By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – Hartford’s Jewish presence dates back to the mid-1600s. The earliest permanent settlers were German Jews, who purchased the first building for use as a synagogue in 1856. Over the next century, many organizations, institutions, and personalities would shape a community that continues to thrive today.
A new pictorial history volume showcases more than 100 iconic archival photographs that tell the unique story of Jewish Hartford. Researched and edited by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford (JHSGH) and published by Arcadia Publishing, Jewish Community of Hartford will make its debut on Wednesday, Sept. 14 at B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom in Bloomfield.
The book is among the latest volumes in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, which chronicles the history of more than 7,500 neighborhoods, small towns, and cities across the country. Each book is written and edited by local experts and features hundreds of vintage photos, personal stories, and factual accounts of major events.
Jewish Community of Hartford is the 153rd Arcadia Publishing volume on a specific place or aspect of Connecticut and the 57th highlighting a facet of American Jewish life. It is the second in the Images of America series, following Stamford, on a Connecticut Jewish community, tracking its growth through the mid-20th century.
JHSGH staff and volunteers, led by executive director Estelle Kafer, organized the book into eight chapters covering businesses, religious life, education, Zionism, community life, social and civic clubs and organizations, sports, and a section on notable personalities such as Norman Lear, Mike Kellin, Sophie Tucker, and Sol LeWitt, among others. Local historian Betty Hoffman, author of Jewish West Hartford: From City to Suburb and other books on Connecticut Jewish history, was commissioned to write the book’s introduction.
The project took the better part of two years, with JHSGH staff and volunteers combing through the in-house archive for the most compelling images and borrowing a dozen photos from area repositories. Archivist Sara Hawran proved an ace detective on several occasions, according to Kafer, tracking down a photo of jeweler Bill Savitt at the Hartford Public Library’s Hartford History Center, and an image of Broadway lyricist Harold Rome at the Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The editorial committee found a photo online of Babe Ruth with the Savitt Gems, a semi-pro baseball team fielded by Bill Savitt in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Hawran tracked down Prof. Robert C. Farrell at Qunnipiac University, whose father and uncle had played on the team, and who loaned the photo for the project.
Even for Kafer, who has helmed the historical society since 2004, there were plenty of delightful discoveries during the editing process.
“We have hundreds of thousands of photos in the archive, so I’m always fascinated when we find an older photo that I’ve never seen,” she says. For example, the researchers came across a group photo of elaborately-costumed members of the Fifteen Club, a social and charitable organization founded at Congregation Beth Israel in the early 1900s. The photo captures a moment from the annual Purim Ball, a lavish gala for the glitterati of Jewish Hartford that even made the pages of the Hartford Courant.
Proceeds from Fifteen Club events supported the Hebrew Widows and Orphans Society, which later became the Hebrew Home, and for other organizations such as Camp Courant.
Among her favorite photos in the book is one of a small group of men in a rowboat, some at the oars and others holding Torah scrolls.
“When the Connecticut River flooded the city in 1936, the water came right up to the doors of Congregation Ados Israel,” she explains. “A few congregants were so afraid that it was going to destroy the Ark and the Torahs, so they rowed a police boat to the synagogue and took out the Torahs.”
The photo portrays Herman Holtz z”l, a founder and president of the synagogue. Kafer reached out to Holtz’s son, Leonard, current Ados Israel president and owner-operator of the Hebrew Funeral Association, who agreed to loan the photo.
“It always amazes me to see the efforts of so many organizations and members of the community, and to realize just how committed the founders of our community were,” Kafer says.
Jewish Community of Hartford builds on and expands the historical accounts published by JHSGH over the past decade, including Remembering the Old Neighborhood: Stories from Hartford’s North End and Revisiting Our Neighborhoods: Stories from Hartford Past, both edited by Joan Walden, and Making a Life, Building a Community by David G. Dalin and Jonathan Rosenbaum.
“I think the photos in the new book speak for themselves as to how this community was built and why it’s so great today,” Kafer says.
The event, which comes a month before the historical society celebrates its 75th anniversary, will also feature several local storytellers.
Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford launches Jewish Community of Hartford: Wednesday, Sept. 14, 7 p.m., B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom, 180 Still Road, Bloomfield. For information: (860) 727-6170.