Invitation to a Scrapbook

Once upon a time I too kept a scrapbook. In it I pasted notes and cards, photos and mementos—a menu, a pressed flower, a ticket stub—meant to recall significant moments in my life. Alas, that scrapbook is long gone, thrown away in one of those frenzied moments of taking stock of one’s possessions and clearing the clutter. Only long after it disappeared did I come, as an historian, to recognize the immense value of scrapbooks. The variety of images pasted onto their leaves convey a story of their authors’ lives unmediated by time and the distance of fading memory. A newspaper article, clipped as it appeared, listing the careers open to women at the end of the nineteenth century tells us a great deal about the woman who decided to paste that in her scrapbook. A letter preserved welcoming a new student and warning her of what life would be like as one of only two women studying amidst a swarm of men becomes the material out of which the historian later writes history.

So too this scrapbook of Washington Jewry becomes our mnemonic device. Like so many others who found their way to Washington, D.C. from elsewhere, I claim the right of saying “our”. Our scrapbook conveys the fabric of Jewish life as lived out in the federal city, in the nation’s capital. Sometimes, that fabric is literal, as in the Behrend family circumcision gown; more often it is metaphorical as other objects, like an engraved cake knife, give heft to our memories.

Histories of the founding of American Jewish communities do exhibit striking similarities. Each community records, with pride, its first immigrants, its first cemetery, its first synagogue, its first public office holders. Each one is careful to list its particular web of agencies providing relief and foster care, education and social service, proving that the Jews of Columbus, Ohio, or Kansas City, Missouri, have fulfilled their historic obligation to care for their own, for the widowed and the orphaned. Thus our scrapbook has its pages devoted to our synagogues and communal institutions; and to how those who sustained them made a living. Washington’s Jews started out as butchers, bakers, and grocers; and, long before they became real estate developers, physicians, and lawyers, they owned clothing stores and sold hardware.

But, even as so many pages of our scrapbook could find their way in between the covers of those of other American Jewish communities, our community is, indeed, truly distinctive. What stands out in our book is how many of its pages have been covered with mementos revealing our community’s history to be deeply intertwined with the history of our nation’s capital. As its population grew, so did ours. As they moved beyond the borders of the city, so did we. Our first synagogue was chartered by an act of Congress. A Jewish physician attended the mortally wounded Abraham Lincoln. Our nation’s highest officers have joined us, as we dedicated a synagogue, laid a cornerstone, and celebrated 350 years of Jewish life in America. In turn our community has a long record of service to the federal city: at one time one-third of the Jews working in Washington were employed by its government. Others left their mark as elected federal officials and as their advisors and appointees. Even if they only sojourned here for a time, their history became our history, as they filled in blank pages in the scrapbook of what has become the sixth largest Jewish community in the United States.

Washingtonians everywhere are deeply indebted to the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, and especially to its executive director Laura Cohen Apelbaum, for seizing the moment. Spurred by the 350th anniversary of American Jewish life, she recognized that the time had come to compile Washington Jewry’s scrapbook. Its transformation from a museum exhibition into this striking album promises that, unlike the scrapbook of mine which disappeared so long ago, this one will remain to be read again and again, given to our children and grandchildren, and one day to become the pages out of which an historian in the future writes the history of the Jews of the nation’s capital.

Pamela S. Nadell, Ph.D.
Director of Jewish Studies Program, American University, Washington, D.C.