Health, Healing, History: New Thoughts on Jews and Medicine

Posted on July 31st, 2012 by

A blog post by Exhibitions Intern Meryl Feinstein.

As the sole exhibitions intern currently on staff at the JMM, I have had the exciting opportunity to fully delve into the initial workings of exhibition development. Along with curator Karen Falk, I have been exploring the “big ideas” for an exhibition regarding Jews and the medical profession in Maryland.

When first approaching the topic, we mainly looked at Maryland Jews who had contributed to the medical field (largely from Hopkins and Sinai Hospital) and Jewish-founded institutions in the Baltimore area. For me, aside from the stereotype of “My son the doctor,” I didn’t think there was a deeply Jewish connection to the medical profession. Many of today’s Jewish doctors see themselves as doctors who just happen to be Jewish. American modern medicine is a profoundly Western concept – of a scientific foundation – not one inherently religious or cultural per se… Right? This line of thought guided the direction of the exhibition for the past few weeks. We saw the Jewish facet as a case study; that is to say, we were going to look at the development of modern medicine through the lens of Jewish people and institutions in Maryland and the achievements that followed. This would include a wide array of professionals: doctors, nurses, pharmacists, psychiatrists, etc.

With this mindset, Karen and I took a short daytrip to New York City to see the Yeshiva University Museum’s current exhibition, Trail of the Magic Bullet: The Jewish Encounter with Modern Medicine, 1860-1960 at the Center for Jewish History. Trail of the Magic Bullet was not limited to the achievements and institutions of Maryland; thus, the exhibition’s main goal was to provide an image of the larger modern Jewish experience through the lens of the Jewish relationship with – and contribution to – modern medicine. Trail of the Magic Bullet began with a nod to the pre-modern history of Jewish physicians by way of a series of ancient manuscripts and one very lovely Rembrandt etching of the Jewish physician Ephraim Bonus. The majority of the show, however, was dedicated to highlighting specific Jewish personalities who made significant contributions to medical science in the modern era. Public health was also included, such as the Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society, the Visiting Nurse Service, Hadassah, and the establishment of various Jewish hospitals. The exhibition concluded with a short video discussing current issues of medical ethics.

Center for Jewish History, NYC.

Rembrandt etching of Ephraim Bonus (1647), the Jewish physician to discover the first cure for syphilis shown at YUM’s Trail of the Magic Bullet: The Jewish Encounter with Modern Medicine, 1860-1960.

After our tour through the exhibition, Karen and I stopped for some delicious falafel at taim before heading back to Baltimore.

As I walked through Trail of the Magic Bullet, I was conflicted. The exhibition explored some truly intriguing and important themes and dichotomies: anti-Semitism vs. assimilation, Jewish particularism vs. universalism (or rather, serving the Jewish community vs. the global community), science vs. tradition. These themes are as wholly relevant to the Jews of Maryland as anywhere else in the Western world; we could easily adapt the YUM template for our purposes. Yet although the exhibition was informative and widely acclaimed – and closely related to our own ideas – I walked away feeling that the YU approach just wasn’t for us. I thought about the JMM’s demographic: how could we make this topic exciting and interactive, especially for school groups? And, on a more personal level, how could we make this exciting and interactive for me – that is to say, others like me – a young adult with little knowledge of science and medicine?

Karen and I seemed to share this opinion, and after a series of brainstorming sessions and exploring our collection, we kept circling back to the same idea: instead of talking about Jews and medicine, why don’t we talk about Jews and health? It may be a minor adjustment, but the word ‘health’ rings more inclusive, more positive in its connotation than the word ‘medicine.’ Furthermore, everyone engages with health. From the doctor’s office to yoga to alternative, holistic medicine to nutrition, optimal health is something we all constantly strive to attain and maintain. Health touches upon the physical, the mental, and the emotional – the body, the mind, and the soul. It’s personal, it’s communal, and it’s global. This small change could thereby attract a larger audience and more diverse demographic.

On a most basic level, the switch to ‘health’ allows us to explore the general cultural constructions of health and illness in America. Ultimately, however, the question remains: is there a Jewish meaning embedded within these cultural constructions? If so, what is it? If not, why not? The themes we are currently considering include the relationship between patient and healer, the communal response to caring for the sick and promoting wellness, the evolution of the connection between Jews and health/illness over time, and the meaning of “Jewish diseases.” We intend to approach these topics from a regional perspective.

Though there are still more questions than answers, it seems like we may be on to something. Right now I am starting at the source: Jewish text. This includes health-related passages in Biblical, Talmudic, and Rabbinic sources (especially Maimonides). These texts focus largely on healing – the root of health – and the relationship between the body and soul. To be healthy, the individual must maintain balance in all things physical and mental – extreme states are strongly discouraged – and moderation is key. When illness strikes, the physician acts as God’s helper, one whose duty is to encourage the natural course of healing to restore good health. One of the more amusing passages I have come across was written by Jedaiah ben Avraham Bedersi, or “HaP’nini,” a Medieval French poet and philosopher:

When you need a physician, esteem him a god;
When he has brought you out of danger, you consider him a king;
When you have been cured, he becomes human like yourself.
When he sends you the bill, you think him a devil.

It doesn’t look like much has changed!

 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




And What About Ranch Dressing?

Posted on July 23rd, 2012 by

By Deb Weiner

We are in the midst of preparing a traveling exhibition that will explore the participation of Baltimore Jews in the great national rush to suburbia that occurred in the two decades after World War II. It’s called “Jews on the Move” and will open in October on the campus of Johns Hopkins University. JHU students helped develop the exhibit as part of a museum studies class they took last spring.

Marvin, our new director, took a look at the exhibition script earlier this week and questioned our use of the word “rancher” as shorthand for ranch house. Is it too slangy? Was it really in common use? “I’m from Chicago,” he said, “and I’ve never heard this term before.”

Jews on the Move

“I’m from Chicago too,” I replied, “and I’d never heard it either!” I started thinking, hmmm, maybe I better look into this. The word appears several times in the text, which was originally drafted by our guest curator Dean Krimmel, native Baltimorean and noted expert on all things Baltimore. I trusted Dean, but once the question had been raised it occurred to me that maybe, just every once in awhile, he might slip up.

From our upcoming exhibition.

So expert historian that I am, I googled the term “Baltimore rancher” to see what would happen. When the search page appeared on my screen, the results were so immediately conclusive I had to laugh. One Baltimore rancher after another being advertised in real estate listings. Apparently ranchers are so popular that the term was even used to advertise a “gorgeous 2nd floor end unit,” which seems to me to be stretching the definition beyond common sense. Everybody knows that a rancher (or “ranch house,” as Marvin and I would call it) is a detached, one-story home.

Jolly Rancher candies

Just to see what would happen, I googled “Chicago rancher.” The first item was a very interesting video about a rancher located about sixty miles outside Chicago, who supplied grass-fed beef to city restaurants. Check it out:  http:///vimeo.com/36095119. Unfortunately the next couple items reported his sudden death, shortly after the video came out. Then various items related to “Jolly Rancher” candies (which I had never heard of before), a high school team called the Ranchers, etc.

Baltimore ranch house. Image courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

My fact-checking was complete, but my curiosity was aroused. Is “rancher” like “hon” — one of those uniquely Baltimore quirks of language or style?  I started googling “Philadelphia rancher,” “Miami rancher,” etc. I discovered that as shorthand for ranch house, the word does seem to be in common use in the mid-Atlantic region. (Philly and Newark yes, Miami and Boston, not really. One Boston item, “Idaho Rancher Revealed as Gangster from Boston,” was pretty entertaining). But only in Baltimore was the term used to describe a second-floor end unit.

This kind of fact-checking can be fun, but it’s also important. We don’t want to have any errors in the work we put out there for the public to see, read, etc. Sometimes it’s just a matter of a quick google search, but we also go to much further lengths to make sure we’re getting things right. (In fact, the web must be used with much caution, since so many websites repeat errors and falsehoods.) So I’ll continue to trust Dean, but check up on him every once in awhile.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Greetings from Exhibitions!

Posted on June 15th, 2012 by

Hi everyone! My name is Meryl Feinstein and I am the newest Exhibitions Intern here at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. As a recent Art History graduate from Brandeis University, the majority of my previous experience in the museum field has been art-related. Most recently, I was very lucky to have the opportunity to work at Brandeis’s hidden gem: The Rose Art Museum. The Rose harbors one of the best – if not the best – modern and contemporary art collections in New England. From Picasso and Chagall to de Kooning and Warhol, the Rose has it all! To some of you, the name may ring a bell if you’ve heard about the university’s recent movement to close the museum’s doors, the threat to sell its collection in light of severe economic trials, or the lawsuit that followed. Yet thanks to tremendous support and protest from faculty, staff, and students, I am thrilled to say that the Rose reopened its doors to the public this past fall to an audience of thousands and is in the process of organizing an exciting series of exhibitions for the coming year! I learned so much working in a small, close-knit institution and was able – for the first time – to engage with objects behind-the-scenes, witness an exhibition’s installation, and offer my own input throughout the process. I highly recommend a visit if you find yourself in the greater Boston area.

 

Photo: The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University

 

My experience at the Rose – in addition to others – has in large part landed me here at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. It was at the Rose that I really discovered my love of studying, handling, and researching objects. Though the content of this collection is very different than that of the Rose, I am delighted to become a part of the JMM team and continue my learning experience. I have already begun working on some fascinating research for a potential exhibition regarding the Jewish connection to the medical field in Maryland. The big questions we’re thinking about are quite simple: Why are Jews so consistently associated with medical professions? Is this association true or myth? Why are Jews so often drawn to the field? What unique intersections between Jews and medicine have occurred (and are occurring) in Maryland? We’re still in the very beginning stages of figuring out our focus, but we’ve uncovered some pretty incredible finds in our collection alone (including the contents of an entire doctor’s office from the early 20th century and a dentist’s engagement ring with a molar in lieu of a stone)!

 

Plasticine “engagement” ring with inset “molar,” made by Edmund Kahn, c. 1905.

 

If you have any questions, comments, and/or stories regarding Jews and medicine in Maryland – the topic includes physicians, pharmacists, dentists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and nurses as well as breakthrough medical inventions and research  – please do let us know. We’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

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