It was 1948, and the civil rights movement was on the precipice of going mainstream. One evening, a crowd of protesters gathered at Ford’s Theatre in Baltimore armed with picket signs and visions of a brighter future.
Off to the side, a black man shared a look with a white woman. The latter’s sign read: ANTI-SEMITISM IS KIN TO JIM CROWISM. WE OPPOSE BOTH.
That moment was captured by Paul Henderson, and the ensuing photograph now resides in the Temple Judea Museum at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. It’s part of the “Before our Eyes: History, Humor and Humanity,” exhibit, a collection of 72 historic press photographs that capture the essence of Jewish life from a generation’s past.
The exhibit opened Aug. 31 and runs through mid-November.
“If you look at Jewish history since the middle of the last century, since the beginning of the Zionist movement and the development of Israel, photographers were right there on the front lines and the photographs were printed in newspapers,” said Rita Poley, the museum’s director/curator.
In addition to KI, the old Temple Judea Synagogue contributed. The museum primarily consists of Judaica, but Poley jumped at the opportunity to include the photographs.
A longtime lover of photography who worked at a Philadelphia photo gallery in the 1980s, Poley discovered that hordes of vernacular images depicting everyday Jewish life from the 20th century were readily available on eBay.
“Our museum is very poor. We don’t have a lot of money, but photographs are very inexpensive,” Poley said. “We have a wonderful collection of Judaica, like tiny menorahs and Shabbat artifacts, but we couldn’t continue to buy them because they became so expensive. We own that collection already and we’re looking for a new direction. … I focused on photographs, which were undervalued and under-collected.”
The collection has been a hit. With increased visitors frequenting KI for the High Holidays, many are peeking into the gallery that offers a window into the Jewish experience.
Poley could hardly contain her excitement when asked to share some of her favorite items from the collection. She first pointed to an image from 1934. It was taken in Chicago, where a woman working a market stand sold a pair of spectacles to another woman as the market superintendent, a tall man wearing a fedora, looked on.
“If you were thinking of, ‘What is a Jewish photograph?,’ that is not one you’d think of,” Poley said. “It’s a scene of a market in early 1930s. It’s how Jews lived. It’s surprising. If I would ask people to pick 10 Jewish photographs they wouldn’t [mention] this one. [But] it’s how Jewish immigrants made their living.”
Some photos have a more serious tone. One snapshot from 1933 shows a German stormtrooper stationed outside a Jewish-owned shop as part of Nazi Germany’s boycott of Jewish merchants. “It’s terrible,” Poley said.
Others are more hopeful. An image from 1973 captures a Jewish man from Russia being processed at the Israeli reception camp in Schoenau, Austria.
And then are pictures that resonate with Jewish values. A snapshot from 1929 shows Alfred H. Cohen, former international president of the Independent Order of the B’nai Brith, with his arms over the shoulders of a pair of young girls. It’s the opening of the Cleveland Jewish Orphan Home.
“There was such a substantial amount of Jewish orphans at that time that there were orphanages,” Poley said. “You can see [the girls’] socks rolled down. I don’t know, I love that. I love to see how they were dressed, how they were cared for.”
Poley could go on and on, she noted. She often finds herself gushing over the collection. Part of it was featured at the Galleries at Krasdale Foods in Bronx, N.Y., before returning to Elkins Park.