luncheonette that served breakfast and ‘kosher-inspired' sandwiches. Friendship Delicatessen offered signature items, including a version of a familiar D.C. favorite of the time. "Hot Shoppes came out with the Mighty Mo," recalls Ron, "and my dad came out with the Mighty Hy – because his nickname was Hy," short for his Yiddish name, Hyman. "It was a triple burger," similar to the Mighty Mo.

The Friendship Delicatessen flourished. Most of its regulars worked nearby at the WTTG (Channel 5) and WRC (Channel 4) studios, as well as at other offices and stores along Wisconsin Avenue. Within a few years, the family could afford to move to a house. They purchased and remodeled Lillian's childhood home on Nebraska Avenue – the same house where Herman and Lillian met.

"Once my dad changed the business to a deli, he worked Monday through Friday, and then closed up on the weekends," remembers Ron Levine. "After about 15 years, he had his weekends off." No longer needing to man the store on Saturdays and Sundays, Herman followed his passion for fishing. He purchased several progressively larger boats, which the family would take for deep-sea fishing excursions.

Herman retired in 1977 and sold his business. Similar to other Jewish Washingtonians, the Levines' mom-and-pop business helped the family to settle and prosper. The Levines and the Furashes live in the D.C. area.

Today, 4932 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, is home to the National Diving Center, which outfits SCUBA diving enthusiasts. The block continues to reflect the city's ethnic diversity, with Chinese, Thai, Mexican, French, and pizza restaurants, in addition to a bank, yoga studio, and pet groomer.

Monday, November 24, 2014

In Memory of Marion Barry

Early yesterday morning, Marion Barry, D.C. City Councilmember and former mayor, passed away at the age of 78.

We remember him with these archival highlights:

Giant Food Chairman Izzy Cohen and
Mayor Marion Barry, opening of Giant Food,
Eighth and O Streets, NW, 1979
JHSGW Collection/
Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen Foundation
When JHSGW interviewed Barry in 2006 as part of an oral history project documenting the history of Giant Food, he spoke about the 1979 opening of the Giant store at Eighth & O Streets, NW, and its significance in rebuilding the city:

“As you can imagine, the city had been devastated with the disorders of ‘68.  Things were burned down, it was a shell of a city, people were depressed, and jobs had been lost from these establishments.  So we were anxious to get some consumer goods . . . and my recollection, I don’t even know where the closest Safeway was, but it certainly wasn’t around that area of D.C.  And we were very ecstatic about that store [Giant at Eighth & O] being opened.”

These two items are from the collection of Janice Eichhorn, an activist for Washington, D.C.'s political rights. Eichhorn worked on Barry's staff starting with his 1978 mayorial campaign until 1992, when she retired from her position as a senior policy analyst.

Her papers were contributed to our archives by her sister in 2011.

Bumper sticker from first mayorial campaign, 1978
JHSGW Collections. Gift of Diane Liebert.
"Best wishes to a very dear friend Jan Eichhorn
Marion Barry 7-7-81"
JHSGW Collections. Gift of Diane Liebert.

Fred Kolker (wearing hat) and Mayor Marion Barry (right),
renaming Florida Avenue Market to Capital City Market
as part of planned market restoration, 1984
JHSGW Collections. Gift of Brenda Pascal.

In a 2010 oral history recorded by Glenn Richter, Ruth Newman, longtime leader of D.C.'s Soviet Jewry movement, recalled seeing Barry at the 1987 Freedom Sunday March for Soviet Jewry on the National Mall:

When we were...marching down Constitution Avenue, out of nowhere came the then Mayor of the City of Washington, Marion Barry. He said, "Washington," [upon seeing] our banner -- 'Washington Committee for Soviet Jewry.' He said, "That's where I belong,” and all of a sudden he puts himself between those of us who were carrying the banner. He walked a couple of blocks with us and then he saw somebody else he knew and off he went.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Object of the Month: November 2014

Accession No. 2004.13
Donor: Constance Tobriner Povich
Description: Walter Tobriner and Fair Housing in Washington, D.C.

Tobriner taking oath to become president of the D.C. Board of Commissioners, 1961
Tobriner with President John F. Kennedy (far left) presenting the kes to the city to the president of Brazil, João Golart (center), 1962
Fighting Persistent Housing Discrimination
Walter N. Tobriner was a native Washingtonian and lawyer whose career was distinguished by his service to his hometown. While serving on the Board of Education from 1952-1961, he was responsible for carrying out desegregation of D.C.'s public schools. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Tobriner to the city's Board of Commissioners. At that time, the Commissioners were D.C.'s governing body whose three members were Presidential appointees. Tobriner served as its president for six years.

During that same period, Tobriner was Chairman of the National Capital Housing Authority. Ending housing discrimination in Washington, D.C. was among his priorities. In the early 1960s, real estate agents, developers, banks, and landlords had a "gentlemen's agreement" not to sell houses to non-whites.

In addition to fighting this informal discrimination, Tobriner sought to end discrimination in housing contracts. Some house deeds and neighborhood-association agreements included restrictive covenants that prevented residents from renting or selling to certain minorities. Even after the Supreme Court declared restrictive covenants unconstitutional in 1948 (Shelly v. Kraemer), a handful of prominent developers and neighborhood associations continued to include these covenants in contracts with homebuyers.

Consequently, many African-American, Jewish, and other District residents, as well as several foreign visitors, were unable to rent or purchase housing in some buildings and neighborhoods. It was an issue that had both a local and global resonance. Tobriner argued this point in his testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1962:

"In certain sections of our city, persons are still denied equal access to housing for no reason other than that of their religion or the color of their skin. With the emergence of a score of African nations, the problem of African diplomats in finding housing has added a new dimension to what is already a matter of concern."
Many African states had won independence from their European colonizers over the previous decade. In Washington, their new diplomats were unable to rent or purchase homes in the same neighborhoods as their counterparts from other countries.

Tobriner brought about fair housing ordinances aimed at ending this discrimination. But it was only in 1968, the year after he left the Board of Commissioners, that federal law followed suit. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

A Regional Dimension: Restrictive Covenants
Housing discrimination was not confined to Washington, D.C. As thousands of Jews migrated to suburban Maryland and Virginia in the 1940s−1960s, many encountered restrictive covenants in deeds and contracts. Although legally unenforceable after 1948, even deeds for some new homes included such clauses.

This 1949 covenant in a deed for a house in Bethesda, MD stipulates that the property could not be sold or even leased to African Americans, "Armenians, Jews, Hebrews, Persians, and Syrians." However, this restriction did not apply to servants living in the house.

1949 Restrictive Covenant for Marywood Subdivision, Bethesda, MD
Courtesy of Myra Sklarew
Many homeowners have since had restrictive-covenant clauses legally removed from their deeds. Still, the deeds for some houses throughout the Washington area continue to include similar clauses – although they are legally unenforceable. The current owner of this house in Bethesda decided to keep the clause in her deed as a testament to the history of housing discrimination in the D.C. area.

Have a story about facing housing discrimination in the D.C. area?  We want to hear it: or (202) 789-0900

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.
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.

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
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.


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