FORDHAM — A trove of artifacts of local Jewish life — bar mitzvah invitations, high school yearbooks, marriage certificates, receipts from kosher caterers among them — is growing here in an unlikely place: a library in a Catholic university.
The collection is located at Fordham University, which was founded in 1841 by Jesuit priests in the Bronx.
Its curator, Magda Teter, professor of history and Jewish studies, has amassed an estimated 100 items — some seemingly mundane, others steeped in history — that reflect what was once everyday Jewish life in the borough, formerly home to a community that has largely moved away since it peaked in the 1930s.
In its wake, through Teter’s efforts, the university’s Center for Jewish Studies has acquired books of Judaica, like ancient texts recited at Passover, that are hundreds of years old. One such Haggadah has pages stained by wine and candle wax.
“I love teaching with artifacts,” said Teter, who came to Fordham in 2015. “You can do all you want on PDFs, you can do all you want on PowerPoint, but there’s nothing like touching a 16th-century book, flipping through its pages, and seeing the wax marks.
“I love for students to touch history.”
Absence of Jews, Past and Present
Teter, who holds the Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies at Fordham, is not Jewish. But as a scholar of the faith, she has researched its attendant cultures throughout the world.
She earned her doctorate degree at Columbia University and also studied in Israel. Her fascination with the Jewish religion and its cultures grew as she contemplated a stark mystery in her native Poland — the absence of Jewish people.
She wondered, Who were they? Where did they go? History shows that millions of them died or became displaced in the Holocaust during World War II.
“My father, as a child, witnessed the deportation of Jews in his town,” she said. “When we traveled, he always pointed out where a synagogue had been, or a cemetery, and Jewish homes. So I grew up very much aware of the absence of Jews past and present in Poland.”
What About The Bronx?
The artifacts in the Bronx collection have been on display since October in the new Henry S. Miller Judaica Research Room in Fordham’s Walsh Family Library on the university’s Rose Hill campus. They reflect a time in the mid-20th century when more than half a million Jews lived in the Bronx and attended hundreds of synagogues, Teter said.
But after World War II, Jewish families started leaving the Bronx to take advantage of government-sponsored mortgage programs in the suburbs. The Riverdale neighborhood is now the only predominantly Jewish enclave in the borough.
“When I came, I asked if I could start a collection, and we bought four books,” Teter said. “And it has since grown to hundreds of books from the 15th century to the 21st century. But one day, I realized that I’m collecting from all over the world, but what about the Bronx?”
The Pride and Joy
Teter’s first discovery was a bar mitzvah invitation from 1951 for “Freddie,” the pride and joy of Mr. and Mrs. Dave Rothberg.
More pieces followed, including a box full of them donated by Ellen Meshnick of Georgia, sharing “slice-of-life” keepsakes from the Bronx childhood in the 1930s and 1940s of her mother, Martha (Farber) Meshnick.
Included are the mother’s honor-student report card, a yearbook from Walton High School, and her autograph book filled with well-wishes from classmates. The back of the book has playful notes left by her daughter in the mid-1950s.
Teter recited from the book, “‘I saw you in the river. I saw you in the lake. I saw you in the bathtub. Oops, my mistake. Your loving daughter.’ A year later, she writes, ‘To Martha mommy: Who can be better than you, mommy dear? No one, yes, no one. Ellen, your daughter.’ ”
The history professor chuckled and said, “She was just having fun.”
The Farber-Meshnick trove also contains plans for Martha’s wedding, including vendor receipts from caterers and florists.
“It shows the thriving Jewish community in the Bronx,” Teter said.
Our Partners and Friends
Fordham has a history of embracing Jewish culture and students, said Tania Tetlow, who became Fordham’s new president last July after holding the same post at Loyola University in New Orleans.
“We have a proud tradition, as an institution of faith, of studying all of the world’s great religions, and particularly Judaism, which is such a fundamental part of our Christian faith,” Tetlow said.
“Personally,” she added, “I understand so much more about my Christian faith because I go to temple because I love Judaism.”
She described how Catholics and Jews were both shunned in the early days of New York City. Colleges and universities blocked admissions from groups, but not Fordham, Tetlow said.
“These are our partners and our friends,” Tetlow said. “To understand the history of the Jewish people is to stop the demonization and the stereotyping that has caused so much brutal evil in the world.”
Hannorah Ragusa, a freshman from Long Island, said Fordham’s Jewish studies center taught her about the violent persecutions called “pogroms” during the early 20th century in Russia and Eastern Europe.
“This is a side of history that I’ve never really been exposed to in public school,” she said. “I had never heard of pogrom before. I don’t know why, and I feel like we should have.”
Maya Bentovim, a senior from Bergen County, New Jersey, agreed.
“I think studying such a marginalized community — being able to learn about it in depth — really gives students an opportunity to apply their thinking,” she said. “I am a Jewish student, so it definitely shows me that Fordham values me and that there’s a place for me here.”
The artifacts that have been on display at the library will eventually give way to upcoming exhibits but will be available for viewing by appointment.