Precious Jewish Memoirs of Bronx Catholic University

New York Jewish Week via JTA – A Catholic university is the last place to be considered a haven for the most important collection of the Bronx’s Jewish past.

However, Fordham University – a private Jesuit institution in the Bronx – and more specifically its center for Jewish studies – contains archival documents and artifacts relating to the American Jewish community, some dating back several decades.

For three years now, Fordham has been collecting and cataloging evidence of the Bronx’s Jewish past and its once-thriving community: a directory of Jewish surnames, invitations. bar mitzvahtelephone directories of Jewish-owned businesses—all elements of everyday life that bear witness to the past.

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Magda Teter, co-director of the university’s Center for Jewish Studies, who led the project, says Fordham’s archives are one of the few physical collections of everyday items and documents belonging to the neighborhood’s Jewish residents.

“It’s about preserving not only a piece of New York’s Jewish history, but what they lived,” Teter said at New York Jewish Week.

“Adding this voice to Fordham’s Christian identity and contributing to the advancement of Jewish knowledge is critical. [en tant que minorité] within dominant cultures. »

During the first half of the 20th century, Jewish life flourished in the Bronx. In 1940, there were 260 synagogues, and the neighborhood was home to some of the biggest names in show business, fashion, literature, and more: designer Ralph Lauren, politician Bella Abzug, novelist EL Doctorow, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, Miss America Bess Myerson, and Nobel award. -winning chemist Robert Lefkowitz.

At the community’s peak in 1930, the Bronx was 49% Jewish, 80% south of Tremont Avenue, says Lloyd Ultan, the borough’s official historian. The bulk of Bronx Jews were from Eastern Europe, and many are first-generation Americans whose parents moved to the Lower East Side, but who could afford to live on less cramped, more tree-lined and wider streets.

Despite the strong Jewish community that existed in the Riverdale neighborhood, most of the Jewish community left the Bronx for the suburbs after World War II thanks to government-subsidized mortgage loans.

The installation of African-Americans and Latinos was then possible, even encouraged, in the Bronx, which the city had begun to neglect.

The Bronx’s Jewish population dropped from 650,000 in 1948 to 45,000 in 2003. Since then, many synagogues have been repurposed and the tangible heritage of the Jewish community has eroded over time, making archival work even more necessary.

Teter had long been interested in collecting artifacts from the Jewish Bronx, but the archival work received an unexpected boost from a local resident. In the spring of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Fordham held a virtual event called “Relics: Photographs of the Jewish Bronx.” [ « Traces : Photographies du Bronx juif »]Compiled by writer and photographer Julian Voloj, it bears witness to the neighborhood’s fading Jewish history. (Voloj is the husband of the editor-in-chief of the newspaper New York Jewish WeekLisa Keys.)

The former Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Synagogue on Washington Avenue in the Bronx is now a church. This image is part of Julian Volo’s “Traces of the Jewish Bronx” exhibit at the Henry S. Miller Judaica Research Room at Fordham University. (Credit: Julian Voloj via JTA)

Among those curious to discover this exhibit was Ellen Meshnick, who grew up in New York before settling in Georgia. Inspired, he donated boxes full of memorabilia collected by his parents, Frank and Martha Meshnick, from their life in the Bronx to Fordham. The boxes contained Morris High School and Walton High School yearbooks, songbooks, invitations bar mitzvah, marriage certificate, receipts for the delivery of flowers and even an official document from the hospital where he was born. These documents cover the period from the 1930s to the 1960s.

The donation, which greatly enriches Fordham’s documentary collection, consists of less personal items, such as matchboxes from kosher restaurants, but which are extremely rare today.

Today, Teter continues to enrich his archive through private donations, sometimes buying artifacts online: family archives, books on the Jewish history of the Bronx, songbooks…

“They may not be very beautiful pieces, but we’re interested in what’s going on in people’s lives at the time,” Teter says.

Teter notes that the American Jewish Historical Society in Manhattan also collects personal and everyday items from American Jews, but ultimately has little about Jewish life in the Bronx.

This collection refers to an even more ambitious project by Teter, the Center for Jewish Studies, and the Fordham Libraries to promote Judaism and the Jewish people.

“Honestly, I think it’s also a way to fight anti-Semitism: to teach Jewish history and show Jewish culture in all its aspects and in all its contexts,” he said.

“Thus, our students have a better knowledge and a better understanding of what Jewish life is, beyond the stereotypes from which Jews have traditionally been excluded. »

The Fordham Center for Jewish Studies is a relatively new structure: the Jewish Studies option has existed since 2016, and the department officially opened in 2017.

At the time, the centerpiece of the library’s archives was the Rosenblatt Holocaust Collection, funded by a former student. Since 1992, the library has collected more than 11,000 Holocaust titles, videos and artifacts, said Linda Loschiavo, director of libraries.

A Book of Songs and Dances from the Fordham University Collection, with lyrics to ‘Hatikvah’ and ‘For He is a Happy Friend’ and ‘Jewish Vocabulary’. (Credit: Julia Gergely/New York Jewish Week via JTA)

When Teter arrived, Loschiavo was working with him on its acquisition haggadahs ancients from all over the world.

Fordham now has two foundations haggadahs Italian paintings from the 1660s, as well as Jewish artifacts from sometimes unexpected places, such as Jewish Bollywood posters.

Last month, the university dedicated the Henry S. Miller Judaica Research Room on the fourth floor of the main campus library in honor of one of Fordham’s first Jewish students, who graduated in 1968. Miller is a director of a financial restructuring company. now he is the director of the enterprise.

Fordham President Tania Tetlow jokingly described herself as a “student Jew” at the venue’s grand opening.

“I realized how deeply connected Judaism and Catholicism are,” he says, “this deep desire to study and interpret texts, thousands of years of commitment to ritual, and the central role played by food and sin!”

“For now, we plan to make this research room an exhibition space to develop our students’ curatorial talents and bring Jewish art and artists to campus.” Teter says.

“We are now able to showcase this art and combine exhibits with items from the Judaica collection. »

The research room currently displays Voloj’s Bronx photographs, as well as some archival materials produced by Reyna Stovall, a sophomore who is interning at the Fordham Center for Jewish Studies this semester.

“It’s very helpful,” said Stovall, who is Jewish. Stovall became interested in the Jewish Studies Center for Holocaust Studies, but discovered a real passion for the Bronx Jewish Historical Archives early in her internship.

“It’s pretty incredible to have this collection,” he says.

“The existence of this large collection of Jewish works speaks to Fordham’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, even if religion is not at the heart of this school’s project. »

Teter estimates the number of 15,000 Jewish students in the institution’s undergraduate program at 300.

Therefore, the Center for Jewish Studies and Research Room offers students from all walks of life the opportunity to learn about Judaism – and marginalized communities in general – and relate this history to their own lives.

“What creates our identity is our desire to emphasize Jewish studies and bring them into conversation with other fields of study,” explains Teter.

The center’s goal, he adds, “is to impress upon students, faculty, and the public that Judaic studies is not just for Jews, and instead can teach them a lot about their subject.” preference”.

“There’s something magical about giving students the opportunity to work with historical artifacts and experience the material of history,” says Teter.

“I think that’s what led the library director to dedicate this space to this type of research and student experience. »

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