A new exhibit titled Jewish Washington: Scrapbook of an American Community made its premiere on a rainy March 15 at the Lyceum, featuring a variety of fascinating stories and photos depicting the Jewish community in the area. The exhibit also contains artifacts from the Jewish community in Northern Virginia from 1795 to the present.
The more than 100 people who braved the chilly rain found that their efforts to attend the opening reception for the Jewish Washington Scrapbook exhibit and one-woman play well-worth their time. The Lyceum Museums room with display cases and story banners was full of people, and the building hummed with life as other guests milled around in the historical Alexandria galleries. As the one-woman play was ready to begin, the rooms emptied out and guests went upstairs to experience Anna Schulman: The Queen of H Street, a living history performance.
For the handful of visitors who lingered in the exhibit room, there was space to read the historical story banners about Jewish life in the D.C. area over the past two centuries. A 10-inch-by-17-inch stained glass window from Beth El Hebrew Congregation is in the center of the room, lined with historical descriptions of Washingtons Jewish population. A few feet away is another glass case with the 19th century ledger from the Hebrew Benevolent Society.
Before the play began, Laura Apelbaum, the Executive Director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, welcomed the standing-room only crowd. Apelbaum explained that, The exhibit tells some of the many stories of Jewish life in Northern Virginia many told for the first time to a wider public audience. She continued and told the audience that in the exhibit, Visitors learn about the areas first Jews arriving in Alexandria in the 1850s, and about the two early Jewish congregations, Beth El Hebrew and Agudas Achim, that continue to thrive today. They also learn that when Rabbi Emmett Frank spoke out about resistance to school integration in the late 1950s, his car was set on fire, and about todays active Jewish community in Northern Virginia . . . the fastest growing in the greater Washington area, which has spread all the way out to Loudoun county. Apelbaum then set the stage for the one-woman play The Queen of H Street to begin.
The Queen of H Street was the most gripping part of the opening reception. The moving production was set in the 1930s and written by Sandra Eskin. It stars Susan Holliday, who convincingly took on the role of Anna Schulman from the moment she entered the room; she drew the audience in with her performance and actively engaged the overflowing crowd. As Anna, Holliday was witty, poignant, fascinating and engaging, leaving no doubt as to why this strong and determined, yet compassionate woman, was considered a legend.
Throughout the play, history was intertwined as Anna explained what it was like to be subjected to prejudice in Russia before coming to the United States with her grandfather. She told of the experience of traveling in steerage on the ship, which meant sleeping on wooden bunks and lining up with hundreds of other people to use a single bathroom. With excitement in her voice, Anna described seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time. The play shows the kindness and sensitivity of feisty, Jewish immigrant women like Anna, who helped the less fortunate during the 1930s Depression even though they were not wealthy themselves. The audience left the performance more enlightened about how difficult things were for Jewish people in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s, and how these resilient immigrants still found the bright side of life.
Regardless of what your religious persuasion, this is an exhibit that, while not vast, is worth a visit. Expect to be captivated by the history of the Jewish people of the greater Washington, D.C. area.
For more information, visit www.jhsgw.org or www.oha.alexandriava.gov/lyceum. The free exhibit, Jewish Washington: Scrapbook of an American Community, is on display at the Lyceum from now through June 14. To join the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, the group that put the traveling exhibit together, call 202-789-0900 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.