Hebrew Union College’s Skirball Museum Exhibit Explores the Legacy of Cincinnati’s Jewish Community

'Jewish Cincinnati: A Photographic Record' presents 36 works by artist J. Miles Wolf that document Cincinnati’s illustrious Jewish past.

click to enlarge Portrait Bust of Isaac Mayer Wise - Moses Jacob Ezekiel (Richmond, VA 1844–1917 Rome, Italy) - Carrara marble, 1903 - Cincinnati Skirball Museum, gift of Isaac Mayer Wise heirs, 67.123. - Photo: Courtesy of the Cincinnati Skirball Museum
Photo: Courtesy of the Cincinnati Skirball Museum
Portrait Bust of Isaac Mayer WiseMoses Jacob Ezekiel (Richmond, VA 1844–1917 Rome, Italy)Carrara marble, 1903Cincinnati Skirball Museum, gift of Isaac Mayer Wise heirs, 67.123.

Memory is a big deal in Judaism. Zakhor — the Hebrew imperative meaning “remember” — appears upwards of 200 times in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

The exhortation has served Jews well. Over a millennia of diasporic dispersal, the Jewish people remained a people precisely by virtue of heeding the calls to remember commandments, traditions and holidays. Institutions played a central role in preserving memory, continuing to facilitate remembrance to this day.

Hebrew Union College’s Skirball Museum in Cincinnati’s CUF neighborhood is one such bastion of Jewish memory. Its collection spans a broad swath of Jewish history, encompassing both art and archaeology. Among its historical artifacts are archaic oil lamps dating back thousands of years to the Middle Bronze Age. 

A new exhibition at the Skirball is an exercise in remembrance. Jewish Cincinnati: A Photographic Record presents 36 works by artist J. Miles Wolf that merge architectural photography and archival images into collaged aides-mémoire that document Cincinnati’s illustrious Jewish past and the traces that have survived into the present. 

The Skirball Museum’s collection contains several Jewish artifacts, like an unassuming two-foot-tall pottery vessel. When discovered in 1947, this Qumran jar — named after the site on the western bank of the Dead Sea — contained seven scrolls representing some of the earliest surviving manuscripts of the Bible. “The Dead Sea Scrolls offer unparalleled insight into ancient Jewish life,” explains Abby Schwartz, director of the Skirball. “And the Qumran jar is a tangible connection to these communities.”

As for art, Schwartz points to a marble bust of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise from 1903 as a collection highlight. 

“You can’t overstate Wise’s impact on American Judaism,” Schwartz tells CityBeat. “He gave birth to the Reform movement, founded Hebrew Union College, built the Plum Street Temple, and founded the Central Conference of American Rabbis.” 

The significance of the bust, crafted by Jewish sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel, goes beyond its subject. It also is believed to be the first three-dimensional image of a rabbi in art history. Exodus 20:4-6 pronounces, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” Throughout Jewish history, this prohibition has been observed with varying degrees of exactitude; but such a lifelike bust is the final frontier of graven images. 

The works in the Jewish Cincinnati exhibition are acts of artistic reclamation, with sepia photos of places and faces superimposed atop present-day locations. Where the buildings and their environs have survived in their original condition, the combination of past and present is seamless. In other cases, the juxtaposition is as jarring as shrimp at a seder. Eighteen of the works, which focus on houses of worship, were displayed at the Skirball as part of the 2018 FotoFocus Biennial, according to Schwartz.

The enthusiastic reception of the first exhibition convinced Wolf to continue his research.

 “Searching for old photographs is like a treasure hunt,” Wolf says. “I’ve looked in dozens of places: the American Jewish Archives, the Museum Center’s Cincinnati History Library and Archive, synagogues in Cincinnati and Kentucky as well as their members and descendants of past members.” 

Wolf’s tireless search uncovered forgotten photographs, occasionally with assistance from serendipity. 

“I was researching the West Side Sephardic synagogue Beth Sholom and came across an uncommon last name, Ouziel, which happened to be the last name of someone I went to high school with.” 

The schoolmate provided photos and put Wolf in contact with the widow of Beth Shalom’s former rabbi who, in turn, had photographs of her husband as well as his grandfather, Rabbi Jeruzalmi of Turkey. The two rabbis and a family photo with Albert Ouziel as a five-year old boy are featured in the work of art entitled “Beth Sholom, Price Hill, Cincinnati 1933-1992.” Wolf used an archival photograph of the synagogue itself, which has been converted to a Hispanic church with the Star of David removed and the name of the building covered up. 

Many of the 18 new images in Jewish Cincinnati: A Photographic Record  at the Skirball Museum focus on Jewish contributions to culture and their role in Cincinnati’s industrial golden age. “Many people recognize the name ‘Manischewitz’ as a giant of the kosher foods industry,” explains Wolf. “But most people don’t realize that the company got its start in Cincinnati and was active here for 100 years.” For millennia, matzo was handmade and consumed locally. Even with the emergence of mass production in the food industry, the meticulousness of the laws of kashrut kept matzo a small batch product. 

Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz’s innovation was to produce matzo with a process involving three machines — one to knead the dough, one to roll it, and one to fire it — ensuring strict adherence to kosher standards. Thus Manischewitz became the first company to sell rabbinically-approved kosher foods nationally and internationally. 

Also represented is Lipman Pike, the first professional Jewish baseball player. “Pike was known for his power and speed on the baseball diamond,” says Wolf. He was powerful enough to lead the league in home runs for four seasons and fast enough to have beaten a horse in a 100-yard sprint, according to a biography of Pike by the Society for American Baseball Research. Pike served a brief stint with the Cincinnati Reds in the late 1870s as center fielder and de facto manager. 

In addition to his subjects’ compelling historical backgrounds, the aesthetic effect of Wolf’s photographs is enhanced by subtle artistic decisions, says Schwartz. He sets most of his images against a twilight sky. The transitional state between day and night enhances the dreamlike effect of merging the past and the present. Wolf’s deliberately slow shutter speed captures the headlights and taillights of passing cars as neon streaks. “These streaks of light are visualizations of the passage of time,” explains Wolf. 

“This exhibition drives home the point that Jews have been a part of Cincinnati’s fabric since the very beginning,” says Schwartz. “It’s not about patting ourselves on the back. Every immigrant community has done extraordinary things in our city. Jewish Cincinnati is a reminder of that shared experience.”

Jewish Cincinnati: A Photographic Record runs through Jan. 29 at Hebrew Union College’s Skirball Museum, 3101 Clifton Ave., Clifton. Info: csm.huc.edu.

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