The JMM and the Baltimore Book Festival

Posted on September 26th, 2011 by

A blog post by Historian Deb Weiner.

 

Last week when I opened the Friday “Live” section of the Baltimore Sun, I was happy to see that the double-page spread about the Baltimore Book Festival featured three books that had connections to the museum, under the zippy headline, “Tales of Mobtown boom, bust and bigotry energize fest.”

                                  

First there was Gil Sandler’s familiar face (and ever-present rumpled hat), with a blurb about his new book “Homefront Baltimore,” about Baltimore during World War II. While the museum did not have anything to do with this particular book, Gil has been a contributor to our publications for years, and we are currently working with him on his next book, a collection of his columns that appeared in the Jewish Times. It was good to see Gil get recognition for his storytelling. The reporter hit the nail on the head when he observed that Gil “embodies his city’s quirky vitality and unpredictable humor.”

 

                                                            

 

Second was Antero Pietila’s book “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City.” The book is a hard-hitting exposé of how deeply housing discrimination against blacks and Jews is embedded in our city’s history and culture, going back to the early 20th century. Antero spent many hours here at the museum researching our Baltimore Jewish Council collection when gathering material for this book. He has noted that this rich collection was one of his most valuable sources, as it contains a wealth of material about ethnic relations and politics in Baltimore during the mid century years.

 

 

The third featured book, “Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City,” contains an essay I co-wrote with Betsy Nix, on the impact of the 1968 riots on three business districts: East Lombard Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, and West North Avenue. All three districts had many Jewish store owners, and our essay explores how perceptions and reality sometimes collide when considering this troubled period in Baltimore’s history. If you want to know more, buy the book (available at www.amazon.com and elsewhere). It also contains a bunch of other essays on various aspects of Baltimore 1968.

Fortunately the weather miraculously cleared on Saturday, so I went down to the Book Festival to browse around and to attend a panel that featured both “Not in My Neighborhood” and “Baltimore ’68.” A large crowd of people had gathered to hear Antero and Betsy (a co-editor as well as one of the authors) talk about the two books, along with Rhonda Williams, whose book “The Politics of Inequality” explores the activism of women who live in Baltimore public housing. It’s quite possible that many people in the crowd were simply claiming seats for the next event on the schedule, a talk by actor and hip hop artist Common, but I’d like to think that even if they came for something else, they became intrigued by these stories that, as the Sun reporter wrote, “chronicle mythic pockets or nearly forgotten areas of Baltimore’s past,” revealing “how it became the city we know today.”

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Who Was Sam Eig?

Posted on July 13th, 2011 by

A blog post by Research Historian Deb Weiner.

If you do much traveling in and around Montgomery County, you may have driven on Sam Eig Highway. I found myself on this road recently when I went to visit a friend in Potomac. The odd name stuck with me and I wondered to myself, who the heck was Sam Eig?

Sam Eig Highway: commons.wikimedia.org

I found the answer the other day, when rifling through the JMM vertical files, looking for information on the Etting family (more on them another day, perhaps). Turns out that Sam Eig was a Jewish real estate developer and philanthropist. There was no picture so I don’t know if his head looked egg-like, which was the image I had formed in my mind. Anyway, this is just one example of the useful, fascinating, entertaining, and enlightening bits of information to be found in the wall of library cabinets that make up the JMM research files, known in library-speak as “vertical files.”

The Vertical Files

The vertical files contain clippings, pamphlets, reprints, and other miscellaneous materials on people, places, organizations, and subjects related to Jews in Maryland. These are “non-accessioned” items, so you won’t find them in our collections database. Recently, in order to have a way to search these files remotely, we started a spreadsheet with brief summaries of the contents of each file. So far, we’re working on the biographical files, and have got through the letter P. Our two ace volunteers working on this project, Vera Kestenberg and Harvey Karch, are having fun reading about all these people. At least, they haven’t complained or asked to be put on a different project.

With my new remote search capabilities, I can sit here at my desk (instead of standing up and walking the twelve paces over to the filing cabinets, which I can see from my office) and find info about some of the more appealing characters about whom we’ve collected information.

Kate Coplan: JMM 1987.51.54

 

In the Cs, there’s Kate Coplan, a well-known city librarian who was in charge of the window displays at the Pratt Library for decades. She maintained a close friendship with H.L. Mencken, and the vertical files include a thick folder of photocopies of their correspondence. I had to get up out of my chair to take a quick look. On September 14, 1942, Mencken informed Coplan that “I spent the day as usual—in pious meditation, and emerged from it convinced that the end of the world may be at hand.” A bit further up on the spreadsheet is Izzy Caplan, a professional boxer and boxing promoter in Baltimore in the1920s and 1930s. He changed his name from Leon Luckman, so his parents wouldn’t find out that he was boxing at age 14.

In the Ms, there’s Ken Mehlman, a Pikesville native who became head of the national Republican Party in 2004. He made headlines in 2010, when he publicly came out as a gay man. Several records down from him, there’s Reba Kirson Monness, a Baltimorean who was U.S. Table Tennis Champion and also a regional tennis champ in the mid 20th century. Funds from her estate established a tennis scholarship in Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.

William Fuld: williamfuld.com

Perusing the Fs, I found out that the Ouija Board was invented by a Baltimore Jew. Well, not exactly. William Fuld took out his first patent on a “talking board” in 1892, while working for a company which soon became the Ouija Novelty Company. He became known as the “Father of the Ouija Board.” Everything about the story is a bit complicated, though, including the fact that William was not really Jewish. His father Jacob was a Jewish immigrant, but he raised his children as Christians. William is buried in Greenmount Cemetery, according to an article in the file. Though William would not today qualify as a citizen of Israel under the Law of Return, he qualifies as a Jew for the purposes of the JMM vertical files.

 

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A Baltimore Jewish Riot?

Posted on May 25th, 2011 by

One of the most fun parts of my job involves delving into the museum’s archives to research topics related to our exhibitions and publications. Right now, I’m deep into research for a new book on the history of the Baltimore Jewish community, which allows me to pretty much look in any direction I want to. I enjoy uncovering examples of “bad behavior”—let’s face it, it’s just more interesting, especially when the behavior goes against stereotypes of Jews or the official, rather staid version of history that is usually promoted by a community’s leaders (of course, this applies to any community, anywhere). I thought I’d share an interesting story line I came across recently.

A typical raid during Prohibition (from melblancproject.wordpress.com)

It’s well known that Jews were not big fans of Prohibition in the 1920s, but I was still a bit surprised to come across incidents of Jews engaging in spontaneous acts of violence against prohibition agents—in fact, at least twice in a single year. In January 1922, according to the Baltimore Sun, “An attack was made upon the agents and police at the place of Abraham Levine, 140 North Exeter Street.” As the police uncovered “a quart bottle of whisky and 25 barrels of fruit wine,” a sergeant “was struck over the head by an alarm clock thrown by a woman supposed to be Mrs. Levine.” The couple’s twelve-year-old son, “in a towering rage,” told the officers that “if he had a pistol he would shoot him.” More than 1,000 people gathered to witness the raid in the Jewish immigrant neighborhood of East Baltimore, and their sympathies were not with the police.

The sentiment in Fells Point (from prohibitionbaltimore.blogspot.com)

The following June, in an article headlined “Crowd Threatens To Beat ‘Dry’ Agent,” the Sun reported what happened when the car of a prohibition agent named Barton collided with a truck operated by Abraham Lazarowitz of East Fayette Street. “Lazarowitz, it is alleged, jumped from the truck and struck Barton in the face. Barton drew a blackjack.” When bystanders learned that Barton was a prohibition agent, some of them “offered to help beat him.” The arrival of reinforcements saved Barton from the angry mob, and Lazarowitz was arrested. When his lawyer asked the judge to reduce his bail, the judge refused. “I am going to do my duty in stopping unprovoked attacks against Government officers, even if they are prohibition agents.”

Two gents in Prohibition-era Baltimore. JMM 1989.211.6.23

Apparently prohibition agents were universally unpopular, and Jews were far from the only ones spoiling for a fight. The Lazarowitz incident was only the “latest in a series of attacks” against agents, the first occurring during the raid of an Irish saloon.

Baltimore Jewish Times ad for Champagne (ginger ale, that is), 1928.

Next month… Baltimore Jewish juvenile delinquents, perhaps, or champion golfers…

 

A blog post by Research Historian Deb Weiner.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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