A Different Kind of Matchmaking

Hand-carved wooden type from the Firschein Press
Hand-carved wooden type from the Firschein Press
Courtesy of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley

The first time I visited Oscar and Theda Firschein at their home near Stanford, I felt as if I had walked into a museum. Every surface—horizontal and vertical—was covered with intriguing objects, paintings, old books, mysterious machinery, early electronics and more. I did not expect, however, that inside one cabinet would be a treasure trove that would enable me to become a matchmaker between my new friends and a preeminent Jewish museum.

Carefully stored inside were dozens of early 20th century first-edition posters that had been printed by the family’s Firschein Press in Brooklyn, New York. Each offered a unique window into Jewish community and immigrant life nearly a century ago, with a mixture of Yiddish, English and Hebrew printing that advertised Jewish festivals, famous cantors, neighborhood dances, special synagogue events and more.

Even in early 20th century Brooklyn, synagogues were trying new ways to increase membership. Image courtesy of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley

I felt immediately that these amazing posters belonged in an actual museum and was excited to learn that Oscar and Theda were interested in donating them. In a very short time, the experts at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life shared my enthusiasm. Curator Francesco Spagnolo and his colleagues were as intrigued as I was by Oscar’s story of growing up in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach during the 1930s. Several visits followed to finalize the donation and transfer the amazing posters to their new home in downtown Berkeley.

It was important to Oscar and Theda that the posters would be seen, not just preserved, and in the Magnes they found an innovative partner who would quickly exceed their highest hopes. Not only did the Magnes team digitize all 111 posters, they mounted a special exhibition at the museum and put all the digitized images (titled “High Holy Days at the Luna Park: Show-Card Posters from the Firschein Press) online so that they can be accessed worldwide as one of the Museum’s Jewish Digital Narratives.

Founded in 1962, the Magnes has held a unique position among Jewish museums since 2010 when it became part of a major public research university. Through its participation in UC Berkeley’s Undergraduate Apprentice Research Program, college students have the opportunity to work directly with Magnes museum professionals and Spagnolo, who also is an associate adjunct professor in the UC Department of Music.

One of those students, Rebecca Fielding, researched each Firschein Press poster’s original neighborhood location and featured organization. Utilizing state-of-the-art mapping software developed by Bay Area-based Findery, the Magnes took the story of the Firschein posters to yet another fascinating level, creating an online tour that is a treat for anyone who appreciates how Jewish history can be brought to life in new ways.

Courtesy of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley

When the Firschein Press closed its doors in the mid-1970s, Oscar not only rescued the posters, he had what he now calls “the wild idea” of shipping the 1920s vintage hand-fed Kluge printing press all the way from New York to California by rail, along with the hand-carved wooden type, spacers and decorative elements used in creating each unique design. Pride of craftsmanship was a hallmark of the family business, as one poster proudly declared: “Printing that Pleases Particular People Our Specialty.” The press has remained in Oscar’s and Theda’s home for decades, untouched by time.

Hebrew type used by the Firschein Press

A NEW HOME FOR THE PRINTING PRESS? Oscar and Theda would like to find an appropriate place where they could donate the printing press and hand-carved type. If your organization is interested, please contact me by email: hebert.shelleys@gmail.com.

For more about the history of the first Jewish museum established on the West Coast, visit https://magnes.berkeley.edu/research/magnes-history

About the Author
Shelley is a consultant who has held executive and board leadership roles in the San Francisco Bay Area/Silicon Valley Jewish community. She led development of the Palo Alto Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life, was board president of Hillel at Stanford, and has served on the advisory boards of the Jewish Chaplaincy at Stanford Medical Center, the Taube Center for Jewish Studies and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture. At Stanford she was the university's Director of Business Development and Executive Director for Public Affairs at Stanford Health Care. She began her career as a journalist and currently focuses on strategic communications and writing. Email: hebert.shelleys@gmail.com
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