Twenty-five years of chutzpah: Jewish life celebrated at Breman Museum

The Midtown museum exhibits items from its enormous archives.

In 1898, when Samuel Greenblatt, of Knoxville, Tennessee, was 16 years old, he enlisted in the 4th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry and went off to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War.

Beile Greenblatt, being a good Jewish mother, baked some bagels for Sam to take with him. When he got back from the very short-lived hostilities, he found one bagel still in the bottom of his knapsack.

The family lore tells us that the ferocious body odor from Sam’s uniforms, piled on top of the lone surviving bagel, kept it preserved until the end of the war. The family kept it as a curiosity for the next six generations.

Credit: The Breman Museum

Credit: The Breman Museum

“I’ve been after that bagel for years,” said Jane Leavey, founding executive director of the Breman Museum. The Greenblatt family generously offered the shockingly well-preserved bagel for a new exhibit at the museum celebrating the Breman’s 25th anniversary of documenting Jewish life in the South, called “History with Chutzpah: Remarkable Stories of the Southern Jewish Adventure, 1733-Present.”

Credit: The Breman Museum

Credit: The Breman Museum

Like many Yiddish words, chutzpah has no precise English counterpart, but it has come to mean bold, brash, full of moxie.

The people it describes are those who make a place for themselves in a sometimes unyielding world, with self-confidence, if not arrogance, and with vigor and energy.

The word describes the Jewish community in Georgia and also the Breman’s ambitious exhibit.

The show opened earlier this fall, but for a limited number of days each week due to the ongoing pandemic. Currently it’s open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays and by appointment noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays.

Co-curator Leavey said sometimes such exhibits tend to emphasize the heroic and gloss over the unflattering or negative detail, but she wanted this retelling to include all aspects.

An example: In the section called “Courage and Conformity,” we learn that Dannenberg’s department store, founded in the 1870s in Macon, quietly and effectively integrated Macon’s businesses in the 1960s, eliminating “white” and “colored” lavatories, drinking fountains and lunch counters.

“After two or three weeks and everybody got used to the fact, everybody came and went like they wanted to,” remembered third-generation executive Walter Dannenberg.

On the other hand, the exhibit tells of Charlie Lebedin, owner of the popular downtown Atlanta restaurant, Leb’s, who, despite pressure from the Jewish community, resisted integration. In a photograph from 1960 we see protesters outside Leb’s main dining room, walking past a wall-sized sign proclaiming “This Restaurant Is My Own Investment and I Intend To Protect It By Serving Whom I Please.”

Jews arrived in Georgia at the very beginning of the colony, when 42 men and women landed in Savannah on July 11, 1733. Among them was physician Samuel Nunes, who treated some of the colonists for yellow fever, and an artisan, Abraham de Lyon, trained in wine-making. The skills these arrivals brought helped generate a positive welcome from the Christians they encountered.

Southern Jews fought on both sides of the Civil War. On display are the 1860s-era minutes of a meeting at Temple Beth Israel in Macon that absolved members from having to pay dues while they were away serving the Confederacy.

The exhibit takes advantage of the holdings in the Ida Pearle and Joseph Cuba Archives for Southern Jewish History, the Breman’s enormous collection of documents, photographs, journals, oral histories and artifacts that tell the history of the community from colonial times forward.

The archive and museum were founded to focus on Georgia history, but later added Alabama stories to their purview.

Credit: The Breman Museum

Credit: The Breman Museum

While an archive usually is restricted to printed and photographic material, the Breman made the decision to also acquire objects, and a wonderful array of personal belongings, from jewelry to quilts, lend immediacy and poignance to the exhibit.

Among the notable objects on display from the collection at the Breman are:

  • An Enfield rifle-musket used in 1862 by Confederate soldier Jacob Rothschild in the Battle of Vicksburg and the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern. Later, Rothschild opened a women’s clothing store in Selma, Alabama, and was an advocate for women’s suffrage.
  • Baby shoes from factory worker Mary Phagan, whose death triggered the lynching of Leo Frank. (Frank’s baby shoes are also on exhibit, as is a reinforced metal door from the prison in Milledgeville, where a well-organized mob seized Frank in the middle of the night.)
  • A fragment of a fluted column from The Temple, bombed by white supremacists in 1958.
  • A full-sized, coin-operated blue mechanical horse, created as part of the promotional campaign for Blue Horse Tablets, one of the products of the Montag Brothers’ stationery company.

Credit: The Breman Museum

Credit: The Breman Museum

  • A drawstring bag with a poignant message on the exterior. In the bag, Eva Judith Weisz Moray kept her travel documents around her neck, as the tiny girl made her way, alone, from Hungary to New York City in 1949. “My name is Judith Moray,” the bag reads. I am travelling to my mother in New York. I beg you, ladies and gentlemen, to help me, as I am still small.”

Credit: The Breman Museum

Credit: The Breman Museum

Credit: The Breman Museum

Credit: The Breman Museum

The archive and the Breman Museum itself had their start in 1983, when the Atlanta Jewish Federation (later the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta) hosted an international meeting of Jewish organizations.

Leavey and archivist Sandy Berman organized an exhibit for the meeting, borrowing material from around the state. Visitors from Chicago and New York were surprised that Georgia had a 250-year history of Jewish life. “I think they were also surprised that we had running water,” joked the silver-haired Leavey, during a recent tour of the museum.

With that exhibit, the idea for an archive got rolling. In 1996, with seed money from philanthropist Bill Breman and a donated building from the Selig family at 1440 Spring St., both museum and archive became a reality.

This exhibit opens with a bit of a magic trick, geared to entertain the many school groups that come through the museum. Visitors are ushered into what appears to be a dark-wood-paneled study, lined with shelves full of curiosities — skulls, gems, crystals, leather-bound volumes — and are greeted on a video screen by actor Josh Evans dressed as an 18th-century aristocrat.

Evans speaks about the importance of saving antiquities, and then invites the guests inside, once they guess the secret trigger that opens a hidden panel.

Chutzpah played a big role in the creation of the museum, and is the hallmark, said Leavey, of many Atlanta notables featured in the exhibit.

A stethoscope on display tells the story of Dr. Nanette Wenger, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, and a pioneer in the study of cardiovascular health in women. In 1958 Wenger became chief of the Grady Hospital Clinic, which at the time was still segregated.

Credit: The Breman Museum

Credit: The Breman Museum

Black staff and patients were addressed by their first names at Grady; white patients were given the “Mr.,” Mrs.” or “Miss” treatment. Wenger put a stop to that, and made sure all patients and staff were treated with equal respect.

According to Leavey, when the administration pushed back, Wenger told them “You brought me here from New York to run this place and I’m going to do it my way.”

Leavey added: “That’s chutzpah!”


“History with Chutzpah: Remarkable Stories of the Southern Jewish Adventure, 1733-Present”

11-4 p.m. Sundays and by appointment noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays. $12; $8 senior citizens; $6 students and educators; $4 ages 3-6; free for under age 3. The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, 1440 Spring St. NW, Atlanta. 678-222-3700,