In 2018, the Cincinnati Skirball Museum hosted “Jewish Cincinnati: A Photographic History,” showcasing 18 photos of historic Cincinnati synagogues merged with old documents and images of their locations in the city – or, for synagogues no longer standing, where they used to be.
The exhibit, part of the FotoFocus Biennial project and created in collaboration with photographer J. Miles Wolf, was a resounding success for the museum. Two hundred and thirty two people came to the opening, while roughly 1,200 people visited the exhibit during its three-month run.
“It was the most successful opening and had the most visitation of any exhibition we’ve done since I’ve been here…since 2013,” said Abby Schwartz, the Skirball’s director and curator for the exhibit. The photos told “the story of the earliest Jewish institutions, and then the migration of the Jewish community from downtown into…the farther suburbs.”
Despite success, something was missing from the exhibit: There was no showing of West Side Sephardic synagogues, or Jewish communities in Northern Kentucky.
Four years later, the Skirball is rectifying that. A follow-up exhibit, titled “Jewish Cincinnati: A Photographic Record,” features 18 new photos from Wolf together with the original set from 2018. Alongside more synagogues, like the Sephardic Beth Shalom congregation, the exhibit touches on Jewish institutions ranging from extinct mom-and-pop shops and the original offices of the American Israelite newspaper, to The Jewish Hospital and the original Manischewitz matzah factory.
Wolf “expanded [the exhibit] beyond the evolution of synagogue life to the evolution of how the Jewish community became part of the larger Cincinnati community,” said Schwartz, curator for the new exhibit.
Though the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial is over, the exhibit, running through Jan. 29, serves as the Skirball’s bookend to the celebration of Jewish life in the Queen City. It also touches on issues that are top of mind in the U.S. today, like immigration, antisemitism, and urban renewal.
Schwartz pointed to Lipman Pike, the first Jewish baseball player, manager, and umpire, also widely considered the first professional baseball player. Pike is from Brooklyn, but played for several years with the Cincinnati Reds in the late 1870s while facing antisemitism and accusations of disloyalty. A photo of him, merged together by Wolf with historical documents, is in the exhibit.
Pike “didn’t end up in the Hall of Fame, and a lot of people think it’s because he was Jewish,” Schwartz said. Antisemitism “reared its ugly head then, [and] it’s rearing it again [today].”
While the exhibit showcases Jewish Cincinnati and key locations like the Plum Street Temple, it also serves as a warning about how easily local heritage is lost. One of the synagogues featured in the 2018 exhibition, built in 1865 for the Ahavath Achim Congregation of Brotherly Love, was demolished in 2020 by soccer club FC Cincinnati. For 86 years the space had also been home to the Revelation Missionary Baptist Church, a prominent Black congregation.
“It’s one year older than Plum Street Temple,” photographer Wolf told WCPO in 2019, when FC Cincinnati was trying to buy the building. “I think it’s worth saving just because it was built as a temple in 1865…there’s just not many buildings left in Cincinnati from 1865.”
The synagogue’s former location is now a gravel lot awaiting development. In protest, Wolf took his image of the synagogue and painted a black X over it – the loss of the building a literal stain on the exhibit and the history of Jewish Cincinnati.
“What was once an important synagogue for our community, and then a very important church, is gone,” Schwartz said. “There’s no footprint.”
That complex history of Jewish life in Cincinnati is also echoed by a graphic at the entrance to the exhibit. It shows the history of every Jewish congregation in the city, through foundings, mergers, relocations, and for several, eventual demise.
Still, a sense of nostalgia and pride is the foundation of the exhibit, as it traces the Jewish architecture and entrepreneurs that have shaped Cincinnati while also paving the way for a uniquely American Judaism. The photos and stories appeal across generations, Schwartz said.
“Some people are still living who remember some of the way these places looked and behaved,” she said. “Some are young professionals and people in the community who are so excited to learn that [Jewish Cincinnati] had such a rich history.”
The Skirball has been programming around the exhibit to increase engagement, running a packed bus tour to historically Jewish parts of Cincinnati with Schwartz and Wolf, a lunch and learn, and self-guided mobile phone tours of Cincinnati with Wolf’s photos.
Two more exhibit-adjacent programs are left: On Jan. 18, Schwartz will give a lecture on Jewish art history in Cincinnati, while the last day of the exhibit on Jan. 29 will host a closing reception where museum staff, volunteers, and Wolf will give informal tours.
There’s much to learn from the exhibit, Schwartz said. Jews in Cincinnati have celebrated their past with the bicentennial while also grappling with reduced importance in the bigger picture of American Jewish life – seen most clearly with the cutting of HUC-JIR’s Cincinnati rabbinical program.
The exhibit is “not just looking at the past, but looking at how that past informs our future,” Schwartz said. “The impact of Jewish businesses, the impact of Jewish social clubs, and the impact of Jewish hospitals. It reminds us as Jews, but more importantly, it tells our larger community that you know about these accomplishments. And that we shouldn’t take them for granted.”
Find more information about exhibit programs, and plan your visit to the Skirball, at this link.