Top Twelve Countdown

Posted on December 18, 2013 by

An assignment this week to create a list of the most memorable  JMM activities of 2013 (see JMM Insights, December 19, 2013 – coming on Friday!) inspired quite a bit of discussion among our staff, and turned out to be a fun exercise. The pace here at the JMM is often so fast and it is rare that we have time to reflect on events that have taken place and to savor our successes as there is always something new that demands our immediate attention. Winnowing the list down to include twelve memorable events (we just couldn’t stop at 10) proved challenging, an indication of the many wonderful things that took place this past year across all departments.

As I reviewed the list that made the final cut, one activity really stood out from the pack, and that was the debut of our newest living history character based on the life of beloved Baltimore icon and caterer extraordinaire, Bessie Bluefeld.

Actor Terry Nicholetti performing as Bessie Bluefeld

Actor Terry Nicholetti performing as Bessie Bluefeld

When I first arrived at the JMM thirteen years ago, one of my first assignments was to begin work on an educational activity that would serve as a resource for Jewish day and congregational schools on the topic of immigration history. That kit became the Immigrant’s Trunk which explored the lives of two Jewish immigrants who settled in Baltimore in the early 20th century, Ida Rehr and Saul Bernstein, through reproductions of JMM collections items such as photos, immigration documents, and Jewish ritual items.

A photograph of immigrant Ida Rehr with her siblings before she left her home in Ukraine to settle in Baltimore

A photograph of immigrant Ida Rehr with her siblings before she left her home in Ukraine to settle in Baltimore

The concept of the trunk grew to encompass a living history component complete with professional actors who portrayed the lives of the immigrants whose experiences are explored through the trunk contents.

Actor Katherine Lyons who portrays Ida Rehr with the trunk

Actor Katherine Lyons who portrays Ida Rehr with the trunk

These performances proved popular, not just with Jewish students but also non-Jewish students attending public and Catholic school and adults too. Over the years it has been amazing to watch as this program that started with such humble ambitions has evolved in the Leo V. Berger Immigrant’s Trunk, one of the JMM signature programs for audiences of all backgrounds, including versions of the trunk designed for preschool audiences as well as for individuals with visual impairments.

Actor Tim King portraying Saul Bernstein at a performance for Cross Country Elementary students

Actor Tim King portraying Saul Bernstein at a performance for Cross Country Elementary students

And now we have added a brand new character, Bessie Bluefeld, who has already proved enormously popular with audiences. Bessie’s story encapsulates so many rich themes as the performance begins with her arriving fresh off the boat in Baltimore’s Locust Point where she marvels at just how different her new home is from what she has left behind and goes on to dramatize the extraordinary effort she places in creating a home for her husband and children and her determination to save the family from financial ruin after a bad business deal.

Bessie arriving in Locust Point

Bessie arriving in Locust Point

One of the joys of this particular living history character is that so many Baltimoreans have fond memories of Bluefeld Catering and loved sharing the stories of their special events during the Q&A session following performances.

Bessie answering questions following a performance

Bessie answering questions following a performance

We have also been privileged to talk to members of the Bluefeld family including Bessie’s son Louis and grandchildren who have shared treasured family stories and photographs. At the performance debut this past spring, we were delighted to welcome so many members of the Bluefeld family.

Members of the Bluefeld family at the spring performance debut

Members of the Bluefeld family at the spring performance debut

Bessie greeting a member of the Bluefeld family following her performance

Bessie greeting a member of the Bluefeld family following her performance

It was evident that the performance resonated with the members of the family in attendance and there was hardly a dry eye in sight when one of her grandsons stood up to thank the JMM. In his words, “You gave me back my grandmother.” This simple expression of gratitude sums up exactly what it is that the JMM strives to do. As I reflect back on a year of so many successes, this is my number one moment!

We are grateful to everyone whose hard work and dedication brought Bessie to life with a special thank you to script writer Jonathon Scott Fuqua, director and producer Harriet Lynn of Heritage Theatre Artists’ Consortium, and actor Terry Nicholetti. We are also most appreciative of the Leo V. Berger Fund for their continued support of our Immigrant’s Trunk program.

deborahA blog post by Assistant Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts by Deborah, click here.

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