The Nitty-Grits-y: An Extremely Brief Crash-Course of Southern Jewish History

Posted on July 30th, 2015 by

“So the consensus is that Elizabeth just melted cheese into a box of cornmeal, right?” I addressed the table of laughing interns in the break room, making sure I was up to date with the debate over whether or not she actually prepared grits the night before, or some unknown mystery substance from a bulk package at the store– I’d missed some information after laughing too loudly. The giggles continued as Elizabeth tried to scowl at me, to which I retorted with “don’t worry, everyone makes mistakes!”

“NO, that’s not the final answer! We still haven’t gotten everyone’s opinion!” Elizabeth tries to hold onto her hope and her dignity as she passes the Tupperware container of chunky yellow quicksand to Tracie, our Projects Manager, and we beg for an expert opinion to settle the dispute.

Jewish Food? Coarse White Grits on Spoon

Jewish Food?

After almost an hour of the Great Grits Debacle of 2015, we interns were aware of our inability to differentiate grits from, apparently, everything else, which was as disappointing as it was inspiring. Intern Wrangler Rachel suggested we use this as a learning experience, to which I replied “challenge accepted” and began researching the intersection of two environments: that of grits, and that of Jews.

While the former seems to have a relatively specific point of origin: grits are a maize-based porridge, typically eaten at breakfast, and are of Native American origin.The word itself, “grits,” comes from the Old English “grytt,” meaning “coarse meal.” The latter, however, might not prove as easy to define. Honing such a skill for millennia, Jews have grown to be impressive shapeshifters, even assimilators, into whichever culture by which they find themselves surrounded. Especially in a country with such a variation of culture as America. As the early settlers started to expand down the Atlantic coast and further west, Jews began to do the same: in fact, two Jewish merchants from Virginia, Isaiah Isaacs and Jacob Cohen, were among the settlers commissioned by the government to explore areas of what is now Kentucky. But it wasn’t just Jews from more northern colonies and states wanderlusting over new places to live; when mass immigration from Europe commenced around the 19th century, waves of Jews from the Old Country claimed new Jewish-American beginnings in the South, accepting the challenge to thrive under the Confederacy, and they did. Personalities like Judah Benjamin, a lawyer and diplomat who, some argue, would come to be one of the most influential Jews in the Senate, began to pop up around the South, and Jews became such a part of the South that at 1800, Charleston had more Jews than any city in the States at that time, with a population of over a thousand Jews (it might not sound like much now, but it was a huge deal at the time!), and there is documentation of General Robert E. Lee, in responding to a rabbi in Virginia, turning down a request for Jewish soldiers to be able to honor the high holidays during the Civil War, citing that “neither you nor any other member of the Jewish congregation would wish to jeopardize a cause you have so much at heart by the withdrawal, even for a season, of a portion of its defenders.”
The Jewish presence in the South has fluctuated in terms of exact numbers, but what hasn’t changed is our response to a new culture, and how we make it our own. So, whatever it was in that Tupperware container that Elizabeth brought from home, it definitely belongs in the JMM breakroom refrigerator.

Interested in finding out more about Southern Jewish life and food? Check out:

From Free Republic: A Tribe Apart: Jews of the American South

From NPR: Souther Jews Put Their Spin On Soul Food – interview with Marcie Ferris Cohen, author of “Matzah Ball Gumbo”

From Tablet Magazine: A TASTE OF THE JEWISH SOUTH: Jewish food festivals across the South by Joan Nathan.

Also from Tablet Magazine: Kosher Soul Food Brings Together African-American and Jewish Cuisine by Michael Twitty.

Southern Jewish Life Magazine

IMG_1605A blog post by Museum Intern Rachel Sweren. To read more posts by interns click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Noshes, Pick-Me-Ups and Feasts at the JMM

Posted on July 29th, 2015 by

Probably anyone who knows me well would characterize me as a “foodie.” I find experimenting with new (and retakes on old) recipes a thrill, I’m always on the lookout for an unfamiliar and exotic restaurant to try (if you’re wondering, that Burmese restaurant in Silver Spring is a delight), and my Instagram is basically just a receptacle of photos of things I’ve eaten, and the far too many food magazines and bloggers I follow.

If my life didn’t already entirely revolve around food before my internship at the JMM, my condensed work schedule here has made matters even worse (or better—I’m going to go with better). Because I commute from DC, my supervisors have kindly allowed me to get in my weekly 30 hours in three days instead of five. This is fantastic, but requires a little bit more organization on my part. Actually, it really doesn’t—it just means that all of my Monday-Wednesday meals, snacks, coffee breaks and ‘I-can’t-stare-at-a-computer-anymore-without-chocolate’s take place on the premises or in the surrounding neighborhood. Fortunately for me, everyone at the JMM seems to share in my culinary enthusiasm (though, perhaps with not such intense dedication).

So as my time here comes to a close, I thought it might be nice to document the ins-and-outs of noshing here at the JMM.

#1 in everyone’s heart: the candy basket.

#1 in everyone’s heart: the candy basket.

Interns Carmen and Rachel search for the best candy choices.

Searching for the best choices.

Home to assorted chocolates, starbursts, peppermint patties, and a brief but highly unfortunate period of smarties, the candy basket sits in the main work room and provides solace to interns and full-time staff alike. It’s best to make the rounds early—Special Dark chocolates seem to disappear quickly. Just speculating here, but this may be due to the fact that certain interns horde them in their cubicles… you know who you are.

#2 Bowl of Desperation

#2 Bowl of Desperation

When the candy basket is empty (and there were QUITE a few days in June when this was the case)—there is always, for those that dare, the nondescript plastic container that sits directly next to the candy basket.

I actually think it has held the exact same number of generic sugar candies since the day I started– minus one. There was that one day when I was tempted, and then instantly regretted it.

#3 The Kitchen Table

#3 The Kitchen Table

Where all of our more substantial meals take place. Most of us generally bring our lunch and eat together (for those of you who regularly follow the JMM blog, you may remember my confuddling grits debacle).

The table is empty right now, but once in a while leftovers from events will appear here (or even delectable homemade rugelach from library volunteer Judy—you rock Judy!) There were also a couple of days where bland, and probably week-old, popcorn was deposited on the table. Not sure what that was about, but not to worry, we took it off your hands.

#4 The Fridge

#4 The Fridge

I’ve seen a few cluttered office refrigerators in my day—but the JMM fridge definitely takes the cake (pun is SO intended—sometimes there actually is cake). On any given day here, there are at least 6 of us interns, a handful of volunteers and board members, and all of the full-time staff. I’ve actually never had a problem locating my leftovers of whatever Ottolenghi recipe I’ve made the night before, but things do, inevitably, get a little crowded. Sometimes though, when you mention to (read: whine to) Intern Wrangler Rachel about how hungry you are around 5pm, she’ll inform you that there are snacks in fridge in the form of awesome homemade chicken taco fixins and mango-jalapeño salsa. You’re my hero, Rachel.

Finally, with our prime location right on Corn Beef Row and just a short trot away from Little Italy, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to our favorite local eateries.

#1 on our list: Pâtisserie Poupon

#1 on our list: Pâtisserie Poupon

Sampling delicious macarons

Sampling delicious macarons

Some of our favorites here include: the macarons, chocolate croissants and chocolate soufflés, a delightful chocolate mousse cake that we don’t know the name of, chocolate chip cookies, any of the fruit tarts and, the quiche. We come here a lot. With an excellent array of coffee drinks and a lovely staff, how could you not?

#2: Attman’s Deli

#2: Attman’s Deli

I don’t think I need to explain this to anyone who lives in Baltimore– or who doesn’t, but is seeing these photos.

A familiar sandwich site...

A familiar sandwich site…

Finally, today we had one last hurrah in Little Italy with all of the interns (minus Sophia—we missed you!) and decided that our restaurant list warranted one final shout-out:

#3: Amiccis

#3: Amiccis

Look at the size of that bowl!

Look at the size of that bowl!

They might characterize themselves as a “very casual eatery” but they mean business with the food. These are the lunch portions. I think intern Rachel could actually fit inside her bowl quite comfortably.

Between our office kitchen lunches and various culinary field trips, we’ve shared some really great meals together, and a lot of laughs. Thanks for everything, JMM. It’s been a real treat.

IMG_0999A blog post by Exhibitions Intern Elizabeth Livesey. To read more posts by interns click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Looking to learn more about Jewish history and culture?

Posted on July 28th, 2015 by

Consider an excursion to the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) in Philadelphia. Located in the Old City, near the Liberty Bell, this 100,000-square-foot, glass-and-terra-cotta-cloaked building explores the history of Judaism in the United States from the 1600s until modern day.

NMAJH Exterior

NMAJH Exterior

I visited the Museum last month to explore my Jewish heritage and to see how we can improve our own visitor experience services at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. At the National Museum of American Jewish History there are three floors of interactive state-of-the-art exhibits, focusing on the theme of American Freedom, with each floor offering a historical chapter: “Foundations of Freedom, 1654-1880,” “Dreams of Freedom, 1880-1945” and Choices and Challenges of Freedom, 1945-Today.”

My visit to the Museum gave me an opportunity to learn why Jews immigrated to America, the choices they faced, the challenges they confronted and the ways in which they assimilated into American culture. I was excited that the Baltimore Jewish community and the establishment of our own Lloyd Street Synagogue was included in the “Establishing Communities” exhibit.  As I grew up near Newport, RI, I was fascinated to read more about the Touro Synagogue and learn about how some Jewish merchants were connected to the slave trade.  The Civil War portion of the exhibit mentioned the debate between Rabbi Bernard Illoway of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and Rabbi David Einhorn of Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore. Throughout the core exhibit, I was impressed by the inclusion of evocative objects such as a Dutch record from 1654, depicting one of the earliest references to Jews in North America, as well as immigrant belongings, Jewish themed movie posters, and expressions of political and social issues ranging from the push of equality for Jewish women within American society and the fight for gay marriage.

Establishing Communities Exhibit

Establishing Communities Exhibit

The exhibit ends in the present day with the opportunity to share your personal views in two high-tech, interactive experiences: Contemporary Issues Forum and It’s Your Story. The Contemporary Issues Forum asks the visitor to respond to questions such as “Should religion play a role in American politics?” There are also video recording stations called, It’s Your Story, where you can respond to questions such as “What is the most valuable thing you learned at summer camp” or “share your favorite holiday tradition.”

The “Only in America” Gallery, located in the lobby area, contains images and artifacts honoring 18 Jewish-Americans selected by voters on the internet. I was honored that they included Louis Brandeis, from my alma mater Brandeis University. The lobby level also contains a small installation on “The Pursuit of Happiness: Jewish Voices for LGBT Rights.” There is also a first rate gift shop (with a fantastic book for sale on the core exhibition which I purchased).

I am happy to report that I developed a stronger connection to Judaism and greater understanding of how the Maryland Jewish story fits into the larger American Jewish experience at NMAJH. I hope that others can have an equally rewarding experience at this museum.

GrahamA blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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