Did Mendes Play Tennis with Dragons? Read On To Find Out!

Posted on April 6th, 2015 by

Through our visitor’s thoughtful (and sometimes playful) questions, we are all learning more and more about Mendes, as an individual and as a representative of what life was like for the early Jewish Americans.


1) Did Mendes like sports?

Not that we know of…there’s no mention of sports in his letters.


2) Is there a connection between Mendes Cohen and the McKim Center of Baltimore? (Since the McKim Free School opened around the time of his childhood.)

The McKim Free School was a Quaker institution that was begun in 1821, by which time Mendes was 24 years old and not at all a child. We have no record of him being involved as a donor either.

If you want to learn more about the McKim Community Center or Free School, visit their website: http://www.mckimcenter.org.

The McKim School

The McKim School


3) How old was Mendes when he died?

Mendes Cohen was 84 years old when he died 1879.


4) Did Mendes keep kosher?

We believe that the family observed religious traditions in their home in Baltimore, but we don’t have actual confirmation that they kept kosher (which would have been difficult but not impossible during the early 1800s). There is some debate about whether kosher food provisions were provided during his service at Fort McHenry. Again, this is not something we can confirm, but it is possible since the father of another Jewish member of his militia was a shochet. During his travels, Mendes most likely did not eat kosher as that would have been quite difficult.


5) What were his siblings’ names?

  • Joshua (died as a baby at 3 months)
  • Jacob (1789-1869)
  • Solomon (died as a baby)
  • Philip (1793-1852)
  • Maria (1794-1821)
  • Benjamin (1797-1845)
  • David (1800-1847)
  • Joshua (1801-1870)
  • Edward (died as a baby at 8 months)


6) Did Mendes know any dragons? (asked by Elliot the Dragon)

Sadly, no letters mention dragon encounters (but maybe that letter got lost and we can hope!)

A secret dragon meeting perhaps?

A secret dragon meeting perhaps?


What questions are on your mind?

Let us know!

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And the Mendes Questions Continue…

Posted on March 18th, 2015 by

If you’d thought we were finished with answering the questions that pile up inside the Question Box at the end of The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen exhibit, you would be wrong.  In fact, we have a particularly juicy set of questions and answers for you this time. In this edition of Questions About Mendes Cohen, our topics range from the sartorial to the existential, and with plenty of other deep subjects in between!

47.22.2 Mendes I. Cohen Artist Unkown

47.22.2 Mendes I. Cohen
Artist Unkown

1) Did he know how to daven?

We believe that the Cohen family were observant Jews and, therefore, would have known how to daven. Because there were no established Jewish synagogues at the time of their move to Baltimore, they most likely worshiped in private homes. The family was involved, however, in the establishment of Baltimore’s first Sephardi congregation, Beth Israel, in 1856.

2) What did he wear on his first journey?

Unfortunately, we don’t know what he wore on his first journey.  In one of his letters home, he did provide a detailed list of what he brought with him to prevent sea sickness (gingerbread, mint drops, mint lozenges, lemons, limes, pickles, and a medicine package of powders!). The one article of clothing that we do know about is the ornate Middle Eastern style jacket that he’s seen wearing in his portrait. He purchased the jacket during his travels, so he most likely wore it during his travels in the Middle East. We have this particular jacket in our collections, and it’s on display in the room with with the Egyptian antiquities he brought back.

Mendes' jacket

Mendes’ jacket

3) Was Mendes educated? If so, how did Mendes Cohen becomes educated? Who taught him, etc.?

We can tell from Mendes’ writing style that he was highly educated, but we don’t know how he was educated. Since public schools did not yet exist, children of wealthy families (like the Cohens) would have been taught either in religious schools or at home. Mendes’ younger brother, Joshua, attended a religious school run by an Episcopalian minister.

Mendes' travel writing desk.

Mendes’ travel writing desk.

4) What happened after he died?

Since he had no children, Mendes left most of his belongings and estate to his nieces and nephews. One nephew, also named Mendes, received his collection of Egyptian antiquities which he donated to Johns Hopkins University and is now a part of the university’s Archeological Museum. The younger Mendes Cohen also served as president of the Maryland Historical Society where he donated his uncle’s papers, including the many letters he wrote home during his travels. This is how we know so much about Mendes Cohen!

Selections from Mendes' archaeological collection.

Selections from Mendes’ archaeological collection.

5) Why was Mendes a “Family Man”?

Mendes spent the majority of his life living with or in close proximity to family members. According to the 1850 and 1860 censuses, he lived with his brothers Jacob and Joshua. Even when he lived on his own in 1870s, he lived nearby his other siblings in Mount Vernon. And while he was away from his family traveling, he wrote many letters home keeping them updated about his adventures.

A letter home from Mendes.

A letter home from Mendes.

Are there still questions percolating in your mind? Let us know!


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Program Wrap Up: From Ladino to DC

Posted on February 12th, 2015 by

This past Sunday we warmly welcomed Dr. Adriana Brodsky of Saint Mary’s College of Maryland, to speak on Ladino as part of our Sephardic Lecture Series. Her presentation traced the origins of the language and explored both the oral and written traditions. Ladino is truly a fascinating language; as someone who knew nothing about the language and its history, I found Dr. Brodsky’s presentation incredibly informative!

Quite the crowd turned out.

Quite the crowd turned out.

Also known as Judeo-Spanish, Ladino is the spoken and written Hispanic language of Jews of Spanish origin. Interestingly, Ladino was originally just the language of a Spanish province and was not considered a Jewish language until the expulsion from Spain in 1492. After the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal, they continued to speak Ladino in the communities and countries to which they emigrated. As a result, the Ladino grammatical structure and vocabulary closely align with 14th and 15th century Spanish. However, as Jewish immigrants became immersed in their new communities their native language began to change and evolve. Dr. Brodsky explained that while some Jews emigrated to countries such as England and Italy (in relatively close proximity to Spain) and were able to maintain their language, other Jews moved to Sephardi communities deep in the Ottoman Empire where their language began to borrow and embrace new words from Arabic, Greek, Turkish and French.

Map of Judeo-Spanish emigration.

Map of Judeo-Spanish emigration.

Dr. Brodsky also explained that a large part of the Ladino language is linguistic traditions such as proverbs and sayings, such as:


  • A gran’ a grano, hinche la gayina el papo (One seed at a time, a hen fills its craw.)
  • Antes ke te kases, mira lo ke hazes… (Watch what we do before you get married.)
  • Kon esos polvos se hizieron estos lodos. (That dust brought, or made, this mud.)
  • Dime kon kien fueres i direte kien eres (Tell me who you go around with and I’ll tell you who you are.)


In addition to proverbs and sayings, music was also an important part of the Ladino oral tradition. In order to illuminate it’s influence, Dr. Brodsky shared we all sang a wonderful rendition of Adio Kerida:

As the talk came to a close, we had the opportunity explore the written tradition and to decode a bit of Ladino. It was interesting to learn that most of the time, Ladino can be written in using three different methods: Rashi script, Square script or Solitro script (a cursive method of writing letters) (see below).

Rashi script, Square script and Solitro script

Rashi script, Square script and Solitro script


Following Dr. Brodsky’s talk, we hosted community workshop lead by Zachary Paul Levine, Curator at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. The JHSGW is currently in the process of planning their new regional Jewish museum (projected opening 2020) and its core exhibition. As part of that process, they are turning to the community for thoughts on which objects and themes should be included and explored more deeply. Before moving into an introduction to the institution and its vision for the future, Dr. Levine had us all go around and place post-its on images of our favorite objects displayed on posters around the room. After introducing the JHSGW, Dr. Levine told us the story behind each of the objects displayed. However, he presented them in thematic sets and it was up to the audience to determine if they felt that the object fit into its current category. Overall, the workshop got us thinking, talking, and sharing ideas for this new project.

This workshop was one of the first events in our series of community programs. We have several upcoming programs that showcase community collaborations and accomplishments. Later this month, February 23, 2015 – March 8, 2015, we’ll be hosting “The Girl’s Photography Project” exhibit sponsored by CHAI: Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc. in partnership with Wide Angle Media. In 2014, 15 African American and Orthodox Jewish girls ages 10-14 participated in a series of workshops that enabled them to learn about each other’s perspectives living in their northwest Baltimore City community. They learned to use a camera, take quality photos and most importantly, got to know one another while gaining an understanding of each other’s life experiences. The photos in this exhibit feature their viewpoints and are truly one of a kind. We invite everyone to join us for the reception on March 1at 1pm!

A Sneak Peek at "My Family Story" objects.

A Sneak Peek at “My Family Story” objects.

Later in March JMM celebrates Jewish family history with another special exhibit. Over the past few months, the JMM has worked with middle school students from Beth Tfiloh on an exciting and creative education program, My Family Story. In this inspiring program, students work with museum staff to investigate their family roots and discover deeper connections to larger issues of American Jewish history, community, Jewish identity and Israel. Their exploration culminates in an artistic expression that creatively represents their family’s history. We are greatly looking forward to showcasing all of the students’ work and invite you to join us for a reception on the evening of March 12th at 7pm.

Carolyn BevansA blog post by Carolyn Bevans, Museum Educator and Programs Associate. To read more posts from Carolyn, click HERE. 

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