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'Scrapbook' a collection of Jewish memories

August 18, 2005 1:06 am


A flag-raising ceremony takes place in 1917 at the Washington Hebrew Congregation at Eighth and I streets, N.W. The image is on view at the National Building Museum. wejewish3.jpg

Isadore Gimble reads the Yiddish Forward in his Washington store, the Congress Food Market.



Part history lesson, part celebration, "Jewish Washington: Scrapbook of an American Community" is both informative and inspirational.

Created by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, this community-based exhibit has found a perfect venue at the the National Building Museum in Washington. The collection chronicles the lives and deeds of the thousands of Jews who came to the nation's capital, beginning in 1795. It will remain on view through Jan. 8.

In its 25-year history, the NBM has focused primarily on the ways in which we build our world through architecture, construction and engineering, but we also build that world by how we live and what we do for a living.

The highly personal approach of the "Jewish Washington" exhibit allows for greater flexibility in the presentation of people and events, as captured in a scrapbook of remembrances.

There is lots of nostalgia for the great old delis and department stores, as well as acknowledgments of political and financial leaders.

Five broad historical divisions serve as the framework for discussion of the relationship between the Jewish community and the national and international worlds in which it flourished.

Jews have lived in America for 350 years. Not long after the new federal district was created in 1795, Isaac Polock, a land developer from Savannah, Ga., became the first recorded Jew to come to Washington.

Shortly before the Civil War, Jewish immigrants, many from Germany, came to the nation's capital to escape the harsh restrictions of the 1850s in Europe.

Numbering more than a thousand, and with two synagogues, these first-generation Jewish Americans were joined by immigrants from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1920.

This wave of new arrivals would swell the Washington Jewish population to 10,000. Many would become merchants, opening mom-and-pop grocery stores and department stores throughout the city.

Those stores would grow over the next century, and while some no longer exist, many have become major chains. Examples include Hahn's Shoes, Hechinger's Hardware, Rosenthal Chevrolet and Giant Foods.

And although it wasn't a Jewish-owned business, Hot Shoppes became a famously favorite hangout for Jewish (as well as other) teens.

Jews also opened movie houses. One local boy, known as Al Jolson, the son of cantor Moshe Yoelson, would become the biggest singing star of the era. Another, Shirley Povich, whose typewriter is on display in the exhibit, started his reporting career in the 1920s and would go on to be a major sports writer at The Washington Post.

The 1930s and '40s were a time of great trial, horror and triumph. The Great Depression, The New Deal, World War II and the Holocaust, and the struggle to forge a Jewish state all had an effect on the Jewish community, and in turn, that community influenced world events.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis stands out among Washington Jews who made their mark on FDR's New Deal and those who were influential in the formation of Israel.

Another notable, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first Jewess to become a Supreme Court justice, would come to Washington later in the 1970s.

As the federal government began to grow in the post World War II era, more Jews moved into the region. And with Washington's transformation into a major metropolitan area, the center of Jewish life shifted from city to suburb.

In one of several videos accompanying the "Jewish Washington" exhibit, New York Times writer Frank Rich, whose father owned Rich's shoe store and who grew up in Washington, talks about that changing environment.

In the last 15 years, the Jewish population has grown and become more diverse, with more than 200,000 Jews living in Virginia and Maryland.

Two centuries after Isaac Polock first came to build six houses in the federal city, real estate developers like Morris Cafritz, Abe Kay and Charles E. Smith have built complexes beyond what anyone could have dreamed.

The NBM is a short walk from two of the synagogues featured in this exhibit, including the original Adas Israel Synagogue (1876-1906), located at Third and G streets, N.W. The historic sanctuary is a distinct reminder of the community that made its home in the area.

A second Adas Israel Synagogue, which is now renovated, is located in Chinatown at Sixth and I streets, N.W.

A fine companion exhibit is the NBM's long term and more encompassing show "Washington: Symbol and City."

WHAT: 'Jewish Washington: Scrapbook of an American Community'

WHERE: National Building Museum, 401 F St., N.W., Washington

WHEN: The National Building Museum is open Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. The exhibit runs through Jan. 8.

COST: Free.

INFO: Call the National Building Museum at 202/272-2448 or visit them online at

The Original Adas Israel synagogue on Third and G streets, N.W., is open by appointment only. The second Adas Israel Synagogue, now renovated at Sixth and I streets in Chinatown, is open Mondays through Thursdays, noon-3 p.m. and on the first Sunday of every month.

Information about the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington and the 1876 historic synagogue site is available through the office and archives at 202/789-0900 or

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