There were posters everywhere — hanging on the walls, leaning on chairs, propped up on a couch. Some were nearly a century old. They announced Purim concerts and séances, “Rosh Hashono” services and rummage sales.
When museum curator Francesco Spagnolo first visited the Menlo Park home of Theda and Oscar Firschein last May and saw the more than 100 cardboard “show cards,” written in four languages, it was like taking a stroll through a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, where those posters once sat in the windows of barbershops and kosher butchers.
Spagnolo quickly arranged to bring the posters to the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley, where they’ll be on exhibit from Jan. 23 through June 29.
“It gives a sense for the everyday, for the common life, and in this case we explore this web of intercultural relations that happened through this printing shop,” Spagnolo said. “In a way, the story told by these posters is a lot bigger than the posters themselves.”
The posters were given to the Magnes by the Firscheins, who brought them across the country and had stored them in their Menlo Park home since the 1960s. Oscar’s father, uncle and grandfather owned and operated the printing shop, which opened on Myrtle Avenue around 1920 and later moved to Brighton Beach.
Oscar Firschein, 90, has vivid childhood memories of Firschein Press. His father, Harry, set the type by hand and Uncle Izzy operated the presses. Grandfather Joseph, who had brought his family to Brooklyn from Russia, spent much of his time listening to Yiddish-language programming on radio station WEVD.
Firschein wanted to follow his dad into the printing business but was forbidden. Instead, he became an engineer, working for a quarter-century at the Lockheed Palo Alto Research Lab and later teaching at Stanford University.
“He wouldn’t let me. He said, ‘You want to get an education. You don’t want to be a printer.’ I took print shop at Brooklyn Tech; he was very upset,” Firschein said. “When I was little, I was intrigued by the print shop. It smelled of turpentine. As a kid, that machine’s a wonder.”
The 36 posters in the exhibit cover a wide range of Jewish and sometimes non-Jewish life in Brooklyn from the 1920s to the 1960s. In a variety of colors and fonts, the 22-by-14-inch posters were printed in English, Yiddish, Hebrew or Spanish, or a combination of those languages.
Firschein calls the posters “the internet of the time. If you wanted to know what was going on, you just looked at the store windows.”
Some advertised High Holy Day services. Others promoted the visits of famous cantors. Some publicized dances.
“What [Spagnolo] recognized that we didn’t [is that] he saw them as sociological documents,” Firschein said. “You get a feeling of the life in that particular era.”
When Firschein Press closed and the posters were taken to Menlo Park, Firschein also brought one of the old printing presses to his home, where it has remained to this day. The Firscheins also have a gramophone (phonograph) and radios from the 1920s, old, bulky adding machines and a computer from the 1970s, making a visit to their home like a walk through the 20th century.
Firschein was focused on finding a permanent home for the printing press — not the posters — until he and Theda met Shelley Hebert in Torah study and invited her to their home. There, her attention immediately was drawn to the dozens of vintage posters hanging around the house, reminding her of a similar collection she was aware of at the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
“When I saw Theda and Oscar’s posters, I thought, ‘Wow, this is an innovative way of telling Jewish community history,’” Hebert said. “These posters are not just a family heirloom, they are a legacy of Jewish life.”
A short time later, Hebert attended a meeting of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture’s advisory board held at the Magnes, where she mentioned the Firscheins’ collection to museum officials.
“I think the first thing that struck me was how many of them they had preserved. They were created not to last, but to be used,” Spagnolo said. “I think the quantity here is really relevant. Taken as a whole, they’re meaningful. If it was just one or two or three, it would have been a different thing.”
Theda Firschein, 85, was surprised by Spagnolo’s interest.
“I don’t know if we thought that the posters would be that interesting to other people,” she said, adding that most were being stored in a closet.
The Firscheins will be honored at an opening reception for the Magnes’ two new exhibits, including “High Holy Days at the Luna Park: Show-card Posters from the Firschein Press, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1920-1974,” at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 31 at the museum. Musician Yair Harel of Jerusalem will perform at the event, which is free as long as you RSVP.