JHS's 'Out of the Attic' collects 30 years of the city's Jewish history

December 15, 1990|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Evening Sun Staff

When their photograph was taken early in this century, the Breyer family -- mother, father, daughter, two sons and a cousin -- were still somewhere in Russia. In the portrait, all but one son wore dark, period clothing and stared somewhere away from the camera. Their impassive, handsome faces are difficult to read -- except for the nervousness that touches the mother and her youngest son.

In their laps, the mother and father hold photographs of their two oldest sons, Frank and Jake, sent from the United States as proof they are sound and doing well. Eventually, the rest of the family, minus the cousin, left Eastern Europe and settled in Baltimore.

Today, that photo hangs in Sara Althoff's bedroom. The youngest son -- Maurice Benjamin Breyer -- was her father. He died at 85 in 1982.

Althoff has always loved the picture, a vivid reminder of her father, "a happy go lucky man" who worked as a tailor, cabbie and insurance salesman, among other professions. But Althoff didn't realize the photo's larger historical significance until she brought it to the Jewish Historical Society. Today, a reproduction of that photo is part of the society's new exhibit, "Out of the Attic: 30 Years of Collecting at the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland."

When she saw the picture, displayed in the company of other family portraits and artifacts that tell the story of Baltimore's Jewish community, "I felt so good," Althoff says. "I stood there crying. It's so wonderful," she thought, that "everybody will see" her family.

"Out of the Attic" is both a way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the JHS and a strategy to encourage families with Baltimore roots as old as 150 years to scour their own attics for records of a way of life easily forgotten in a world of wrenching change.

Althoff's experience -- she rediscovered her family photo in a box about 10 years ago, and brought it along with another photo and her grandfather's 100-year-old ketuba (a Jewish marriage contract) to the JHS -- is what the society seeks to encourage throughout the local Jewish community.

Photographs of working class folks and objects as humble as a bread board and rolling pin reveal as much of a community's history as do aristocratic portraits and silver ceremonial objects, says Bernard Fishman, JHS executive director. "We want to show people that if they have any history -- and who doesn't -- that they're part of us. They don't have to [descend from] the elite in the community in 1882," Fishman says.

As part of the JHS collection, artifacts, either donations or objects on permanent loan, are conserved and made available for researchers, Fishman says. Most of these artifacts "are not forgotten," as they might be in an attic or in the basement of a synagogue with no archivist to tend to them.

Encouraging the Jewish community to mine treasure in their own backyard is a difficult process which relates to the broader, troubling history of all Jews, Fishman says. Until this century, Jewish heritage was mostly "based on the written word with an important religious component," Fishman says. With a long history as an oppressed people, "it didn't pay for Jews to get attached to buildings and objects."

Jews who emigrated to the United States brought with them that same "sense of physical impermanence" as the upwardly mobile routinely left urban homes and synagogues for the suburbs, Fishman says. But when the Holocaust wiped out six million Jews, and with them a rich culture, Jews in this country became "aware of the need to preserve non-book related materials," he says.

In preserving the mundane as well as the grand, the JHS is trying to make the community it springs from understand that "life is not just a trip in one direction," Fishman says.

With a varied selection of objects, "Out of the Attic" covers all facets of Jewish life. One of the most unusual objects displayed is a carved wood and gilt ceremonial lamp made for the boy scout troop of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in the 1920s.

There is an ornate silver Hanukkah lamp made in Germany, and a simple bronze Hanukkah lamp made by the Baltimore sculptor Hans Schuler. Artist Herman Maril's "Dune Trees" is one of several examples of the contributions of Baltimore's Jews to Baltimore's cultural life.

Photographs from the JHS archives lend an intimate quality to the exhibit: In one, tailor Max Hoffman, with tape measure around his neck, stands in his shop and smiles shyly. In another, the Halle, Mann, and Wiesenfeld families are captured on film in costume on a festive occasion in 1910.

A bottle of Tulkoff's Tiger Sauce, matchboxes from Keiser and Keiser (a prominent insurance agency), a Hendler's ice cream sign and a water glass from Sussman and Lev of Baltimore (a Kosher-style restaurant founded in 1919) all attest to the Jewish community's energetic involvement in local commerce.

TC There are other telling objects: Slaughtering knives used by Rabbi Yitzhok Schuchalter, a copper pot brought to Baltimore from Lithuania, a traveling suit worn by Clara Strauss Kohn on her honeymoon in 1895, and a loving cup from the Meyerbeer Singing Society, which performed in Yiddish, Russian and English.

"Out of the Attic" will be on display until March 29, 1991. The museum is open from noon until 4 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. For group tours, call 732-6400.

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