Meet Bessie Bluefeld!

Posted on November 30th, 2012 by

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.  

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The Museum is Holding Auditions!

Posted on November 12th, 2012 by

For our new living history character Bessie Bluefeld!

This is a living history one-woman show; approximately one hour in length (45 minute performance and 15 minute Q & A) for an actress, age range: 25 – 35 years old, preferably 5’ 4” or shorter, dress size 12 – 18 and can speak with a realistic Russian accent.

For more information, click here!

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The American Dream, then and now

Posted on January 11th, 2012 by

A blog post by intern Mia White.

Since beginning my internship at the museum a month ago, I’ve been involved in so many exciting things that I found it very difficult to sit down and pick one thing to write on. And so, being the double-majoring, multi-interested girl that I am – I’ve picked TWO of my projects to pull into one (perhaps slightly sinuously held together) blog post. My link between the two experiences: immigration to Baltimore.

North German Lloyd Steamship leaving Baltimore (an immigrant ship). 1988.117.3

My main project at the JMM is researching the newest member of the immigrant’s trunk series. She is a woman named Bessie Bluefeld, who immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1907. I’m betting right now that last name is familiar to many of our readers. Yes, that Bluefeld. She is the woman behind Bluefeld catering, a kosher family-owned company that worked around the east coast from 1937 for over four decades. The sources of my research consist entirely of secondhand recollection, yet it’s clear even from this she was a firecracker of a woman. She is one of so many that came to the United States with that timeless ideal of America as the land of opportunity. And for her and her husband Charles, it would be; they achieved success and wealth not just once during the 1920s but TWICE, when they had to rebuild from nothing when the Great Depression belatedly reached their family fortune. I’ll leave the rest of the story there – you’ll just have to wait for the new trunk character to emerge to find out the details!

My second experience takes us over one hundred years forward from Bessie’s 1907 arrival to 2012. This past Monday, I visited Patterson High School to observe a storytelling course that the JMM runs for refugee and immigrant students. Monday’s class was focused on heroes, or simply a person each of us felt had made a difference in the world. Honestly, I felt a bit at a loss when considering who I admire. Yet these students, some of whom are nearly a decade younger than I, were much surer of themselves. They told stories of a man in their home villages back in Nepal, or looked to TV programs they’d seen on the news about a woman in Miami who fought for animal welfare. Each story was unique and powerful, and yet it was when I came to speak to one girl in particular that I found my research about Bessie gaining new dimension.

Student Immigration Stories Workshop, 2011

She spoke not of a person, but of God. Her imaginings of him as a man, or perhaps even a boy her age, were incredibly vivid and her telling was highly emotional. She saw him not as a hero who had done much, but as a being that held the power to alter the future. What was he up against? I asked. “Racism,” she replied. She went on to say that the racism in this country and in Baltimore in particular was insurmountable, and that she saw no other force in the world that could change it.

And to me, this comes back to Bessie in a very simple way. Though the city shut its shores to immigrants at the outbreak of WWI and would never re-open them, Baltimore continues to be a destination for immigrants. The census recorded a Hispanic population increased from 1.7 to 4.6 percent between 2000 and 2010. Bessie came to this country in search of opportunity and to escape hardship, and each student in that class likely came for similar reasons. And yet, this girl, so confident and articulate about her thoughts, is unable to see America as the land of opportunity – and instead sees it as a place where she is up against something so solid and pervasive that she is unable to fathom where to begin to conquer it. I only hope that she, like Bessie, will find her calling and push through her personal adversity to find success and acceptance. And perhaps, through this she will defy the boundaries that racism has set before her and her life will teach and inspire future generations, as I know Bessie’s story soon will.

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