Posted on February 5th, 2014 by Rachel
At the end of this month we say good-bye to Passages Through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War. I, for one, will be sad to see it go. I’ve not only enjoyed the exhibit and the chance to work with Karen and Todd on our “Maryland edition”, but also the outstanding programs that Trillion put together and the fun we’ve had with our volunteer docents and museum educators on the special tours.
Closing February 27th!
I’ve gained dozens of new insights over the last few months but the one that sticks with me is actually about “saying good-bye”.
When Ross Kelbaugh came to speak at JMM at the beginning of December, he spoke about the boom in photography in Baltimore at the start of the Civil War (and the involvement of members of the Jewish community like the Bendann brothers and David Bacharach in this new “high tech” industry). As many as 50 photo studios were doing business here in 1861. Why the boom? Well one of the causes that Kelbaugh points to is a technological innovation know as cartes de visite. Just before the start of the war, photographers perfected the technique of printing multiple copies of playing card-sized images to card stock. These images were affordable, even for people of modest means and could be easily slipped into the mail for loved ones. You can imagine that soldiers sent to staging areas, like Baltimore, were very anxious to share pictures of themselves in uniform with their loved ones and images of nearby battlefields could bring the war home in a way that was unthinkable just 10 years earlier. This keen interest fueled the photography craze (more about this can be found in a New York Times’ “Disunion” column by Andrea Volpe from August 6, 2013).
School students visit Passages Through the Fire.
I look at this as a first revolution in the concept of “away”. For thousands of years, when husbands and sons went off to affairs of war or commerce, there was an absolute loss of connection. Their wives, children and siblings in most cases had only their memories to rely on (or perhaps an old portrait) to invoke the image of the person who was truly “away”. But the Civil War chipped away at the concept that saying good-bye completely severed visual contact with those who were away.
Today, we’ve experienced a second revolution in “away”. With Skype, Face Time, Facebook and more, we almost never completely lose visual contact with those who have gone away, whether they are at summer camp or at a base 10,000 miles from home. The technology has changed what it means to take leave and endure separation.
All this is not to say that we have solved the problems of being apart. Images can be a poor substitute for human contact. But nothing ever leaves us as completely as it once did, and we’ll have the pictures of the Civil War exhibit on our website to prove it.
(editor’s note: Passages Through the Fire closes on February 27th. Due to the fragile nature of the artifacts this will be the end of the exhibit tour, everything will be returned to the lenders. If you haven’t seen it yet, we encourage you to take advantage of your last opportunity)
A blog post by executive director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click HERE.
Posted on January 31st, 2014 by Rachel
On Sunday afternoon of January 26th, the JMM was humming with chatter, school groups and chilly visitors taking shelter from the icy Baltimore air. At 1 pm the commotion came to a pause when speaker Nick Fessenden, a retired history professor, took the stage in the orientation lobby of the JMM. Fessenden presented an intriguing talk titled, “Whose Side Are You On?: Baltimore’s Immigrants and Civil War.” The audience grew quiet and listened attentively as Mr. Fessenden set the scene, drawing them back to the Baltimore of the 1850′s and 1860′s.
Many audience members were surprised to learn that in the year 1860 more than 35% of Baltimore was composed of German, Irish and Jewish Immigrants and their children. The city of Baltimore was split into sections – divided by race, religion, and social ranking. Fessenden made no attempt to sugar coat many of the violent issues surrounding Baltimore and its politics during the Civil War era. Polls were abused and controlled by the native born working class Marylanders. Poll workers were targets of excruciating acts of violence.
Fessenden aimed to describe the difference between each minority group during this high-tension time. The German immigrants were the largest immigrant population in Baltimore at a whopping 25%. They were businessmen and farmers, and were spread across the entire social spectrum. About 7% of the German immigrant population was made up of Jews living in the city.
Fessenden laid out the Jewish perspective during this turbulent time. In Southern Maryland, Jewish slave-holders were incredibly rare. However, because the Jewish people felt insecure in a new, unknown country, they typically adopted the opinions of their neighbors. Jews in the south mostly empathized with the confederacy. On the other hand, Jews residing in Union areas took an anti-slavery stance.
Fessenden’s talk concluded with a flurry of interesting and insightful questions from the audience. The listeners questioned the violence in Baltimore, the voting system in Maryland, and various other questions surrounding Jewish life and culture in Baltimore during the Civil War.
A blog post by Education Intern Molly Gamble. To read more posts by interns, click HERE. If you are interested in interning at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, you can find open internship opportunities HERE.
Posted on January 27th, 2014 by Rachel
What do political scientist Norm Ornstein, the Pew Study and the American Civil War have to do with one another? I can’t speak to their relationships in the real world, but I would like to share some thoughts about they have started to link up in my mind.
Ornstein, author of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, has been speaking recently about a phenomenon he calls “tribalism”. There are many aspects to his analysis, but at its core he defines the situation as one where people start to care more about who is making the argument than about the content of the argument. Politicians switch positions on issues depending on which party or which leader has made the proposal. Tribalism makes compromise nearly impossible – because while it’s conceivable to find middle ground on an issue there is no middle ground on identity.
It has occurred to me that this type of tribalism is a feature of the modern world that is by no means restricted to Washington. The Pew Study is the most recent effort to slice and dice the American Jewish community and discern its subgroups. I am aware of the controversy over the methodologies of the studies but I don’t think anyone would deny that differences within our community sometimes impede our collective well-being. There are real disagreements about matters of policy, but I am often struck by the fact that the fiercest struggles are matters of identity. At a recent forum it happened that a panel was introduced only by their names. About midway through the policy discussion, a clearly distressed audience member raised her hand and said “we all have prejudices, tell us something about who you are so we will know your prejudices.” The single item I found most striking in the Pew Study was that when the questions weren’t about labels or rituals, but instead about values – there was a surprising level of commonality across all groups. I manage a museum, so I have a vested interest in the preservation of the inanimate objects we imbue with meaning (what flags we fly, how we dress, what we use to worship), but I find myself wondering whether we sometimes put so much value in the distinctive aspects of our material culture that we lose sight of the human bonds that tie us all together.
And this takes me to the topic of the Civil War. When Ornstein was recently asked if this is the worst state that Congress has ever been in, he conceded that it was worse in the years immediately prior to the Civil War…but added, who wants to use that as a standard of comparison? Our current exhibit points out that the war not only divided the Union but exacerbated divisions within the Jewish community. As “who” became more important than “what”, factions became irreconcilable. In many cases people stopped talking to their neighbors and shut themselves off from alternate points of view. In the echo chambers that emerged, progressively more radical solutions started to seem normal. Families and congregations were split forever.
I think that identity is a basic human need, and that museums like JMM perform a public service by expanding understanding of elements of both our common identity and of the distinctive sub-segments of the Jewish experience. However, I hope we always keep in mind that identity should not be a wall but a window, something that draws us into new worlds and helps us reexamine our own assumptions.
A blog post by executive director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click HERE.