Posted on December 18th, 2013 by Rachel
An assignment this week to create a list of the most memorable JMM activities of 2013 (see JMM Insights, December 19, 2013 – coming on Friday!) inspired quite a bit of discussion among our staff, and turned out to be a fun exercise. The pace here at the JMM is often so fast and it is rare that we have time to reflect on events that have taken place and to savor our successes as there is always something new that demands our immediate attention. Winnowing the list down to include twelve memorable events (we just couldn’t stop at 10) proved challenging, an indication of the many wonderful things that took place this past year across all departments.
As I reviewed the list that made the final cut, one activity really stood out from the pack, and that was the debut of our newest living history character based on the life of beloved Baltimore icon and caterer extraordinaire, Bessie Bluefeld.
Actor Terry Nicholetti performing as Bessie Bluefeld
When I first arrived at the JMM thirteen years ago, one of my first assignments was to begin work on an educational activity that would serve as a resource for Jewish day and congregational schools on the topic of immigration history. That kit became the Immigrant’s Trunk which explored the lives of two Jewish immigrants who settled in Baltimore in the early 20th century, Ida Rehr and Saul Bernstein, through reproductions of JMM collections items such as photos, immigration documents, and Jewish ritual items.
A photograph of immigrant Ida Rehr with her siblings before she left her home in Ukraine to settle in Baltimore
The concept of the trunk grew to encompass a living history component complete with professional actors who portrayed the lives of the immigrants whose experiences are explored through the trunk contents.
Actor Katherine Lyons who portrays Ida Rehr with the trunk
These performances proved popular, not just with Jewish students but also non-Jewish students attending public and Catholic school and adults too. Over the years it has been amazing to watch as this program that started with such humble ambitions has evolved in the Leo V. Berger Immigrant’s Trunk, one of the JMM signature programs for audiences of all backgrounds, including versions of the trunk designed for preschool audiences as well as for individuals with visual impairments.
Actor Tim King portraying Saul Bernstein at a performance for Cross Country Elementary students
And now we have added a brand new character, Bessie Bluefeld, who has already proved enormously popular with audiences. Bessie’s story encapsulates so many rich themes as the performance begins with her arriving fresh off the boat in Baltimore’s Locust Point where she marvels at just how different her new home is from what she has left behind and goes on to dramatize the extraordinary effort she places in creating a home for her husband and children and her determination to save the family from financial ruin after a bad business deal.
Bessie arriving in Locust Point
One of the joys of this particular living history character is that so many Baltimoreans have fond memories of Bluefeld Catering and loved sharing the stories of their special events during the Q&A session following performances.
Bessie answering questions following a performance
We have also been privileged to talk to members of the Bluefeld family including Bessie’s son Louis and grandchildren who have shared treasured family stories and photographs. At the performance debut this past spring, we were delighted to welcome so many members of the Bluefeld family.
Members of the Bluefeld family at the spring performance debut
Bessie greeting a member of the Bluefeld family following her performance
It was evident that the performance resonated with the members of the family in attendance and there was hardly a dry eye in sight when one of her grandsons stood up to thank the JMM. In his words, “You gave me back my grandmother.” This simple expression of gratitude sums up exactly what it is that the JMM strives to do. As I reflect back on a year of so many successes, this is my number one moment!
We are grateful to everyone whose hard work and dedication brought Bessie to life with a special thank you to script writer Jonathon Scott Fuqua, director and producer Harriet Lynn of Heritage Theatre Artists’ Consortium, and actor Terry Nicholetti. We are also most appreciative of the Leo V. Berger Fund for their continued support of our Immigrant’s Trunk program.
A blog post by Assistant Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts by Deborah, click here.
Posted on October 2nd, 2013 by Rachel
September 22, 2013
The evening was very relaxed. In addition to the performance, there was plenty of tea, cake and conversation. It seems to have been enjoyed by everyone who was able to attend, and it even brought in a generous donation to the museum.While most things here at the museum are becoming increasingly all about the upcoming exhibit, Passages through the Fire, yesterday, we held one of our premium members events. In addition to the usual benefits, premium members receive invitations to more exclusive events. For this event we planned a salon and tea with a performance of our most recent living history character, Bessie Bluefeld. Bessie was a well known Baltimore figure who, for many years, ran Baltimore’s premium kosher catering company.
The most special thing about the evening was the presence of a number of Bessie’s descendants, from grandchildren to great-great-. There was a wonderful moment after the performance when the family and the museum members discussed their memories of Bessie. Unfortunately, Bessie’s daughter who lives in the area was unable to attend, but we recorded the event on video, so she will be able to share in the experience.
Everyone present had some yummy cake or strudel, one of Bessie’s signature dishes.
There was also a tasty selection of teas.
Some of Bessie’s descendants, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
After the performance: Bessie, performed by Terry Nicholetti and the museum’s director Marvin Pinkert.
A blog post by Program Manager Trillion Attwood. For more posts by Trillion, click here.
Posted on November 30th, 2012 by Rachel
A blog post by Director of Education Ilene Dackman-Alon.
While working at the JMM over the past 7 ½ years, I can honestly say that each day has been different and there has never been two days that have been alike. Some days we have school groups, other days we do outreach program at schools. Some days are spent trying to develop new education curriculum and programs. Over the past year, we have been working with the playwright, Jonathan Scott Fuqua to help us develop a new living history character for our successful Leo V. Berger Immigrant’s Trunk Program in connection with our acclaimed exhibition, Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture and American Jewish Identity.
Bringing a history character to life is no easy task and the JMM staff has been working on this project at a very steady pace. There are so many components involved in trying to create a living history character. First, we had to choose the character that we would try and recreate. As a staff, we had to figure out whose life we would highlight. It needed to be someone from Maryland who had a story and it was our job to do the research within our collections and figure out who that person would be …
Meet Bessie Bluefeld…… the matriarch of the beloved Bluefeld Caterers. Bessie was an immigrant who grew up during a turbulent time in Russia in the 1890’s. We have found evidence from the ship’s manifest of where Bessie and her husband Charles were born. Novgorod-Volinsk (aka Zvihil) is a large town in the Volhynia region of modern day Ukraine. We know that Bessie’s family, the Biskers, was known in the town as the go- to lodge for Jewish visitors because they ran a clean and efficient house, and would serve delicious kosher food to their guests. Bessie and Charles were married at 16 and 17 respectively.
Bessie arrived in 1906 on a ship that came directly to Locust Point in Baltimore. At the time that she arrived, Locust Point was at its height of its history – with about 40 thousand immigrants passing through each year. Part of what made Baltimore such a popular port for immigrants was that it was the starting point for the B & O railroad, and many passengers opted to buy single tickets that included a journey out west after arrival in Baltimore. But for Bessie and Charles, Baltimore was their final destination and so they likely joined the other Baltimore bound immigrants by taking a ferry across the harbor to Fells Point.
Through research of our oral history collection, we listened to the oral transcriptions from Bessie’s sons, Louis and Phillip Bluefeld, and we were better able to understand the Bluefeld family story. We learned that upon arriving to Baltimore, Charles took work in construction, and Bessie spent her time at home, raising the first children of the family. After time, Bessie felt that Charles’ work was too dangerous and she told him that things had to change. He quit his job and they used their savings to buy a small grocery store near Fell’s Point. Through the next decade they bought and sold grocery stores and real estate throughout Baltimore city. By the 1920s, the family was also working a stall in Lexington market, and they had earned enough money to purchase two cars, a rarity in that era.
Bessie and Charles Bluefeld
During this period of prosperity, Bessie traveled to Atlantic City and Florida, beginning to develop her refined taste that would later be known as the “Orchid touch” that gave Bluefeld catering its edge as one of the premier kosher catering businesses in the area. Bessie and her family survived the initial crash of the stock market in 1929, but in 1933 the family’s well-known financial reliability would eventually be the cause of their downfall. They were signatories for a land deal with Sunoil, which fell through and they lost almost everything
The Bluefelds were able to scrape together enough to begin working at Lexington Market again, but now they had no choice but to work on Saturdays and to sell pork (as it was the most profitable option). The whole family, including the children who were old enough, worked at this point; Louis recalls that it was this or starve. Slowly, they were able to earn back enough money for Bessie to begin volunteering with the sick benefit and relief association at the Progressive Lodge. From here, she bought a stand on the nearby beach for 1200 dollars, and started the business that was the seed of Bluefeld catering. From 1937 to 1941 Bluefeld catering blossomed, and Bessie was at the heart of things. She always sought to provide the very best for her patrons, and rarely asked for much in return. Her sons recalled one particular incident when a client suggested that he should give a deposit for Bluefeld’s services. Bessie refused, replying “I wanted to give your mother a deposit and she said, “I should give you a deposit; you are trusting your daughter’s wedding to me.”
In 1941, Bessie Bluefeld died suddenly. She had rarely even been mildly ill, but a cerebral hemorrhage struck her and she lapsed into a coma and died three days later. The week that she died her family carried on with the 13 events they had planned because they felt it was not an option to let down so many families. Though the company had really only just begun at that point, Bessie’s ideals remained the driving force behind the company long after her death. Years later her son Louis would recall, “She was our charm, she was our mentor, she was the one who had all the foresight. What we did years after was only a matter of doing what she had planned. She had set the guide rules of what our business was to be, the adding the dignity that catering was beautiful, that the responsibility was on us to do a good job for the people.”
So, as you can see… this is an incredible, Maryland family story-and we wanted others to learn and be inspired from Bessie and her family’s unbelievable determination and work ethic. Over the past two weeks the JMM has been holding auditions to cast Bessie Bluefeld with the help of Harriet Lynn, Producer/Artistic Director with Heritage Theatre Artists’ Consortium. Harriet sent an audition notice to various venues and we received responses from aspiring actresses living in both Baltimore and the DC area.
It has been a lot of fun over the past two Mondays morning holding auditions and got to meet some very talented and gifted actresses. Secretly, I felt like one of the judges on America’s Got Talent and I loved watching each actress perform her monologue and read from the script with her best Russian, Yiddish accent…….. It was a very hard decision to choose one person as each of the actresses brought such different gifts to the role. After a lot of discussion, we feel confident in our choice….
We look forward to sharing Bessie’s wonderful story with the community and we are excited to introduce Terry Nicolletti to the Baltimore community, as she has been chosen to play the role of Bessie Bluefeld. Terry and Harriet will be working together over the next few months to put together a rehearsal schedule and further develop Bessie’s character. Terry’s excitement about the Bessie is contagious and we look forward to bringing Bessie Bluefeld out to the community in the late spring.