- From the Collections of the American Jewish Historical Society:Photograph of a Kosher Delicatessen1
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Jennifer Gilmore says:
I’m a novelist who writes often about history, and in my research I have always found that photos do something a text cannot: they let me feel the past. They give me a sense of a time and place. In a way, the Jewish delicatessen is timeless. But it is also a frozen moment of a time when neighborhoods were separated by ethnicity. And what more than food reveals cultural identity? This image, now ubiquitous, tells the story of an urban Jewish neighborhood like the one I set part of my first novel in.
So many photos like this one, with its minute and infinite details, were my ticket in to a faraway narrative. I could create a whole story about what is happening in that deli or on the street in front of it. (Who is Rabbi Karnowitz? I would have to know!)
This photo is really a novel in disguise. [End Page 65]
Annie Polland—photo response
I am intrigued by the store, and I try to imagine its place in the everyday life of its owners, workers and customers. What would it be like to stand in the street and peer inside? What would it be like to stand within the store and look out the window? To transform this photo into a public history exhibit, I’d create an immersive space that would allow visitors to soak up the atmosphere and to craft their own questions merely by standing in the space.
Ever since wandering through “The Streets of Old Milwaukee” exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum as a child, I’ve been inspired by the sense of wonder and curiosity immersive spaces inspire. The exhibit recreates a block of turn-of-the-twentieth-century homes and businesses, enfolding the visitor into the excitement of exploration and, perhaps more broadly, into an understanding that history can be about everyday life. The experience is powerful and transporting: The cobblestones underfoot make one reconsider something as basic as walking and the wood-plank sidewalks steady one’s gait, enabling one to peer into the windows of photography studios, candy stores and saloons, each with its own diorama-like interior.
As a historian looking back, I realize that the magical effect of that exhibit owes its power and reach to painstaking research. Rigorous research is essential to any public history exhibit; it forms the basis for the “set” and the storytelling that immerses the visitors in a time period, and it sparks their questions and curiosity. Public history is not about guesswork; the role of the public historian is to conduct solid research into the details of the particular space one recreates, and to have a solid grasp of the broader historical currents that shaped that space. One does homework, in other words, to honor the historical subjects whose lives one seeks to interpret and to also honor the public. Visitors deserve a context—both physical and informative—that equips them with the tools to inquire and to imagine.
So, the first task of the public historian would be to research the photo: Who took the photo, and for what purpose? Who ran the business? If it was a family-run business, I would explore the family’s background through census records and city directories. I would scour the local newspapers for advertisements, and local synagogue bulletins for evidence of the family’s rites of passage. I might try to locate jubilee volumes of Jewish clubs and organizations that often carried messages and advertisements from local businesses.
After finding as much basic information as possible, I would locate the descendants of the store’s owner and interview them. Was the store [End Page 66] always at that location? Given the nature of the store, and the multiple ways signs on the front window communicated the owners’ observance of kashrut, I’d be especially interested in the family’s observance. How did the family members define kashrut with regard to the...