You Should Update Your Headshot – 1910s Edition

Posted on August 30th, 2018 by

A blog post by Director of Collections and Exhibits Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

A large part of my research for “Fashion Statement,” from both primary and secondary sources, focuses on the issue of successful recognition of appropriate clothing: What is the ‘correct’ thing to wear for one’s gender, age, class, status, religion, and occupation? (Granted, how the ‘correct’ thing is decided, and by whom, is an important question… but we’ll set that aside for now.)  Wearing the right outfit at the right time helps to ensure we are treated with respect by those around us.

This is particularly true in the professional setting. “Imagine how unlikely you would be to engage the services of a professional who did not seem to embody the norms of his or her profession – for example a doctor who wore a chef’s hat and apron to the operating room?” writes Carrie Yang Costello, Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee[1]. Presenting yourself appropriately can have an enormous, even if sometimes unconscious, impact on those with the power to hire and fire you.

Take, for example, a mohel: charged with the performance of a key ritual, one with both spiritual and physical implications for the baby under his care. A mohel who shows up for the ceremony in inappropriate clothing might well be turned away as a bad deal, no matter the reputation, expertise, and equipment he brings with him.

Here are two bris certificates, from 1915 and 1918.  Each features a photograph of the mohel – and though they look quite different, it is the same man.

Bris certificate for Charles Hamburger, June 14, 1915. Gift of Charles Hamburger. JMM 1991.91.6

Bris certificate for Lester Posner, October 27, 1918. Gift of Rona Posner. JMM 2008.94.425

Abraham N. Abramowitz, “Practical Mohel,” was born in Mogilev (now in Belarus) in 1882; he came to the US in the early 1900s, settled in Baltimore by 1905, and became a US citizen in 1913.  According to family history, “he performed his first bris [in] 1906, on his son S. Morris Abramowitz, and his 7451st bris on his grandson, Irvin J. Abramowitz on November 1, 1925.”

The 1915 certificate shows a traditional-looking bearded fellow in a bowler hat and a good suit; not much distinguishes him – at least professionally – from any of the other bearded, bowler-hatted gentlemen of the early 20th century whose photos can be found in our collection.  The 1918 photo, just a few years later, tells a different story: the beard has been trimmed down to a mustache and goatee, he sports a natty bow tie along with his formal suit, and his tall kippah is a sign of his training and skill as well as his faith.

The change in Rev. Abramowitz’s appearance sometime around 1916, demonstrating his acculturation, was not only a personal matter – it was also a professional one. Like many men in this line of work, he included his likeness in advertisements and on his official bris certificates; thus, his Americanized, modernized look had implications for his career.  Both the early and late images were intended to convey competence and trustworthiness (not unlike any professional headshot today) as well as his religious training, encouraging people to choose his services. While we don’t know how his clientele reacted to the updated photo, since Abramowitz performed 7,968 circumcisions over the course of his life (he died in 1926), it would appear that the change was a success.


[1] “Changing Clothes: Gender Inequality and Professional Socialization,” NWSA Journal, Vol. 16 No. 2 (Summer 2004)

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The Treasures You Find in the Basement

Posted on July 25th, 2018 by

Blog post by JMM archivist Lorie Rombro. You can read more posts by Lorie here.

When you work in a museum, collection storage is often in the basement. Some people may feel basements can be uncomfortable or frightening, but I truly love basements. Most of the time I go down knowing what I am looking for and its right were its supposed to be and that’s wonderful, but I do enjoy the times when it becomes a bit more of an adventure. My son said maybe it would be more exciting if I walked into the archives and a movie announcer voice said, “Welcome to the Archives” and began playing the Indiana Jones theme music. That would be incredible, but even without the music I feel like I can be on a quest of discovery.

 A few weeks ago, I was searching a collection of 3×5 negatives, mostly from the 1950’s and 1960’s. The negatives were donated by the photographer, Nat Lipsitz in 1980.  A Baltimore photographer, Nat Lipsitz worked with the Associated for nearly 30 years, as well as Israel Bonds, the Jewish National Fund, Zionist organizations, and other Jewish and non-Jewish groups. I was looking for Associated Jewish Charities, Women’s Division, G-Day photographs, and I was side tracked by the word “Fashion Show”. Its hard not to look at photographs of a fashion show, especially ones from the 1950’s and 1960’s. What I found were wonderful photographs of the Israel Bonds Fashion Shows!

The first group were identified in the photographer’s notebook as, models at Hutzlers, modeling clothes for Israel Bonds 12/31/52.

The second group of photographs had a beautiful and very tall women in the center of the photo.. Since she was in all the photographs I felt she was the special guest and was interested in learning who she was.

After some research, I found who I was looking for on the cover of the programs for the 1966 Israel Bonds Fashion Show, Bess Meyerson. JMM 1988.218.25

In the January 5, 2015 Washington Post Obituary for Bess Meyerson, Adam Bernstein wrote:

“A raven-haired, hazel-eyed beauty who stood 5-foot-10, Ms. Myerson was a captivating figure from the moment she was named the first — and still only — Jewish Miss America. Born to immigrant Jews from Russia, she was raised in a Bronx housing project and embodied an up-from-poverty success story that made her an overnight sensation and possibly the best-known Miss America in the contest’s history.

For decades, she enjoyed something close to reverence among a generation of Jews who had lived through the Holocaust and found in her win a symbol of Jewish assimilation and acceptance in an otherwise hostile world.”

Ms. Meyerson would go on to be named the NYC commissioner of Consumer Affairs in 1969 and in 1980 name NYC commissioner of Cultural Affairs. She would have an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate in 1980 and loose in the Democratic primaries. She would also be charged with bribery and conspiracy charges in 1987. In all she had an incredibly interesting life and finding her photograph gave me a chance to learn more about her.

*As a footnote all the photographs are not identified – please email me if you know any of the women in the photographs!

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Posted on July 12th, 2018 by

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here

From the beginning the Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini exhibit has been full of coincidences and surprises and  the surprises didn’t end on opening day.  Here is an amazing story from last week:

We held a member/donor preview of the exhibit on June 21.  In addition to our members and project donors we (as is customary) invited a select group of public officials to the event.  Among these was Maryland’s Secretary of State, John Wobensmith, who had been kind enough to participate in our opening for Yad Vashem’s Beyond Duty exhibit last February.

Secretary Wobensmith showed up for the Houdini preview carrying a folio.  He said “my grandfather was Harry Houdini’s patent attorney and I brought with some correspondence between them.”  I admit that this seemed like such a strange coincidence that I barely knew what to say.  Given the evening’s busy schedule, I did not have time to peruse the folio, but the Secretary invited me to his office in Annapolis to take a closer look.

Last Thursday I was able to make a visit and what I found was astonishing.  The Secretary had inherited not one small folio but at least three binders of material related to his grandfather’s work.  Moreover, James Chambers Wobensmith (1879-1973) was much more than Houdini’s patent attorney, he was a magician in his own right.  He founded the Philadelphia chapter of the Society of American Magicians and in 1930 was elected national president of the Society, immediately succeeding Houdini’s brother (Theo) Hardeen.  He was ultimately elected to the Society’s Hall of Fame.

It also turns out that Wobensmith wasn’t just Houdini’s patent attorney, but the leading patent attorney for magicians in his time (including patenting tricks of the famous magician Thurston). For the most part, Houdini avoided patenting his magic (he didn’t want to expose how his tricks were done).  His work with Wobensmith was focused on more pragmatic technologies, such as his “easy escape” diving suit, featured in our exhibit, or film development processes (from the days when Houdini ran his own movie studio).

Wobensmith was also a confederate in Houdini’s third act – his crusade against phoney mediums.  Wobensmith gave Houdini legal advice and even participated on stage in Houdini’s exposure of a particularly prominent Philadelphia Spiritualist.  Remarkably, Wobensmith’s work on the project did not end with Houdini’s death in 1926.  Mrs. Houdini (Bess) had offered a substantial reward to anyone who could bring her a message from her husband from the great beyond.  Wobensmith stepped in to protect the estate from unscrupulous frauds like “the Mysterious Raymond” who tried to trick a grieving widow into awarding them the cash.

But the most amazing thing I saw last Thursday was not a document with Houdini’s signature or a patent drawing.  It was one of several newspaper clippings about the Houdinis that Wobensmith had collected.  In January 1933, Bess Houdini gave an extensive interview to the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (at one time America’s largest circulation evening daily).  Just two passages from the article will reveal just how interesting it was:

“I can’t give up the idea of someday hearing definitely from him [Harry}.  I suppose it is my early Catholic upbringing that makes me think perhaps the delay [in receiving a posthumous message from Harry] is penance for some act done long ago.

I never make any decision without calling on Harry for help – I get an answer, maybe from my subconscious mind, which knows from long associations how he would act under certain conditions.

Harry was religious.  He believed in the Jewish religion and in an afterlife where we would all be together.  He did not believe in spirit messages though he had an open mind and was willing to believe, as I am if he could be given real proof”

And later in the article –

They played many amusing games together [Bess and Houdini], which they never told for he was afraid of being thought sentimental.

They had no children, so Houdini created a dream child, a son named after his own father Mayer Samuel.  In their large New York home, he occupied the fourth floor, while his wife’s quarters were on the third.  He sent her many letters by the maid about how the son was getting on.  The letters only stopped when the son became President of the United States.

I closed the binder, thanked the Secretary of State, and as I exited I thought “how improbable was this encounter?” to learn something about the mind of Harry Houdini in a government office in Annapolis… it seemed about as likely as running into a Jewish magician at Artscape and deciding to create an exhibit!

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