Greenwich’s Jewish history presented in new exhibit

By Keith Loria

The untold story of Greenwich’s Jewish community will now come to life, thanks to the Greenwich Historical Society’s landmark exhibition An American Odyssey: The Jewish Experience in Greenwich, which runs from Nov. 15 to April 15.

The captivating exhibit will include rare and historic memorabilia and will offer first-person accounts from Jewish residents of Greenwich, chronicling the Jewish community in the area dating to the turn of the last century.

Although faced with low numbers, periods of discrimination, and restrictions on worship, employment, and housing opportunities, the Jewish community made significant contributions to the cultural and economic vitality of Greenwich.

The exhibition is curated by Dr. Ann Meyerson, a nationally recognized independent museum curator, who recently co-curated The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World at the New York Historical Society.

Meyerson had just finished curating the New York show when she was approached by a board trustee of the Greenwich Historical Society, who asked her if she would be interested in doing a show in Connecticut.

“My first thought was, Are there Jews in Greenwich? And if so, when did they get there?” Meyerson said. “It sounded interesting, and I presented some ideas on what I thought would be interesting to do.”

Some of the questions she explored were, “Why did they come to Greenwich?” and “How did they get there?”

“It was not historically a center of Jewish life, so you have to wonder about the origins of the community,” Meyerson said. “I found there were books written on the Jews of Stamford, the Jews of Hartford, Jews of Fairfield County, Jews of Connecticut…almost nothing on the Jews of Greenwich. I found it had to do, in part, with a general discrimination against any group that wasn’t an adherent of the Congregationalist Church in Connecticut. But Greenwich’s particularly small Jewish population had its own specific story.”

She did a lot of research, including going to the Jewish Historical Society of Fairfield County, and after much planning, Meyerson had a plan in place. The exhibit examines how Jews, like other immigrants, struggled with the pull to integrate into American society and yet also remain distinct.

“I’ve done many exhibits on American Jewish history, so I know the basic trajectories of the migration of Jews to America,” Meyerson said. “In the case of Greenwich, I learned largely through primary sources — the oral histories taken in the 70s by the Greenwich Library — that they mostly came to New York but moved to Port Chester and from there, they moved to Greenwich.”

An American Odyssey: The Jewish Experience in Greenwich comprises seven overarching themes, each showcased by richly evocative stories, original objects, documents, and photographs: Jews in Colonial Greenwich; Mass Migration of Eastern European Jews; The Town the Settlers Found; Gaining an Economic Foothold 1880-1930; The Founding of Temple Sholom; Immigration Ends, Anti-Semitism Intensifies 1924-1940s; and Postwar Greenwich, Jews Suburbanize.

“I started thinking about what the big idea of the exhibit was, and as I did research, I started thinking of the objects we wanted to use to tell the story, and I went about trying to find them,” Meyerson said. “I was pretty pleased with what I was able to come up with, considering we really started with nothing.”

She was looking to collect things like letters, passports, diaries, marriage certificates, recipes, photos, and objects from businesses and other artifacts that could fill out the exhibit.

“I focus on six families who I have basically taken from the oral histories — the Cohens, Weisses, Bennetts, Tunicks, Taylors, and Markses,” Meyerson said. “I included audio clips and excerpts from the audio recordings of the adult children of the founders of the Jewish community of Greenwich. Through them, I tracked down descendants to find artifacts to tell their stories, and we ended up with some wonderful things.”

Some of the power pieces of the exhibit include a samovar brought from Russia by Barney and Sarah Tunick dated 1857, Isadore Pinkert’s World War II uniform, a postwar menu and postcard from the Clam Box, and photos of and objects from the first Jewish-owned businesses in Greenwich — The Weiss Favorite Shoe Store, Marks Bros. Newspaper Store, Bennett’s Grocery, Tunick’s Junk business, Cohen Brothers Grocery, and Taylor’s general store in Cos Cob.

“A terrific find was a shoebox and old-fashioned leather balloon blower and measuring tool used in the Weiss shoe store,” Meyerson said. “We also have an original paper bag from Marks Bros. Newspaper store.”

There will be also be a number of special events associated with the exhibit. The first one, “Story Barn: Oy Vey!” will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 17 and will feature stories told without notes on the subject of something gone awry, in a relaxed cabaret-like setting.

Meyerson will lead a “Coffee With the Curator” talk at 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 29, providing insights into the exhibition and a one-time public tour.

“What I want to tell visitors is how you go about creating what they are seeing in the gallery,” Meyerson said. “I want to go back and re-create the journey. I think people are interested in that.”

Also scheduled are Dr. Michael Feldberg, executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, who will discuss the history of the Jewish population of Greenwich at 7 p.m. on Jan. 16, and there will be an Afternoon Nosh at 12:30 p.m. on March 25, featuring foods representing traditional Jewish cuisine.

“I think this is really important to the Jewish community, given their checkered history with anti-Semitism, and we have some interesting artifacts to tell that story,” Meyerson said. “It is controversial. I think some Jews in Greenwich don’t want to talk about the past, but others do. I’m hoping everyone will feel good that the story is being told and presented with pride and respect.”

The Historical Society acknowledges the Greenwich Library Oral History Project and the Jewish Historical Society of Fairfield Country for their significant contributions to the exhibition.

The Greenwich Historical Society is located at 39 Strickland Road, Cos Cob, and the exhibition is open from noon to 4 Wednesday through Sunday.

For more information, visit greenwichhistory.org.

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