An exhibit of dinnerware handed down from generation to generation is telling a story of Jewish immigration and integration into life in the United States.
The dishes on display “connect people generationally to the heritage of the Jewish people,” said Alice Berman, board president at the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County in Freehold. “Let’s Dish: Family Histories Through Dinnerware,” featuring eight sets of dinnerware from Monmouth County residents, will run through June 15.
“We have one set of Rosenthal china that came to this country in the arms of Holocaust survivors,” said Berman, also coordinator of the museum’s exhibits committee. The exhibit includes brief histories of the owners of the pieces and, in some cases, old family photos. Posted on the wall are family recipes of dishes that in all likelihood were served on the dinnerware.
Berman herself gave a setting from the Limoges china from France, originally a gift “to my grandparents for their 1902 wedding in Boston.” That couple, Gustav Kaltenbacher and the former Alice Bornstein, were part of the German-Jewish wave of immigration of the late 1800s. They were married in what a local newspaper called “a fashionable Jewish wedding,” said Berman.
The idea for the exhibit came from Michele Klausner, an exhibits committee member who runs a Jewish journaling class at the museum.
“We had a discussion about all the wonderful things we had that our children really didn’t want,” said Klausner, a Cliffwood resident. “Many of our children were using beautiful paper plates or had their own china. We realized we all had stories about our dishes.”
Berman, who lives in Morganville, said the idea “struck a chord”; she has noticed at many holiday dinners the now common use of disposable plates and utensils.
Besides having concerns about the environmental damage caused by using one-time-use items, she finds this trend “disturbing, because…that aspect of family history doesn’t get to the next generation,” she said. Using inherited dishes means that “on Passover you can say you drank out of grandma’s soup bowl. This has an impact on the next generation because it connects you to the whole chain generationally.”
Susan Helfand of Manalapan has two silver Kiddush cups that belonged to the great-grandfather of her husband, Raymond, on display. Helfand, a museum board member, said the family believes the cups were given as a bar mitzvah gift to that great-grandfather, Shmuel Shepeloff, in Chernigov, Russia. Engraved on one are Shepeloff’s initials in Hebrew, and both have similar carvings that, Helfand said, indicates they were made by the same hand. The cups were passed to his daughter, Riva Palley, who is believed to have brought them with her to America.
The cups, Helfand said, “have been used for five generations by the Helfand family for weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, brises, Shabbat, and holidays.”
Klausner donated two pieces for the exhibit, a setting of her own china and another given to her grandparents, Al and Rose Stockel, as an anniversary gift.
“My grandmother used these dishes for holidays,” said Klausner. “Rose was an amazing cook and made her own challah, gefilte fish, and kreplach, and no one has the recipes.”
The former Rose Ehrenkrantz’s family owned a general store in Austria, making them privy to information from customers and suppliers as the Nazis took control. Aware of the danger, they sold the store and moved to the United States.
Al Stockel came from Zadarz, Poland, today in Ukraine. However, his family owned a small dairy farm “in the middle of nowhere,” and while they heard rumblings about the Third Reich, “they thought no one would ever bother them” in their remote rural setting, said Klausner.
Once in America, Rose learned more about the rising tide of hatred toward the Jews in Europe; she returned to marry Al, with whom she already had a relationship. The couple came back to America and settled in Newark.
Klausner said her grandfather was in the grocery business, and as a child she would join him on visits to the chicken farms of Monmouth County. In the summers, the family rented lodgings in Bradley Beach, near her Uncle Eliyah, who lived in Asbury Park and was the only other survivor of the nine children in her grandfather’s family.
Klausner’s own place setting of Wedgwood Colonnade Black was a gift for her first wedding in 1969.
“As much as I thought of myself as a hippie and free thinker back then — who would have been happy to get married on a beach — I got caught up in the dreams of my family, of a big Jewish wedding that included fine china and silverware from a gift registry,” said Klausner.
However, she said, she can “count on her fingers” the times she has used it over the years. Now a vegan, she is proud of the choice of her daughter and grandchildren to also go vegan, but laments that they will never be able to eat lox, brisket, or chicken soup off the dishes. But Klausner said the exhibit has inspired her to take out a few plates from the set to share a breakfast bagel and coffee with her husband, Jonathan.
If you go
What: “Let’s Dish: Family Histories Through Dinnerware”
Where: Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County, Freehold
When: Open Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sundays,
11 a.m.-3 p.m. through June 15
Cost: $5, $3 for members
Information: Contact 732-252-6990 or visit jhmomc.org