Monday, December 31, 2012

Resolve to Support Your Local History Museum in the New Year!

There are so many ways that you can help the Chemung Valley History Museum preserve and present history. 

Become a Member
Individual membership starts at only $35. As a member you will not only be supporting the Museum, you will also get free admission to the museum, a 10% discount in the gift shop, the Bank Notes newsletter and issues of the Chemung Historical Journal.

Make a Monetary Donation
Every little bit helps the Museum keep its doors open so that everyone can enjoy new exhibitions and programs.  And since the Museum is a nonprofit institution, your donation is tax deductible.

Donate Historic Objects, Photographs or Documents
The Museum is always collecting items directly related to the history of Chemung County.  Each new item adds greater value to the historic collections.

Volunteer Your Time
The Museum is a busy place with most of the action happening behind the scenes.  If you have some extra time in your day you could work with the Archivist or Curator to make the Museum’s collections more accessible.

Shop at the Museum’s Gift Shop
The gift shop is filled with books about local history including several on Mark Twain and the Civil War. Proceeds from the sales help support the Museum.

Visit the Museum
Things are always changing at the Museum so if you haven’t visited in a while you should stop by.  There will be five new exhibits opening in 2013 that cover such varied subjects as baseball, the Civil War, local businesses, and historic wedding and funeral customs.  That’s Entertainment: The Arts in Chemung County, 1880-1920 will be opening on Saturday, January 12th.

Come to a Program or Event
Every month there is something new and exciting happening at the Museum.  There are lecture series in February and May, the Great Car Thing in June, the Ghost Walk in October and many other events throughout the year. 

Tell Your Family and Friends about the Museum
Spread the word!  The more people who know where the Museum is and what it does the better!

For more information visit the Museum’s website at

Monday, December 24, 2012

I Bring Unto You Good Tidings of Great Joy

by Erin Doane, Curator 

The image of the baby Jesus lying swaddled in a manger surrounded by Mary and Joseph, magi and shepherds, angels and animals is an icon of Christmas.  The nativity scene or crèche has been reenacted in public and recreated in homes for centuries.  The first “living” nativity was said to have been staged by Saint Francis of Assisi in a cave near Greccio, Italy in 1223 to remind people of the true meaning of Christmas.  The living nativity was picked up by churches and the nobility who created ever more elaborate scenes. Today, it is standard at  most Christmas pageants.  The Radio City Christmas Spectacular in New York City concludes with the presentation of the nativity, featuring live camels and sheep.

Living nativity at St. Luke's Church in Elmira, 1959
The first static nativity scenes, composed of carved wooden figures of the holy family and attendants, appeared in Italian churches in the 1300s.  The nativity remained set up all year long on a side altar or chapel and was decorated for the Christmas season.  As with the living scenes, the static nativity was also adopted by the nobility and aristocrats.  By the mid 1500s the scenes were highly artistic with rich clothing on the figures.  The tradition of setting up the nativity for Christmas has spread through practically all Christian nations, with each culture adding its own style.  Both Catholic and Protestant families in Germany in particular adopted the nativity into their traditions, placing the baby Jesus into the manger on Christmas day.

The Museum has in its collection one nativity that was donated in 1972.  The painted ceramic figures were made in Germany sometime in the late 19th-early 20th Century.  The set consists of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, two angels, the three wise men or magi and their camels, three shepherds, eight sheep, an ox and an ass which are also traditional figures, two palm trees and a star.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Jewish History

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is just wrapping up.  Like many Jewish holidays, Hanukkah celebrates perseverance in the face of religious oppression.  Similarly, the early Jewish settlement in the Chemung Valley is a story of survival and growth in the face of oppression.   The first Jews arrived in the area following a failed revolution in the German states in 1848.  The revolution was an attempt on the part of the merchant middle class and the poorer working classes to unite the various German-speaking states into one democratic county.   It was put down by the aristocratic powers and was followed by an anti-Semitic backlash.

Most of the Jews who fled to America arrived in New York and Philadelphia and spread out from there.  By the early 1850s, the Erie Railroad had connected Elmira with New York and so the Jews came.  The earliest settlers worked as peddlers.  Some of them, especially those with families, established homes in Elmira and from there traveled by foot to outlying villages and settlements selling jewelry and other fancy goods not available in general stores.  After they’d gained enough money, many would settle down with a shop in a favorite village or return to Elmira to open up a store.  Rosenbaum’s, for example, was opened in 1863 by former peddler Leham Rosenbaum. 

By the 1860s, after years of worship in private homes, the Jewish community pulled together enough funds to build a synagogue.  It was called B’Nai Israel and was located on High Street on Elmira’s eastside in the heart of the Jewish community.  Initially, there were only 31 families in the congregation, but it grew steadily throughout the 1860s & 70s.  

A second wave of Jewish settlers arrived in the 1880s and 90s, this time from Poland and Russia.  Throughout the 1880s, Eastern European Jews were plagued both by violent mob attacks and increasingly harsh anti-Semitic laws which restricted where they could live, what jobs they could have and how much education they could receive.  Between 1881 and 1920, over 2 million Jews fled Russia and Poland for the United States. 

While the members of this second wave who settled in Elmira moved into the same eastside neighborhood as the more established Jewish families, they didn’t blend seamlessly.  The members of B’Nai Israel practiced Reform Judaism while the newer immigrants were Orthodox.  This lead to the founding of a new Orthodox temple called Shomray Hadath in 1883.  By the next year there was a third temple known as the Sullivan Street Synagogue and Talmud Torah which eventually merged with Shomray Hadath after a fire destroyed their building in 1941.

Beginning in the 1930s, the Jewish community began to move west out of the old eastside neighborhood centered around John Street.  First B’Nail Israel in 1952 and then later Shomray Hadath moved out to West Water Street.  Due to dwindling populations, the two congregations have recently merged to form Kol Ami.