There are many dividing lines in this nation’s most bitter struggle – at Gettysburg, Manassas, Antietam… and Baltimore Street? The Jewish Museum of Maryland presents a sesquicentennial exhibition and tour marking the war that not only divided the nation but split our community.
A Groundbreaking Exhibition
The exhibition, Passages through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War, opens October 13. It invites visitors to come explore a Civil War they never knew. It tells the story of events of national importance, through the lens of one small group in the American populous. It looks at the ways in which the Civil War was a crucible for American Jewish identity, and how it laid the groundwork for their integration and Americanization on a large scale. It focuses not only on the battlefield, but on the difficult choices made by non-combatants throughout the struggle. The exhibition also looks at the role the conflict played in establishing a framework for the full participation of Jews in American life – militarily, politically, economically and socially – and how it set the stage for massive Jewish immigration decades later.
Passages through the Fire was conceived and organized by the American Jewish Historical Society and Yeshiva University Museum. The Jewish Museum of Maryland has augmented the exhibition with stories and objects reflecting the special challenges faced by the Maryland Jewish community. This groundbreaking exhibition, curated by Ken Yellis, includes the largest and most comprehensive collection of materials relating to Jews and the Civil War assembled in the last 50 years. The core of the exhibition is the unmatched collection of Robert D. Marcus of Fairfax, VA, generally regarded as the world’s most significant collection of Civil War Judaica, which has never been exhibited on this scale, including an incompletely printed Confederate $500 note on whose blank side the Jewish Major Sidney Alroy Jonas handwrote the poem that became the basis for the Southern myth of the “Lost Cause.”
Baltimore will be the ONLY venue outside New York where this full exhibition will appear.
The exhibition spotlights little‐known events that have shaped our history. Passages through the Fire includes an unvarnished look at the debate on slavery within the Jewish community (see tour below). It illustrates the consequences of an order by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant expelling Jews “as a class” from the massive Tennessee Territory after accusations of disloyalty. Another part of the exhibition reveals how the role of military chaplains had been reserved for Christians until President Lincoln engineered the law’s reversal during the Civil War – a landmark moment.
The exhibition features three short films created exclusively for Passages through the Fire by award‐winning filmmaker Oren Rudavsky. The mini‐documentaries – on Jews and slavery, Grant’s expulsion of the Jews and anti‐Semitism, and the legacy of the Civil War for Jews – will feature interviews by leading historians, including Jonathan Sarna, Harold Holtzer, and Hasia Diner.
The Jewish Museum of Maryland has also added four activity stations to the exhibition: one on photography (connecting to photo pioneers Daniel and David Bendann), one on sewing (linked to “needle picket” Annie Jonas Wells), one on Civil War supplies (attached to sutler Lazarus Goldheim) and one on commemorations and memorials (connected to monument-maker Moses Ezekiel). These hands-on opportunities bring to life the stories illustrated through pictures and letters.
“This exhibition has appeal for the Civil War novice and the avid re-enactor alike,” said Museum Director, Marvin Pinkert. “It tells stories that are not well-known, even within the Jewish community. But more importantly it will be a spark for discussion as people are sure to find surprising connections between our times and the seemingly distant past. I am particularly pleased that we have used this exhibit as an impetus to reveal a new and frankly challenging side of the history of the Lloyd Street Synagogue.”
An Original Tour
In conjunction with the exhibition the Jewish Museum of Maryland is presenting a special “1861 Tour” of the Lloyd Street Synagogue. The tour looks at what it would have been like to be a member of the synagogue, then occupied by Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, at the start of the Civil War. The presentation looks at the synagogue structure and content for clues about the concerns and lifestyles of its congregants. The tour includes a recreation of the arguments, both for and against abolition, which took place between Rabbi Bernard Illoway of Baltimore Hebrew and Rabbi David Einhorn of Har Sinai. Tours will take place at 11 and 3pm on opening day October 13th and at 1pm on most subsequent days the exhibition is open. Visitors should call the museum to confirm tour times.
There is also a great line up of programs to go with the exhibition. Here are just a few of the offerings in our first month:
October 13: Opening Day, Jonathan Karp of the American Jewish Historical Society will speak on Jews and the Civil War.
October 20: As a special Free Fall Baltimore program, Barry Steelman will present “Standing by Their Flags,” exploring Jewish military experience on both sides of the conflict.
November 10: Lauren Strauss will present “Kosher Southern Belles and Yankee Bubbies Confront America’s Greatest Crisis: Jewish Women and the Civil War”.
The exhibition will be on display through February 28 and more program announcements will be forthcoming.
The Jewish Museum of Maryland presentation of Passages Through the Fire: Jews and the American Civil War is made possible through generous support from the following donors:
Willard Hackerman/Whiting Turner
Morton K. and Jane Blaustein Foundation
Richard and Rosalee C. Davison Foundation
The Eliasberg Family Foundation
The Gottesman Fund
Morris Schapiro and Family Foundation, Barbara Katz
Lois and Irving Blum Foundation
The Miller Family Gift Fund
Joseph Smelkinson Foundation
Passages Through the Fire was originally organized by The American Jewish Historical Society and Yeshiva University Museum.
The New York presentation was made possible in part through the generous support of the Leon Levy Foundation, lead sponsor.
Additional generous support was provided by The David Berg Foundation; Bloomberg Philanthropies; The Brenner Family Foundation; The Garfunkel and Gottesman Descendants of Louis Trager; The Center for Jewish History; Susan and Roger Hertog; Bryna and Joshua Landes and Family; The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; Righteous Persons Foundation; Shapell Manuscript Collection; The Smart Family Foundation; William and Jean Soman; and Tawani Foundation.