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A Museum Dedicated to Southern Jewish Heritage

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 19, 2024 3:04 am

A Museum Dedicated to Southern Jewish Heritage

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 19, 2024 3:04 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, a visitor to this museum today would never guess that it began with a single closet of donated records - truly growing from the ground floor! Longtime archivist Sandy Berman and Founding Executive Director Jane Leevi tell the story of their museum.

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Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb

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Visit slash schedule for ways to watch. Subscribe now to Variety confidential wherever you get your podcasts. And we return to our American stories. And up next, a story from one of the first museums dedicated to Jewish history and heritage in the United States self, the Bremen Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, Georgia. The museum's archives contain countless oral and written histories of Jews in Georgia and Alabama. And we happened to visit when they were celebrating their 25th anniversary and putting on the chutzpah exposition, a celebration of Jewish stories from the south.

Here's our own Monty Montgomery with a story. In Atlanta, Georgia, close to downtown and right next to the Center for Puppetry Arts is the Bremen Jewish Heritage Museum, one of the few museums dedicated to Jewish history in the deep south. Here's Jane Levy, the founding executive director of the Bremen, with more. You know, the Jewish history in this country, most people think of as the big cities of the north and so southern Jewish history for people who aren't Jewish history scholars is something of an oxymoron. But how long have Jewish people been in the south and in Georgia?

Here's the Bremen's founding archivist, Sandy Berman, with the answer to that question. In 1733, right after Oglethorpe came to settle the colony, Jews were on the next ship and they were at first not entirely welcome, the charter said, and that was only for Christians. But there was a physician on board and there was an illness going around and they needed help. The physician helped, his name was Dr. Samuel Nunez and he was one of this group of Jews who were coming and he helped the colony, saved the colony from all this death and they allowed the Jews to come in and the rest is sort of history. A very rich history, but Atlanta didn't have a museum dedicated to it until the 80s. It was an interesting process to get to that point too, and it started with an exhibition, then an idea. It was 250 years of Jewish life in Georgia and it was at Emery's Chatton Gallery. In doing that first exhibition, we had volunteers who had ties to all the small towns in Georgia, which is where Jewish history started. And they uncovered all this wonderful stuff from family businesses that, you know, existed in the 17-1800s, photographs of peddlers and wonderful memorabilia. And that exhibition closed and they had all this stuff that they didn't know what to do with. So I had this idea that there should be a Jewish museum in Atlanta and I was sitting on the beach in Hilton Head with my yellow legal pad, which I wish we still used, and I wrote a proposal for a Jewish museum. We were working for the Jewish Federation, so the Federation board passed the proposal in concept, which, as you know, means great idea, no money.

If you can figure out how to do it, be my guest. So it actually began when Sandy came and we got a gift of $2500 to buy archival boxes and folders. And the volunteer little job turned into, let's do a fair, let's have a show. It was like, let's make an archive, let's make a museum.

And they put me in a closet, literally a closet. It was the smallest space and we started to collect. Then we collected the papers of Rabbi Harry Epstein, who was the rabbi of a conservative congregation here in Atlanta for over 50 years.

His papers could have gone to any repository in the country, really, but for some reason he trusted this little closet archive. And that was really the foundation, that and the Federation's records that went all the way back to 1912. So we had these two very, very strong collections to get us started. And then we just started to slowly collect in First Atlanta. And then as we grew and we got grants to include the whole state of Georgia because all of these things were being lost. And then we realized no one was collecting in Alabama. And so there was all of these small little communities in Alabama where there was a Jewish presence and great stories about the people who made history in Georgia and in Alabama.

And we just expanded to Alabama then. And if it wasn't for museums and archives, those stories would be forever lost. And we have so many examples of people and their stories that have been forgotten.

And I will just tell you one very quickly. So there was a man by the name of Albert Steiner. There's a building on the campus of Emory University in Atlanta called the Steiner Building. And you would ask, who was Albert Steiner? What is the Steiner Building? And not one person would be able to tell you.

No one would be able to tell you why they have a building name for Steiner and what it was. He was a brewer and was president of Atlanta Bottling and Ice Company. Well, in the early part of the century, his son died of cancer, his wife died of cancer, and then he got cancer. And when he died, he gave over $600,000, which if you can imagine what that money is in terms of today's money, to Grady Hospital and established the Steiner Cancer Clinic. Cancer clinics across the country were modeled after it. And he was so well loved and well liked by the people in this company that they named a brew for him. It's called the Steiner Brew.

And it was around for a very, very long time. And we have a beer bottle label, we have a bottle of beer, and we have a corkscrew from the Atlanta Ice and Bottling Company, all in memory of Albert Steiner and the philanthropy he did. So that's just one small story, and there are so many of patriotism and perseverance of Jews who conform to the mores of the South, the culture of the South, and those who perhaps not.

To just life and benevolence and giving back and the community. Do you want to tell a story? No.

Okay. So there was a man named Isidor Strauss, who emigrated from Bohemia, wound up in Talbotton, Georgia. He was too old to fight in the Civil War, so he went to England and helped with the blockade of ships on the southern shore of England. Then he and his brother wound up in New York, and they opened a business called El Strauss Glass and Jewelry, which was part of R. H. Macy's. They eventually bought R. H. Macy, and he, Isidor Strauss, is also remembered as, with his wife Ida, as the loving couple that went down with the Titanic when it sank. If you saw the movie Titanic, there was one scene where this couple, you know, when there is this frenzy of pushing women and children into the lifeboats, Ida, his wife, turned around to him and said, if you can't come, I'm not going.

And his house, the family home, still exists in Talbotton. I'll tell you a personal story. When our oldest son was three and wanted chocolate chip cookies, and I said to him, we don't have any more, they're all gone. He said, show me the all gone. And that's, you know, right there is really the purpose of an archive. Some people look at museums as stuffy old places, you hang stuff on the wall, you put stuff in a case, and you walk away, you're done. But museums are important because without them, people are forgotten. And without archives, people are forgotten. And it gives voice to those people.

It brings them back. It's all about Jewish life and what has transpired in Georgia and Alabama since 1733 until now. And a superb piece of storytelling by Monty Montgomery and we love visiting museums of all kinds on this show. It's all about storytelling and preserving the past.

That's what museums do and thank God for them. And a special thanks to Sandy Berman and to Jane Levy. Check out their chutzpah exhibition at the museum. It's a truly special one created by the people behind the founding of this wonderful place in Atlanta, Georgia.

The story of Jews in the South here on Our American Stories. So sign up now at That's The road to Super Bowl 58 continues this weekend with the divisional playoffs presented by Intuit Turbo Tax and it's heating up. Eight teams, four games, two days, one chance to make it to championship Sunday. The divisional playoffs presented by Intuit Turbo Tax. And it all comes down to this. Action kicks off on Saturday at 4.30 p.m. Eastern. Visit slash schedule for ways to watch.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-01-19 04:42:36 / 2024-01-19 04:47:15 / 5

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