A monumental collection

Over 11,000 original items of American Judaica – a labor of love for collectors Arnold and Deanne Kaplan – span four centuries and offer a unique window into the business world of early US Jewish merchants.

Kaplan Collection in Philadelphia (photo credit: DAVID TOCCAFONDI)
Kaplan Collection in Philadelphia
(photo credit: DAVID TOCCAFONDI)
‘Our collecting journey, which began in the late 1960s, grew from an initial casual interest into a comprehensive attempt to add to the understanding of the Jew in the New World, both as a Jew and as a citizen. Its time frame begins with a converso in Lima, Peru, circa 1555, then the inquisition in Mexico City, circa 1590s, and takes us up to the period of the mass migration... about 1890.”
With a bit of an understatement in his humble manner, Arnold Kaplan opens his introductory essay, “The Path from a Collector to a Collection,” in the catalogue of the first exhibition from the Arnold and Deanne Kaplan Collection of Early American Judaica at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, which began earlier this month, followed by a symposium of scholars that was open to the public. Two Jews, born and bred in the US, have performed the incredible task of locating 11,000 original American Jewish multidimensional items from 1555 to 1890.
Knowing nothing about these intrepid individuals, I received a call in January 2003 while I was living in Scranton, Pennsylvania from one Arnold Kaplan of Allentown. He had read a recent article of mine about a Jewish soldier at Valley Forge in the American Revolutionary War in the 18th century, and invited me to visit so he could show me some material related to American Jewish history.
At the first opportunity I drove to Allentown and rang the bell at the Kaplans’ home. They welcomed me warmly and asked me to sit on the sofa in the living room. Arnold said that he had something to show me.
“I bought this at a paper show in Philadelphia a few weeks ago,” he said nonchalantly, bringing out quite a large volume. “This is a receipt book from Philadelphia from the 1780s kept by Mr. Robert Morris, the treasurer of the American Continental Congress, which was used for his finance business after the war. Morris provided the funds so Gen. George Washington’s army of Minutemen and American patriots could defeat the British forces. When the British actually left, the United States of America was truly born.”
Of course, I had never been this close to actual American historical figures like Morris before. Kaplan began to flip the pages, moving toward the back of the book. He stopped at a certain page, turned to me and asked, “David, do you recognize any names?” I looked closely and I said aloud, “Haym Salomon, Haym Salomon.”
The name, incredibly, was written on the page at least 15 times.
Then, going forward a bit, I saw the names of many other famous Philadelphia Jews during the Revolutionary War period, including Benjamin Nones and the Gratz brothers. As a novice, I truly was amazed.
Kaplan told me that he had bought this ledger at the paper show for a minimal amount. I realized then that I was sitting in the home of master collectors.
The Kaplans further whetted my appetite to learn more about their collection by showing me unknown and never exhibited 19th-century oil paintings of Jews.
Among the most noteworthy artifacts were a group of Pennsylvania Dutch Christian baptismal certificates (Taufscheine) signed in Yiddish by the documents’ Jewish scrivener, a peddler named Martin Wetzler, above a Star of David. They had billheads of Jewish-owned businesses by the hundreds from the 1780s, continuing for most of the 19th century. “Here are some of the original letters written to or by Isaac Leeser [regarded by scholars as American Jewry’s most important communal leader in 19th century].”
In the Kaplan collection are 40 such Leeser letters, the largest private collection in existence.
Deanne Kaplan took me upstairs and showed me her specialty. Wanting to complement what her husband was uncovering, she focused on the Victorian-era trade cards advertising Jewish-owned businesses. Traveling to the most unlikely places, she brought together 4,000 of these cards from every state of the union.
“David,” she said, “a collection like this can never be replicated.”
What really captivated me, though, was that the Kaplans had every item listed in a database. Subsequently, in 2009, Arnold “migrated” the entire collection to the Collectify computer program.
In November 2012, the Kaplans donated their entire collection to the University of Pennsylvania Libraries.
The gift comprised over 11,000 original items of American Judaica, spanning four centuries, including silver services and presentation cups; a multitude of printed matter and original manuscript material; original, never-before-seen oil paintings of Jews and by Jews; an incredible number of photographs; and ephemera related to a wide spectrum of Jewish lives and experiences.
Taken together with Dee’s thousands of Victorian Jewish trade cards, the Kaplan collection as a whole offers “a unique window into the business world of American Jewish merchants prior to mass migration in the late 19th century.”
“We looked for a home for our collection for many years,” the Kaplans emphasized at the gift presentation in 2012 hosted by University of Pennsylvania president Amy Guttmann. “We chose this university, conceived by Benjamin Franklin in 1743, because it is one of the finest institutions of higher education in the world.”
Their decision to donate what they had carefully acquired to Penn also took into account how the Kaplan collection “could serve as a linchpin in a special partnership between the university and the nearby National Museum of American Jewish History. In a nutshell... our mission was accomplished.” the Kaplans stressed.
“We feel that the expertise of Dr. Arthur Kiron, the head of Penn’s Judaica collections, will ensure the vibrancy of the work of our hands in the years ahead,” the Kaplans were very pleased to state.
Both natives of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the couple has two daughters and six grandchildren. Over the past 40 years, they have amassed what Prof. Jonathan Sarna, a preeminent historian of American Jewry, calls “a classic collection which may never be rivaled. The Kaplans focused in particular on the mercantile history of American Jewry for several centuries, so that our approach to this subject will have to change considerably.”
“A key aspect of this material is that a sharper picture emerges, bringing into focus what the ordinary lives and labor of many different classes of American Jews were like : the variety of ways in which they earned a living, the families they built, the children they raised, the education they gave them, how they cared for the sick, how they worshiped and how they responded, oftentimes politically, to the controversial issues of the day,” Kiron suggests, pointing out that this is only one aspect of the Kaplan collection.
Consider, for example, the following item that is emblematic of the mercantile Jew in the US, moving west. As Arnold recounted, “We were able to locate a ledger from the store of Block & Levy, San Rafael/ Marin County, California territory. It is signed by Emanuel Block III and Samuel Levy in the frontispiece in old ink; throughout it is signed by D. Block, Maurice L. Levy and Philip Rothschild.” Beginning November 20, 1859, it continues for almost 200 pages. Kaplan explained its unique importance: “This is the earliest known Jewish storekeeper ledger in the California Gold Fields.”
What an exciting primary text to study, adding substance to the work of the pioneering scholars of the Jews in the Gold Rush, the late Prof. Robert Levinson of the University of California- San Jose and Dr. Ava Kahn, whose major book of documents of the Jews in the American West is a classic.
When asked if they had a favorite, the Kaplans answered, “There is a kiddush cup given in 1825 on the occasion of the ‘aperion’ year, engraved in the Hebrew at the top, outside and on the bottom, as a gift to the Mikveh Israel synagogue in Philadelphia.”
Now the cup invites us all in to view it.
“The bottom is engraved ‘R.G.’ (Rebecca Gratz). Rebuilt and dedicated in 1825, the new Mikveh Israel structure was captured in a black-and-white drawing.
The Gratz family were major supporters of that first Philadelphia synagogue, which is to be found near the Liberty Bell today.” No question about the silversmith who made it since it bears the hallmark of G. Greenleaf, an active artisan in Philadelphia at the time.
Among the most historically important paintings in the collection are a pair of portraits of Manuel Josephson (1729-1796) and his wife, Rachel Josephson (1732-1797), attributed to the American painter Lawrence Kilburn.
These may be their wedding portraits.
Josephson was quite wellknown as a civic and religious leader. When Haym Salomon, the only American Jewish patriot to appear on a US bicentennial commemorative stamp, unexpectedly died in 1785, leaving his family penniless, Josephson took care of them.
On December 13, 1790, Josephson penned a letter of congratulation to George Washington on his election as the first American president, on behalf of the congregations in Philadelphia, New York, Charleston and Richmond. Washington responded by thanking Josephson in these words: “The liberality of sentiment towards each other, which marks every political and religious denomination of men in this country, stands unparalleled in the history of nations.”
In the mercantile sector is the set of five Levi Strauss clothing business cards, showing the different types of pants worn by miners during the California gold rush. Frequently, enormous balloons would be sent aloft with the trading cards of a Jewish merchant, specifically Myer Myers of Wilmington, Delaware, who can be found in the collection.
Whoever found the balloon and cards would get free clothing. Descriptions of these hunts abound in the news of the day.
To assure that American Jews had specific information as to when the months began and the holidays fell, a luach (Jewish calendar) had to be committed to print, because it appears that in the 1770s no printed one existed in the US. The Kaplans learned of a handwritten version, begun in Philadelphia in 1776 and completed in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1778. Abraham Eliezer Cohen, a teacher at Mikveh Israel, was hired to prepare it for the Pollack family. The backstory: When the members of the Jewish patriot families had to flee in the wake of the British capture of Philadelphia, the luach could only be completed in Lancaster, where they sought shelter.
The “Patriot’s Luach,” as the Kaplans have named it, simply appeared in a dealer’s hands who was prepared to sell it.
In his essay in the catalogue, Prof. Sarna wrote, “The luach enabled the Jews to keep track of monthly worship even amid the dislocations of the Revolutionary War, when Jews had to flee from place to place. The luach helps preserve the regular cycles of distinctive Jewish ritual practices.”
The Kaplans have an intense love for Israel, and they have given anonymous donations to several institutions in the Jewish state. They also chaired the 350th birthday exhibition of local Jewish roots, housed at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley Heritage Center in 2005. Deanne gave a fascinating lecture on trading cards from Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton and other small area communities.
The couple has performed a great service for both American and world Jewry, by providing actual evidence of an unexpected aspect of Jewish life in the New World. Previously, the study of the American Jewish community focused on the mass migration of Jews from Eastern European lands beginning in 1881.
Now, with these early pieces of the puzzle of American Jewish life exposed, a more complete picture of the historical experience of American Jewry can be assembled. The Kaplans should have the pleasure of seeing the digitizing of the entire 11,000 pieces, so that scholars the world over can research the contents, no matter where they may live, enabling them to further enlighten mankind about American Jewish civilization.
The writer is the author of the American Heritage Haggada, a visual and textual appreciation of Passover in America, 1770-1991. The Haggada was in the library of late president Chaim Herzog, and in the libraries of US presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.