“Whose Side Are You On?: Baltimore’s Immigrants and Civil War.”

Posted on January 31st, 2014 by

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Keeping the “tribe” without the “tribalism”

Posted on January 27th, 2014 by

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.

Civil War cropped 1A blog post by executive director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click HERE.

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Iron Will in Hoopskirts: Jewish Women in the Civil War

Posted on November 11th, 2013 by

November’s theme here at the JMM is Jewish women in the Civil War. We’ve kicked off the month with a wonderful talk yesterday by historian Dr. Lauren Strauss. Her talk has the distinction of having the Best Title Ever (IMHO): “Kosher Southern Belles and Yankee Bubbies Face America’s Greatest Crisis”.

Lauren Strauss presents

Lauren Strauss presents

Folks, it just doesn’t get any better than that!

The Levy Sisters, Eugenia (left) and Phoebe (right)

The Levy Sisters, Eugenia (left) and Phoebe (right)

Lauren told us about a handful of distinctive Jewish women who did remarkable things during the war. The most dramatic of them were the two Levy sisters: Eugenia Levy Phillips was a Confederate spy and was incarcerated twice for it, and her sister Phoebe Yates Pember was a stalwart nurse at the Chimborazo Hospital, where she made her mark by feeding the wounded with her chicken soup.

A few ladies of the Civil War

A few ladies of the Civil War

Next week, we continue celebrating the remarkable women of the Civil War, this time with a visit from a very familiar name: Clara Barton will be gracing us with her presence and her memories of the battlefields at 1pm next Sunday. Don’t miss it  – for more info, check out our programs page!

Britt Olsen-Ecker as Clara Barton

Britt Olsen-Ecker as Clara Barton

abby krolik copyA blog post by Visitor Services Coordinator Abby Krolik. To read more posts by Abby, click here.

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