Hiking through History

Posted on June 17th, 2019 by

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.

Billy Goat Trail in Great Falls, MD – one of my favorite places to hike.

It’s that time of year. Our wanderlust leads us to unexplored spaces. A straight line may be the shortest distance between two points – but then you’ll miss all the scenery. Some like to wander through mountains, some like to meander down a beach, but my favorite place to go hiking is through the pages of history. If you let yourself stray off the main path, there’s no telling what surprises you might find. I thought I would share some of the twists and turns I’ve recently experienced.

Three weeks ago, I was preparing to speak at the Museum of Howard County History (MHCH) in Ellicott City. My topic was the history of the Jews of Howard County and the MHCH had actually prepared a small exhibit on this topic in 2016. The exhibit included the agricultural colony of Yaazor. Zig. Technically speaking Yaazor was located in the Woodlawn community of Baltimore County but it was pretty close to the Howard County line. I asked Lorie if we had anything in the archives on Yaazor. She presented me with a paper on the colony written by BHU student Deborah Silberman in 1983. Zag.

Men at the Jewish Colony of Yaazor, 1917. JMM 1993.28.1.

The paper contained an amazing story from the son of the community’s shochet who said that during Prohibition his father slaughtered chickens by day and (to make a living) brewed bootlegged whiskey at night. The son goes on to report that when “I was thirteen years old in 1928 when the Catonsville Police came to my home and pointed their guns at my father… the police allowed him to write a note asking a neighbor to care for our farm, but the message, written in Russian, actually asked the colonist to destroy the still.

Some hikes actually take me across a bridge from one topic to another. Two weeks ago, I was getting ready for an interactive discussion of American immigration laws and the Jewish experience at B’nai Israel (as part of their annual Shavuot Limmud program). My plan was to use primary sources to tell the story. I thought, what better place to begin than Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus, contrasting its call to send us “wretched refuse” with recent proposals from WhiteHouse.gov for “merit-based” immigration. Then it hit me – what if some in the audience don’t understand the reference to “Colossus.” Zig. With the reduction in history education in elementary school, it seemed that it was no longer a safe bet that everyone knew the Seven Wonders of the World. For a quick refresher, I looked up the “old Colossus” (i.e. the Colossus of Rhodes) in Wikipedia. Zag.

I was vaguely aware that the Colossus of Rhodes had collapsed in an earthquake just 54 years after it was built, but it never had crossed my mind as to what happened next. Imagine my surprise when I read this:

The same story is recorded by Bar Hebraeus, … “And a great number of men hauled on strong ropes which were tied round the brass Colossus which was in the city and pulled it down. And they weighed from it three thousand loads of Corinthian brass, and they sold it to a certain Jew from Emesa” (the Syrian city of Homs). Theophanes is the sole source of this account and all other sources can be traced to him.

It appears that, according to Theophanes, a 7th century Jewish scrap dealer used 900 camels to cart away the statues remains and recycle them. I didn’t end up using this anecdote at Limmud but it may make a feature appearance at the opening of the Scrap Yard exhibit in October.

Finally, there are times when you feel truly lost in the woods but being lost is not necessarily a bad thing. I was helping prepare the script for our upcoming showcase exhibit, Redeemable: Baltimore’s $2 Bill and the Making of American Currency. The featured artifact in the exhibit is a $2 bill signed by revolutionary patriot, Benjamin Levy. I thought that the easiest panel to write would be the biography of Mr. Levy. After all, nearly every website (including JMM’s) credits him with being the first permanent Jewish settler in Baltimore (1773) Zig. But the question I found debated on the web was whether Benjamin Levy was truly Jewish?

The question is not as absurd as it sounds. A genealogy search revealed that both Benjamin and his wife Rachel had been born into a prominent New York Jewish family (and it appears that they were cousins). While in one sense this settled the matter, it still left open the question of whether they were practicing Jews. One site that questioned their affiliation mentioned that they were buried in an Episcopal cemetery. However, further research revealed that when Rachel died in 1794 there wasn’t a Jewish cemetery in Baltimore – the first wasn’t created until 1797. And though Benjamin dies in 1802, perhaps he had expressed a strong preference to be buried beside his wife. Zag. Further exploration in Jacob Rader Marcus’ expansive history, United States Jewry 1776 -1985, led to a realization that of the Levy’s five children, two married outside the faith and the other three remained unmarried. By the fourth generation in America, there were no Jewish descendants of Benjamin and Rachel Levy.

The trails of history are endless. I encourage you to explore them this summer. I can’t think of a better trailhead than the Jewish Museum of Maryland.


Posted in jewish museum of maryland

“Originalism” Run Amuck

Posted on August 4th, 2017 by

Blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert

A pair of chromolithograph cutouts, featuring immigrant families in New York, the Statue of LIberty in the background. JMM K2016.3.4

A pair of chromolithograph cutouts, featuring immigrant families in New York, the Statue of LIberty in the background. JMM K2016.3.4

This week’s remarks by White House policy advisor Steven Miller seeking to disassociate the Statue of Liberty from the poem by Emma Lazarus at its base has touched a nerve for many people.  On the extreme right it has led to a spate of anti-Semitic tweets and posts directed at the historic figure of Emma in specific, and at Jewish support for immigration more generally.  In the media it has resulted in a number of clever lampoons, perhaps none more pointed than the recent “rewriting” of the Lazarus poem by Stephen Colbert.

I wanted to pull back for a moment and look at what this exchange says about the way we understand history and especially historic icons.  At the heart of Miller’s argument is the notion that an icon, symbol or manifesto belongs to the people who originate it, and that subsequent use or abuse or amendment is irrelevant.  I am fully committed to the investigation of the origins of everything, from the American Revolution to lox and bagels – believing that an understanding of how things begin can yield useful information about often complex relationships.  But I also believe it is a fallacy to ignore the subsequent history or even treat it as of secondary importance.  After all, if the American Revolution had only resulted in a change in British tax policy would anyone remember it ever happened?

"Liberty enlightening the world," courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“Liberty enlightening the world,” courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Origins can be benign and then perverted.  I am reminded of the fact that the swastika was a Sanskrit symbol of “good fortune” centuries before it was used by the Nazis.  This does not mean that someone in the 21st century who scribbles it on a wall is wishing me good fortune.

In the opposite direction, origins can be tactical and transformed by time into powerful icons.  The Emancipation Proclamation is introduced by Lincoln as a “war measure”, a promise of economic punishment to the Confederacy and a means of recruiting African-American troops.  Time and again, the argument has been made that few slaves were actually freed as a result of the Proclamation.  This ignores the fact that at the time it is finally issued, the Proclamation had become a galvanizing symbol for a promise of freedom yet to come.

"Emancipation from Freedmen's viewpoint"; illustration from Harper's Weekly 1865. Via.

“Emancipation from Freedmen’s viewpoint”; illustration from Harper’s Weekly 1865. Via.

In the case of the Statue of Liberty, a token of international friendship, a gift of the government of France, was transformed into a powerful symbol of welcome by generations of immigrants.  As several commentators have pointed out the Lazarus poem actually predates the installation of the statue.  Its use in a fundraising campaign for the pedestal is an indication that even at the point of origin there was some thought that the statue would serve the function of welcoming newcomers.  The millions who came around the Statue to Ellis Island reinforced the message of the poem both before and after it was formally attached to the statue.

Manuscript of the sonnet "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, dated 1883.  Via.

Manuscript of the sonnet “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, dated 1883. Via.

When those immigrants became citizens they attained equal status with those who had been on this continent since before the Revolution.  Their children and grandchildren helped shape the great nation we have become.  We fulfilled the promise of the poem, creating a home for those “yearning to breathe free” and we should not easily let it be demeaned as an afterthought.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland