Posted on May 29th, 2013 by Rachel
A blog post by Dr. Deb Weiner.
Our core exhibition “Voices of Lombard Street: A Century of Change in East Baltimore” has been on display in our Cardin Gallery since 2007. But I have a sneaking suspicion that not everyone in Baltimore has seen it. Right? So here’s a quick blast from the “Voices” comment book, with rave reviews from recent visitors. Don’t they make you want to come on down?
“Wonderful exhibit, so realistic and moving. As a new resident of Baltimore, it offered me a vibrant and informational view of Baltimore history.”
“Wonderful exhibit, compelling to read! Love the interactive scavenger hunt, even as a 30-year-old.”
1988.226.4a Courtesy of the Ross J. Kelbaugh Collection.
“I really ‘experienced’ the conditions immigrants lived in when they moved to America. I relate maybe because I myself am an immigrant.”
From a young person: “I loved it because you could do stuff with your hands and brain.”
I found this a bit hard to believe, but… “Drove all the way from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to see this and was not disappointed. Very well done.”
It’s always nice to get kudos from museum colleagues. A staff member of the Skirball museum (Los Angeles) wrote, “Very well done. I love how you used the oral histories to tell the story with the curatorial authority as only one voice. The mix of perspectives shines through and you didn’t hide the difficult stories, such as brothels and discrimination. Bravo!”
Couldn’t resist passing along this comment from a MICA student: “Absolutely loved this exhibit. The Maryland Historical Society could really use this as an example of a great exhibit on Baltimore history. Very dynamic.”
… As this is my last week at the museum, I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank my wonderful volunteers, my fellow JMM staff members, and other colleagues around Baltimore and beyond for a great eleven years. I’ve enjoyed working here immensely. See you around!
Posted on April 15th, 2013 by Rachel
As part of our mission to preserve and interpret Maryland Jewish history, the JMM strives to promote research that sheds new light on the past. Our collections offer an important window into the Jewish experience and scholars from around the world come here to study them. In addition to making our materials available to others, we mount our own research projects and present the results to diverse audiences in ways that bring the past alive and help people discover new meanings and interpretations, through our exhibitions, programs, and publications.
In 2011, former director Avi Decter embarked on ambitious project to reexamine the history of the Baltimore Jewish community and publish a comprehensive, full-length study. Under the JMM’s sponsorship, Emory University Professor Eric Goldstein and JMM Research Historian Deborah Weiner are engaged in writing On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore, a work grounded in current scholarship that will be made accessible to a broad audience. In this issue of “Performance Counts,” we thought we’d share with you some of the exciting discoveries they’re making that give us new ways of looking at Maryland’s Jewish past.
Here’s an example. The “Jew Bill” is a well-known chapter in Maryland Jewish history. The story is typically told like this: in early Maryland, the Christian oath requirement for holding public office indicated the low status of Jews and prevented them from participating in civic life. Their champion, state legislator Thomas Kennedy, managed to win passage of the “Jew Bill” in 1826 after years of battling prejudice. The bill (which allowed Jews to swear a more general oath) enabled Jews to finally become full citizens.
The Jew Bill. 1987.82.1
The real story is both more complicated and more interesting, as our new research has helped uncover. Jews had in fact already been key participants in Baltimore civic life and had even held public office (without swearing a Christian oath). The oath requirement was just one of many archaic provisions in the state constitution that figured in a power struggle between Federalist and Republican legislators, and became a source of rivalry between rural and urban factions. In a nutshell, many rural legislators opposed the Jew Bill because they believed it was part of Baltimore’s attempt to gain greater influence over state affairs. Jews and most other Baltimoreans favored policies that benefited commerce, which agrarian interests found threatening. When changes in the voting laws expanded the electorate, more Republicans were elected to the legislature—among them, Thomas Kennedy. By 1826, Republican and urban forces had gained enough power to pass the Jew Bill, along with other measures.
This interpretation not only alters our view of the status of Jews during the era, it also sheds light on an important aspect of Maryland’s political history: the ongoing struggle for power between the city and the other sections of the state. And it shows how Jews were very much involved in that power struggle, as participants rather than simply as victims of prejudice.
Jumping 100 years to the 1930s, correspondence recently uncovered in our archives allows us to add to the factual knowledge about a contentious debate over the American Jewish community’s response to the rise of Nazi Germany. Some historians have charged that because of timidity, apathy, and disunity, American Jews didn’t do enough to pressure the U.S. government to oppose the Nazi regime or relax immigration restrictions before World War II. As a result, they say, American Jewry bears a share of responsibility for the Holocaust. Others contend that American Jews did as much as they could, but there was little scope for effective action given both public opinion in the U.S. and the determination of the Nazis to carry out their plans. The debate has focused on the actions of national organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress.
What both sides lack is evidence on the local level of what Jewish communities around the nation were doing. The JMM’s Friedenwald collection begins to fill this gap. Harry Friedenwald and Simon Sobeloff, leaders of the Baltimore branch of the American Jewish Congress, were in constant communication with national leader Stephen S. Wise and gave him a running update of their campaign to unite the Baltimore Jewish community around a course of action. Their letters pulse with a sense of urgency and reveal an almost frantic flurry of activity as early as March of 1933, just after Hitler took power. We learn of their successes, frustrations, and strategies for overcoming obstacles that ranged from the “singularly silent” Baltimore newspapers to the passivity of influential Jewish leaders.
Harry Friedenwald from “Ten Jewish Leaders in America” by Samuel Strouse, 1968.1986.100.1
Among other things, the branch held rallies, convinced Baltimore newspapers to improve their coverage of the Nazis’ war on the Jews, and got prominent community figures to speak out. In 1934 they helped get Maryland’s U.S. Senator Millard Tydings to sponsor a resolution calling on Germany to stop persecuting its Jewish citizens. The Tydings Resolution would have been the first official U.S. statement on the matter—had it not languished in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. With supporting evidence from our research in the Baltimore Sun about the climate of opinion in the U.S. (did you know that a Nazi cruiser made a festive ten-day “good will” visit to Baltimore harbor in 1936 that included public tours of the ship, parties with public officials, and a soccer match against a local team in Gwynns Falls Park?), our interpretation will weigh in on the “did as much as they could” side of the argument.
These are just two examples of how our Baltimore Book Project is transforming our view of the past by bringing important stories to light. And because On Middle Ground will be the first comprehensive social history of an American Jewish community outside of New York, as well as of a Baltimore ethnic group, it will contribute considerably to the fields of American Jewish history and Maryland history.
The JMM is grateful to the following sponsors of On Middle Ground for their generous support of this project: Willard Hackerman, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds, the Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Foundation, and Rosalee and Richard Davison.
We are delighted to report that an essay Dr. Eric Goldstein has written for the book, “How German Were ‘German’ Jews in America in the Nineteenth Century? A View from Baltimore,” has been awarded the 2012 Joseph L. Arnold prize for the best essay submission on Baltimore history. The award notification recognized Eric for writing “a nuanced investigation of the established interpretation that Jewish immigrants from German-speaking regions of Europe in the 19th century identified with German culture by exploring the complexities of German Jewish identity with Baltimore-based evidence regarding associational life, politics, and language preference.” This award sponsored by the Baltimore City Historical Society will be announced at a conference on Friday, May 3. We congratulate Eric on this achievement.
We are proud of the role that the JMM plays in preserving our local Jewish heritage and helping to connect visitors of all backgrounds to the past. Please check out this wonderful article from last Sunday’s New York Times travel section in which the reporter describes how a visit to the JMM helped her learn more about her family’s history: http:///nyti.ms/ZaRqdU
Posted on April 12th, 2013 by Rachel
By Deborah Rudacille. Ms. Rudacille is Visiting Professor of the Practice at UMBC and the author of ROOTS OF STEEL: Boom & Bust in an American Mill Town, a workers history of the Sparrows Point steelworks in Baltimore County.
PART TWO – Continued from yesterday’s post, click here to read PART ONE.
The greatest difference between the corner kids and their neighbors was, of course, religious, but most seem to have had at least a casual acquaintance with the neighborhood church—and the faith it professed. “My parish was St. Ann’s on Greenmount and 22nd Street,” says Raynor, sounding just like an old-school Catholic. When his friends had business to take care of at the church, “I would sit in the back row and wait for them.” Debby Shostack Friedman recalls attending services at St. Benedict’s “maybe two or three times for some special occasion.” Even her sister Harriet, who spent much less time in the neighborhood, recalls a visit to the church with her own gentile friends. “I remember one time they took me to St. Benedict’s church. They had to do something there and I went with them.”
Christian feast days were a source of curiosity and, for some, pleasure. “At Christmas time, neighbors would always invite us to see their trees and we would go from house to house,” Morty Weiner recalls. Rhea Feikin, too, enjoyed witnessing neighborhood festivities. “We didn’t observe Christmas. We didn’t observe Easter. But I grew up enjoying those holidays,” she says, “seeing how people celebrated them.”
Living among gentiles posed some temptations. Feikin, the young bacon-eater, recalls the day she decided to infiltrate the famously restricted Meadowbrook pool. “I knew that I couldn’t go to Meadowbrook,” she recalls, “but I wanted to go because all my girlfriends went. I thought, ‘how will they know’ so one day I went. I came home triumphant, to the total horror of my father and mother.” Her father spanked her, she says, and said “you will never go where you are not wanted.”
Meadowbrook Pool, c. 1950.
She continued to test limits, though with a bit more anxiety. Shortly after the Meadowbrook incident, she accompanied her neighborhood friends to the annual Christmas party at the Keswick Road police station, where one of the officers dressed as Santa and handed out presents to each child. “All my friends went every year and I was just dying to go,” she recalls. “One day I decided that I would do it. But I remember going up and sitting in Santa’s lap and just blurting out, ‘I want to tell you, I’m Jewish.’” Santa merely shrugged, she says, and handed over her gift, a cardboard suitcase full of paints. “I thought, ‘this is a good stuff.’”
Feikin again told her parents and this time they were not upset, perhaps because rather than sneaking into the party, as she had the pool, she had claimed her identity—“but that was my one trip to the Christmas party,” she says. “I could have gone again, but I didn’t.” She finds it interesting that “I made that admission right away. I guess I was apprehensive about the whole thing, which is why I blurted it out.”
In the memories of those who grew up on the corner in the 1930s and 40s, antisemitism was rarer than one might expect, though the fear and suspicion of being targeted haunted some of their parents. Morty Weiner recalls the time he was coming out of a movie theater on Harford Road during the 1930s and a bunch of older boys standing around the adjacent pharmacy “grabbed me, took my pants, and left me in the park. My parents thought it was antisemitism but it turned out that it was just a joke. They were playing.” For his parents, both Russo-Polish immigrants, the incident may have recalled family stories of old disasters or seemed a frightening echo of events unfolding at the time in Germany.
The most unpleasant experiences seem to have occurred in school. Weiner, for example, recalls being harassed by an antisemitic fifth grade teacher at P.S. 50 on Gorsuch Avenue, a few blocks from his home, where he and another boy were the only Jewish students. “She gave me a hard time,” he said, without elaborating. “But with the exception of this one woman, we had no problems.” Harriet Pollack was hassled in elementary school too, though in her case the tormentors were fellow students. “I was on the heavy side and Jewish and the combination was not too good. I got called all kinds of names.” Boys harassed her, not girls, she says, but the teasing was so bad that she remembers walking home through the alleys “because I was crying. It hurt my feelings.”
Her sister, by contrast, remembers “a teacher giving a little speech about all children being equal” at Gwynns Falls Junior High where, she says, there were a handful of other Jewish kids in the 5th and 6th grades.
In the neighborhood, the fact that Jewish shopowners catered to the needs of their Christian neighbors seems to have insulated them from overt antisemitism. “During the Depression, my father was good to his customers. That’s why we got along so well with them,” says Morty Weiner. “I remember when bread went up to nineteen cents from seventeen cents, my father said, ‘how are people going to afford it?”
The willingness of some Jewish shop owners to look the other way when customers slipped an unpaid item into their bags may also have played a part. In his Clifton Park neighborhood, “there were a couple who did not like Jews,” Weiner says, including one woman whose husband worked for the post office. “He was a lovely man,” recalls Weiner. “But every time she came in the store she would sneak a can of tuna fish in her purse.” His father never confronted the woman about the thefts and instructed him to ignore it also. Similarly, Bernie Raynor recalls the time that a neighborhood woman who was doing housework for his mother took a few eggs. His mother told him not to say anything to her, “because she obviously needed food.”
Close economic and social ties co-existed with an unspoken prohibition that placed certain types of intimacy strictly out of bounds. “There was no contact with [gentile] girls,” says Bernie Raynor. “That was understood”—presumably by both Jewish and gentile teens. As soon as they hit adolescence, most of those profiled here began traveling to school outside their neighborhoods, many to School 49 on Cathedral Street, which had an accelerated curriculum, and then Forest Park High or City College.
Some youths who grew up in non-Jewish neighborhoods traveled far to attend high schools where they could meet other Jews. From the Forest Park High School yearbook, “The Forester,” 1949.
Attending school outside the neighborhood was how “I first met some Jewish people and had Jewish friends my own age,” Rhea Feikin says. Harriet Pollack recalls, “I had to take three streetcars to get there but I loved Forest Park.” Bernie Raynor’s younger sisters also traveled across town to attend co-ed Forest Park, partly because “there they would have the opportunity to meet Jewish boys.” Raynor, like Morty Weiner, attended Baltimore City College, at that time an all-boys high school. Weiner’s sister went to all-girl Eastern. Desirable as academically elite schools, single sex City and Eastern may have also appealed to Jewish parents nervous about the possibility of interfaith dating.
Despite their childhood friendships with gentile children, none of those profiled here intermarried and all chose to raise their own families in Jewish neighborhoods—striking testimony to the strong sense of Jewish identity instilled by their parents. Perhaps too, those raised in communities where they were outsiders, even accepted outsiders, wanted something different for their own children, even as they acknowledge that their childhoods led them to appreciate diversity and to have friends from varied backgrounds.
Participating in a Jewish youth group was one way to maintain close ties to the Jewish community. Bernie Raynor (middle row, center) belonged to the Rambam Chapter of the American Zionist Association, pictured here in 1946. 2008.117.1
Weiner and his wife Esther lived with his parents on Polk Street for five years after their marriage, but when it was time to buy their first home they moved to a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. There “we became involved with mostly Jewish people but we always had gentile friends,” he says. “Esther and I are very open to that.” Rhea Feikin too “ended up living in a Jewish neighborhood,” and raising her children there. Even so, she says, “I have always had many gentile friends and so did my children.”
Though they made different choices for their own families, none expressed regret at not having grown up in an all-Jewish neighborhood themselves. In fact, most seem thankful for the experience of having had daily interactions with a wide variety of people. “When I talk to my friends who grew up in West Baltimore, they grew up in a ghetto, totally surrounded by other Jewish people,” says Bernie Raynor. “When they went into the service, it was the first time they saw non-Jews. I was fortunate to live in an area where there were a lot of non-Jews.”
Growing up in a gentile neighborhood did not make the corner kids feel any less Jewish than their relatives in Park Heights or Forest Park. “I was expected to get good grades, give to charity, and all that,” says Feikin. Those things were part of being Jewish, as she understood it, and “my parents made me proud of being Jewish.” Friedman concurs, recalling her father saying, “if they call you a Jew, it isn’t a dirty word. It’s not a negative thing.” Though being Jewish clearly set them apart from their neighbors, the corner kids learned young that difference needn’t be a barrier to friendship or understanding—nor to proclaiming a strong and proud Jewish identity.