Symbolic Gesture or Big Deal?

Posted on April 20th, 2018 by

This month’s edition of JMM Insights is written by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.

I wanted to devote this month’s JMM Insights to one of the oldest documents in our collection – a short pamphlet with a very long title: “Sketch of the Proceedings in the Legislature of Maryland, December Session, 1818 on What is Commonly Called The Jew Bill.”

I bring this document to your attention not only because it will soon turn 200 years old, but also because it is so intertwined with the story of our current exhibit, Amending America: The Bill of Rights and the launch last week of the JMM-commissioned book on the history of our community, On Middle Ground: A History of Jewish Baltimore.

Let me begin by explaining what the pamphlet is and what it isn’t. The “Sketch” is a polemic, an argument in favor of the passage of the Jew Bill. The Jew Bill was intended to ameliorate the impact of the provision in the Maryland State Constitution of 1776 requiring a “Christian oath” for anyone holding public office (civil or military).

The Jew Bill failed to pass in 1818, but Thomas Kennedy of Hagerstown and his allies in the House of Delegates were not giving up.

The pamphlet consolidated the case for passage, including newspaper editorials from such diverse places as Natchez, Mississippi and Danville, Virginia condemning “Religious Intolerance” in Maryland, as well as letters of support from such notables as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In the great American political tradition, it also veers into the partisan, taking a shot at the Federalist Party for its nearly uniform opposition to the bill.

While this is a fascinating document, it is NOT the Jew Bill. The Museum does not currently own an original copy of the legislation that receives final passage in 1826 (though some members of our Board are still hunting for the possibility that the document exists and could be put on loan to us).

Dr. Eric Goldstein of Emory University, co-author of our new book, On Middle Ground, will be coming to JMM on May 9th to discuss his research on the Jew Bill in the course of writing the opening chapter of the book.

The program is called “Myth vs. Reality: The Maryland Jew Bill in Historic Context.

Without giving away everything that Eric will say (I do want you to come to the program or at least read the book), I would simply point out that Eric found ample evidence that the claims of disability and exclusion attributed to the “Christian oath” provision have been greatly exaggerated – that the rule was not rigorously enforced and that there were relatively easy work-arounds for those wishing to serve.

So was the passage of the Jew Bill just a symbolic gesture or was it a big deal? 

Working at the National Archives I ran into this sort of question often. After all, King George III had issued a proclamation declaring the colonies to be “in rebellion” in August, 1775 and sent armies to North America to suppress the revolution… so how significant was the much belated Declaration of Independence eleven months later? As our current exhibit points out, our vaunted FIRST amendment was actually the third article of amendment when it came out of Congress, and was only promoted to first place when the first two amendments failed to be ratified.  Lincoln put so many restrictive clauses into the Emancipation Proclamation that it fell well short of “freeing the slaves.”. He even went so far as to declare it a “war measure” rather than a charter of freedom. Are all these documents over-rated? Or is there something else at work?

I recently listened again to a 2013 interview with Lonnie Bunch, Director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lonnie responded to a reporter’s question by saying:

The Emancipation Proclamation is without a doubt the most misunderstood document in American history, that on the one hand the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery. Slavery was ended when the 13th Amendment was ratified. But what the Emancipation Proclamation does that’s so important is it begins a creeping process of emancipation where the federal government is now finally taking firm stands to say slavery is wrong and it must end.

I find myself echoing Lonnie’s sentiment with respect to the Jew Bill. Maryland was not an environment of horrendous religious oppression in 1818 (nor was it a paradise of tolerance after the bill’s passage in 1827). In many ways, the Jew Bill was a symbolic gesture, having limited practical impact beyond facilitating the political ambitions of Jewish Baltimoreans Jacob Cohen and Solomon Etting.  But sometimes, symbolic gestures are genuinely a big deal, moving, even if slightly, the long arc of the moral universe.

In conjunction with Amending America, we have developed a very small highlights brochure of the “Sketch.”  Pick it up at the Front Desk on your next visit to the Museum, while supplies last.


Posted in jewish museum of maryland

The Mount Pleasant Jewish Home for Consumptives – a Personal Connection

Posted on March 28th, 2018 by

Blog post by JMM archivist Lorie Rombro. You can read more posts by Lorie here.

In 1907 Jacob Epstein gave $35,000 to the Federated Jewish Charities for a tuberculosis hospital and another $500 annually toward supporting the institution. Seventy-two acres were purchased off Westminster Pike, north of Reisterstown and the Jewish Home for Consumptives, also known as Mount Pleasant was opened in 1908.

I knew very little about Mount Pleasant prior to working here at the Museum, but what I did know was through my own family history. When WWII began my grandfather, who had recently married my grandmother, went to register for the Navy. At the physical it was discovered that he had tuberculosis, although he had no symptoms. My grandfather proceeded to spend the next year at Mount Pleasant. He always believed that he had contracted tuberculosis from living at a boarding house in Baltimore when he first arrived from New York, but would never know the true cause.

I was excited to find a large portion of the 1926-1932 Associated scrapbook dedicated to the history of Mount Pleasant.

Inside the scrapbook was an incredible amount of information on the sanitorium, not just the invitations to events – which I always love to see (especially the menus),

but also copies of the forms for admission including a clothing list and directions. 

One of the most interesting finds was a small booklet titled, “Your Cure and your Sanatorium” from 1931. JMM 2017.68.3.38

It begins with, “By coming to the Sanatorium, you have taken an important step towards recovery. Everything about this sanatorium has been planned for the sole purpose of helping you win your battle. Rest, good food and fresh air are the three most essential elements of treatment. Occasionally, medicines for the control of certain symtoms and special forms of treatment may be prescribed. Cheerfulness and determination to get well, you must supply. This will not be difficult in the company of others who are striving, like yourself, to regain health. Courage is contagious.” The booklet goes on to explain what tuberculosis is, why rest is the most imprtant step in healing, and the times of day that patients must rest, eat, and recieve treatments, a daily schedule for patients, as well as the critera for being declared well enough to return home.

Its easy to understand the ideas behind the sanitorium, hoping to create a place where people could heal and regain their strength, allowing them to return to normal life. But was the sanitorium successful?

The 1917 annual report included not only statistics for the Home, but a Superintendent’s Report as well.

In it, the superintendent, Jacob Cohen, M.D, wrote “ we aim to do more than teach the patient how to take care of himself. As has been said in former reports, it is the settled purpose of the Medical Board not to discharge patients who may be a menance to the community, but to keep them indefinitely if thought desirable, and forever if necessary. You probably know that most of our patients have either moderate or far advanced lesions; very few of our admissions are incipient cases. The cause of this is probably two-fold, occasional failures on the physcian’s part to recoginize the disease in its incipiency, but much more so, I think, the unwillingness of the average Jewish workingman to admit that he needs medical attention until the disease has made extensive inroads.” The statistics show that a majority of the people in the hospital that year where tailors or housewives and when looking at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum records many children where placed in the orphanage because one parent had either died or was being treated for tuberculosis.

Happily, my grandfather was cured, though he never spoke of his time there. But because of Mount Pleasant, he was able to come home and become a father and the most wonderful grandfather anyone could ask for.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Football…in the Archives?

Posted on February 26th, 2018 by

Blog post by JMM archivist Lorie Rombro. You can read more posts by Lorie here.

A few weeks ago, while processing a collection I came upon a list of addresses and I was unsure how it connected to the collection. As I was looking over the list I noticed the very last name: John Unitas. This piqued my interest andso  I began looking up the other names on the list.

What I found was five players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame! Maybe you recognize them: Raymond Berry, Gino Marchetti, Lenny Moore, Jim Parker, and Johnny Unitas.

As it turns out, all the names on my mysterious list were players who were on the Baltimore Colts between 1961-1963 (many were also on earlier and later, but this is the period they all overlapped).*

The collection was donated from the estate of Bernard S. “Bucky” Levin. Mr. Levin was a lifelong sports fan whoalso owned a pharmacu in Baltimore. His pharmacy not only provided medical supplies to the Baltimore Colts, but also filled prescriptions for many players. One of Mr. Levin’s philanthropic interests was the Eddie Block Memorial Courage Award dinner, which is named for the late Colts trainer and raises money to help abused children.

I found additional information on the Colts inside a folder labeled, “From Ed Block” including articles and information on the 1977 NFL Draft.

Check out pick #26 for Baltimore’s choice!

All this research made me think about growing up in Baltimore. As a child I had no interest in football, but I knew who the Colts where. My father, grandfather, and uncles all watched the games and were on the phone throughout a game discussing each play and every call.

I think if you are from Baltimore and are old enough to remember the Colts, everyone has a story to tell. My first real experience understanding how important football was to the city was when I was 7 and attending summer nature camp at Goucher college. I remember the doors to the building where large and very heavy and getting them open could be difficult. Luckily there where very large men running around on the field next to the building who were happy to help. After a few days of camp, I told my father that I had met the largest men I had ever seen and that they always waved and said hello when we passed them.

Photo of 1958 Baltimore Colts (signed by Ordell Brasse and Alex Sandusky, both of whom were on my mystery list). JMM 2001.113.99

After a series of questions starting with “what are these men doing?” and moving on to “are they playing a game?”, my parents discovered I was waving hello to the practicing Colts! I’m not sure if my father had driven me to camp before that, but he certainly did afterwards.

The 1958 Baltimore Colts radio and television schedule, produced by National Bohemian. Gift of Steven Sklar, 2016.10.130.

I saw first hand how excited people where to meet them and watch ever step they took. Although 7 year old me was really only impressed with their size, it left a lasting impression on me on how important sports can be to a person and a city.

*Please don’t try and grab an autograph at any of these addresses! But you can get a taste of “Where Are They Now” in this feature from the Baltimore Sun!

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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