The JHSGW archives host a number of valuable historic documents that are part of our oldest materials. Among them is a Ketubah (wedding contract) that dates back to the Civil War and a German Reisepass (passport) originating from 1845. These records illustrate two very interesting stories of the Jewish community in the Washington area and have been used to document its history in many ways.
The papers weathered overseas travel, a war, and the fingerprints of quite a few generations, before they arrived at their final destination: our archives. Each of these events and the many people who had the papers in their hands left a mark in the form of tears, stains, and, well, schmutz.
While these “personal touches” may add to their charm and historic patina, they also threaten the documents’ preservation for future generations. Since we are building a new museum with a new exhibition showcasing our rich collection on Jewish life in greater Washington, we are eager to give some of our artifacts an extra polish. This way our visitors can enjoy them in all of their beauty.
That is why we booked a special treatment for these two historic documents:
Civil War Ketubah
This wedding contract ensured and outlined the responsibilities of the groom Henry Baum in relation to his bride Bettie Dreisfus. It dates back to November 6, 1862, a Thursday in the middle of the raging Civil War. The tumultuous and depriving time may have had an impact on the simplicity of the document. Sometimes, a Ketubah is beautifully decorated and illustrated; this certificate is kept pretty plain.
As you can see from the before picture, the paper showed tears, stains, and deep folds, and was held together by tape.
First, the conservator gently dry cleaned the front and the back of the document with a special eraser to reduce dirt on the surface. The fragile areas and the parts written with iron gall ink were avoided as to not damage the writing or worsen the tears. Afterwards, the document was vacuum cleaned to get all the eraser crumbs off. The tape had to disappear, too, so our conservator used a hot-air pencil and a micro-spatula to scrape it off the paper. The residual adhesive was then removed with a gum eraser.
But how did the fold-overs get ironed out? Our conservator locally humidified them with ethanol and then dried them under weights and in between polyester boards and blotter.
To stabilize the mends, Japanese paper was applied with a solution of ethanol-thinned Zen shofu wheat starch paste. This paste of highly refined wheat starch, imported from Japan, is a natural and pure material used for repairing paper. After that, the losses were filled with Golden Acrylic toned Japanese paper that resembles the tone of the original document.
In the end, the whole document was humidified in a special little chamber and eventually rehoused in an acid-free, buffered folder for long-term preservation.
Here you can see the results of the extensive and painstakingly executed treatment:
This conservation project was rendered possible through the generous support of Janet Cohen, whose donation provided expert treatment by Quarto Conservation in Bethesda, MD. Janet reached out to us after finding her ancestors’ wedding contract in our online exhibition Jewish life in Mr. Lincoln’s City.
Janet Cohen’s support resulted in another exciting development! Through last year’s #GivingTuesday, we raised enough money to treat the historic passport from the Behrend Family Collection.
This German passport granted merchant Bernhard Behrend permission to travel from his hometown Rodenberg near Hanover to Frankfurt. Today, this trip would take about four hours on the highway; for Behrend it must have been at least a day trip if not more. Since Germany as we know it today was at the time a conglomerate of independent states, principalities, and cities, travelers had to get formal documents to pass borders and enter different dominions.
See this month’s Curator's Catch to get more information about Bernhard Behrend and the purpose of his travel.
The before picture shows many surface damages, stains, and various discolored tapes that held the pieces of the document together.
The first step towards a fresh look was to clean the surface using a hake brush. Similar to the conservation treatment of the Ketubah, the tape was removed using a hot-air pencil and then a gum eraser. Since these tapes turned out to be a little bit trickier to remove, our conservator had to try a few rounds until they were completely resolved. Cotton swabs moistened with an ethanol-based formula addressed the specific needs of the tape residues. In addition, applying a special earth powder helped to reduce further stains.
Afterwards, the document was vacuumed cleaned to get the powder off the surface. Using the same technique as with the wedding contract, the mends were stabilized and losses were filled with Japanese paper and Zen shofu wheat starch paste. Our conservator toned the infills matching the color of the document, evened out the folds, and rehoused the precious document in a new acid-free archival folder.
All this effort resulted in this final restoration to the right. What a transformation!
Through the support of these donors, the passport shines again: Ellen and David Epstein, Elizabeth Stewart, Constance Heller, Leonard Goldberg, Susan Berson, and Past President Dr. Michael Goldstein. We are infinitely grateful for their generosity.
These encouraging improvements are just what our collection needed. Yet, there is still more work to be done to make our archives glisten. Check out our Archival Wish List to learn about our most urgent collection needs.
On Wednesday, March 29 a standing room-only crowd attended the premiere of a new documentary, produced by Society board member Alex Horowitz, about the life of Marione Ingram. The video includes footage from an oral history conducted by our staff in 2016.
At the program, Marione spoke about her experiences as a Holocaust survivor and civil rights activist in conversation with Dr. Lauren B. Strauss, Scholar in Residence at American University and former Executive Director of the Foundation for Jewish Studies.
We plan to share stories of activism like Marione's at our new museum.
Missed the program? Watch the short documentary now!
Special thanks to the Foundation for Jewish Studies and our hosts at the Tenley-Friendship Library for partnering with us on this public program.
Our collection includes very colorful range of objects immigrants brought with them when they came from to the United States. Learn the stories behind some of our most surprising and beautiful immigrant artifacts.
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.
Accession No.: 1995.16 Donor: Ruth and Vivian Weinstein Description: Two grabbers, made of wood and metal, each stand 50" tall.
In the 1960s, Ruth and Vivian Weinstein took over Harry's Market, their parents' cornerstore in Mount Rainer, Maryland. They were among the few women who owned and ran a "mom and pop" store. Traditionally, women helped their husbands and fathers wait on customers and keep the shop's books. Rarely were they sole proprietors or shop managers.
Vivian and Ruth's parents, Leah and Harry Weinstein, had opened Harry's Market in 1924. They were among the hundreds of Jewish immigrants who opened "mom and pop" grocery stores in all four quadrants of Washington, D.C., as well as the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.
The grocery business was popular with immigrants because it required little start-up capital and minimal knowledge of English. In fact, many grocers learned English by reading can labels in their stores.
These Jewish merchants lived above or behind the shop and ran out to assist customers who rang the bell. Sidney Hais remembered, "In those days, you waited on each individual customer. There was no such thing as self-service… It was exhausting." Grabbers such as the ones pictured here were used to reach cans and other items from high shelves.
The Weinsteins were part of District Grocery Stores (DGS), which provided cooperative buying power and a means to fight discrimination from non-Jewish wholesalers. Explained by Jenna Weissman Joselit in The Forward, "At once indispensable and taken for granted, the grocery store owner sought out the company of other grocers. Banding together, they formed trade associations that not only expanded their purchasing power, but also provided opportunities for socializing and for exchanging ideas."
The era of mom-and-pop grocery stores started declining with the end of Prohibition in 1933, the movement of population from the city to the suburbs in the late 1940s and 1950s and the introduction of self-service supermarkets. Harry's Meat Market was one of the last Jewish-owned mom-and-pop grocery stores in the Washington area. The Weinsteins' sisters ran the store until 1996.
To learn more about mom-and-pop grocery stores in Washington, D.C., visit our online exhibition, Half a Day on Sunday!
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.