Of the 10,000 artifacts that comprise the Peter H. Schweitzer collection, the museum is displaying a sampling related to food. The New York rabbi, who began collecting Jewish Americana as a youngster, donated the entire collection to the museum last year. Schweitzer, the leader of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York, focused his collecting passion on objects that defined the daily life of Jews of the past three centuries.
"These objects," he said at the preview, "have now found a wonderful home. It's very exciting and gratifying to see them here."
The choice of food-related artifacts for this "spotlight" exhibit was a natural.
"Food remains with us, even after so many other cultural and social touchstones have gone," explained Gwen Goodman, executive director and CEO of the museum, citing the rarity of the collection of food-related objects and their power to connect people to a collective past.
That connection was palpable, and was explored by keynote speaker and author Dr. Jenna Weissman Joselit, a Jewish-studies professor at Princeton University. Joselit offered insights into the place of food in Jewish culture.
"Without efforts to sustain our culinary history, we lose a vital aspect of who we are," stated Joselit, who's worked with Schweitzer for the past 15 years. Using gefilte fish as an example of the tug of tradition — characterized by painstakingly making it at home — to the pull of convenience — buying it in jars — Joselit emphasized that as American Jews moved into the cultural mainstream, they both maintained and altered their culinary traditions.
From the emergence of delicatessen food as iconic to the mass production of matzah in boxes, this synthesis of past and present has indelibly characterized Jewish culinary life, noted the speaker. "The small but powerful issues of daily life, including what we eat and ate, are powerful symbols of where we are in the world," she said.
Have a Spritz!
As guests wandered the gallery space where food-related items are artfully displayed, there were excited clusters looking at blue and green glass seltzer bottles, ads for kosher wine and, yes, kosher Coca-Cola — the first soft drink company to receive that designation in 1935. There was even a decades-old calendar of planned meals from a baking-powder company, recommending a hearty midday meal complete with herring, chicken soup, roast beef, spinach, prunes and tea.
The exhibit contains a basic recipe for schmaltz (rendered chicken fat), as well as the classic Molly Goldberg Jewish Cookbook, against a backdrop of a replicated, mid-20th-century kitchen, complete with shiny Formica table and chairs, contributed by Joan and Bernie Zolot of Biltwell Furniture.
The humble signs, tins, posters, menus and sections devoted to Passover seders, and Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations, that comprise the Forshpeis exhibit take on new significance within the context of American cultural history — and personal histories, too.
"Each of us has food memories," said Gwen Goodman, who is delighted that her own son, Greg, has recreated his grandmother's kamishbrot recipe in his 21st-century home.
"Those memories are so powerful, and so uniting," continued Goodman. "That's what we hope this exhibit will remind all who see it."
And, yes, you will probably leave hungry!
The "Forshpeis!" exhibit shows at the National Museum of American Jewish History for an open-ended stay.
For more information, call 215-923-3811.