Telling the tale of the bat mitzvah dress (It’s complicated) with Sarah Leavitt

Photo courtesy of Sarah Leavitt

As a curator and cultural historian, Sarah Leavitt’s job is to tell stories that reflect on the history, culture and provenance of objects and ephemera. She worked for a more than a decade at the National Building Museum in Washington before moving to a curatorial position at the Capital Jewish Museum.

The collection is in storage while a new building goes up at Third and F Streets, NW. And she hasn’t had any hands-on experience with the museum’s collection yet, because of COVID-19 restrictions. But almost as an aside, during a recent conversation, Leavitt, 50, mentioned that her own bat mitzvah dress, along with the invitation, photos and her haftarah portion are in a glass case at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

With a doctorate in American studies from Brown University and dozens and dozens of exhibits under her belt, she facetiously said, “One of my greatest achievements that I’m proud of is that my bat mitzvah dress is on display at the National Museum of American History.”

The classic 1980s floral print Jessica McClintock Gunne Sax dress with the puffy sleeves, high neck and dropped waist is part of an exhibit titled “Girlhood (It’s Complicated),” which traces the social history of growing up female in America. Leavitt’s dress and other ephemera appear in a section focused on coming-of-age rituals.

These days, Leavitt is active in Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, near her Silver Spring home. She sings in the choir and has worked on the Hebrew school’s curriculum and seen her son grow from a preschooler to a college freshman during her years of involvement.

For her work at the Capital Jewish Museum Leavitt is not collecting specific objects, although she might for future exhibits. Since joining the staff earlier this year she is working on scripts and telling stories.

“The idea of the Capital Jewish Museum is to see the city as both local and national,” she explained. “It tells a community story of people who live and work here, but it’s also a story of people who have the opportunity to affect national policy. That’s different about D.C. certainly than any other city in America. Here we have an opportunity to tell a national story at a local level.”

She notes the many Jewish-owned small businesses and Jewish real estate developers over the years who frequently had regular contact with national decisionmakers and shaped the city’s evolution.

“There were many, many stores where people were serving government officials and agencies … like a stationery store in town that made stationery for the White House, or an iron worker who built the fence a government building.” And then she noted that a pair of Lady Bird Johnson’s gloves are in the collection, donated by a Jewish-owned dry cleaner.

“One story that almost everybody tells me … is about when Jews were kept out of certain neighborhoods around D.C. and in Montgomery County,” Leavitt said. “And while that’s certainly true, there is another story.”

Although a number of developers and neighborhoods and country club had restrictive covenants disallowing Jews and other minorities, she discovered some Jewish developers would not sell to African-American homebuyers. “Jewish developers and Jewish home owners, especially in Montgomery County, but also in D.C., are implicated in that story. That’s interesting to me. And it’s important that we have the opportunity to tell that story. Yes, it puts people on edge a little [because] it’s different from the story they think they know.”

But for Leavitt, that’s what a history museum should do: “Our history is rich with these kinds of contradictions, which are certainly part of our American story.”

She adds, “It’s interesting to me when people resist that story because that’s why we’re here. I don’t really see the point of coming to a Jewish museum just to see some [Shabbat] candlesticks and say nice things about somebody’s grandmother. I love my grandmother, but that’s not what I’m here for.”

“I’m looking forward to when people can see our gallery and criticize it,” she noted, and would be happy to hear someone complain, “What do you mean you didn’t talk about this.”

The gallery and exhibits will change over time. As for the story the museum tells, Leavitt said, “I don’t think anyone’s arrogant enough to say that we’re telling the whole story, if there even is such a thing. But we are nimble enough to change over time and respond to people both by telling them what they want to hear, and also by telling them what they may not want to hear. That’s our history.”

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