Changing Up the Exhibition

Posted on December 17th, 2014 by

This month, we made a small change to The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen exhibit: We switched out Mendes’ passports.

Your friendly neighborhood Collections Manager opens up the secured exhibit case.

Your friendly neighborhood Collections Manager opens up the secured exhibit case.

Why? Well, for starters, because the lender – the Maryland Historical Society – asked us to.  They loaned us eight passports, with the caveat that each be on display for only three months. Before the exhibit opened, we planned out which passports would go out together, based on the space available in the exhibit case.  The first visitors to the exhibit saw Italian, Greek, and Russian travel documents from the 1830s; now, from the same time period, you’ll see documents in Russian and Arabic.  In March, we’ll make another change.

Each document rests on a sheet of acid-free paper, as a barrier between the exhibit case surface (and other documents). These passports will go into storage, with others taking their place on display.

Each document rests on a sheet of acid-free paper, as a barrier between the exhibit case surface (and other documents). These passports will go into storage, with others taking their place on display.

Paper, like many historic materials, is very susceptible to light.  Light damage is cumulative and irreversible; it fades inks, alters colors, and weakens the structural integrity of the paper itself. Museums and libraries have to maintain a delicate balance between making items available for research, display, and enjoyment . . . and keeping them safely tucked away for posterity in a nice dark, climate-controlled, secure environment. We often compromise by restricting the length of time certain items can be on display, and by lighting the space with a minimum of foot-candles – this translates to short, dimly lit exhibits. Perhaps you’ve visited exhibits of textiles, books, or photographs, and wondered, “Why did they make it so dark in here?” Now you know!

Why the blue gloves? They’re made of nitrile rubber, an inert material, and prevent the natural oils etc. on your skin from transferring to the document.

Why the blue gloves? They’re made of nitrile rubber, an inert material, and prevent the natural oils etc. on your skin from transferring to the document.

Want to learn more? Check out this article on protecting paper on exhibit, from the Northeast Document Conservation Center.

JoannaA blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church. To read more posts from Joanna click HERE.

 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Buried Alive: Eighteenth Century Terror and a “Superstar” Jewish Doctor

Posted on November 13th, 2014 by

“Oh God of faithfulness, place in the heart of the sick trust in me and my work, and an ear to listen to my advice. Remove from their bedside every quack [and all] heralds and saviors who come forth regularly… [and] dare to rise up and criticize the work of a doctor.” –Physician’s Prayer, written by Marcus Herz, 1789

I am indebted for the substance of this post to John M. Efron’s Medicine and the German Jews: A History (2001) 

Title page, Uber die fruhe Beerdigung der Juden (On the Premature Burial of the Jews), by Marcus Herz, 1787. Courtesy of The National Library of Israel, Jerusalem.

Title page, Uber die fruhe Beerdigung der Juden (On the Premature Burial of the Jews), by Marcus Herz, 1787. Courtesy of The National Library of Israel, Jerusalem.

Among Dr. Harry Friedenwald’s magnificent collection of books and manuscripts documenting the activities of Jewish physicians through the ages (selections of which  will be displayed in our upcoming exhibition on Jews and medicine in America, scheduled to open in fall 2015) is a sixty-page pamphlet titled Uber die fruhe Beerdigung der Juden, On the Premature Burial of the Jews. Its riveting cover illustration cries out for explanation from the world of the author, Dr. Marcus Herz (1747-1803).

Marcus Herz, c. 1790s at the height of his reputation. Painted by Friedrich Georg Weitsch.

Marcus Herz, c. 1790s at the height of his reputation. Painted by Friedrich Georg Weitsch.

Herz was a sought-after physician, philosopher and friend of Immanuel Kant, and wealthy socialite who, together with his brilliant and beautiful wife Henriette, opened his home to the literati of his time, Jewish and Christian. Son of a poor sofer (Torah scribe), the precocious Herz first studied for the rabbinate, then became a clerk in a commercial concern, and at age 19 began to attend lectures at the University of Koenigsberg. He could not then afford to continue his studies, but made such an impression while there that Kant asked Herz to act as his “advocate” in the defense of his dissertation. Several years later, having acquired a patron among the Jewish reformers of the city to support him, he completed degrees in medicine and philosophy. While his education and social contacts led him to abandon ritual observance (and his persuasively rationalist lectures caused, in the words of a contemporary, “many an orthodox Jew…to doubt the teachings on miracles”), Herz remained proudly Jewish, a pioneer in a model of Jewish communal leadership and philanthropy we would recognize today. A proponent of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), his sincere concern was to lead his Jewish brethren out of the ghettoes and into European citizenship.

With all the authority of his position in the community and status as a physician, Herz stepped into a raging controversy of the day: the medical uncertainty in determining the death of an individual and the resulting fear of premature burial that scholars have described as “pathological” and “a vast anxiety [which took] hold of the collective consciousness” (Ingrid Stoessel and Philippe Aries, quoted in Efron). Having learned how to resuscitate a drowning victim, scientists of the day began to question formerly agreed upon signs of death: lack of respiration and pulse, skin pallor, rigor mortis. Many insisted one could be sure death had occurred only with the onset of decay. As scientists argued and public feeling ran high, the state began to weigh in with legislation requiring burial be delayed until that point.

Henriette_Herz_by_Anna_Dorothea_Lisiewska_1778

Henriette De Lemos Herz, 1778 around the time of her marriage to Marcus at age 15. Painted by Anna Dorothea Lisiewska. For more information about this interesting and independent woman, see the entry on her in the Jewish Women’s Archive’s online encyclopedia http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/herz-henriette

Among Christians burial several days after death was normal custom, but Jews are enjoined by Torah (Deuteronomy 21:22-3) to bury the dead within twenty-four hours. The first official action affecting Jewish burial customs came in 1772 when the Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin decreed that Jews be required to wait three days before burying their dead. Moses Mendelssohn, the great interpreter of secular and Jewish culture, interceded for the community by suggesting that a physician be required to certify death before burial, a solution uneasily accepted by both sides of the controversy. The issue created lasting rifts within the Jewish community because physicians of the haskalah such as Herz, for reasons articulated in his 1787 pamphlet, tended to side with the state, while traditional authorities maintained that burial society members were quite expert in recognizing death.

Detail, Uber die fruhe Beerdigung der Juden. You may need to enlarge this image to see how the man’s entire upper body seems to be emerging from the mound of dirt on his grave in the background. Courtesy of The National Library of Israel, Jerusalem.

Detail, Uber die fruhe Beerdigung der Juden. You may need to enlarge this image to see how the man’s entire upper body seems to be emerging from the mound of dirt on his grave in the background. Courtesy of The National Library of Israel, Jerusalem.

The cover of Herz’s pamphlet is macabre. An engraving by Wilhelm Chodwiecki shows a mourner contemplating Moses Mendelssohn’s headstone while behind him in the moonlight, hands reach out, begging for liberation from a newly covered grave. Herz, at least partially motivated by a near-death illness of his own, gives passionate voice to the scene depicted on the cover: “My brothers, you simply can never have imagined the true horror of what it must be like for someone to awake in the grave!…He opens his eyes, around him everything is dark and desolate….He groans, cries, pleads with all the powers that he has struggled so hard to regain: to no avail, he languishes unheard.”

Herz proposed that Jews wait two to three days before burying their dead, with the alleged deceased resting in a mortuary and visited by a physician trained to recognize the signs of returning life or of decay. In the interim, the body was not to be considered a corpse or prepared for burial. In this he was opposed, as one might expect, by traditional Jewish authorities. But Herz was also challenged by conservative members of his own movement, who saw things differently. These opponents, also medically trained, argued—with some justification—that premature burial was not only a Jewish problem, that to single out Jewish practice for legislation was an act of discrimination by the state, and that, in fact, early burial was more hygienic than delayed burial, a claim backed by a Berlin College of Medicine study of victims of smallpox and other contagious diseases.

Is this story an example of official discrimination against the Jews, or of the struggle between Jewish traditionalists and reformers? In either case, it is a powerful demonstration of the ways in which medical arguments were mustered by those on both sides of the debate, suggesting the complexity of the relationships between medicine and the Jews.

 

A blog post by Curator Karen Falk. To read more posts from Karen click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Enquiring Minds Want to Know…

Posted on October 30th, 2014 by

We’ve collected the questions our visitors have submitted to the question box at the end of The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen exhibit. We hope these answers satisfy your curiosity!

1) Mendes’ father was born in Germany, yet his family founded a Sephardic congregation in Baltimore. Was Mendes’ mother Sephardic? Is that the explanation, or is there another reason?

This is a question that stumped the exhibit team for quite a bit of time. We had always been under the assumption that both of Mendes’ parents were Ashkenazi. However, when it was brought to our attention that his mother was from Bristol, England, we conducted some research and learned that there was a substantial Sephardi community there. While we aren’t 100% sure, it is likely that his mother was Sephardi which would have provided motivation for the family’s involvement in the congregation.

 

2) What was his Hebrew name?

The seal of Mendes Cohen, 1980.3.1

The seal of Mendes Cohen, 1980.3.1

We learned that Mendes’ Hebrew name was Menachem bar Asher Avraham ha Cohain by translating the Hebrew inscription on his seal.

 

3) Did Mendes Cohen know Uriah P. Levy?

Not as far as we know. But you can learn more about this Civil War figure by checking out his wikipedia page!

Uriah Phillips Levy

Uriah Phillips Levy

 

4) Did he like Europe or Asia better?

You can take a hands-on approach to mapping Mendes' journeys in the exhibit!

You can take a hands-on approach to mapping Mendes’ journeys in the exhibit!

I’m not sure he ever answers this directly, but Mendes definitely took pride in the fact that he was one of the few American tourists to travel in parts of Asia (as opposed to Europe which was a more common tourist destination) and relished the adventures that he had in Egypt and Palestine.

 

5) Why does Mendes wear a turban in his portrait?

The original painting, located at the Maryland Historical Society.

The original painting, located at the Maryland Historical Society.

One of the most exciting things about this portrait is that the JMM actually owns the jacket he is wearing, and it is displayed in the exhibit in the section that explores his journeys to Egypt and Palestine. We believe that Mendes most likely purchased the jacket while traveling in Turkey. It is certainly not something that someone would wear every day but instead would have been worn for special ceremonial purposes. Turbans, such as the one Mendes is also wearing in the portrait, were customarily worn by men in the Middle East. We can learn a lot by a portrait sitter by the clothing that he or she chooses to wear. By wearing the jacket and turban in this portrait, Mendes wants to be seen as an adventurer and a world traveler.

 

 What questions were still burning in your mind when you got to the end of the maze?

Let us know!

 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Next Page »