“Jewish Cincinnati: A Photographic History” J. Miles Wolf’s Exhibit at The Skirball Museum Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion

October 28th, 2018  |  Published in October 2018

Local photographer J. Miles Wolf delivered several unique facets in his exhibit “Jewish Cincinnati:  A Photographic History” at Cincinnati Skirball Museum on the campus of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, running from October 11, 2018 to January 6, 2019.

Early days of Jewish congregational life in Cincinnati are depicted in a style never seen before in this exhibit. This is a trip back in time.

Visitors will enjoy several distinctive aspects of the exhibit.  If you are interested in Jewish religion, history and architecture, this Skirball exhibit is the place to see an unusual display.  What makes it even more exciting is that Cincinnati has served as the national center of Reform Judaism, reflected in this exhibit, for over a century.

Plum Street Temple. Photo by J. Miles Wolf

“I wanted the opportunity to try something else other than just photography,” said Wolf. “I really enjoyed the historical aspect of the project.”  He worked for one year on the research to create work  for this exhibit.

This is a show of migration patterns of the Cincinnati Jewish population as evidenced by their synagogues and temples, mirroring where Jews lived/moved by showing us where they built houses of worship.  Although it is not a history of Jewish people in Cincinnati, the show gives the visitor a thorough view of important benchmarks.

Native Cincinnatian Wolf used multiple exposure collage style prints to demonstrate the theme of migration featuring the buildings, early leaders and congregants.  He emphasized the 19th century, but covered the 20th century as well in his exhibit.  Although travelers to the East relish early Americana, there are many historical, religious buildings in the Greater Cincinnati area.  You don’t have to travel far to see these edifices and enjoy their significance in Jewish history.

Wolf created eighteen collages with vintage materials digitally superimposed over photographs. They reflected an important part of early Jewish history, especially in downtown, the West End, Avondale and Amberley Village. Wolf used historical photographs and postcards as well as archival materials from synagogues, libraries, personal collections and the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives at HUC.

Another original facet to Wolf’s exhibit is an interactive display featuring an overlay of maps, including one of the West End, an 1863 business map and a current downtown map. History buffs, in particular, will enjoy this well-researched and constructed display.  Even children will be fascinated with the variety of maps and take that knowledge back to the classroom for their study of Cincinnati.

Lexington Ave Synagogue. Photo by J. Miles Wolf

An innovative timeline designed by Wolf provides a comprehensive visual record of Cincinnati’s Jewish congregations from 1817 to 2018.  He began with the arrival of Cincinnati’s first Jewish citizen, Joseph Jonas. In his memoirs, he wrote, “I might be a nucleus around which the first congregation might be formed to worship the God of Israel in this great western territory.”

Jonas, an immigrant from England, held the first Jewish service with four other Englishmen in the fall of 1819, probably in Jonas’ house, according to Wolf.  They purchased a lot from Nicholas Longworth on Chestnut Street.  “Now part of the Betts-Longworth Historic district, this property still stands as Cincinnati’s first Jewish cemetery,” Wolf said.  If you enjoy making chalk rubbings of historical gravestones, this is the place to do it.

Jonas and Morris Moses organized Cincinnati’s first congregation K.K. Bene Israel in 1824 meeting in the house of Moses.  Services were held in a rented space on the west side of Main Street between Third and Fourth Streets.  The congregation built its first synagogue on Sixth and Broadway in 1836.

Other additions to the exhibit are historic artifacts, including a stained glass window from the former Anshei Shalom Synagogue in the Betts-Longworth District and a key to the Mound Street Temple.

Wolf created this exhibit for FotoFocus Biennial 2018, which had a theme of ‘Open Archive,’ for the Skirball Museum.

Abby Schwartz, director of Cincinnati Skirball Museum, said the exhibit’s opening on October 11 drew 232 people, one of the highest numbers in the museum’s history.  Visitors commented they had lived there all their lives, but didn’t know about the early congregations.  People were surprised by the breadth and depth of the local Jewish community and history.  It would take days to see all the local synagogues and temples shown in this exhibit, but it would be well worth the time.

Wolf’s composition of Plum Street Temple, K. K. B’nai Yeshurun, features the 152-year-old temple dedicated in 1866 and a photo of its leader, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (1819 – 1900).  Wise moved this congregation from Lodge Street Temple to Plum Street.  The house of worship was named the Isaac M. Wise Temple in 1931 to honor him.

Wise made an indelible mark on Judaism, according to Schwartz.  He is known as a founder of the American Reform Judaism movement.  In 1873, he organized the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the central body of the Reform Movement in North America.  In 2003, it became the Union for Reform Judaism, the umbrella organization for Reform temples worldwide.

Wise founded Hebrew Union College, the first Jewish seminary in the United States, in 1875, and became its president.  He also started the American Israelite newspaper in 1854, still published today and is the oldest weekly Jewish newspaper in America.

Schwartz said that Wise wanted to make religion more accessible and opened the door to assimilate Jews into the community-at-large, radically different concepts from the earlier Orthodox Judaism.

Plum Street Temple was designed by prominent Cincinnati architect James Keys Wilson inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.  It reflects a Byzantine-Moorish style.  Original flooring, pews and pulpit are still in place.  It is a national historic landmark and landed on the United States Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

For anyone interested in national and worldwide Judaism viewed through the lens of historical Jewish buildings, a trip to Cincinnati and this exhibit is a must.

Mound Street Temple. Photo by J. Miles Wolf

Following the pattern of migration of the Jewish community, the primary home of the Wise Temple is now in Amberley Village, but Plum Street Temple remains an active place of worship.

The former Lexington Ave. Synagogue, K.K. Adath Israel, opened in Avondale in 1927.  Rabbi Louis Feinberg led the effort to build this synagogue with the help of congregants and community leaders who donated funds for the building.  It had its groundbreaking on April 11, 1926. Feinberg served Adath Israel from 1918 to 1949.

The massive building located on the corner of Lexington Ave. and Reading Road is constructed of white Indiana limestone.  It is designed in the neoclassical tradition by Oscar Schwartz.  The interior is Byzantine, with a color scheme of ivory, gold and blue.

One attribute of the synagogue was the establishment of the Leshner Library of Jewish books in 1928 located on the second floor.  It contains over 3,000 volumes in English, Hebrew and Yiddish.

Taken in a 10-second twilight exposure in February 2018, this striking picture highlights the architecture of the building, sold to the Southern Baptist Church in 1964.

The synagogue shared the Lexington Ave. facilities with the church for some events until 1967 when Adath Israel moved to its new building in Amberley Village.

After only 17 years at the Broadway Shul, Bene Israel built and moved into an impressive new building at the corner of Eighth and Mound Streets,” which became the Mound Street Temple, according to Wolf.  This began “a series of moves that Bene Israel and several Jewish congregations would make as Cincinnati’s Jewish population migrated from the east side of downtown to the west side and then north to Avondale, and eventually to Amberley Village and beyond.”

This image includes the Mound Street Temple confirmation class of 1897 when Dr. David Phillipson (1862 – 1949) served as senior rabbi.

Architects Anderson & Hannaford designed the temple in a combination of Gothic and Moorish design and built in 1869, according to The American Israelite, February 5, 1869.

Because of the construction of I-75, Mound Street Temple was demolished in 1959-1960.

Phillipson led the initiative to move the congregation to Rockdale Temple on the corner of Rockdale and Harvey Avenues in Avondale.  As the Jewish community migrated north, the congregation eventually moved to Amberley Village.

In the late 1960’s, the Jewish population moved to suburbia, i.e., Roselawn, Amberley Village, Golf Manor and Wyoming. Eventually, the Jewish community moved further north to the suburbs of Blue Ash, Loveland and Montgomery.

Wolf artfully used a variety of photographic techniques such as collage, digital montage, selective editing and long exposures to create his compositions.  The display prints include digital chromogenic prints and archival pigment prints made from the scans of original salted paper prints from 1860.

–Laura Hobson

Museum information

The exhibit is free and open to the public.

Skirball is located in Mayerson Hall on HUC-JIR’s campus, 3101 Clifton Ave., University Heights.  Hours of the museum are Tuesday and Thursday from 11 am to 4 pm and Sunday from 1 pm to 5 pm.

For more information contact jmendelson@huc.edu.

Some of the collage’s descriptions are taken directly from a visitor’s guide, written by Wolf and edited by Schwartz.  October, 2018.

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