Posted on July 12th, 2013 by Rachel
If you’ve ever been on one of my behind-the-scenes collections tours, or read my blog posts, you may recall that one of my very favorite artifacts in the collections is what I call the “Goblet of Fire,” named, of course for the Harry Potter novel. Well, I found out more information about it! See previous posts Selecting Collections and The Goblet of Fire.
In the event that you’ve missed it, our “Goblet of Fire” is the gold-colored vessel that the Rogers Avenue Synagogue used to hold the ashes when they burned their mortgage back in 1975. Knowing that Harry Potter references aren’t exactly the preferred lexicon, in my catalog record I described the artifact as a “compote dish.” And it turns out I wasn’t too far off the mark.
A few weeks I was talking to Irwin Cohen, about the Chanukah House that his family created in the 1980s on Park Heights Avenue. Irwin’s father, Morris, had already donated some photographs and newspaper clippings about the festive home bedecked with colorful lights and oversized dreidels. I was interested in collecting some more personal items, such as notes, or cards, or stories that visitors shared with the Cohen family expressing what an impact this one-of-a-kind house had on people—both Jewish and non-Jewish.
The Chanukah House, as it was named by the Baltimore Sun. Photo by Stuart Zolotorow, 2001.
According to Irwin, he didn’t set out on a mission to create “the Chanukah House” when he picked up nine shiny knights at a shop in Williamsburg in July, 1988. He just thought they would make a really great menorah—and he had five months to build it. The first year, the decorations were pretty sparse –just the giant menorah and some lights.
The original menorah created by Irwin Cohen. The idea for the menorah began back in July 1988. Photo by Stuart Zolotorow, 2001.
Little by little, the family added to the display. The decorations were a combination of Chanukah symbols –dreidels, menorah—pop culture references such as Adam Sandler (“singing” the Chanukah song via CD player), Elmo from Sesame Street, teddy bears, Fiddlers on Rooves and general kitsch.
There was even a Chanukah Barbie scandal. Apparently the 3 ½ foot tall Barbie’s sleeveless evening dress was offensive to one particular woman, who thought she should be more modestly dressed in keeping with Orthodox customs. To mollify the woman, Irwin added a mink fur stole to cover her bare shoulders.
The JMM has Frum clothing for dolls in its collection.
Pretty soon people were driving past this Park Heights house to behold the spectacle Chanukah cards were sold featuring a photograph of the house in its splendor! In later years, there is a community-wide menorah lighting ceremony.
Children with their candles (or perhaps Harry Potter wands) gather in the Cohen’s front yard for the menorah lighting ceremony.
Many elected officials attended the event and got to light a candle, too. Irwin told me a story of how the Cohen family was enjoying dinner when they thought they saw Governor O’Malley with his young son (and two body-guards in tow) in front of the house. When Anne and Morris Cohen invited the Governor inside O’Malley said “Chanukah wouldn’t be Chanukah if I didn’t stop by the Chanukah House.”
Rikki Spector, Stephanie Rawlings Blake, Mayor Martin O’Malley, and Sheila Dixon attend the menorah lighting in 2007. Anne Cohen is in the background. Photo by Stuart Zolotorow, 2001.
I enjoyed “celebrating” Chanukah in July with Mr. Cohen.
Morris and Anne Cohen
A few minutes after we hung up, my phone rang again. It’s Irwin. He has another story for me. He had seen my blog post and had the answer to my question How Was this Bowl Chosen? In 1974 his grandmother passed away. The family received a number of fruit baskets during shiva including one in a gold-footed bowl from Raimondi’s. It was an attractive bowl, so they decided to save it.
A year later, Morris was looking for something to burn the mortgage in. Irwin, home from college, informed his dad he knew the perfect thing to use. He went downstairs and found the fruit bowl. The rest, as they say, is history!
A blog post by Senior Collections Manager and Registrar Jobi Zink. To read other posts by Jobi, click here.
Posted on December 14th, 2012 by Rachel
A blog post by Historian Deb Weiner.
Last week, a reporter from the Jewish Times called to ask when Chanukah gift-giving first became popular in America. I had no clue, but I knew where to find the answer: in the book Wonders of America, by Jenna Weissman Joselit, a leading historian of American Jewish popular culture. I pulled the book off the shelf, looked up “Chanukah” in the index, and relayed the relevant details to the reporter. I thought it would be pertinent to share Joselit’s observations with you as well.
In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Joselit writes, “more American Jews were inclined to experiment with Christmas than with Chanukah. Beguiled by its charms, they adorned their homes with greenery and eagerly exchanged gifts.” Along with other Americans, Jews ignored the religious meaning behind Christmas and enjoyed its “secularized, commodified, and mirth filled dimensions.” The holiday’s appeal was not limited to “well-established Jews”—it trickled down to immigrants as well. “According to the Jewish Daily Forward, a startlingly large proportion of new arrivals took quickly to the custom of giving Christmas presents, a practice allegedly as widespread as the exchange of Purim gifts. ‘Who says we haven’t Americanized,’ the paper quoted several immigrants as saying. ‘The purchase of Christmas gifts is one of the first things that proves one is no longer a greenhorn.’”
Hutzler’s gift box, 1997.83.9a
Jewish leaders tried to promote Chanukah as an alternative to Christmas, but “no amount of rhetorical excess could disguise the fact that Chanukah’s charms paled in comparison with those of Christmas.” Joselit does not identify who came up with the idea of giving gifts as part of celebrating Chanukah, or precisely when the custom took off, but gift-giving was clearly a key part of the holiday’s revival in the 1920s. That’s when Chanukah “began to come into its own as a notable Jewish domestic occasion and an exercise in consumption.” Not surprisingly, this was a time of upward mobility for the increasingly Americanized immigrants, who were looking for ways to combine their American and Jewish identities. What better way than to fit Chanukah into modern American consumer society?
Yiddish newspapers of the 1920s “carried dozens of tempting advertisements for Chanukah gifts, from automobiles to waffle irons.” While advertisers saw Chanukah as a way to sell a wide array of products, newspaper editors saw the products as a way to sell Chanukah. Editorials encouraged readers “to add the exchange of presents to the roster of Chanukah customs.” As one newspaper counseled, “To command the attention and affection of Jewish children, the holiday must become an occasion for storytelling, gift-giving, and merrymaking.”
In addition to its commercialization, Joselit writes, “a search for religious parity” proved to be the other key factor in Chanukah’s success in the years after World War II, “when it emerged not only as the Jewish antidote to Christmas but as its functional equivalent.” For second and third generation Americans, Chanukah became an important way to express Jewishness. By the 1950s the celebration of Chanukah had become “one of the few Jewish ritual practices actually to grow rather than diminish in popularity.”
The perfect Chanukah gift, available from the Museum shop.
Happy Chanukah everyone!
Posted on December 12th, 2012 by Rachel
A blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert.
I think I’ve finally adjusted to Hanukkah. I don’t mean “Hanukkah”, the holiday I’ve celebrated for 60 years, I mean “Hanukkah” the spelling that has become popular in my lifetime.
Taking the holiday decorations out of the closet is my annual reminder that transliteration can transform tradition. I grew up with a beautiful blue banner that proudly proclaimed “Happy Chanukah” right above our menorah (a metal candle holder of very simple design that made up in weight what it lacked in elegance). I never for a moment questioned the perfection of this spelling.
But in the 1980s, – when our kids were young and our old banner disheveled from years of Scotch tape being applied and removed – I had to purchase a new banner and discovered that a lot of options had been added to the transliteration list. I settled on a multi-colored model with fringe and the phrase “Happy Hanuka”. It appeared that this peculiar spelling was an aesthetic choice, as the nearly even number of letters allowed the Star of David that separated the words to be placed exactly in the middle.
For many years I continued to look for “Chanukah” cards (just one of my atavistic preferences – like my nostalgia for the German beer hall melody for “Adon Olam”).
Of course, Hanukkah and its problematic initial letter are not unique. I understand that before we renovated the Lloyd Street Synagogue there was a lively discussion about “mikveh” vs. “mikvah”. As a former volunteer for Congressman Abner Mikva, I confess that I would probably have come out on the losing side of this debate.
Hebrew transliteration is actually relatively straightforward compared to my experience in East Asian Studies. I still cringe when I hear commercials for Toyota Camry (to rhyme with “lamb tree”). The Japanese word is “kanmuri”, meaning “crown”, and there is no “‘a’-as-in-‘can'” sound in Japanese – the sound is “a” as in “Genghis Khan”.
Speaking of Genghis Khan, when I started studying history his birth name was Temujin. But in many articles written today you will find that he was born Tiemuzhen. This reflects one of the most dramatic changes in transliteration in the 20th century. Until the thawing of relations with mainland China, most Western scholars used the Wade Giles system to romanize Chinese words (named for the British diplomats who developed and refined the system). The dominant system today is the “pinyin” system, the official transliteration practice of the People’s Republic of China.
In “pinyin”, Mao Tse Tung became Mao Zedong and Mah Jongg became Ma Jiang. No matter how you spell it, it’s still fun to play (I mean “Mah Jongg” not “Mao Tse Tung”). So I hope you’ll join us on December 25 when we all have “phun” at the Dragons and Dreidels program – no transliteration required.