The Belly of the Whale

Posted on October 13th, 2016 by

On Yom Kippur we read from the book of Jonah. This ancient story of the reluctant prophet is particularly special to me. Nearly 20 years ago, as I listened to the story of Jonah on Yom Kippur, I had a revelation about myself. I was 23 years old, and recently diagnosed with Fibromyalgia—a life sentence of chronic pain (I’ve since more-or-less gotten it under control, but it took more than 10 years). I was angry: at my situation, at the world, at God. And as the English was read from the bimah, I heard Jonah’s anger. I felt it.

After he finally does God’s bidding and lets the people of Ninevah know of their impending doom, Jonah goes out to the desert to watch the fireworks when the city is destroyed. God sends a gourd vine to grow up and shade Jonah from the hot sun.

The next day, God sends a worm who eats the vine and it withers. Jonah is super peeved at the loss of the vine. He cries out to God in his anger, and wishes for death. God responds, “Do you do well to be so angry?” “Yes!” Jonah replies, “Angry unto death!”

Right on, I thought. Me too.

And then God lays it out for Jonah and me: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight.”

In the story, God is making a point about why he has decided to spare Ninevah, but for me, sitting there in the stew of my anger and resentment and pain, God was talking about my health. God was gently reprimanding me for my anger, encouraging me to take action, to care for myself.

I put a little post-it note on my computer screen at work that said “Do you do well to be so angry?” I didn’t get better, at least not right away, but I felt better. It was a pivotal moment. It was the reason, several years later, I chose to translate the Book of Jonah for my graduate Biblical Hebrew course.

A daily reminder

A daily reminder

Fast forward 17 years, and each time I read or hear Jonah, something new strikes me. This year I was struck by the truly bizarre section in the middle when God sends a fish to swallow Jonah so that he does not die at sea. This aquatic mode of transportation takes 3 days to get Jonah to his destination, during which he apparently composes poetry. After the three days, God commands the fish to spit him out on dry land.

When I returned to the Museum today, I decided to see what we might have in the collections about my favorite surly prophet.

It seems I am not the only one struck by Jonah. I found several child’s drawings from 1944 depicting our Yom Kippur haftarah.

Jonah sits below the gourd vine.  JMM 1995.28.259

Jonah sits below the gourd vine. JMM 1995.28.259

In one, Jonah sits happily below a gourd vine. In another he travels horizontally across the page from the fish’s mouth to dry land.

From out of the fish's mouth. JMM 1995.28.2.35

From out of the fish’s mouth. JMM 1995.28.2.35

Fascinatingly, these drawings were done by Max Heppner (photo of Max: 1995.105.110) while he and his family hid from the Nazis in the Netherlands.

The artist as a young boy in Amsterdam. JMM 1995.105.111

The artist as a young boy in Amsterdam. JMM 1995.105.111

And all of a sudden I am thinking about the meaning of this story to a child, in hiding from the forces of evil. Did he see the roiling sea in the foment that sent his family into hiding? Was his hiding place on the Dutch farm the belly of a fish? Was he longing for the day when he too would be spit out onto the security of dry land?

I learned this year from Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s Rabbi Bush that there is a Midrash that says that after the first few hours, Jonah grew quite comfortable inside the whale’s belly.

This drawing makes me think young Max might disagree with that Midrash.

A blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

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Once Upon a Time…01.22.2016

Posted on October 11th, 2016 by

The Baltimore Jewish Times publishes unidentified photographs from the collection of Jewish Museum of Maryland each week. If you can identify anyone in these photos and more information about them, contact Joanna Church by email at


1996127122Date run in Baltimore Jewish Times:  January 22, 2016


PastPerfect Accession #:  1996.127.122


Status: Unidentified! This may be a member of the Weinberg family – do you know?


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Volunteer Spotlight on Vera Kestenberg!

Posted on October 10th, 2016 by

Vera Kestenberg has been an Archives/library volunteer at the Jewish Museum of Maryland for around five years. Vera was born in Hungary and came to Baltimore in 1959. She and her husband are Holocaust survivors. She has shared her story through the Speakers Bureau of the Baltimore Jewish Council and her story is also a part of the Steven Spielberg Shoah archives at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Vera Kastenberg

Vera Kastenberg

At the Jewish Museum of Maryland, Vera is invaluable in our archives sorting files, going through databases and describing photos from the Associated Jewish Charities and the early days of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. She finds it exciting sometimes stumbling across people she knows in the photographs. She also enjoys seeing how history has evolved in the Jewish community. While at the Museum, she also loves exploring our exhibits and socializing with our staff and fellow volunteers.

In addition to volunteering at the JMM, Vera is also active in Jewish Community Services and Brandeis Women’s group. She is a proud member of Beth Israel and in her spare time she enjoys reading and listening to music.

If you know of anyone else who would like to join Vera in volunteering in our archives (or any other area of the Museum), please contact Sue Foard at

GrahamPost by Visitor Services Coordinator Graham Humphrey. Every month we highlight one of our fantastic JMM volunteers. If you are interested in volunteering with the JMM, send an email to Sue Foard at or call 410-732-6402 x220! You can also get more information about volunteering at the Museum here.

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