Posted on March 24th, 2017 by Rachel
Have you noticed our obsession with top ten lists? Our tendency to pay attention to something when it’s the first, or the newest, or the largest?
Museums have a long pedigree in displaying the rare and exceptional, but there is an inherent distortion of history in an exclusive focus on the “most important.” In the 21st century, in an era of shared authority between visitor and curator, we need to re-learn the art of elevating the ordinary – of making the lives of everyday folks as compelling as the extraordinary.
On the recent trip to the Council of American Jewish Museums conference in Massachusetts, I found two institutions doing just that. Neither would describe itself as a “museum” per se, but both are worthy of a visit.
Entering Vilna Shul
The first was the Vilna Shul in Boston. Built in 1919, the Vilna Shul (or as its original sign says in a Boston accent – the “Vilner Congregation”) is not the oldest, nor the largest, nor the most beautiful religious space by any stretch of the imagination. It is rather the last remaining synagogue of the great wave of Eastern European migration to Boston’s West End (out of twenty or more than once were there). Like our own Lloyd Street Synagogue the Vilna Shul was rescued from a city plan to tear it down and put in a parking lot.
Vilna’s stained glass window
The architecture is a pastiche – a little Georgian, a little Romanesque, a little Eastern European folk. It’s most notable feature is its huge stained glass Star of David, unambiguously facing the street. The interior has some elements in common with LSS, including chandeliers purchased from a neighboring church. But also some things I would never associate with a synagogue of this period – huge skylights, and in lieu of a balcony, a women’s section set up like a raked theater. The Shul has literally pealed back the layers of paint to reveal its historic stenciling.
There is no golden age of the Vilna Shul. As our guide pointed out, even by the time this was built, the Jewish community had begun to move elsewhere. Yet this humble congregation offers a glimpse into Jewish immigrant life that is every bit as important and interesting as the most magnificent temple designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Yiddish Book Center
The second non-museum on my “must visit” list is the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. Walking up to the building, the architecture already builds expectations – after all, how many American buildings are designed to resemble a shtetl? The Yiddish Book Center takes “humble” to a whole new level… it’s logo is a goat, the same goat that we celebrate in Had Gadya each Passover, the gentle goat of the Yiddish lullaby Oyfn Pripetchik. The exhibits do not exist in great galleries but rather mostly meander through the stacks of thousands of books.
Sharing one of the Yiddish newspapers in the collection.
The exhibits and tours don’t try to claim that Yiddish is the most influential language – noting that only 39,000 books were printed in Yiddish in the century in which Yiddish books were being printed. Instead the focus is on the history embedded in the language. A Yiddish linotype machine and cases of type are used to illustrate the intersection of technology and language. A giant story book encasing a video screen connects themes in Yiddish literature to contemporary movies and plays.
Check out that address
Perhaps most intriguing they have a crate on display. There is nothing terribly special about the crate except the shipped-from address. The shipped-from address is Zimbabwe and suddenly the crate becomes a vehicle for telling the incredible story of books that escaped with their owner from Lithuania to Shanghai before the Holocaust and from Shanghai to Zimbabwe after WWII and from Zimbabwe to Amherst, MA in the 1990s (with duplicates returned to the Jewish community in Lithuania). An otherwise ordinary crate turns into a ride through modern Jewish history.
What a fun “madlibs” style interactive!
It’s definitely worth the extra mile if you find yourself in New England. If it provides an incentive, know that it is on my “top ten” list of Jewish sites to visit, and I say that in all humility.
Blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.
Posted on March 24th, 2017 by Rachel
On March 23, the JMM was thrilled to host a group of 85 young adults who participated in a program sponsored by IMPACT, the young adult division of the Associated and the Baltimore Jewish Council’s Holocaust Remembrance Commission.
Starting the evening with casual schmoozing
The evening included opportunities for networking and schmoozing with food and drink. I was invited to give remarks about our new exhibit Remembering Auschwitz: History, Holocaust, Humanity as well as to lead tours. When asked how many people had previously visited the JMM, it was clear that the majority had not and I enjoyed having the opportunity to welcome the group and to hopefully pique their interest in staying connected with us.
After a few brief remarks about how the exhibit came together and our institutional goals for having it on view, I led a small group through the gallery while many others opted to view the exhibit on their own.
Viewing “Architecture of Murder”
Viewing “A Town Known as Auschwitz”
It was rewarding to hear such positive feedback from visitors who expressed their surprise at learning new insights into Holocaust history such as the fact that Oswiecim (the town that became known as Auschwitz) once served as home to a vibrant Jewish community. As always, I enjoy hearing from people about their personal connections to the stories on display. One woman in the group told me that her grandmother actually grew up in the town and she was incredibly moved to see photographs featuring the diversity of Jewish life from the 20th century.
Local high schooler Andrew Altman created this model of Auschwitz-Birkenau in honor of his grandfather.
Several program attendees had previously visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and when we stopped at the model by high school student Andrew Altman, they shared their experiences of what it was like to visit.
Viewing the “Holocaust Memory Reconstruction Project”
The final stop at the plaques that are part of the Holocaust Memory Reconstruction Project, served as another place for reflection as participants spent time reading the stories, commenting on the collages and sharing their connections to individuals whose stories are on display.
Small group conversations
Following the tour, the group gathered in small groups in our lobby to hear from the grandchildren of survivors who shared their stories of survival. This format fostered conversation among participants and helped to continue the discussions that were begun in the gallery.
What a pleasure it was to work with our partners at the Associated and Baltimore Jewish Council to organize such a thoughtful program. We continue to be delighted by just how much Remembering Auschwitz resonates with audiences of all ages and backgrounds and look forward to hosting many more groups and programs. The exhibit remains on display through May 29.
A blog post by Deputy Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts from Deborah click HERE.
Posted on March 23rd, 2017 by Rachel
One of the great outcomes of our Beyond Chicken Soup exhibition was making friends and creating partnerships with institutions outside of the usual orbit of the JMM. Our friends at MedChi (the 218-year old Maryland State Medical Society headquartered in Baltimore) wrote to express support after our campus suffered some anti-Semitic graffiti over the weekend. We are grateful for their message.
Volume 1 of the Maryland Medical Journal
And, by the way, they added the exciting news that their nineteenth-century volumes (65 of them, totaling some 40,000 pages!) of the Maryland Medical Journal have been digitized! Now anyone can explore these volumes at https://archive.org/details/themarylandmedicaljournal using simple (and advanced) keyword searches.
The Maryland Medical Journal debuted as a weekly publication in May, 1877. While sometimes technical, these pages can be entertaining for the non-medical browser. Descriptions of 19th century procedures, medical mysteries, For example, look for instructions on readying cobweb poultices for use: wash them, dry them in the sun, etc. They are a trove, not only for medical historians and other scholars, but also for genealogists. Have a physician ancestor in the family? Find out about their scientific interests, and also their activities in their professional society.
Check it out!
I checked out the name Friedenwald, of course. Dr. Harry and Dr. Aaron Friedenwald are found regularly among the volumes. In 1877, Aaron Friedenwald was elected one of the Society’s examiners for the Western Shore area of Maryland. Dr. Abram B. Arnold—Jewish doctor in Baltimore since 1849—was elected president of the Society, and also contributed a paper on Bright’s Disease (disease of the kidneys). Dr. S.W. Seldner, newly appointed consulting physician to Baltimore’s Hebrew Hospital, also contributed a paper, this time on a patient’s unusual (unfortunately fatal) case of progressive paralysis.
Take a look yourself, and let us know what you learn about your great-great grandfather the doctor (or the patient—they are sometimes named!) 19th century medical practice in Maryland.
A blog post by Curator Karen Falk. To read more posts from Karen click HERE. This post has also been published on the Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America website.