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Museum Musings

11.21.17: Giving Thanks - A Beloved American & American Jewish Tradition

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By NMAJH Chief Registrar and Associate Curator Claire Pingel and Curatorial Intern Jackie Bein


George Washington

We all learn in school that the “first thanksgiving” feast in the New World was celebrated by Puritan pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe in 1621 New England, but Thanksgiving was not officially proclaimed a national “day of public thanksgiving and prayer” until 1789 by new President George Washington. In NMAJH’s gallery about the Revolutionary War period, you can see President Washington’s handwritten proclamation! And now through Thanksgiving weekend, you can see the original Richmond Prayerversion on view.

For this first “official Thanksgiving,” Jacob I. Cohen – a distinguished Jewish citizen of Richmond – transcribed a Hebrew prayer of gratitude for the new nation that was read aloud in Congregation Beth Shalom in Richmond, VA, the first Jewish congregation established after the nation’s founding. At a time when the United States was so very young, the “Richmond prayer," also on view in this gallery, offered “heartfelt praise for the new nation and its leaders.”

Visitors are rewarded for a careful look at the “Richmond Prayer”: the first letters in the middle lines of the poem spell out “Washington.” This is called an “acrostic” and the Richmond prayer is not the only presidential acrostic in our galleries. A few hundred feet away, we display another – Isaac Goldstein’s 1865 memorial to President Abraham Lincoln. Curiously, this has its own connection to Thanksgiving – in 1863, Lincoln established that the fourth Thursday in November would thenceforth be observed as the federal holiday of Thanksgiving. *

This year, when you gather with loved ones for the holiday, try writing your own acrostic poem! Choose a person or place that has had significance in your family’s history, and write a meaningful tribute to them. And while you’re waiting for that all-important feast to be ready, ensure that you make the most of your time with loved ones by uploading those too-easily-forgotten family memories into Re:collection, NMAJH’s new online tool for organizing and sharing your family’s story.

NMAJH wishes you a great holiday!

* This changed only for a few years during the Great Depression, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved the observance of Thanksgiving up a week in an attempt to encourage more retail and boost the economy.

11.16.17: Researching Your Roots

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Family history blog photo

Discovering your family’s history can be a complicated process, but even if you think you already know a great deal about where you came from, delving into your family’s stories can be incredibly rewarding. NMAJH’s new digital story-collecting platform, Re:collection, provides an immersive (and fun!) way to organize your research and share it with family, friends, and the future.

In all the time I’ve spent searching for records online, putting obscure names and phrases into Google search bars, and visiting libraries and archives, the most worthwhile part of my research has been interviewing my relatives. After interviewing my relatives, I learned a lot about my great-great-grandparents, Aaron David and Rebecca Simonoff (pictured above!), who immigrated to New York from Russia.

While archival research can tell you the facts like the address where your family members lived or when they were born, interviewing helps you get to that elusive next step of finding out what life was like for these people—what they ate, what they did for fun, what they remember about their childhood. Taking the time to sit down with relatives or friends and ask them to share their memories is incredibly worthwhile, both for the experience itself and for the homemade archive you and future generations will long cherish.

As an intern here at NMAJH, I love listening to the stories that visitors record in the “It’s Your Story” booths on the second floor. The video recording booths provide an opportunity to pass along a family tradition, share a funny story, memorialize a name.

So you want to find out more about your family history. Where to begin? Here are some tips I have picked up from my experience digging in to genealogy research over the last few years.

→ Determine what you know. A good place to start is to sketch out what you know of your family tree and list the critical facts (birth/death years, places lived, immediate family members) for each person. This will help you determine what exactly you want to find out and provide a framework for your research.

→ Know when to be specific.
When you’re conducting an interview, it’s a good idea to be prepared with specific questions to prompt discussion, avoiding yes or no questions. Try not to interrupt if the interviewee is in the middle of a good story, even if he/she is not really answering your question.

→ Record the interview.
Recording (with the interviewee’s permission) allows you to focus on the conversation without frantically taking notes. You’re also able to go back and check on the exact spelling or names of places or things referenced by the interviewee without having to interrupt them to clarify during the interview.

→ Know how to deal with inconsistencies in your research.
Your grandfather may insist in an interview that his father was born in a certain year, but you go to the city archives and find out that his birth certificate says otherwise. These kinds of conundrums are part of what makes family history research interesting and exciting. Don’t assume that any one source is always correct—just as a relative may not remember something correctly, the census taker may just as easily have skipped a line or have illegible handwriting.

Share your research. Your family members will be interested in what you’ve found. Make your discoveries accessible and concise. That’s where Re:collection comes in! Share your stories by logging in at and exploring the many offerings of the digital platform.

-Contributed by Jackie Bein, NMAJH Curatorial Intern