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Getting under the cheerful surface of historical signage

Jenna Weissman Joselit
January 13, 2009

In bold red, blue, and brown letters, Steinberg’s Bake Shop informs passersby that it carries a “full line of Bakery Prod.” Rev. G. Gottesman, a sexton or shamesh, makes known his availability—as well as his home phone number—in a modest little sign only slightly bigger than a postcard. The Seat Committee of Temple Ansche Chesed, meanwhile, draws attention to itself through a dramatically scaled poster which lists the hours when congregants might stop by to purchase seats for the High Holy Days. A Catskill resort posts a “No Smoking on the Sabbath” sign, whose jagged edges and earthy brown tones put one in mind of the woodland crafts movement of the early twentieth century, while Congregation Poalei Tsedek of Chelsea, Massachusetts—in Yiddish letters clinging for dear life to a series of ruled lines—suggests its members would be better off making a donation than bringing liquor into the sanctuary when marking a yahrzeit. And then there’s my favorite bit of bilingual signage, a mélange of different fonts, courtesy of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of America and Canada: “Jewish Parents! Yidishe Eltern! Do you want your children to—Be happy. Be faithful Jews. Be good Americans. Be grateful to you. Be a pride to the Jewish nation. Then register your children in a yeshiva.”

Hanging from wrought iron chains, nailed to a wall, or affixed to a storefront exterior much like a mezuzah, these visual testaments to an ethnic economy and a distinctively American shul culture once peppered the Northeastern urban landscapes that Jewish immigrants and their children called home. Some were fashioned out of metal, others out of wood, and still others out of paper. Some bore the earmark of skilled artists; others seemed hastily, even clumsily, wrought. Still others made effective use of the printing press, their letters neatly aligned, upright, and respectable.

Sixty-five of these signs are now on view at the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery of the JCC in Manhattan, where they constitute just a small part of a substantial collection assembled assiduously over thirty years by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld. Culled from basements, attics, and storage closets, these humble objects destined for the garbage heap “deserve to be saved,” he explains.

Fair enough. But how are we to read them? As jolts of memory? Shards of nostalgia? Quaint relics of a bygone era? As aesthetic statements? That the exhibition is titled “Signs of Our Past” suggests that the items on display are intended to help us recover our history—the innocent, cozy, affirming part of our history, that is. When seen in the context of the JCC’s gallery, signage is meant to provoke a smile. Or, as Rabbi Strassfeld puts it, the exhibition is a “celebration of the charm and richness” of the American Jewish experience of an earlier era.

As it happens, though, there’s more to these signs than their surface pleasures might suggest. Sign painting, you see, was hailed at the turn of the last century as a trade that could normalize—even masculinize—the economic profile of Jewish immigrant men. Along with carpentry, tool making, and other vocational skills that made use of the hand rather than the head, sign painting was touted as an exercise in transformation, one designed to render Jewish men brawny rather than brainy, nimble with their fingers, not their intellect.

Those doing all the hailing and touting of manual labor included various Buttenwiesers and Bloomingdales, Leipzeigers and Loebs who put their faith—along with their resources—into the Hebrew Technical Institute, which was located at the intersection of East 9th and Stuyvesant Streets in Lower Manhattan, and the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural and Industrial Trade School of Woodbine, New Jersey. These two facilities were among several American Jewish institutions whose mandate was to “divert the constant stream of Jewish youth from law and medicine into the practical arts.” An experiment in what we today might call social engineering, the ambitious agenda of the Hebrew Technical Institute and its brother institutions was to overhaul the traditional Jewish economy—in the name of normalization.

Unshackling the Jews from a history which had for centuries forced them to take up the balance sheet rather than the paintbrush, the plow, or the lathe, the champions of vocational training sought to correct the imbalances of the past and project a new vision of the future, one in which a “life of contentment and usefulness awaits the skillful and conscientious mechanic” (or so reported the New York Times in 1895). As Joseph Buttenwieser, president of the Hebrew Technical Institute, enthusiastically put it a few years later, “The great object for which we are striving in this institute is to give Jewish boys an opportunity to learn the great truths of nature. But we do not merely tell them about these things. We let them learn by personal contact and observation what no amount of book learning alone can convey.”

Thousands of Jewish adolescents and their parents—bearing such familiar names as Goldstein, Finkelstein, and Lubelsky—took this message to heart, warming to its promise. Whether they were captivated by the prospect of a steady, honest job or the notion of being a new kind of Jewish man at ease in the world of “purely masculine crafts,” is anyone’s guess. But something drew young Jewish men to take up tools—between the 1880s, when Jewish vocational schools first opened their doors and the 1930s, when they closed them for good, enrollment grew steadily. So steadily, in fact, that in the early 1920s, the Hebrew Technical Institute had to turn away prospective students for want of room.

Despite the best of intentions and ample funding, the vision that animated Jewish vocational training ultimately fell short. At no point in modern American history did Jewish mechanics, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and sign painters ever outnumber Jewish doctors, lawyers, accountants, and businessmen. When it came to climbing the ladder of upward mobility, the professions beckoned seductively while the trades were widely dismissed as a detour. In fact, the pull of the professions has been so strong and all-consuming that most American Jews, I suspect, will be surprised to learn that institutions like the Hebrew Technical Institute ever existed. But this shouldn’t blind us to the import of the enterprise and to the laudable vein of optimism that coursed through it: belief in the resilience of the Jews and their capacity for change.

More to the point, perhaps, I’d like to think that knowing something of the history behind the signs currently displayed at the JCC complicates their value as nostalgic objects. It surely won’t dim our appreciation of their folksy aesthetic qualities or, for that matter, diminish our delight in their presence. But it may help us to reflect more honestly on the complex realities of the American Jewish experience. The anonymous painters of Steinberg’s Bake Shop sign, and of Reverend Gottesman’s modest efforts at self-promotion, deserve no less.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.