Ten in the Twentieth: Baltimore Jews and Social Justice 1900s

Posted on February 1st, 2017 by

Article by Dr. Deborah R. Weiner. Originally published in Generations 2009-2010: 50th Anniversary Double Issue: The Search for Social Justice.

 

The Baltimore Jewish community has produced many leaders who have worked to make the world a better place. The range of issues they have addressed is impressive: from women’s suffrage to civil rights, labor relations to helping the elderly, refugee resettlement to eliminating poverty, and much more.

This chronology traces the careers of ten Baltimoreans who stood up for social change, with each person’s entry revolving around a turning point—one for each decade of the twentieth century. This is by no means a “Ten Best” list. The people included here are remarkable for what they accomplished, but others, equally remarkable, could have been chosen as well. These profiles should be seen as representative of a larger group of Baltimore Jews who have made major contributions to their communities and to the broader society in myriad ways.

The 1900s: Sidney Hollander

The century begins with Sidney Hollander (1881-1972) being denied his diploma from City College high school. His transgression? He and the other yearbook staffers insisted on printing a cartoon criticizing the faculty, despite administration threats. The episode did not deter Hollander from standing up for what he believed in, all his life. He later said, “In my time I’ve been labeled socialist, radical, subversive, communist—whatever happened to be in disfavor at the time; and that will happen to you, too, if you’re so foolhardy as to challenge things as they are.”

A young Sidney Hollander Sr. From the JMM Vertical Files.

A young Sidney Hollander Sr. From the JMM Vertical Files.

But Hollander was no wild-eyed radical. After building a successful pharmaceutical business by the 1920s, he devoted the next fifty years to civic and philanthropic pursuits. His outspokenness made him a leader in social welfare and reform activities locally and nationally. He helped found the Americans for Democratic Action and the Baltimore Urban League; he presided over the Baltimore Jewish Council, the Jewish Children’s Society, and the national Council of Jewish Federations. He personally challenged segregation by bringing African American friends with him to concerts at the Peabody Conservatory, and was instrumental in bringing the first black performer, Marian Anderson, to the Lyric.

The cartoon that caused City College to deny Hollander and his yearbook colleagues their diplomas in 1900. From the JMM Vertical Files.

The cartoon that caused City College to deny Hollander and his yearbook colleagues their diplomas in 1900. From the JMM Vertical Files.

When he died, the Baltimore Sun praised him as the “Champion of the Dispossessed.” He received many accolades and awards during his lifetime, but one stands out as particularly significant: fifty years after the yearbook incident, City College awarded him his diploma—and inducted him into the City College Hall of Fame.

Continue to The 1910s: Jacob Moses.

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“Voices of Lombard Street”—Come See It!

Posted on May 29th, 2013 by

debA 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.

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.”

1992.231.79

1992.231.79

… 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!

 

 

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Performance Counts: The Baltimore Book Project

Posted on April 15th, 2013 by

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 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

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.

07-personal-span-new-articleLargeWe 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 in jewish museum of maryland




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