WHAT IS THE USE OF JEWISH HISTORY?

Posted on December 4th, 2013 by

People sometimes ask me, “What is the use of Jewish history?” And “why do you study and write about that so much?” Author and historian, Lucy Davidowitz, wrote a book on this subject.

2007.054.027  Book cover, The Hoffburger Journey in America: 1882-2005, compiled primarily by Lois Hoffberger Blum Feinblatt.

2007.054.027 Book cover, The Hoffburger Journey in America: 1882-2005, compiled primarily by Lois Hoffberger Blum Feinblatt.

Others take their concern and doubt to an annoying level, saying, “History is not important.” Perhaps not, for them, compared with the latest Hollywood gossip, the score of Sunday’s  football game or newest technological toy. Their view is short sighted, to say the least.

For me, researching and writing about Jewish history is akin to raising a memorial to departed relatives, ancestors and – yes – to strangers.  Some may be famous community or congregational leaders while others served their families quietly with love and dedication.

Only two of my relatives served the community in public ways – one was a Hershfield who served as secretary of a synagogue in New Jersey. The shul is now defunct, and I have no documentation about this except for Oral History tapes of my mother.

Another Hershfield in the same family in Jersey City served on the public School Board.  But this branch of the family are notorious for not answering letters, and we have been out of touch with them since the 1960s, so no documentation has been found to verify the anecdote.

(As for yichus, that is, genealogical status, I sometimes imagine that I am descended from a 2nd Century Sage or a Levitical priest.  But this may be ego on my part!)

Every time we quest for our family’s history, read an article in a Jewish History periodical or visit the JMM, we are raising a memorial to the whole Jewish people.  It is like placing rocks on the top of tombstones when we visit cemeteries. The purpose is to make the marker-stone larger, thereby, increasing the honor of those who have passed away. Saying Kaddish for one’s father is another example.  Sharing our genealogies with living relatives is a third example of zichron – remembering our ancestors.  And from where we came.

1973.008.001 Collage of Galitzianer gravestones (1903) from Gruft family collection. Artist unknown.]

1973.008.001 Collage of Galitzianer gravestones (1903) from Gruft family collection. Artist unknown.]

The value of learning, teaching and celebrating our many-faceted history becomes more apparent when we consider how often in history that the Jewish people have faced extreme adversity.  Even if our immigrant-ancestors lived a life of obscurity, toiling in the moderate Garment Industry of Jonestown or peddling as an arabisher, there is eternal value to our interest, care and memory of them.  We need the Eternal One’s eyes to perceive the value of Jewish history.

1997.149.003  Button sewing machine (1930s), made by Singer, from D. Schwartz and Sons Garment Machinery Co., of Baltimore Street and later, Gay Street.

1997.149.003 Button sewing machine (1930s), made by Singer, from D. Schwartz and Sons Garment Machinery Co., of Baltimore Street and later, Gay Street.

 

photo of Robert SiegelA blog post by Collections Volunteer Robert Siegel. To read more posts by and about JMM volunteers, click here.

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D. Schwartz and Sons in process

Posted on February 7th, 2011 by

When I first thought about this blog post I considered writing about my experiences working from home (which has happened several times recently thanks to snow and ice).  But then I started processing the D. Schwartz and Sons collection and everything changed.  Why?  Because nearly every single staff member that passed by my table stopped to look at what I was doing and ask questions.  That interest inspired me to shift my original focus.

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The D. Schwartz and Sons collection was received by the museum in 1997 and a JMM volunteer laboriously re-foldered and labeled over three hundred files, then partly organized the files.  But a finding aid had never been written.  A couple of weeks ago I pulled the collection with the intention of writing that finding aid.  When I started looking through the boxes (hoping to learn more about the company) I also discovered that the collection needed a bit more processing before I could begin any writing.

The collection consists of ledgers and business files and a rather extensive group of order books.  It was the order books that had the staff pausing on their way through the library.  The books had been separated by year and placed into two boxes, but they hadn’t been completely organized.  I knew which two dozen were from 1953, but when I started pulling them out of the box I found November 1953 next to April 1953 followed by October….you get the idea.  My first step was to get them in chronological order with clearly labeled folders.

This was the half organized scene that seemed to attract the attention of everyone who entered the library.

One half of the newly organized and carefully labeled order books. After all of my work the books took up four boxes instead of two!

After I finished with the order books I moved onto a group of books labeled ‘price lists.’  These Price Lists are catalogs for sewing machine parts, and they're pretty amazing.  The oldest one dates to 1900, and most are for Singer machines.  I’m fascinated by both fashion history and the history of technology so these catalogs gave me a little thrill.  When the collection was first organized (sometime after 1997) multiple catalogues were placed in the same folder.  I thought that it was important to give each book its own folder so that I could include more details – not only the date and manufacturer, but also the models covered by each catalog.

Before

After

And now I’m going through the largest part of the collection the 300 or so business files – mostly containing records of D. Schwartz and Sons dealings with other companies.

Business files

I’ve had to do a little reorganizing, but the biggest complication I encountered is the need to remove the dreaded metal fasteners.  The paperclips and staples (hundreds upon hundreds of staples!) will be removed over the next few weeks as I read through the files to learn enough about the company (so that I can write a proper finding aid).

In archives we do not use those sabertooth-like staple removers. In order to do as little damage as possible we use little spatulas to pry the staple open before removing it.

I’ve encountered one surprise so far – a fabric swatch.  I will be removing it from the folder so that we can store it in the best conditions for fabric, and leave a Permanent Separation Sheet in its place.  The separation sheet has a description of the item and its location so that a researcher can request to see it. I’ll repeat the process if I come across any more swatches or any photographs.

Fabric Swatch

Separation Sheet

I’m going to be working with the D. Schwartz and Sons collection for the next few weeks (with the help of one of my spring interns), but before too long I should have a new finding aid, ready to post right here!

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