- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 1, 2005

The Jewish community in Washington has had an important hand in the region’s economic, social and geographical changes during the 210 years since Isaac Polok, the first Jewish settler, moved here.

The evolution of Washington’s Jewish community is chronicled in a temporary exhibit at the National Building Museum in Northwest. “Jewish Washington: Scrapbook of an American Community,” covers the time from Polok’s arrival here through today’s vibrant population of about 200,000.

The exhibit, which has been extended to run through spring, is an offshoot of the traveling exhibit at the Library of Congress last year, says Laura Schiavo, director of museum programs for the Jewish Historical Society, the group that organized the exhibit. The Library of Congress show celebrated 350 years of Jews in America.

“That was the national story,” Ms. Schiavo says. “This is the local story.”

Ms. Schiavo points out that Jewish history in Washington varies a bit from the story of many other cities. Large numbers of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia were drawn to places such as New York and Baltimore because they were points of entry where industrial jobs were plentiful. Jewish families put down roots in those sorts of cities; some of them stayed for generations.

Because the federal government is the main industry in Washington, larger numbers of Jewish residents came later, when they were more educated and established. This pattern is shown in the exhibit, explaining how President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal drew many families to town.

Still, the story does go back further, and the exhibit is divided into sections that show changes throughout the years. Words and pictures mainly narrate the information, but there are artifacts, too, such as a prayer shawl from the 1870s and a pew from the original Washington Hebrew Congregation building.

Later in the exhibit, the displays turn to more campy, nostalgic items that will appeal to anyone who grew up in Washington. There are decades-old menus from Hofberg’s Deli and the original Hot Shoppe, as well as photos from some of the suburbs, such as Silver Spring, that attracted many Jewish families to move out of the city limits after World War II. There is a copy of the invitation to the bar mitzvah of comedian and game show host Ben Stein, who had his coming-of-age ceremony in suburban Maryland in the 1950s.

One of the most interesting elements of the exhibit is how it looks at the Jewish community’s impact on the District’s economy. Many Jewish families were small-businesses owners. Some mom-and-pop shops were victims of the city’s race riots in 1968. Others, however, endured and went on to be huge companies — some of which are still around and others that are a part of Washington history.

Among them: Hecht’s, Giant Foods, Lansburgh’s department store, Kann’s department store, G Street Fabrics, Hechinger’s and Marlo Furniture.

Jewish businessmen also played an important role in the real estate development of the region. Among the big names who are honored here: Charles E. Smith, Morris Cafritz and Albert Small.

At the end of the exhibit, there is a space for visitors to write their opinions of the show and their memories of growing up in Washington. The responses show that you don’t even have to be Jewish to have memories of Jewish Washington.

“My first job was at Hecht’s,” notes one visitor. “I never knew the history of the store.”

Says another: “I remember eating corned beef sandwiches and drinking cream soda at Hofberg’s.”

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