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.
We are delighted to announce the appointment of Kara Blond as the Society's new Executive Director, effective September 2017.
Blond is currently Director of Exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. She will lead the Society's day-to-day operations and the planning, design, construction and programming of the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum in a new building adjacent to the Capitol Crossing Project under construction in downtown Washington. The Museum will incorporate the Society's historic 1876 synagogue, the region's first and oldest purpose-built synagogue building. Planning for the new Museum will continue over the next few years in conjunction with a major capital campaign.
"The Board unanimously approved Kara's selection, and we are all excited to work with Kara to help us realize our vision of preserving the past, marking the present and looking to the future of Jewish Washington," President Russell Smith said. "Kara's successful career with the Smithsonian is going to be an enormous benefit as the Society enters this transformative period. She is the leader we need at this key turning point."
"I am honored to have been asked to lead the Society and to work with the Board, staff, members, and community to design a new museum from the ground up," Blond stated. "The Society has been serving Washington with exhibitions and programs for decades, but with the new building, program spaces, and exhibitions telling the story of the Washington Jewish community and its impact on the city and the world, the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum will become an attraction for visitors to Washington from around the world."
Blond brings nearly 15 years of experience managing complex, transformational exhibitions as part of significant construction projects at major national institutions. At the National Zoo she served as the exhibition developer and project manager on such visitor favorites as the Asia Trail and Elephant Trails. At the National Museum of Natural History, where she has served as Director of Exhibitions since 2013, Blond has been responsible for overseeing design and development of experiences across 350,000 square feet of public space. At the Smithsonian, she has overseen more than 30 exhibitions, including the redesign of the National Fossil Hall and the broader Deep Time Initiative. Her work has been recognized with both national and Smithsonian-wide awards.
The Society's historic 1876 synagogue moved to a temporary location in November 2016. It will move again in 2019 to 3rd and F Streets NW, the site of the new museum.
Blond holds a Master of Arts in Education in Learning, Design and Technology from Stanford University and a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Pennsylvania, where she graduated magna cum laude. A native of the Washington, D.C. area with deep roots in its Jewish community, Kara, her husband, Avi Lerner, and their two children live in Kensington, MD.
Blond succeeds Laura Apelbaum, who led the Society for 22 years, from 1994 to 2016, as Executive Director. Wendy Turman, Deputy Director, has been leading the staff and operations of the Society since August 2016 and will continue doing so until Blond begins work on September 5. "We deeply appreciate all that Wendy has done for the organization over the past year and look forward to continuing to work with her," Smith said.
The search committee was chaired by Adam Rubinson and included Gail Burlant, Esther Foer, Dr. Michael L. Goldstein, Dr. Peggy Pearlstein, Albert H. Small, Jr., and Smith. For the nationwide search, the Society retained Marilyn Hoffman and Connie Rosemont of Museum Search & Reference, an executive search firm in Manchester, NH and Boston, MA.
For more information please contact Board President Russell Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 303-1116, or Search Committee Chair Adam Rubinson at email@example.com or (202) 491-7005.
Accession Number: 1994.11.02
Donor: Amy Nordlinger Behrend Goldstein
Description: machine-typed copy of original letter, April 27, 1917
One hundred years ago, on April 27, 1917, Rudolph Behrend, a prominent member of the Jewish community in Washington, D.C., sent this letter to the White House offering farmland owned by his mother for the use by the U.S. Army. Only three weeks earlier, President Woodrow Wilson had declared war on Germany and the whole country was preparing to send troops to Europe.
Jewish Washingtonians joined forces and supported the war effort in many ways. Rudolph Behrend himself offered his volunteer services to the United States "in any capacity". His mother Sarah, at the time 64-years-old, did so in giving her son permission to offer her parcel of land, marked P186/1 on the map, to the government with "... no condition annexed to this donation, excepting that the tract of land be used in the interest of the United Government during the War period."
Just a day later, Behrend received a response from the White House. Our research is still ongoing whether the government in fact used the parcel for farming, accommodation, or the like. Yet the offer itself and the prompt presidential thank-you is a wonderful way to commemorate Jewish Washingtonians' engagement during World War I.
These letters are part of a bigger collection of one of the founding families of the Jewish community in Washington, D.C. The Behrend family arrived in the mid-19th century from Germany and settled as merchants on 7th Street. Some of their members were influential in the founding of the Adas Israel Congregation and our historic synagogue building.
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.
Looking at a collection for the first time is like fishing in deep water; you dive into unknown depths and you never know what you're going to get. It's one of the most exciting things about working with a new collection.
I invite you to take a look at what caught my eye while exploring the Jewish Historical Society archives in my first year at the JHS.
- Christiane Bauer, Curator
Accession No.: 2017.01
Donor: Andrea Choobineh
Description: 40"x40" neon-tube store sign, ca. 1966
This flashy neon sign from a Jewish book store in Wheaton, MD dates back to the 1960s. Abe's Jewish Book and Gift Store was founded by Abe Jacovsky (1914-1972) and carried books as well as Judaica and Jewish memorabilia. It moved to Wheaton in 1968 from its original location on Kennedy Street, NW. With its catchy motto, the only Jewish bookstore in the area catered to individual customers, the local Hebrew schools, and in 1970 even received an order from the White House for two leather Torah reproductions.
Abe Jacovsky's granddaughter Andrea Choobineh donated this sign, the first addition to our collection this year. The first "curator's catch" of 2017 could not illuminate our message better: "If it's Jewish, we have it!" describes perfectly what the Jewish Historical Society and our future museum are about.