A Matzah Memory

Posted on March 22nd, 2013 by

MarvinA blog post from Executive Director Marvin Pinkert.

Somewhere along the way in my twenty-five year journey in the museum world, I asked me the question “Can you remember the first exhibit you ever saw?”.  I thought for a moment and answered “Sure I can, I was at a long dinner table and someone held up a plate of matzah and asked mah zot?”  It had all the elements of an exhibit – an artifact of historic significance, label copy in the Haggadah, it was interactive and at least when we got to the Hillel sandwich – multi-sensory.

I share this by way of confession that while I have a theological appreciation for other holy days, none holds a place in my heart like Passover.  I have so many fond memories of seders spent with friends and family that its easy to wax nostalgic about all of them.

There is one seder in my past, however, that truly stands apart.  A night unlike all other nights.  It was 1978, 35 years ago this season.  Passover fell late that year (April 21).  I was in Seoul, Korea serving as a “Junior Officer in Training” with USIA.  At age 25, I believe I was the youngest American officer serving at the post.  So I was somewhat surprised to receive an invitation to the Ambassador’s residence…it was highly unusual for a junior officer to share a social occasion with a senior ambassador.  Nonetheless, as there were only five Jewish American officers in Seoul at that time – the Ambassador, the Deputy Chief of Mission, the administrative assistants to both the Ambassador and the DCM and me – I was invited to seder at the residence.  I can’t remember all the details but I’m sure my wife gave me some helpful coaching on dinner table manners for such a fine event.

The seder began as expected, but shortly after the first cup of wine, an embassy official entered the room and whispered something into the Ambassador’s ear.  Ambassador Sneider rose abruptly and exited the room.  I strongly suspected this was more than a second washing of the hands.  He returned a few minutes later.  After another few prayers and songs, he left the room again, suggesting that we go on with the service.  The up and down pattern continued all the way to the cup of Elijah.  My recollection is that at about this point the DCM may have revealed what was going on.  That afternoon (Korean time) a Korean airliner that had strayed off-course on its way from Paris to Seoul had been fired upon by Soviet aircraft and forced to land on a frozen lake.  The 107 surviving passengers had been transported to Murmansk.  The Russians were refusing to release the passengers.  When the Ambassador left the room he was actually on the phone trying to secure their safe return home.  So on that night, “let my people go” had ceased to be an echo of an ancient exodus, but rather a contemporary reality that had made its way to our seder table. It took two days but the passengers did reach their destination (a much happier ending that the second shoot-down incident five years later).  I’m sure that any American Ambassador would have made the liberation of the passengers a top priority, but for all these decades I have thought that the fact that a Jewish American Ambassador was a part of this effort on the very night of our own people’s commemoration of freedom was very special – a reminder of the universal resonance of our story.

This year I’ll be headed for Boston, as the torch of making seder passes for the first time to my daughter.  Once more I have a feeling it will be a night different from all other nights.

Happy Pesach!

Note:  Please respond to this blog to tell us about a seder that you found particularly memorable.  It’s one more way to share our history!

 

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Happy New Year and Happy Birthday!

Posted on January 4th, 2013 by

A blog post by Director of Education Ilene Dackman-Alon.

Happy  New Year!  I believe that this is the first blog post for 2013….  Many families are returning from celebrating the holidays and are enjoying getting back to the routine of school and work.  I am secretly still celebrating even after the first of the year – because my birthday (SHHH… don’t tell anyone  J) follows a few days after New Year’s Day!

I love birthdays – I love celebrating with family and friends;  I love blowing out the candles on the cake; and I even love getting presents…  I wondered if there were examples of how birthdays might have been celebrated in the past.  I checked out Past Perfect  (a search engine  on the JMM’s website)- http:///jmm.pastperfect-online.com/00005cgi/mweb.exe?request=ks –  and I entered the search term “birthday” .  I was so amazed that I found 209 “hits” or items came up that were part of the JMM’s vast collection.   Here is just a smattering of some of the interesting things that I found.

1996.029.001

This is a porcelain vase showing Blanche Bamburger in the photograph, with signatures of her friends. The vase was presented to Blanche on her 18th birthday in 1893. I guess this type of gift predates the “autograph doll.”

Close up of signatures, 1996.029.001

 

1991.057.001

This is a silver Kiddush cup, with  goldwashed interior, made by the Baltimore Sterling Silver Company (Steiff Co.).  The cup includes  Hebrew text: “From the Board of Rabbis this cup has been prepared as a blessing. It is given on the occasion of the 70th birthday to its chief, our teacher, Rabbi Benjamin Szold, 1899, the 18th day in Heshvan.”  I thought this was very cool- I have my mom’s Stieff silver and everyday coming home from work, I  see the neon sign that says STIEFF as you travel north on the Jones Falls Expressway!

1989.079.035

This picture is from the collection of Rabbi Benjamin Szold’s papers – and shows Henrietta Szold planting the 83rd tree in the Henrietta Szold Forest at Maaleh HaChamishah on the occasion of her 82nd birthday, December 21, 1942. ” She’s Baltimore’s own Hometown Girl!

1996.033.007

This is a black and white photograph of the window display at Enoch Pratt Free Library for Israel’s 10th Birthday, from April 15 through May 5, 1958. Photography by Sussman-Ochs.  This picture is from the Lester Levy Family Papers.  I don’t think that the staff at the library did an accurate fact check…. Israel became an independent state on May 14/15 1948.

1995.013.037

This is black and white photograph of Rose Kornblatt with  some of her students receiving birthday spankings at Public School #20, Baltimore, MD; caption on reverse:  ” Happy Birthday” - I am certain that today that this Mrs. Kornblatt would be terminated from teaching if she gave out “birthday spankings” with a switch to her students.

1985.104.002.057

This is a black and white photograph of Louis E. Shecter holding a Japanese drawing wishing Pablo Picasso a happy birthday. The drawing was created in Osaka, Japan and mailed to Picasso by Shecter in October 1966. How COOL is that!

1995.192.270

A birthday celebration for Dr. Louis Kaplan on the occasion of his 90th birthday. Take a look at who is standing on the podium with Dr. Kaplan- Elie Wiesel spoke that evening at the celebration honoring Dr. Kaplan, who was a leading Jewish educator here in Baltimore.

1994.039.003

This color photograph is of Jenya Berdichevsky, Sophia Richen, at Fania’s apartment for celebration of Fania’s son Tamenie’s first birthday, June 1993. I love how busy this photograph is….. with so much food and libation!

2009.009.001

This is a Pin the Tail on the Donkey game made of paper. It belonged to Naomi B. Cohen (my friend Maxine’s mother) it was used at birthday parties for both Maxine and her brothers, Dr. Howard B. Cohen and Jack S. Cohen. I played this game at birthday parties when I was a youngster many years ago!

Here’s to another birthday for me but more importantly –best wishes to all for a Happy & Healthy New Year 2013!l

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Americanizing Chanukah

Posted on December 14th, 2012 by

A blog post by Historian Deb Weiner.

Last week, a reporter from the Jewish Times called to ask when Chanukah gift-giving first became popular in America. I had no clue, but I knew where to find the answer: in the book Wonders of America, by Jenna Weissman Joselit, a leading historian of American Jewish popular culture. I pulled the book off the shelf, looked up “Chanukah” in the index, and relayed the relevant details to the reporter. I thought it would be pertinent to share Joselit’s observations with you as well.

K2003.3.1a

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Joselit writes, “more American Jews were inclined to experiment with Christmas than with Chanukah. Beguiled by its charms, they adorned their homes with greenery and eagerly exchanged gifts.” Along with other Americans, Jews ignored the religious meaning behind Christmas and enjoyed its “secularized, commodified, and mirth filled dimensions.” The holiday’s appeal was not limited to “well-established Jews”—it trickled down to immigrants as well. “According to the Jewish Daily Forward, a startlingly large proportion of new arrivals took quickly to the custom of giving Christmas presents, a practice allegedly as widespread as the exchange of Purim gifts. ‘Who says we haven’t Americanized,’ the paper quoted several immigrants as saying. ‘The purchase of Christmas gifts is one of the first things that proves one is no longer a greenhorn.’”

 

Hutzler’s gift box, 1997.83.9a

 

Jewish leaders tried to promote Chanukah as an alternative to Christmas, but “no amount of rhetorical excess could disguise the fact that Chanukah’s charms paled in comparison with those of Christmas.” Joselit does not identify who came up with the idea of giving gifts as part of celebrating Chanukah, or precisely when the custom took off, but gift-giving was clearly a key part of the holiday’s revival in the 1920s. That’s when Chanukah “began to come into its own as a notable Jewish domestic occasion and an exercise in consumption.” Not surprisingly, this was a time of upward mobility for the increasingly Americanized immigrants, who were looking for ways to combine their American and Jewish identities. What better way than to fit Chanukah into modern American consumer society?

K2000.4.1

Yiddish newspapers of the 1920s “carried dozens of tempting advertisements for Chanukah gifts, from automobiles to waffle irons.”  While advertisers saw Chanukah as a way to sell a wide array of products, newspaper editors saw the products as a way to sell Chanukah. Editorials encouraged readers “to add the exchange of presents to the roster of Chanukah customs.” As one newspaper counseled, “To command the attention and affection of Jewish children, the holiday must become an occasion for storytelling, gift-giving, and merrymaking.”

K1999.30.5

In addition to its commercialization, Joselit writes, “a search for religious parity” proved to be the other key factor in Chanukah’s success in the years after World War II, “when it emerged not only as the Jewish antidote to Christmas but as its functional equivalent.” For second and third generation Americans, Chanukah became an important way to express Jewishness.  By the 1950s the celebration of Chanukah had become “one of the few Jewish ritual practices actually to grow rather than diminish in popularity.”

The perfect Chanukah gift, available from the Museum shop.

 Happy Chanukah everyone!

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