Jonathan Edelman, 29, tells stories of Jewish history as a museum curator. At the Capital Jewish Museum, Edelman collects artifacts for the Washington area’s Jewish community and is responsible for finding overlooked and missing voices. That includes additions that reflect the LGBTQ community.
But his own personal history is one of self-development, commitment to Judaism and finding his authentic self.
How did you get involved in working for museums?
I have always loved museums. At Clark [College in Massachusetts], I discovered they had the only Ph.D. program in the country in Holocaust and genocide studies. And there was an undergrad program that I could do with it. So I was like, oh, this will be an easy A.
I was blown away by how much I didn’t know, especially how I didn’t know about other genocides. I was speaking with my professor one day and I said, “Every parent’s fear is their kid goes to a small liberal arts school, picks a really obscure major, like Holocaust and genocide studies, and can’t get a job after college. What do I do with this?”
She said to me, “There’s two directions: You can teach or you can go work at a museum.” I applied for an internship at the Holocaust Museum here in D.C., and ended up spending two of my college summers interning in the photo archives. And then 10 days after I graduated from undergrad, I drove down to D.C. to work full time at the Holocaust Museum, in collections. I love artifacts and tangible history — seeing the evidence of history in front of you. I was working with a staff of 457. When I got to the Capital Jewish Museum, we were a staff of six.
What are some of the collections that you work with?
While everyone was working from home, I had to go into our collections facility to work with the artifacts. The collection that we have is the Jewish Historical Society collection.
What I would like to see is a collection that reflects the Jewish community it claims to represent. My job is to fill gaps in the collection of stories of Jewish Washingtonians. There were no stories of LGBTQ Jewish Washingtonians in our collection.
One collection that I brought in was the David Green collection. David Green was a member of the LGBT synagogue, and worked at Library of Congress. He was diagnosed with HIV, and shortly thereafter left his job at Library of Congress to become an advocate and activist.
People with AIDS were horribly ostracized, and he really wanted to be visible. He especially wanted to be visible in the Jewish community. There’s this line he said, “Nice Jewish boys and girls like me can get AIDS, too. This is a Jewish community problem.” He died from complications of AIDS, and a patch of the AIDS Quilt on the National Mall bears his name.
It’s a really pivotal moment in local Jewish history and queer Jewish history in Washington.
What was your Jewish upbringing like?
I’m from outside of Kansas City, and grew up in a fairly Conservative movement Jewish home. I went to synagogue every week with my family, 13 years of Jewish day school, 10 summers at a Jewish summer camp.
At none of those spaces did I see queer Jews. It really wasn’t till I got to Washington that I understood that you could be both queer and Jewish. As I came to understand my sexuality, I thought maybe I would have to make a choice — I didn’t know any better. I think I tried to avoid having to engage with that difficult debate internally through college. What has made Washington feel like a home for me is that I feel like I’m now able to be my most authentic self.
My largest group of queer friends in D.C. is at my Conservative synagogue. And then I was at the JCC, and they have this designated programming wing for LGBT programming. And then there was Nice Jewish Boys, which was a social group and kickball team. And then on top of all that I learned that there was an LGBTQ synagogue, that’s the third oldest LGBT synagogue in the country. There’s these queer Jewish stories everywhere.
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