America’s first president, George Washington, was specifically recalled in Jerusalem in the spring of 1889... or rather, “Gregorius Washington” was – as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda rendered his name in an 1889 HaZvi newspaper story, For his local readers, Ben-Yehuda focused on American preparation for the centennial celebration of the inauguration of Washington. Highly significant was the fact that he was the first American leader to underline the gravity of religious freedom for the Jews; moreover, his public assertion of full citizenship for American Jewry was unparalleled.
When Washington died in 1799, one can imagine that the close-knit early American population was hard hit by his loss. As the commander-in-chief, he had guided the American colonial army to victory in banishing the British from American shores; he had served as the country’s first president with great distinction, and was beloved by the citizenry.
His plan had been to be buried in a new tomb, for which he had selected a plot and created a design in the family estate of Mount Vernon, in Virginia near what became Washington, DC. However, he died before the new burial place was constructed.
The decision made by American leaders was that his remains would rest in the then-existing family tomb, located high on a hill overlooking the Potomac River.
At the time, there was no national Arlington Cemetery.
Soon after their first leader’s death, American citizens felt they wanted to pay honor and respect to him. Individuals from all the states began to flow to the grave near Mount Vernon. Initially, they came in small waves but soon, the numbers grew and included foreign visitors as well. To identify the burial area more precisely, a simple wooden sign was fashioned; inscribed on it was: “President George Washington interned here in the family tomb.”
In 1831, when a more elaborate resting place for this great American leader was constructed, the sign was no longer needed. Considered an important piece of memorabilia, it was given a new life – after being cut into 13 pieces, each one was presented to the governors of the original 13 states.
Actually, the history of only one of the 13 is known.
That fragment, given to the governor of Pennsylvania, was shaped into a foot cup decorated with the painted image of Washington. Pennsylvania authorities presented the cup to a retiring naval admiral, a native of the state. As is often the case, historical memorabilia is not always seen in the best light – and the admiral’s son sold it to an antique dealer in the early 20th century.
The cup was placed on display in an original colonial American home.
When noted Jerusalem collector Ezra Gorodesky, now 88, was a young man in his native Philadelphia, he saw the cup on display in one of the old homes.
Most inquisitive back then in 1946 – as he continues to be today – he asked what the cup was and how much it would cost to purchase it; $5 was the answer.
He told me recently that he barely had enough coins in his pocket for the purchase but, patriotic American that he was, he had to have that cup. Thus the sale was made. When he made aliya to Jerusalem in 1961, he brought the cup with him, always displaying it proudly so that visitors would ask about it.
In the last 54 years, Gorodesky has become a renowned collector of Judaica, specifically carrying the label a “kitchen archeologist.” He perfected a technique of opening the bindings of old books, in which he discovered Hebrew manuscripts from the 17th to the 20th century; stories on his finds have referred to him as activating the “Geniza” of the last 400 years. As an advocate for preservation of manuscripts and memorabilia, he has gifted over 1,000 rare items to the National Library of Israel in the capital.
Jerusalem is his home, but Ezra realized that the best place for his Washington cup was Mount Vernon, the home and museum of the first president.
Initially, he placed it on loan there for seven years; then, 13 years ago at the age of 75, he presented the cup to Mount Vernon.
On permanent display there, the cup links the original burial place of America’s own George Washington with Jerusalem’s own Ezra Gorodesky.
A PICTORIAL find first unearthed here in Jerusalem at the National Library in 1989 has come to referred to as the “George Washington Seder.”
While seeking more information about the death of Emma Lazarus, whose sonnet adorns the Statue of Liberty and who died in 1887, close study was made of The American Hebrew, a New York weekly first published in that city in the early 1880s. Fortunately, the National Library has a collection of many of the original copies of that periodical from its initial decade of publication.
In the Passover issue of April 19, 1889, a drawing the paper had commissioned by local artist Arthur Meyer appeared. Depicted is a Seder in a New York home that year; centrally located is a powerful portrait of Moses with the 10 Commandments.
The participants at the festival meal are deeply involved in the reading of the Haggadah, dressed in the fashion of the times with formal hats and large, Oriental- style kippot. Different Passover rituals are depicted in small circular drawings on each of the four corners – collecting the hametz, stealing the afikoman and a full Seder plate occupy three of the corners. The fourth has become the keystone of this 19th-century art work; in the upper-right corner, a female worker opens the door for Elijah. On the wall next to her is a picture of George Washington.
The US was all aglow in April 1889 with the forthcoming centennial celebration of the inauguration of Washington later that month. President Benjamin Harrison was coming from Washington to New York for the festivities, since New York was the site of that great American historical event in 1789. Excitement reigned in all sectors of the population.
The Jews of America were a small population when the centennial was held in Philadelphia in 1876. In the spirit of the time, the B’nai B’rith organization commissioned a statue by American Jewish sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel, Liberty Rising. The sculpture was in the city’s Fairmount Park for over 80 years; now it adorns the National Museum of American Jewish History in downtown Philadelphia.
By 1889, with the growing American Jewish population fueled by large annual immigration from Eastern Europe, US Jews wanted to celebrate the Washington centennial alongside their fellow citizens. The question was: What to do? A most interesting solution presented itself.
New York’s Jewish merchants let it be known that for every 10 pounds of matza purchased before Passover, the buyer would receive a free picture of Washington. Excitement filled the air, as American patriotism and the freedom of Passover marched hand in hand. Eminent American Jewish historian Prof. Jonathan Sarna discovered a prayer written by Rabbi Jacob Joseph, the first and only chief rabbi of the US (serving as head of New York City’s Association of American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations), to be read during Passover 5649-1889. In it, the rabbi stressed the blessings of Washington for America, the Jews and all humanity.
In addition to the specially written prayer, the “The American Hebrew” drawing emphasizes that an additional step was taken. Not only did Jews possess a picture of Washington, they proudly hung it in their homes – and they too were a part of this important American historical moment.
When I compiled and edited the American Heritage Haggadah for publication here in Jerusalem in 1992 by Gefen Press, I chose to include this unknown piece of memorabilia, which I had unearthed here in the Holy City.
In his introduction to the Haggadah, ambassador Stuart Eizenstat wrote. “In 1889, on the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration as America’s first president, the George Washington Seder was held.
During that centennial year, free pictures of Washington were given for every purchase of 10 pounds of matza. As seen in the illustration in the American Heritage Haggadah, our first president is shown near the door awaiting Elijah’s arrival. What a wonderful integration of Americana with Judaica!” As Presidents’ Day was celebrated in America last week, two Jerusalemites were proud to have added to the canon of George Washington’s heritage.