Hymie Reher’s ‘Sunday List’ inspires deep dive into oral histories

Frank Reher (the father and the first of the bakers) with his sons Willie (left) and Hymie (right) circa 1930. Hymie and Willie, along with the sisters, took over the business in 1936 when their father died. They continued to operate it until the mid-1970s.

Hymie Reher titled it his “Sunday List” — the orders for his rolls consisting of dozens of names jotted down on a folded brown paper bag. The scribbled-upon piece of paper (which might have been written by Hymie’s brother or one of his four sisters) evokes the rush of getting out the orders, mingled with the pre-dawn fragrance of rolls baking in the oven. Some names are followed by numbers, some are crossed out or circled.

It’s the kind of detritus your mother would have thrown out but Geoffrey Miller is not your mother. Miller’s spearheading the development of the Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History in the former bakery, which upon Reher’s death in 2004 became the property of the Jewish Federation of Ulster County (UCJF). He found the bag in the bakery and kept it. Last fall he showed it to Sarah Litvin.

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Litvin is a graduate student at City University of New York, and she was visiting the bakery after talking with her former boss at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where Litvin had worked five years. When she saw the bag, she had an epiphany: do oral histories based on the names of the list, which represented an ethnic cross-section of the Kingston community.

Litvin conducted the first two interviews on April 2. One, with a former reporter from the Daily Freeman who would stop by the bakery at 4 a.m. after work to buy rolls, will be filmed in the bakery’s retail shop; the other, with Barbara Blas, who cared for Hymie in his old age, will be upstairs in his apartment (besides the shop, production facilities and warehouse, the building contains two upper-story apartments). She and Miller, who is also the Ulster County historian, were featured on Shayne Gallo’s “Speakout Saturday” morning radio show on WKNY on April 1. They talked with Gallo and Speakout regular Vince DeLuca, long-time resident and business owner in Kingston, as a way to get out the word. (If you are a former Reher Bakery Sunday morning customer, you can contact Litvin at Sundaylist.rehercenter@gmail.com.)

Sarah Litvin.

On her visit to the bakery last September, Litvin, who had never been to Kingston before, could barely contain her excitement. “My first thought was, ‘We have to get this stuff out of the sun,’” she said, referring to the old newspapers still filling the metal rack by the door, the faded cigarette advertisements on the wall, and other ephemera. “These are treasures. The other part of my brain was thinking, ‘We need to figure out what to do and how to accession these things and have a system.’”

The UCJF, which in the past decade has been focused on shoring up the building — it raised approximately $650,000 in grants and state money to fix the drainage issues, repair the roof and foundation, spruce up the iron-framed storefront, and do other repairs — initially planned to focus on Jewish immigrant culture at the Reher. Its mission has expanded to include the experience of all immigrants in Rondout. Litvin said she wholeheartedly agrees with the decision to use the bakery “as the portal into a bigger story about immigrant entrepreneurship in Rondout.” She said, “I saw the bag, which listed Italian, Irish, and African-American names, as the perfect way to do that.”

Once the interviews have been collected, a process she hopes to complete in June, Litvin will create a digital interface “as a way of doing outreach.” The work is part of her year-long contract with the Reher Center, commencing in February, which also calls for hiring and working with an archivist and leading tours of the bakery.

Litvin is uniquely qualified to help shape the Reher’s programming, given her experience at the Tenement Museum. The Tenement Museum provides a choice of tours, each centered on a different re-created apartment and around a theme and specific family, or families. Litvin was on the exhibit development team for the Shop Life tour, which focuses on the 19th-century German bar that once occupied the ground level of the tenement building, including a small back room where the couple lived. (The hour-and-a-half tour, which I recently took, also includes a look at half a dozen of the other tenants that occupied the space, using interactive technology in which participants learn more about one of the families in depth, before the tour guide summarizes to the group each of the stories.) When she left after five years at the museum to attend grad school, Litvin was Senior Education Associate for Exhibit Development, in charge of all the living history programming and accessibility. She also has a certificate in interactive technology and pedagogy and has developed programs using this expertise for the New York-Historical Society and other institutions.

Hymie at his Bar Mitzvah.

The Tenement Museum connection was made through Ward Mintz, a member of the Reher Center’s advisory committee. Mintz knew Litvin’s former boss Annie Polland, senior vice president for programs and education at the Tenement Museum, and contacted her. Polland visited the bakery and then got in touch with Litvin. Litvin met with the advisory committee and “fell in love with the project and team.” The advisory committee invited her to write a proposal.

“I did a lot of thinking and called a ton of people in my professional network,” said Litvin. “I latched onto the bag as the perfect way to tell stories grounded in a certain time. It’s got this authenticity and just tells an amazing story.”

Litvin grew up outside Boston and studied history and Jewish studies at Oberlin College. After graduating she got a job as an oral historian at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Miss. “Collecting stories and telling stories of regular people has always been my interest,” she said. “It can raise important social and civil issues related to families and communities today.” Currently she is writing her Ph.D. dissertation on how women in the early 20th century used the upright piano to break out of the parlor and find new opportunities for work and activity in public spaces, such as movie theaters. (The movie theater owners hired girls to play the piano accompaniment to their silent films as a way of lending respectability to the theaters, she explained — a topic that fascinates me since my grandmother, who was a prodigy who studied under Frederic Busoni in Berlin prior to World War I as a teenager, was one of those girls, playing accompaniment in movie theaters in her native Ohio.)

Litvin is passionate about the potential for time capsules such as the Reher Bakery to uniquely connect with visitors. While working in Jackson, she discovered an old shoe store in Marshall, Texas, whose owners spanned three generations and whose inventory included pairs of 100-year-old high lace-up shoes. “I wanted to quit everything and just do something with it,” she said, noting the Reher Bakery has a similar vibe. “Having a space where you can tell a story that’s immersive, where it smells of the past, is the key. It’s like walking onto the set of a play or a movie. It aids your imagination and it helps empathy and understanding the people who lived there. As a multisensory immersive experience, it will help transport you.”

One of the challenges in figuring out how to develop the Reher Center into a living history museum is choosing a time period. “The bakery looked very different in the 1930s than in the 1960s and 1980s. I see my role as coming up with options and bringing them to the advisory committee. I’d like to get feedback from visitors and find out the things that resonate with people,” she said. “We want to show the changes over time, but if we only tell that there’s nothing for people to sink their teeth into … such as the experience of walking into the bakery in the 1940s.” She’s hoping the Sunday List Project will provide valuable feedback.

She will also be leading tours of the bakery this summer. “I’d like to bring in different constituents such as teachers and find out what’s meaningful to students,” she said.  “I’m also planning on bringing up folks from the city, as well as doing tours for locals. I’m very aware that I’m an outsider and am walking a careful line and listening to what local people have to say. I’d like to bridge the divide and help newcomers understand this history.”

Eventually, she said, it would be fun to have interactive activities, such as a baking program, which fits into the local foodie scene. “We have all these handwritten recipes from one of Hymie’s sisters, who did all the cooking for the family. We could definitely do programming around that.”

What about the rolls? “Unfortunately, there is no recipe,” she said. “Hymie never had to write it down.”