The exhibit “A Portrait of Jewish Cincinnati” opened at the Skirball Museum on the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) on Thursday, Nov. 4. This exhibit is part of the year-long celebration of the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial commemorating the founding of the Chestnut Street Cemetery, the first Jewish institution west of the Allegheny mountains, in 1821.

The exhibit consists of portraits of notable members of the Cincinnati Jewish community with labels giving their biographies and explaining their importance. Many of the names of the sitters are familiar from the public works or institutions named for them — for example Irwin Krohn (1869-1948), the long-serving president of the Cincinnati Park Board (1912-1948) for whom Krohn Conservatory in Eden Park is named. Similarly, Jacob Rader Marcus (1896-1995) was instrumental in establishing American Jewish history as a field of study and founded the archive that bears his name — the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives on the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College.

Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900) — rabbi of the reform synagogue that now bears his name (Isaac M. Wise Temple, which was then K.K. B’nai Jeshurun), founder of Hebrew Union College, of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the governing body of Reform Judaism), and of The American Israelite — is represented by three portraits in the exhibit: a crayon sketch by Leo Mielziner (1898), a marble bust by Moses Jacob Ezekiel (1903) completed after Rabbi Wise’s death, and an oil painting by an unknown artist (after 1879).

Many of the other family names on the portraits will be familiar to readers of “From the Pages” — Ransohoff, Bloch, Fechheimer, Workum, Freiberg — since these same families appeared in the social columns of The American Israelite over the decades, from which the excerpts in “From the Pages” are drawn

Many of the artists were also members of the local Jewish community. For example, Moses Jacob Ezekiel (1844-1917), the sculptor who produced the bust of Rabbi Wise in this exhibit, lived only briefly in Cincinnati (1868) before studying art and working in Europe, but returned frequently to Cincinnati where many members of his family continued to live. Painter and illustrator Henry Mosler (1841-1920) was born in Poland, but emigrated to Cincinnati as a child with his family, and painted many Cincinnati Jewish subjects, including portraits of other members of the community.

The permanent galleries of the Skirball Museum have also been re-installed during the last two years, and artifacts related to the Jewish community in Cincinnati, which are to be found on every floor, are marked by labels bearing the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial logo. The re-installation of the permanent collection is still in progress.

The lecture at the opening event by Abbey Schwartz, Director of the Skirball Museum, was  available both in person and online. It was preceded by brief remarks from Rabbi Jonathan Hecht, Dean and Interim Rabbinical Program Director of HUC-JIR Cincinnati, and Kim Heiman, co-chair of the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial committee. Rabbi Hecht singled out for praise not only Schwartz but also Sheri Besso, Preparator and Collections Manager of the Skirball who mounted both the current special exhibit and the regular galleries.

Schwartz related that she cried when she she saw the auditorium set up for this in-person event — the first since February 2020.  She discussed some of the individual portraits, which the exhibit presents not just as works of art but as stories of the individuals and families they portray. Schwartz, who is not a native Cincinnatian, said she found herself “boggled” by the interconnections between the families, and quoted the Jewish teaching that our ancestors live on through their good deeds — an attitude illustrated by this exhibit.

Two descendants of families represented in the portraits spoke about their family connections. Greg Landsman discussed his ancestor, David Isaac Johnson, who was instrumental in buying the land for the Chestnut Street Cemetery, where he was eventually buried, and in establishing the synagogue K. K. Bene Israel, now familiarly Rockdale Temple, and also his family connection to Raphael Strauss (1830-1901) who had painted many of the portraits in the exhibit. Abraham Edgar “Teddy” Aub spoke about his ancestors Abraham (1813-1879) and Fanny Aub (1818-1880), who donated the land for the first location of Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati — the first Jewish hospital in the United States — and was among the founders of K. K. Bene Jeshurun, now Isaac M. Wise Temple, of which he was president when the Plum Street Temple building was constructed — among many other community and charitable activities. Ted Aub, himself a sculptor, spoke about the responsibility of a portraitist to capture not merely the appearance of the sitter but also his character, and he opened and closed his remarks with the Hebrew phrase l’dor v’dor — from generation to generation — exemplified by this exhibit.

A Portrait of Jewish Cincinnati will be open until January 30, 2022. Proof of vaccination is required and a mask must be worn in the museum.

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