D.C. Jewish History's Open 'Scrapbook'

Constructing a legacy: Isaac Polock arrived in Washington from Savannah, Ga., in 1795 and built a row of houses on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Constructing a legacy: Isaac Polock arrived in Washington from Savannah, Ga., in 1795 and built a row of houses on Pennsylvania Avenue. (Historical Society Of Washington)
By Eugene L. Meyer
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 27, 2005

Nearly 40 years ago, historian Constance McLaughlin Green famously coined the phrase "Secret City" to describe black middle-class life in Washington. For many outsiders, it was a revelation of a highly stratified society that, thanks largely to racial segregation, kept pretty much to itself.

But there were more ethnic dynamics at work in the nation's capital, where another "secret city," composed of Jewish Washingtonians, did not trumpet its presence. Divided by class and ancestral origins, they were bound by faith and also by a common struggle against widespread anti-Semitism.

Despite such obstacles, they persevered and prospered, and many of their surnames became household words in Washington -- Hahn's Shoes, Hechinger Hardware. In real estate, in the professions, in journalism and in the ranks of federal government at all levels, Washington Jews have made their mark.

So it seems fitting that the evolution of the nation's sixth largest Jewish community (with an estimated population of 215,000) be commemorated and celebrated on the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America. Well, that would've been last year, but the original venue, the star-crossed City Museum of Washington, closed before the exhibition could open in the fall. Instead, "Jewish Washington: Scrapbook of an American Community," created by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, opened Friday at the National Building Museum, where it will be on view through Jan. 8.

Most of the exhibition is told through text and photographs. But there are glass cases and frames containing an array of objects, from an 1877 circumcision gown to an 1898 pew from Washington Hebrew Congregation to World War II ration books and a 1942 Jewish Community Center scrapbook. The exhibition itself, as its title implies, is meant to have a scrapbook feel, and so it does. At the end, visitors are invited to add their own recollections and thoughts.

Divided into six sections in four different rooms, the exhibition is sweeping in its breadth, tracing the Jewish presence from 1795 -- when Isaac Polock arrived from Savannah, Ga., to build a row of houses on Pennsylvania Avenue -- to the present. Videos nicely complement the displays and include interviews with both long-gone leading citizens and present luminaries, such as New York Times columnist Frank Rich, who recalls growing up here when Washington was "quite segregated." He is pleased to note that times have changed.

The community scrapbook harks back to a time in the first half of the 20th century, when most Jews lived and worked in the inner city. There were three synagogues within three blocks of each other in Northwest, and they were best known by their locations: Eighth and I, Sixth and I, Fifth and I. Though they represented three different branches of Judaism, the city closed that stretch of I Street on the High Holidays, and worshipers visited back and forth. By contrast, one photograph shows an unwelcoming sign at Beverly Beach, on the bay at Mayo, Md., restricting membership to "Gentiles Only."

The bulldozing of old Southwest Washington in the name of urban renewal destroyed both Jewish and black neighborhoods, and there is hardly a sadder picture in the exhibition than that of the half-demolished Moorish towers of Talmud Torah, the Orthodox synagogue, whose cantor was Al Jolson's father. The synagogue merged with Ohev Shalom at Fifth and I. The combined congregation moved in 1960 to a new building on upper 16th Street NW, where it remains today. It's a bittersweet outcome.

But the tone of this ambitious exhibition is more nostalgic than somber: Here's a portable typewriter that belonged to Shirley Povich, the late, longtime Washington Post sportswriter and columnist. There's a menu from Hofberg's Deli at Georgia and Eastern avenues. Here's an invitation to the Dec. 7, 1957, bar mitzvah of Jeremy Benjamin Stein, Nixon speechwriter, lawyer, writer, actor and erstwhile host of Comedy Central's "Win Ben Stein's Money."

The exhibition will appeal to a wide audience but may resonate especially with those immersed in Washingtoniana. Much of the Jewish community's story tracks the District's as well. From the first buildings to the current downtown renaissance, Jews have played prominent and sometimes conflicting roles.

The schism between German and Eastern European Jews, for example, is noted but not overly emphasized. German Jews belonged to Washington Hebrew, a Reform congregation that sought assimilation among the larger population. Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews joined local shuls and were generally Orthodox. German Jews largely resided west of Rock Creek Park, Russian Jews east of the park, which was later to become a racial divide between whites and blacks. Applying to all were real estate covenants that kept Jews (along with blacks) out of such neighborhoods as Crestwood, Spring Valley and Wesley Heights. The covenants were outlawed in 1948, but they had led to the creation of other unrestricted, affluent enclaves such as Forest Hills, informally known as "Hanukah Heights."

"Jewish Washington" points out -- and rightly so -- the important role played by the community's activists in the fight for racial justice. What it does not mention is that those who fought segregation in the District were largely, with notable exceptions, northern transplants. Jewish native Washingtonians tended to adopt the dominant racial attitudes of this essentially southern city: Along with many non-Jewish whites, they left the District in droves when schools desegregated in the 1950s.

And after the 1968 racial riots, the Jewish Community Center at 16th and Q streets NW followed most of its members to the suburbs, to a 21-acre site in Rockville. A plan to keep the downtown center was scrapped; it closed in 1969.

But demographics are nothing if not changing. In the 1990s, Jewish District residents bought back and renovated the building, and the D.C. JCC is now thriving there once again. Thus the exhibition ends on an upbeat note: Jewish Washington has in a sense returned to its inner-city roots. The second Adas Israel, built in 1908 and sold to a black church when the congregation moved uptown, is now the Historic Sixth & I Synagogue, while the black worshipers have taken their church to suburban Maryland.

The reconversion of the old Adas is largely due to the generosity of three Jewish benefactors: developers Shelton Zuckerman and Douglas Jemal (who has played a major role in the downtown renaissance), and MCI Center and Wizards owner Abe Pollin.

To bring matters full circle, MCI Center sits on land once occupied by the hardware store of immigrant Isadore Small, whose great-grandson Albert H. "Sonny" Small Jr. is a developer living in Bethesda with his wife and two teenage children. His voice is among those heard in the final video.

This is a region often perceived as being primarily transient. While there may be a grain of truth to that, there is another greater truth: the enduring presence of native Washingtonians -- black, Jewish, you name it. Five generations in, the Smalls are still here.

Jewish Washington: Scrapbook of an American Community , at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW, through Jan. 8. Open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. 202-272-2448, or visit http://www.nbm.org/ or http://www.jhsgw.org/ .

© 2005 The Washington Post Company