Assembling a Portrait of Early American Jewish Life


A collection one historian calls "perhaps the richest archive of early American Jewish life ever assembled" is on display through a unique partnership between Penn and the National Museum of American Jewish History. 

When it came time to find permanent lodging for the 11,000 objects in their collection of Early American Judaica, Arnold and Deanne Kaplan had two non-negotiable requirements for any institution interested in its acquisition: That the treasures remain together as an organic whole, and that they be made accessible to as broad an audience as possible.

The couple also let it be known that it wouldn’t hurt if the collection’s new home was somewhere in the Philadelphia area, where many of the documents and other memorabilia in the vast assemblage originated.

“Dee and I had always known — maybe not in the ’70s, when we began collecting, but certainly by the ’80s — that we would give this collection somewhere,” Arnold Kaplan, a retired businessman, says. “We decided early on that if we were lucky enough, an institution would want it.”

In fact, numerous institutions expressed an interest in obtaining the objects. In the end, the University of Pennsylvania Libraries and the National Museum of American Jewish History formed a rare partnership to secure what Philadelphia historian Beth Wenger calls “perhaps the richest archive of early American Jewish life ever assembled.”

The Kaplans’ collection is the product of more than four decades of lovingly executed legwork. They haunted antique markets and auction halls, beginning in the Philadelphia-Lancaster area and gradually expanding to any place in the world that offered their preferred Americana. By tracking down even the most elusive of contacts and scouring the Internet, they ultimately created a historical record that spans the years 1555 to 1890, featuring art objects as well as paper ephemera.

Its treasures include engravings illustrating Jewish mercantile settlement in Dutch Suriname in the 17th century and in the Caribbean; an original print of a document granting Jewish emancipation issued by the British Parliament in 1739; and the passport of Sabato Morais, issued by the Italian Consulate in London in 1854 to the Philadelphian recognized as the principal founder of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

 “They amassed their collection so quietly and so brilliantly,” says Arthur Kiron, Penn’s Schottenstein-Jesselson Curator of Judaica Collections and the librarian charged with overseeing an exhibition devoted to the items on display now through June 6 at Penn’s Van Pelt-Dietrich Library in Philadelphia.

“A large part of it was having the judgment and the insight to realize what was meaningful and significant.”

Valued at $8.5 million, the Kaplan Collection of Early American Judaica offers a day-to-day look at how American Jews made their livings, observed their holidays, nurtured their families and buried their loved ones back when the United States was young.

The couple was in their 30s when their collecting odyssey began, fueled as much by economic realities as by a growing passion for early Americana.

Just out of school — he with a master’s in computer science and finance from Carnegie Melon University, she with a bachelor of science in education and history from the University of Pittsburgh — they realized that a used early American chest of drawers would cost less than a medium-priced new piece.

They started amassing memorabilia on a modest budget — “extremely modest,” Kaplan says — first with non-Jewish items such as German-style baptismal certificates known as Taufschein, prepared by traveling scribes between 1830 and 1870 for Pennsylvania Dutch families.

In a catalogue for the exhibition, which opened in February, Kaplan relates what happened next.

“In the early 1970s, I came across a printed Taufschein, circa 1840, at Renninger’s Flea Market in Lancaster. It was sold and filled in by a literate traveling merchant/scrivener at a farmhouse in the area. The certificate was not unusual, except for the fact that the scribe signed his name in cursive Yiddish. To the dealer, the document was just another piece of low-value ephemera. After some customary haggling, it was mine for about $10.

“My interest in early American Jewish history had been piqued. So began the long journey of collecting in an arena that Dee and I have shared,” writes Kaplan, a native of Pittsburgh who lived for many years in Allentown and West Chester.

In those early years, the couple flew mostly under the radar. So-called “serious” collectors turned their noses up at the business receipts and Victorian-era trade cards — Deanne’s specialty — that would ultimately weave a tapestry of American Jews’ impact on the nation’s commerce.

When the market for Judaica began heating up in the 1990s, the Kaplans’ quest became more challenging. But to this day, they conduct it on their own, with no agent or middleman involved. Even with the collection safely donated, they continue to seek new acquisitions.

Among Kaplan’s favorites is a 16-page handwritten luach, or calendar, begun in 1778 by one Abraham Eliezer Cohen, schoolmaster at Mikveh Israel Congregation in Philadelphia, and completed after he and many of the city’s Jews fled to Lancaster County when the British invaded Philadelphia.

Kaplan dubbed it the “Patriot’s Luach.” It is one of only 10 or so in existence inscribed to a woman in an era when few women learned to read.

“Every collector has that emotional spark when they find something,” says Kaplan, who retired as chief financial officer of United Health Group in 2002 and now lives with Deanne in Lakewood Ranch, Fla., near Sarasota. “The fact that you found something and you identified it — that’s a fairly adrenalin-filled emotion.”

Because the collection includes three-dimensional works such as oil paintings, silver pieces and ritual items, the Kaplans, Penn and the museum reached an agreement stipulating that Penn, which owns the entire collection, would loan the 3D objects to the museum on a long-term basis. Kiron says such arrangements are fairly unusual. As for easy public access to the rest of the collection, there are plans to digitize it all by 2015 as a resource for scholars, historians and anyone with an interest in Jewish life in America.

As it stands, the museum has already taken receipt of all 3D objects from the Kaplan collection not currently being shown at Penn, with those items to be brought down at the end of the show. As with the items at Penn, they will be available for viewing by request. The museum has yet to determine how to best display the objects.

“It’s a beautiful marriage when you put all those things together,” says Kaplan. “And I get the best of both worlds: I still collect, but I have the pleasure of talking with Arthur and other academics on a regular basis and I don’t have to worry about the physical safety of the items.”

The Arnold and Deanne Collection of Early American Judaica is on display at the Goldstein Family Gallery in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Van Pelt- Dietrich Library, 3420 Walnut Street during library hours (


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here