Sometimes, you can be transported back by a simple address or name that propels you into a whole era, along with the people you loved and lived with, seemingly at your sides. This bar mitzvah invitation card donated by Sam Korus is a memory gift box for those who remember such times and a signpost for those, like me, who came after, and learned of this neighborhood through other means. Collecting archives materials over the last ten years has introduced me to many places, but the East Side is one of those spaces that looms very large in Jewish Buffalo memory and continues to draw me into discovering more stories. The Jefferson “Street” or “Avenue” (depending on the decade) was a major thoroughfare of Buffalo Jewish life, and the Jefferson Shul, in which many a bar mitzvah took place, was an important address, along with the Jewish Community Building, set almost opposite, on the other side of the street.
This modest invitation by today’s standards might have been regarded as fancy back then, with its feature photograph. I wish I knew more about the individual family. Who was Samuel? What happened to him after his bar mitzvah? Did he remain in Buffalo? Who were his parents? How did they make a living? Did they remain on the East Side, move to North Buffalo, or strike out to Kenmore? At least we know more about the synagogue. The Jefferson Shul – or Congregation Ahavath Sholem at 407 Jefferson, was certainly “stylish” as recorded in newspaper articles back then. In 1917, when this bar mitzvah took place, now almost 100 years ago, the Jefferson Shul was enjoying its zenith. Originally founded in 1890, it was officially incorporated two years later as “Ahavas Sholem” on March 21, 1892. The synagogue was Orthodox in religious practice and its first members were new immigrants from Russia, Eastern Europe. By 1897 the Jefferson Shul was home to the Talmud Torah – Buffalo’s first city wide supplementary Hebrew and Religious School. In 1903, as members acculturated and became increasingly successful, their members were able to fund a $28,000 dollar frontage addition to 407 Jefferson Ave. With its eye-catching design - yellow bricks and its Moorish revival “onion” shaped dome - it became an instant local landmark. The active life of the synagogue continued through to 1950s based on the minute book entries included in a collection at the University Archives, at the University at Buffalo. You can find out more about the synagogue collection and its history by exploring the records at the archives. A specific guide for your visit is available by clicking on this link: http://purl.org/net/findingaids/view?docId=ead/archives/ubar_ms0200_5.xml
Peckham Street, where the Miller family received guests after the service, has also undergone change as has the observation of Bar mitzvah celebrations themselves over the almost hundred years since Samuel Miller took to the bimah. The bar mitzvah invitation invites us back into that past, to explore the cityscapes then and to reflect on how landmarks have changed since. It also enables us to think about religious and cultural continuity and how those reflect wider trends within American Jewish life, then as now, as well as change in this particular place we call home.
You can share your stories about synagogues, businesses, organizations, families and more by contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also write to: Dr. Chana Kotzin, Jewish Buffalo Archives Project, Bureau of Jewish Education, 2640 North Forest Road, Suite 400, Getzville, NY 14068.