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Portrait exhibit features 'movers and shakers' from 200 years of Jewish life in Cincinnati

four side by side portraits of two women, a girl and a man
Skirball Museum
Images from the Portrait of Jewish Cincinnati exhibit.

An exhibit opening Nov. 4 at the Skirball Museum celebrates the "movers and shakers" of the Jewish community that helped define 200 years of Jewish life in Cincinnati. It's part of a more than yearlong bicentennial commemoration.

"A Portrait of Jewish Cincinnati" is comprised of some 40 portraits, including oil paintings, sculptures, drawings, and mixed media. They depict people who helped shape Cincinnati and the Jewish community here in some way from entrepreneurs and philanthropists to politicians and scholars and community leaders.

"There are names that people will recognize," says Abby Schwartz, director of the Skirball Museum.

"My role here and putting this show together is to show how this fledgling group of immigrants, pulled together to make a living to support their families, (and) to do things for the community - both their religious community and their larger community - that would make Cincinnati a better place to live, and that they're like every immigrant group that just sort of puts their nose to the grindstone and really tries to achieve and to teach the values to their children, over the generations to continue that good work."

Schwartz notes many of the earlier portraits especially feature immigrants who would become major philanthropists in their day.

"Immediately people who came to Cincinnati and had means were very engaged with giving back. That is a value that I think we don't always remember, particularly about immigrants who had their own struggles to get here and get their feet on the grown and get settled, but then immediately saw ways that they could help."

Cincinnati was also highly attractive to business people looking to manufacture products of all kinds. While Cincinnati is considered a German town, the first Jewish settlers were from England. Though there isn't a portrait, the exhibit includes a tall clock made by the first permanent Jewish settler, Joseph Jonas.

Some notable portraits include the 1963 Time Magazine cover featuring Hebrew Union College (HUC) President Nelson Glueck. "(He) was a world-renowned archeologist ... and gave the benediction at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy."

There's also a portrait of Jacob Marcus Rader. He founded what is now the Jacob Marcus Rader Center of the American Jewish Archives. He was the first person to codify and document the American Jewish experience.

"This was beginning before the second World War, but certainly after the second World War it became even more important to chronicle the achievements of American Jews, recognizing that this is where so many Jews who escaped the Holocaust came and that because of that history it's really important to record it," says Schwartz.

Perhaps you're familiar with Marcus Square in Clifton? Yup, that's named after him.

Nearby hangs a portrait of two young children - brother and sister Cora and Edwin Fechheimer. As an adult, Cora would marry Irwin M. Krohn. He served on the Cincinnati Park Board for more than 35 years. The Krohn Conservatory was named in his honor.

The Fechheimer's brother, A. Lincoln Fecheimer, was a famous architect who built the Ault Park Pavilion, UC's (now demolished) Wilson Auditorium, and many buildings on the HUC campus and around Cincinnati. He was born deaf and studied architecture at Columbia University, "becoming the first deaf student to receive a degree from a hearing college when he graduated in 1899," according to the Cincinnati Preservation Association.

One of the more modern inclusions - both in style and in time frame - is a mixed-media portrait of Sally Priesand. Born in Cleveland and educated at the University of Cincinnati and the HUC - Jewish Institute of Religion, Priesand would become the first female ordained rabbi in America in 1972 and the first woman in the world ordained by a rabbinical seminary. (The first woman ordained rabbi was German Regina Jonas in 1935. She was killed in Auschwitz in October 1944.)

Finally, no exhibit about the people who shaped Jewish Cincinnati would be complete without the man himself, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. Born in Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic), Wise came to Cincinnati in 1854 where he would become the founder of Reform Judaism in North America.

"A Portrait of Jewish Cincinnati" runs Nov. 4, 2021 - Jan. 30, 2022 at the Skirball Museum on the campus of Hebrew Union College.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.