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Out Comes New Calendar Depicting 'Collective Community Memory'
Budd Rockower was a major fan of Groucho Marx. When Rockower discovered that Marx bought shares of his clothing company, he sent him a necktie. In response, he received a letter from the famed comedian, dated Feb. 10, 1972: "Dear Budd. Thanks for the necktie. It is sensational. If the stock goes down, I'll hang myself with it. Sincerely, Groucho Marx."
The letter is a prized possessions of Rockower's daughter, Joan Rockower Greenfield of Dresher.
It is also one of the preserved letters, notes and other mementos included in a new 2010-11 (5771-72) calendar, "Letter for Letter," produced by the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center.
The theme of the calendar is that at a time in our lives when most communication is extremely high-tech, the joy of taking pen in hand and writing a letter is becoming rare -- a lost part of the fabric of our Jewish heritage.
The 38-year-old archives is the repository of the Jewish history of Greater Philadelphia and southern New Jersey. The mission of the archives, now a special collection at the Urban Archives of the Temple University Libraries, is "to preserve and disseminate the records of our past to help formulate the lessons for future generations," explained calendar co-creator Susan Popkin, one of the group's board vice presidents. "The letters and journals in this calendar bring to life voices from the past in a personal and touching way."
The goal of the calendar, officials say, is to raise money toward an endowment for a permanent archivist at the new university location.
The calendar, published in time for the new Jewish year, is also meant to spur new generations of Philadelphia Jews to share rich stories of their lives while gathered at their holiday tables and beyond, according to officials at the archives.
Each page of the 13-month calendar contains the letters and mementoes that piece together a particular story. There are letters of courtship, marriage, family life, farm life and businesses that have been passed down through the generations. Some of the letters are poetic, and the prose practically leaps from the page. There are stories about family trees, letters home to family members in Germany and Russia, letters from the war and more.
One story focuses on Zelda Rabinowitz Meranze, born in 1905, the daughter of Joseph and Lena Rabinowitz, who were among the earliest settlers of Woodbine, N.J., a Jewish agricultural community founded in the late 19th century.
Meranze had deep and wonderful memories of growing up in Woodbine. A scrapbook given to her by her sister, Clara, revealed her interest in recording and saving mementoes that captured much of her young life in this unique community. When Meranze passed away in 2000, her daughter, Julie Meranze Levitt, enlisted the archives to help catalogue all the documents her mother left behind.
"Upon my mother's death, I went over a considerable amount of material -- personal letters, scrapbooks and annotated books to which she had added her own personal commentary, and decided I needed to find a home for my mother's collection," she explained.
Levitt, of Bala Cynwyd, spearheaded the creation of a South Jersey Jewish Settlement Collection at the archives and an oral history component, which represents 100 years of memories from Woodbine, N.J.
The stories in the calendar are "part of the collective community memory," she said.
Another treasure recently found was a letter from a Russian Jewish boy, 10-year-old Avi Goldstein, who in 1982 wrote "to the lucky American girl who received a letter" from Yuri Andropov, former general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in the hope of enlisting help for his family to obtain exit visas from Russia. He described the frustrations and discrimination suffered by his family since they had applied to immigrate in 1971.
The letter led to a "fascinating treasure hunt to discover the identity of the un-named American girl, and to learn more about the boy and his full story," said Popkin. "The letter, included in the calendar with the answers to its mysteries, is just one example of the richness of life held in each and every word preserved."
Jerry Ruderman, of Philadelphia, 79, a former high school history teacher, said that discovering such gems is the main reason he has been volunteering for the archives for nearly eight years. He also loves making order out of chaos.
"I don't think that many big cities in the country, or in the world, have anything like this," he said. "Almost any box I open I can find something worthy of this calendar."
When he was doing his own genealogy work, Ruderman said that the archives helped him find the immigrant bank in Philadelphia where his uncle sent money to his family (including Ruderman's mother, parents and two sisters) back in Russia.
"In less than two minutes," he recalled, they found the Web site listing where his family lived in Russia, "and helped me figure out the path they took to Philadelphia."
For more information about the calendar or the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center, call 215-925-8090 or write to the center at: P.O. Box 1798, Philadelphia, PA 19105.