Among the Jewish immigrants who arrived in America at the turn of the past century, most brought little in the way of material riches. Nonetheless, Cantor David Tillman said, “they brought with them tremendous culture.”
Sitting in the tiny Temple Judea Museum, located in suburban Philadelphia’s Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, Tillman motioned to the Yiddish playbills, theater posters, sheet music and LP sleeves that were on display in the glass cases. The millions of immigrants who crowded into New York City’s Lower East Side 100 years ago “had no money, so they couldn’t go to Carnegie Hall,” Tillman continued. “And even if they could have gone, they wouldn’t have understood any of it. Yiddish theater was their way of acculturation.”
This musical and theatrical heritage is on display through March 25 in the museum’s current exhibit Molly Picon, Fridl Braur and a Mishpocha of Yiddish Music, which marks the debut of the Eugene and Marie Buxton Collection of Jewish Music and the Performing Arts.
“Music is central to the Bible,” the museum’s director and curator, Rita Rosen Poley, told the Forward. “Music is central to who we are as Jews. I don’t want [Yiddish music] to be an artifact. I want people to come in here and use it.”
So, when Tillman and his friend and colleague Cantor Jack Kessler, music director for the band Klingon Klezmer, came in to browse the collection, Poley lovingly opened one of the cases and handed them a pile of handwritten sheet music by Israeli composer Gabriel Grad. The two men pored over the yellowing pile of inked and red pencil-scrawled paper, occasionally bursting into a niggun and banging the table. “Look at this,” Tillman said. “It’s a duet, for piano and tenor, and —” he squinted at the Yiddish, “—psanteran. Piano.”
The museum occupies some 400 mauve-carpeted square feet in the synagogue’s grand, airy lobby. Its offerings began as two private collections in the 1940s and ’50s: Rabbi Meyer Lasker of nearby Temple Judea and Rabbi Bertram Korn of Keneseth Israel were avid collectors of Jewish ceremonial items and artwork. After World War II, they traveled to Europe to rescue the remaining Jewish artifacts. When Temple Judea closed in 1984, the two collections were merged and, with a $150,000 endowment, the Temple Judea Museum was founded. Its collection now includes some 1,500 objects, two of which are the second-oldest American ketubah, dating from the 1700s, and a British circumcision set from the 1800s. Poley, a spunky redheaded grandmother and veteran art administrator, is the museum’s second professional director and its sole employee.
Two years ago, Marie Buxton, a Kneseth Israel congregant, donated $10,000 to begin a special collection for the museum, focusing on music and the performing arts. Poley used the gift to make the collection’s first acquisition — on eBay. At the time, she had never heard of Gabriel Grad, a Lithuanian-born musician and composer who founded a conservatory in Tel Aviv in 1925. But when she saw a collection of his papers available on eBay for $90, she thought she’d take a chance. The items that arrived were not just the handwritten sheet music and notes, but also his passport and those of his wife and son, insurance documents and a 1927 Certificate of Naturalization from the Government of Palestine. The collection was off to a promising start, and Poley still had more than $9,900 on hand.
From there, Poley went on to acquire a similar collection of papers and handwritten notes from Yiddish composer Michl Gilbert (who wrote the Yiddish words to “I Have a Little Dreidel”), original playbills from three stage productions starring legendary Yiddish actress Molly Picon (“A Majority of One,” “Milk and Honey” and “How To Be a Jewish Mother”), photographs, vinyl records, sheet music, books, broadsides, and programs and announcements for events in early Palestine (two programs announce the opening of Tel Aviv’s Habima Theater, in 1917). Many of the items were acquired on eBay for just $4 or $5. One songsheet, which features an art-nouveau-style drawing of a plump woman, is for the Yiddish song “Kolumbus, Ich Hob Tsav Dir Gor Nit,” or, “Columbus, You Have Done Me No Good.” An accompanying sign explains that the song was probably inspired by Gershon Rosenzweig’s 1894 novel, “Talmud Yankee” — “one of many satiric literary expressions of discontent with life in America… A Klug Tzu Columbus, [or] ‘A curse upon Columbus,’ was another phrase frequently used by Yiddish speaking Jewish immigrants.”
About half the items in the current exhibition were purchased with Buxton’s original gift; Poley estimates that the Buxton collection now contains almost 300 items. Additional items, such as shofars, handmade Purim groggers and other decorative objects, were selected from the museum’s existing collection. And still others were donated by congregants. “I turn nothing down,” Poley said of the private donations, “because I don’t know how they’ll turn out or what they’ll be.”
One of the museum’s most enthusiastic supporters is a congregant who works as an antiques dealer (he is the reason that the museum owns the ketubah; he heard about it through the antiques grapevine, flew down to Pittsburgh to buy it, brought it home and donated it to the museum). Poley recalls one day when the dealer’s wife came in with a huge box of books. “She said, ‘Here, Rita, have this. My husband found it — he doesn’t even know where it came from’!” Inside the box, Poley discovered handwritten music by Aaron Friedmann, high music director of Berlin’s Royal Academy of Art. Friedmann served as chief cantor of Berlin’s Old Synagogue from 1882 until 1923.
Another congregant saw an invitation to the current exhibit and called the museum. “I got your invitation — you want some records?” he asked Poley. On display from his collection are the 1961 album “Connie Francis Sings Jewish Favorites” (an accompanying sign explains that Francis learned Yiddish when she got her start as a young performer at Grossinger’s, a Catskills resort) and an album by 1940s Yiddish radio personality Shaindele.
Chana Mlotek, music archivist of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, said a collection like the one on display at the Temple Judea Museum is very important. “Yiddish cultural life in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s is a culture of our American heritage, and [an exhibition like this] is a symbol of that culture,” she told the Forward. Physical representations of Yiddish music and theater, she said, are like “a window to our cultural treasures.”
The only problem with the museum is that it may be too small to showcase all the collection’s items. Between her knack for finding hidden treasures, and congregants’ donations of their own prized possessions, Poley said, “I could have filled a space three times the size of this place.”
The Temple Judea Museum is located in Elkins Park, Pa. The exhibit runs until March 25. For more information, call (215) 887-2027, or visit www.kenesethisrael.org/mus.htm .