Posted on February 16th, 2015 by Rachel
Today is President’s Day. A day usually celebrated with a sale on linens. But I’ve decided to start a new JMM tradition and devote a blog post each President’s Day to the relationship between the Jewish community and one of our 44 Chief Executives.
Now the story of these relations is often fairly well documented. There are whole books on the relationship of Lincoln, Grant or FDR and their Jewish constituents. I though I might cover some of the less well known connections.
But where to begin? Since Wednesday is the bicentennial of the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent and end to the War of 1812 (known by its critics as Mr. Madison’s War), I thought that James Madison, Jr. – our 4th President was a great place to start. I found a couple of great connections between Madison and Mendes Cohen! So the subject was irresistible.
James Madison, Jr.
Madison was a diminutive figure (at 5′ 4″, our shortest president) whose incredible accomplishments (“Father of the Constitution”, “Father of the Bill of Rights”) cast a long shadow on our history. In my quick research for this blog post I was not able to discover Madison’s first encounter with a member of the Jewish community but I do know when he first learned Hebrew. Yes, Madison is the first president of the United States to both speak and read Hebrew. He graduates Princeton in 1771, at age 20, but stays on for a year to study Hebrew language with the president of the university, Rev. John Witherspoon.
We also know that sometime during the revolutionary period Madison receives a loan of $50 from Jacob Cohen, Mendes’ uncle who lived in Richmond. Though his father was a tobacco planter who would eventually become the largest landowner in Orange County, Virginia, Madison himself seems to have had precarious finances prior to the death of his father in 1801. When Madison serves as a young member of Congress in the early 1780s, he appears to have been dependent on his salary. One problem – Congress has no funds to pay salaries. So they ask revolutionary war funder Haym Salomon to advance the salaries of Madison and two other members of Congress. Technically this was a loan. But in his writings, Madison tells us that Salomon refused to accept repayment. I suspect that Salomon’s generosity made a lasting impression on Madison’s assessment of the character of Jewish people.
Madison is a tireless advocate of the cause of religious freedom in America. As early as the Boston Tea Party in 1774, Madison writes to a friend that American has avoided “slavery and subjection” thanks largely to the fact that the Church of England had failed to establish itself as the official religion of the colonies.
In 1785 there is an attempt to help fund Virginia’s coffers with a tax on religious dissenters. Madison writes a “Memorial and Remonstrance” against the tax. He wrote, “The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”
The following year, Madison introduces Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom into the state legislature. This historic document, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but championed by Madison, lays out such a clear concept of religious liberty. Madison fought an attempt to amend the statute so that it only applied to followers of “Jesus Christ”. In Jefferson’s words, the statute needed to grant equal rights to “Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”
Three years later Madison had the opportunity to take his ideas to a national scale as he introduced the first proposal for amending the Constitution to incorporate freedom of religion. Here is Madison’s language from June 8, 1789:
Fourthly. That in article 1st, section 9, between clauses 3 and 4, be inserted these clauses, to wit: The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.
Compare Madison’s expansive clause with the actual final language of the first amendment. How might our history of struggle for religious liberty have changed if Madison’s broader concept of civil rights had been adopted?
Madison and Mordecai Noah
The other significant connection between Madison and the Jewish community dates to his period as president. As the war with Britain approached, Mordecai Noah, an aspiring lawyer, journalist and politician in Charleston, SC came to the attention of the Madison administration through a series of articles he wrote in support of resistance to British aggression. This was a minority point of view in Charleston and, according to historian Simon Wolf, Noah’s life was threatened on multiple occasions because of his outspoken opinions.
In 1811, Madison offers Noah an appointment to be counsel in Riga, (today Latvia, then Russia). This is the first diplomatic post offered to a member of the Jewish faith – Noah turns it down. But two years later, Noah accepts an invitation to become counsel in Tunis. The most critical part of his job was negotiating with the Barbary Pirates for the release of American sailors. It turns out that Madison’s policy of paying ransom to a group we were today call terrorists may have saved many lives, but was not very popular. Secretary of State Monroe decides that the best solution is to recall Noah on the grounds that his religion offended his hosts. To add insult, Monroe claims to have been ignorant of Noah’s religion before his appointment.
It appears that Noah and the Jewish community vented their outrage on Madison. Some sources go so far as to declare this the only act of overt religious discrimination against Jews in a government appointment. Further reading convinced me that the situation is far more complex and that the role played by Monroe in the recall may be much more important than that of Madison.
In fact, Madison later writes the following to Noah:
As your foreign mission took place whilst I was in the administration it cannot be but agreeable to me to learn, that your accounts have been closed in a manner favorable to you. And I know too well the justice and candor of the present executive [Monroe] to doubt that an official preservation, will be readily allowed to explanations necessary to protect your character against the effect of any impressions whenever ascertained to be erroneous. It was certain, that your religious profession was well-known at the time you received your commission, and that in itself it could not be a motive in your recall.
Cutting through the 19th century pleasantries, I think Madison is basically laying the problem at Monroe’s doorstep.
Mordecai Manuel Noah
Maryland Jew Bill and Cohens v. Virginia
Even after leaving office, Madison remains active in public life. His opinions are sought out on issues of controversy.
In 1818 advocates of the repeal of the oath to the New Testament in Maryland (the “Maryland Jew Bill”) solicited and received endorsements from all three living former presidents (Adams, Jefferson and Madison). Madison’s letter read in part:
Having ever regarded the freedom of religious opinions, and worshippers, equally, belonging to every sect, and the sure enjoyment of it, as the best human provision, for bringing all into the same way of thinking, or into that mutual charity, which is the only proper substitute, I observe with pleasure, the view you give of the spirit in which your sect partake of the common blessings, afforded by our government and laws.
No points for writing style, but the sentiment is in the right place.
In 1821 Madison is asked to comment on case of Cohens vs. Virginia. According to Kevin Gutzman in James Madison and the Making of America, his Democratic compatriots expected him to castigate Chief Justice Marshall for his aggrandizement of power in the Supreme Court. Marshall decides that the court has authority to take a case from criminal defendants – in this case Mendes and Phillip Cohen for the “crime” of selling DC lottery tickets in Virginia – when state and federal law are in conflict. Madison takes a more measured view, arguing that it would be better to pressure Congress to stop writing laws that interfere with state authority than it would be to constrain the Supreme Court in its rulings. Of course, the part that interested me is that Mendes Cohen is everywhere – even in the commentaries of James Madison.
I welcome your suggestions for which of the other 43 men we should explore next President’s Day.
A blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.
Posted on February 13th, 2015 by Rachel
This month’s Performance Counts comes from Visitor Services Coordinator Abby Krolik!
Today is Maryland’s “Tourism Day”—an event organized by the tourism industry to make the case to our state legislators that recreational and cultural attractions have an important impact on the economy and quality of life in Maryland. In keeping with the spirit of the day, we decided to take a look at who comes to the JMM and where they come from.
This is a more complicated question than you might think; there are countless ways to categorize our guests. We usually divide our on-site visitors into four main categories: general visitors, school groups (including summer camps), public program participants, and adult groups (e.g. mah jongg clubs or sisterhood visits that book in advance). School groups are traditionally the largest segment of our visitors, but in the last two years general visitors have been catching up and program visitors are not far behind.
John Ruarah Middle School students explore The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen exhibit.
School groups come to us in a handful of main categories—public/private/parochial/homeschool; Jewish/non-Jewish; and Day School/Hebrew School. Within these groups, our single largest draw is from Baltimore City public schools, but this year we’ve had increasing success in attracting the local Jewish schools (both Day Schools and Hebrew Schools). We’ve also expanded our educational outreach in Baltimore County, and we are making efforts to recruit more parochial schools. We have even received a grant from the Delaplaine Foundation to extend programming, outreach and onsite visits to Frederick County schools. Our programs are aligned with the Common Core standards, which helps to attract the interest of teachers and principals. While we work with students at all grade levels—from Pre-K to even college level—the average group that visits us is in middle school, particularly 7th grade (when all the city schools teach “The Diary of Anne Frank”).
City Springs Elementary School students in the Lloyd Street Synagogue.
General visitors can be subdivided in several ways as well. The most obvious is, of course, geography. We don’t have data on 100% of our visitors’ points of origins (not everyone chooses to leave us a zip code), but we have enough data to give us a pretty good sample. It is true that a lot of our visitors come from Northwest Baltimore and the immediate suburbs, but there is also a significant segment from downtown Baltimore as well as Columbia, Md. We can tell when we’ve received coverage in the Washington Post Weekend section because we can see the boost in visits from Montgomery County, DC and Northern Virginia.
Many of our visitors come from a much farther distance. I love telling people that we get visitors from pretty much everywhere in the world! Just over the last year we’ve hosted guests from such far-flung and exotic states as Alaska and Oklahoma, as well as visitors from at least one country per continent (not counting Antarctica), including—but certainly not limited to—El Salvador, Argentina, Italy, Rwanda, Japan, and Kyrgyzstan!
For our public program attendance numbers, we are careful to not double count program participants as general visitors. For example, our raw number for general attendance last December was 517, but to get the right number for “on-site attendance,” we subtracted the number of participants in our programs that took place during our normal open hours, which left us with 222 as the general attendance. Our #1 best attended program in 2014 was the Joanie Leeds Chanukah concert—we counted more than 175 guests (though a few of them were in strollers)! Program attendance is probably the category with the greatest variability. Not only is it affected by the attraction of the topic or speaker, but also by the weather and the Ravens’ game schedule. There’s just no competing with football in Ravens’ Nation!
Some spirited dancing at our Joanie Leeds Chanukah Concert!
In addition to our on-site data, we also try to track off-site contacts : how many students we reach in the schools, or how many people who come to see Mendes Cohen at an event or who come up to our booth at a festival. Still, our focus is on the JMM as a destination, and that is the data that we are monitoring most closely. It helps us make sure we spend our limited resources wisely, and it tells us something about the success of our initiatives.
Posted on February 12th, 2015 by Rachel
Climbing the Ladder of Success in a Nineteenth-Century Boomtown: The Cohen Family in Early Baltimore
Sunday, February 15th, 1:00 P.M.
Speaker: Tina Sheller, Goucher College
When Israel I. Cohen died in Richmond, Virginia in 1803, his wife, Judith, packed up her belongings and moved herself and her children to Baltimore. Why Baltimore? Early Baltimore was a bustling port town of merchants, shopkeepers, skilled craftsmen, workers, and slaves. How did these groups contribute to the dynamic expansion of the city’s antebellum economy? Who were the people that populated the growing port town, and how did the Cohens and other Jewish families adapt to life in a city soon to be known as “Mobtown?” All of these questions and more will be answered as we journey back in time to the era of Boomtown Baltimore.
Tina H. Sheller is an assistant professor of History at Goucher College where she teaches courses in American history and Historic Preservation.
How Jews Entered American Politics: The Curious Case of Maryland’s “Jew Bill”
Sunday, February 22nd, 1 p.m.
Rafael Medoff, The David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies
During Maryland’s first decades, a “Christians Only” policy applied to those seeking public office. Dr. Rafael Medoff, a noted scholar of Jewish involvement in American politics, will take a candid look at the Maryland legislature’s debates in the early 1800s over political rights for Jews and other non-Christians –a controversy that sheds fascinating light on the process by which Jews entered the American political arena.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is the author of 15 books about American Jewish history, Zionism, and the Holocaust, including a textbook, Jewish Americans and Political Participation, which was named an “Outstanding Academic Title of 2003” by the American Library Association’s Choice Magazine.
The Girls’ Photography Project Exhibition Reception
Sunday, March 1, 1:00pm
Program included with museum admission
In 2014, 15 African American and Orthodox Jewish girls ages 10-14 participated in a series of workshops that enabled them to learn about each other’s perspectives living in their northwest Baltimore City community. They learned to use a camera, take quality photos and most importantly, got to know one another while gaining an understanding of each other’s life experiences. The photos in this exhibit feature their view points and are truly one of a kind.
The exhibit has been sponsored by CHAI: Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc. in partnership with Wide Angle Media. This project has been generously supported by: David and Barbara B. Hirschhorn Foundation, The Fund for Change at The Zanvyl and Isabelle Krieger Fund, Nathan & Lillian Weinberg Family Foundation, The Grandchildren of Harvey M. and Lyn P. Meyerhoff Philanthropic Fund, and The Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg Fund.
The exhibit will be on display February 23-March 8, 2015.
Opening Reception for My Family Story
Thursday, March 12
7:00 – 9:00pm
Join the JMM for an evening celebrating/honoring Jewish family history. Over the past few months, the JMM has worked with middle school students from Beth Tfiloh on an exciting and creative education program, My Family Story. In this inspiring program, students work with museum staff to investigate their family roots and discover deeper connections to larger issues of American Jewish history, community, Jewish identity and Israel. Their exploration culminates in an artistic expression that creatively represents their family’s history. The JMM is greatly looking forward to showcasing all of the students’ work on the evening of March 12th and invites the community to join us.
Got Shabbat: Bolton Street Synagogue with Jewish Museum of Maryland
March 13, 2015, 5:45pm
Venue: Bolton Street Synagogue
Join the Jewish Museum of Maryland, Bolton Street Synagogue and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore for a fantastic Shabbat evening specially designed for families with young chidlren.
Got Shabbat is an enriching family-friendly Shabbat celebration at a different synagogue each month. The evening includes Tot Shabbat, a full catered Shabbat dinner and activities for young children. Enjoy the opportunity to meet and connect with other families and the Jewish community. Families new to the area, interfaith families, and families new to Shabbat observance are all welcome and encouraged to join in the fun!
Contact: Cindy Neuman
410.559.3582 | firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information visit jcc.org/gotshabbat
Late Night on Lloyd Street: DIY Matzah Making
Thursday, March 19, 2015, 6pm
During the Passover Seder, we don’t just hear the story of Exodus; we see, smell, feel and taste liberation. Prepare for this multi-sensory experience with a night of wine tasting and matzah making! Matzah and wine are both central Passover symbols. Join us as we learn about the significance of matzah with Rabbi Levi Druk of Chabad Downtown and sample a variety of mevushal wines from Canton Crossing Wine & Spirits. Finally, have the chance to make your own matzah to share with friends and family for the holiday!
As with all late nights we will have plenty of food and drink available. Contact Carolyn Bevans at 410-732-6402 x215 or by email at email@example.com with questions!
What the Ancient Egyptians Took with Them—and Why
Speaker Dr. Betsy Bryan, Johns Hopkins University
Sunday, March 29, 2015, 1 pm
Included with Museum Admission
Mendes Cohen spent several months travelling in Egypt building a wonderful collection of antiquities that would later go on to form the basis of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum. We are very excited to be welcoming museum director Prof. Betsey Bryan to talk about the collection Mendes developed and the Egypt Mendes would have encountered during his travels.
Egypt Family Day
Sunday, April 12, 2015, 12 – 4pm
A 19th-Century American Jew Visits the Holy Land: Mendes Cohen in Jerusalem
Speaker: Dr. Deborah Weiner
Sunday, April 19th, 1:00 P.M.
Included with Museum Admission
Travel to the Holy Land with Mendes Cohen, early 19th century adventurer and proud citizen of the young American republic. Cohen’s account of his Middle Eastern journey, entertainingly recorded in his letters home, paints a fascinating portrait of the Jewish community of Palestine and offers a remarkable glimpse into one man’s evolving American Jewish identity.
Deborah R. Weiner is former Research Historian and Family History Coordinator at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. She is currently co-writing a book on the history of the Jews of Baltimore.
Closing Reception for Learning Your Letters: Braille Art
Sunday, May 3, 2015
1:00 pm to 3:00 pm
Admission is Free
Learning Your Letters: Braille Art, presented by the JMM and the Braille Art Gallery, features braille drawings of artists of all ages and all abilities, to promote braille literacy. The exhibit will be open to the public in the lobby of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, from April 15, 2015, through May 3, 2015.