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The 'Stuff' of Dreams
A remarkable collection of more than 10,000 artifacts of Jewish Americana that includes matchbooks and menus, seltzer bottles and kiddush cups has found a home in Philadelphia.
At a reception last Thursday at the National Museum of American Jewish History, on Independence Mall East, the announcement was made of the donation of the Peter H. Schweitzer Collection, billed as "a landmark event in the field of Jewish history and scholarship."
Over decades, dating back to his childhood in suburban New York, Schweitzer has accumulated an eclectic collection of the material culture that reflects the everyday lives and experiences of Jews in America.
"It is perhaps the richest collection of its kind," declared Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimlett, professor of performance studies at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. "The collection itself is one big artifact."
Schweitzer, an ordained rabbi and leader of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York City, began by collecting the usual stuff of childhood - baseball cards and comic books, pennants and postage stamps - and stepped up to "bigger and better items," as he described, encouraged by his mother, who cherished antiques.
He moved on to his own penchant - in the form of turn-of-the-century Jewish postcards "and a whole new world of collecting," buying by mail and at postcard shows. "I didn't know what was out there," he said in a recent interview. "I had been newly ordained, and postcards of old rabbis caught my fancy. I began to collect more and more."
The collection Schweitzer has given to the museum goes well beyond postcards. It includes an accumulation of objects of Jewish Americana: a fur storage card dated 1965 from Rosenbaum's department store in Pittsburgh; posters urging clemency for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; a room key from Grossinger's in the Catskills; as well as a lunch menu from the resort hotel, featuring an egg-salad sandwich on Jennie Grossinger's Country Club Rye Bread.
Here, too, are neon signs from kosher butcher shops, old newspapers and sheet music, high school yearbooks and Yiddish typewriters.
While he kept much of his collection in his home, the reality of living in an apartment in Manhattan led to his gradually moving the "stuff" into storage lockers.
A First Look
When the collection arrives at the museum at the end of the month, it will be the first time that Schweitzer has actually seen what he has amassed in its entirety.
"I love looking at the material culture that was part of our Jewish world," he relayed. "It's fascinating and complicated. These items have value to a social historian. Each will have a lesson behind it or a little moment of revelation."
The museum, which is planning an exhibition of selected pieces from the collection for next spring, will inventory and preserve the objects and artifacts, and allow access not only to scholars but to the general public.
"Peter had things we knew about and things we didn't know about," said Jeffrey Shandler, associate professor in the department of Jewish studies at Rutgers University.
And he has "collected from a strong personal sense of the length, breadth and depth of the American Jewish experience," continued Shandler. "He brings a smart eye and a passionate collector's sensibility - and he's a sharer, not a hoarder."
Schweitzer readily acknowledges that he widened his view well beyond Judaica - the kiddush cups and menorahs and synagogue postcards - as he became aware that "being Jewish is about much more than religion."
The collection also provides an inroad into how Jews in America see themselves, said Shandler: "Historians realize these artifacts are an entry into social and cultural history. They give ordinary people a sense of place, and you begin to see how American Jews envision themselves."
In accepting the Peter Schweitzer Collection, the museum's executive director/CEO Gwen Goodman, said: "A collection like this is a rarity. These objects that connect people and places, while reflecting Jewish experiences in America, will enable us to best tell our story."
With its free-ranging profusion of objects that invite delight, contemplation, personal memory and historic insight, the Schweitzer Collection provides a unique pathway into a fertile field where both scholars and the general public can probe a rich history for years to come.
"Each object … has its own rich story to tell," Schweitzer told those who attended the celebratory reception. "It is up to us to tease them out, to decipher the meaning. There is always more than meets the eye."
For more information about the collection and show, call the museum at 215-923-3812.