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

MS 100 Abramovitz Medical Papers

Posted on August 4th, 2011 by

Dr. Morris Abramovitz's office sign. 2001.26.8

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MS 13 Dr. Herman Seidel Papers

Posted on May 19th, 2011 by

The following finding aid describes one of our early collections.  It is an important record of the work of a single person, but also contains extensive records related to several organizations of the early twentieth century.  Some of our dedicated readers might recognize the name of one of them — the Labor Zionist Organization of America.  Several weeks ago we post the finding aid for MS 21 League Chaper of Labor Zionist Organization of America.  The Jewish Museum of Maryland has collections from individuals as well as organizations, and sometimes the inviduals appear in the archives of the organizations, or the organizations appear in the papers of the individuals.  By looking at multiple manuscript collections researchers can find the details they need to create a full and rich story.

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Herman Seidel in his University of Maryland medical school graduation photo, 1910. 1993.043.070

Dr. Herman Seidel Papers


 MS 13


 The Dr. Herman Seidel Papers were donated to the Jewish Museum of Maryland by Dr. Arthur Leslie as accession 1989.82.  Myrna Siegel processed the collection in December 2009.

Access to the collection is unrestricted and is available to researchers at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.  Researchers must obtain the written permission of the Jewish Museum of Maryland before publishing quotations from materials in the collection.  Papers may be copied in accordance with the library’s usual procedures.


 Dr. Herman Seidel was born on April 12, 1884 in Lithuania on the Latvian border.  His education had prepared him to become a teacher of Hebrew, a profession he pursued after arriving in Baltimore in 1903.  He brought his interest in Zionism with him, and in 1905 was chairman of the committee to convene the first Labor Zionist convention in Baltimore.

In 1906 Dr. Seidel entered medical school at the former College of Physicians and Surgeons (affiliated with the University of Maryland), and graduated in 1910. In 1914 Dr. Seidel entered into active medical practice.  While in practice he maintained his interest in community activities.   He was active in Zionist activities on the local and national levels and Jewish education on the local level.

Among his Zionist activities were organizing and recruiting for the Jewish Legion for Palestine in 1917 and 1918; acting as a participant in the organization of the American Jewish congress and as a delegate to its preliminary conference in 1916 and subsequent years; organizing the first National committee for Investments in Israel in 1932; acting as a delegate to the 19th World Zionist Conference in Lucerne, Switzerland in 1935; acting as a participant in the organization of the American Palestine Trading Corporation (AMPAL) in 1940; and acting as President of the League for Labor Palestine of  America from 1940-1947.

Dr. Seidel’s interest in Geriatrics began in the early 1930’s when he read a paper on the problems facing the aged.  In 1948 at Dr. Seidel’s suggestion, the Baltimore City Medical Society organized its first Committee on Geriatrics.  Dr. Seidel was appointed Chairman and remained so until 1961.  He was a fellow of the American Geriatric Society from its inception in 1954 and a member of the American Gerontological Society from 1948.

In 1950, Dr. Seidel organized the first full-day citywide conference on Geriatrics in Baltimore.  Subsequently, Mayor Thomas D’Alessandro of Baltimore appointed a Commission to study the problems of aging in the City of Baltimore to which Dr. Seidel was appointed. Dr. Seidel later served on the Commission appointed by Mayor D’Alessandro to study the problems of aging in Baltimore, on the Maryland Commission for the Aging, and on the Committee on Geriatrics appointed by the Maryland State Medical Association.

Dr. Seidel died in 1969.

Dr. Herman Seidel outside a hotel in Israel, 1957. 1989.82.6


The Labor Zionist Organization of America-Poale Zion was founded in 1905 and held its first convention in Baltimore.  The national mission of the organization was to support the establishment of Israel.  Once Israel became a county in 1948, the LZOA became active in continuing to support the growth of Israel.  One of the main campaigns that came out of Labor Zionism in America was the Histadrut campaign which sent money to border settlements in Israel as well as helping new immigrants and financing the development of Israel.

In the early 1970s the Labor Zionist Organization of America-Poale Zion merged with two other labor Zionist organizations, Farband, a labor Zionist fraternal order, and the American Habonim Association, a labor Zionist youth organization.  These three groups newly merged together became known as the Labor Zionist Alliance.  The newly formed Alliance continued to work for progress in Israel and in 2004 changed its name to Ameinu which continues to work for the same goals.

The League Chapter, the Baltimore chapter, of the Labor Zionist Organization of America began in 1945.  When it was formed it was called the Zionist Guild but by the end of 1946 it was being called the League Chapter of the LZOA.  While the chapter itself did not begin until then, labor Zionist activities had begun much earlier.  The founder of the national organization, Dr. Herman Seidel, was from Baltimore and did much work in Baltimore and in America to spread the Labor Zionist viewpoint.  In 1934 Jacob Janofsky allowed labor Zionists to use his land as a training farm so that young people could learn agricultural skills to take with them to Israel.  Camp Gordonia, which was also a labor Zionist camp was formed in 1935 but soon merged with Habonim in 1938.  However, an official chapter did not exist until 1945.

In the mid 1950s, the League Chapter changed its name to League for Israel but the change was in name only.  When the organization became Labor Zionist Alliance it seems that a Baltimore chapter still existed however it is unclear if Ameinu still has different chapters.

Dr. Herman Seidel with a Zionist group believed to be Poalei Zion, c. 1905. 1963.9.1

Scope And Content

The Dr. Herman Seidel Papers are comprised primarily of papers relating to Dr. Seidel’s wide ranging Zionist activities as well as his professional activities as a physician.  The papers are divided into three series: Series I. Personal and Professional Life, n.d., 1910-1969; Series II. Major Zionist Activities, n.d., 1932-1962; and Series III. Subject Matter and Correspondence Files, n.d.,

Series I.  Personal and Professional Life, n.d., 1910-1969 includes material relating to Dr. Seidel’s personal life relating to financial activities, celebrations and personal correspondence.  There is also material relating to his medical practice and subsequent interest and actions in the field of gerontology.

Series II. Major Zionist Activities, n.d., 1932-1962 includes material relating to the four Zionist organizations with which Dr. Seidel was primarily involved.  Those four are the Labor Zionist Organization of America – Poale Zion, AMPAL, the American Palestine Trading Co., Heirut Beth and Histadrut.

Series III. Subject Matter and Correspondence Files, n.d. includes correspondence with individuals and organizations as well clippings of interest to Dr. Seidel.


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