Living History – United Two Families
I think museums are such fascinating places. They are wonderful spaces that promote learning and engagement. Over the years at the JMM, I have enjoyed creating both public programs and educational programming that encourage both discovery and discourse with our visitors. I love how history museums can enable individuals to make meaningful connections to the past. Last spring was no exception, with the creation of our latest living history character from the Leo V. Berger Immigrant’s Trunk – Bessie Bluefeld. I wanted to share with you an extraordinary circumstance that has united two families, showing just how important a role museums play in our lives.
Bessie and her husband, Charles Bluefeld immigrated to Baltimore by way of Locust Point in 1906. Concerned about her husband working in construction, Bessie persuaded Charles to open a grocery store in Fell’s Point, and by the 1920s the Bluefelds were operating a stall in Lexington Market. Bessie opened a food stand on a beach near Baltimore, and it became the seed for the Bluefeld Catering business. Traveling to Atlantic City and Florida, Bessie developed her refined taste that would later be known as the “Orchid touch” that gave Bluefeld Catering its edge as one of the premier kosher catering businesses in Baltimore – a business that would include her entire family. From 1937 to 1941, Bluefeld Catering blossomed, and Bessie was at the center of everything. Although Bessie died suddenly in 1941, her husband and children maintained the kosher catering business she had worked so hard to build. For decades, Bluefeld Catering was synonymous with elegance and quality in Baltimore’s Jewish community and beyond.
The JMM hired the actress, Terry Nicholetti to play the role of Bessie. Terry wanted to learn more about Bessie, so we went to Bethesda to meet one of Bessie’s children, Mrs. Freda Bluefeld Cohen. We had a lovely afternoon with Freda and she shared some of her memories of her parents and of her early years growing up in Baltimore along with 8 other siblings. As I witnessed Terry and Freda chatting- I knew that these two women were destined to become special friends.
On April 30, 2013, Terry premiered the role of Bessie Bluefeld at the JMM to a crowd of 100 people. Many of our visitors that evening were the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Bessie. Following the performance, one of Bessie’s grandsons stood and was visibly moved by the performance. He expressed his gratitude to the JMM for helping him to meet his grandmother that he never had the opportunity to meet as she had died prior to his birth.
Last week, I received a call at the JMM from one of Bessie Bluefeld’s granddaughters. She had just learned that her Aunt Freda Bluefeld Cohen had passed, and she wanted to reach out to Terry Nicholetti to let her know, as she knew of the special relationship that Terry and Freda shared. I spoke to Terry the following day. She told me that she was so touched to be notified by the family, and so sad because of the sweet connection that she shared with Freda. Terry went to visit the family during the Shiva and Freda’s family welcomed Terry as if she were a member of their own family. Terry shared with me, “When I took on this role, I had no idea how deeply I would be connected to so many dear people in Bessie’s life. I feel blessed.”
The Jewish Museum of Maryland plays such an important role in our community in helping people find connections and meaning to history. The Leo V. Berger Immigrant’s Trunk: Bessie Bluefeld Living History Performance is just another example of how our institution creates those meaningful connections. This incredible performance has enabled one family to connect to its own history; but it has also given meaning to Terry Nicholetti, the actress who portrays Bessie- who has found personal meaning and contentment in her role.
A blog post by Education Director Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Ilene click here.