Teach, and be taught.

Posted on February 16th, 2012 by

A blog post by intern Erika Rief.

As an Education and Programming Intern at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, I initially assumed that I would impart on others my knowledge about Baltimore Jewish history either on tours, group visits, or through the children’s activity packs I am creating. Especially with my background in genealogy, I hoped to use my experience to inform others about their past. Now, reflecting on the past six weeks, I realize how much I’ve learned by teaching others.

Zelda and Erika

Every week Ilene Dackman-Alon, the museum’s director of education, visits Tudor Heights, an assisted living on Park Heights Avenue. There, she tells a personal story to elicit stories of the past from the residents. Through storytelling, Ilene is able to gather information about Jewish Baltimore from the best sources while giving the elderly people a chance to express themselves by recalling the past.

One day, Ilene asked me to look up whatever I could find about Joseph Goldsmith. Joseph’s daughter, Zelda, lives at Tudor Heights. She unfortunately never knew her father because he died shortly after she was born. All I knew about Joseph before starting my search was that he had a pharmacy on the corner of Lloyd and Lombard Street, which is on the block next to the museum. Zelda had given the museum a photograph of him and a receipt from the pharmacy. Ilene gave me the name of Zelda’s mother, Bessie (nee Mallow) Goldsmith and Zelda’s parents, Louis and Fannie Mallow. Skeptical of what I could find without birth dates, I got to work.

Photograph of pharmacist Joseph Goldsmith, c. 1919, taken inside his pharmacy on Lloyd Street, 1996.42.1.

Two hours later, I had uncovered the 1910 Federal Census of Louis and Fannie Mallow along with the 1910 Federal Census of Joseph’s parents and siblings. Therefore, I now had birth years for all of Zelda’s grandparents and the years of immigration for her parents and grandparents. In the 1920 Federal Census, I found Joseph and Bessie’s entry which was recorded around the same time that Joseph passed away. By 1930, Bessie had remarried and bore one child with her second husband. The three of them plus Zelda and Joyce, the two daughters from Joseph, were now living with her parents, the Mallows.

Federal censuses provide interesting tidbits of information, like addresses, occupations, how many children a women had given birth to compared with how many were living, place of birth, and place of parents’ birth. However, my luck in finding Joseph’s naturalization papers was what enabled me to really get to know him. In 1917, at 51 years old, Joseph’s statue reached a towering 4 feet 10 inches. He had black hair, brown eyes, weighed 143 pounds, and under distinctive marks ‘hunch back’ is noted. He was born in Warden Russia on January 17, 1886. On February 21, 1905, he arrived at the port of Philadelphia from Liverpool, England. In addition to the naturalization papers, I found Joseph and Louis’s World War I draft cards which further confirms Joseph’s hunch back condition and the details I had found in the censuses about Louis.

Page from Joseph Goldsmith's handwritten prescription book, used in his pharmacy, c. 1885.

When Ilene first asked me to look up information about the pharmacist on corner of Lloyd and Lombard, I don’t think she expected the abundance of information I ended up revealing. After spending hours acquainting myself with Zelda’s family, I was anxious to meet this 92-year-old woman with such a fascinating family history. Yesterday, Ilene accompanied me to Tutor Heights. However, due to Zelda’s health, we were not sure if she would be there. Sure enough, as soon as we walked in, there was Zelda, sitting in a circle with the other residents learning about Tu B’shevat.

We wheeled her into the dining room. After Ilene explained to her why I was there, I began taking her through each document I had found. With the details from Joseph’s naturalization papers, I was able to paint a visual of the father Zelda never knew. However, she remembered a lot more than I had expected and was able to confirm some questionable details. For instance, the 1910 Census said that her grandfather, Louis Mallow, was from Scotland and that his second child was born in Scotland but the first child was born in Maryland. I assumed that all mentions of Scotland were incorrect. Zelda confirmed Scotland as her grandfather’s birthplace and explained that the family had returned to Scotland because of a dying relative. While visiting, Louis’s wife gave birth to their second child. Zelda explained that Louis went back and forth to Scotland often. This explained a ship manifest I had found with Louis Mallow’s name from 1913 with a home address listed on Lombard Street.

Page from Joseph Goldsmith's handwritten prescription book, used in his pharmacy, c. 1885.

Besides the information I provided to her, there were many details that no matter how hard or long I had searched, I would never have discovered. Zelda’s anecdotes added a whole other dimension to my work. While researching, I found it interesting that Joseph was 14 years older than Bessie and only 10 years younger than her father. What I didn’t know was that Zelda’s grandparents disapproved of the age difference but thought the world of Joseph. Also, every time Bessie prepared food for Joseph, he would tell her how wonderful she was. Zelda talked and talked and I inhaled every word. As I sat there, I understood what an incredible opportunity this exchange had been. A precious piece of Baltimore Jewish history that would otherwise have been forgotten will now live on. Thrilled to pieces about all that I had given her, Zelda doesn’t realize all that she has taught me.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

A Hundred Years Later

Posted on January 30th, 2012 by

A blog post by Intern Erika Rief.

It is no coincidence that I chose to intern at the Jewish Museum of Maryland during my winter break. Over the past six months, I have been on an incredible journey discovering parts of my family history. My internship at the Jewish Museum of Maryland is extremely fitting considering how large of a role Baltimore plays in my family’s history. As one of the Education and Programming interns, I have been given the opportunity to lead tours of the two historic synagogues on either side of the museum, the Lloyd Street Synagogue and B’nai Israel. Telling the story of the Jews who lived on the surrounding streets and worshipped in these synagogues is extremely personal to me. Unbeknownst to me when I began my internship, it is in fact part of my own family’s history.

Erika's first day at the JMM.

Simon Rief, my great-great grandfather’s brother (my great-great grand uncle), played a very large role in my search for answers about my family’s past. He was the first Rief to come to the United States. Arriving in America in 1880, he was already established by the turn of the century. Therefore, he was the sponsor for my great-great grandmother and great-grandfather who immigrated to the United States in 1904. Before I started conducting family history, I was aware of my great-grandfather’s uncle, Simon Rief. However, besides his name, I didn’t know much more about him. I knew even less about his descendants’ whereabouts.

My first major accomplishment of the family research indirectly involved Simon Rief. While failing to find my great-grandfather’s naturalization papers, I discovered that my great-grandfather, Nathan Rief, changed his name after he arrived in the United States. My whole family knew my great-grandfather as Nathan Rief. Aware that Nathan had come to this country, I was frustrated because I couldn’t find a ship manifest or naturalization papers with his name. Between a vague memory that my great aunt Beatrice recalled and inspecting Nathan’s Hebrew name, I realized that his name was originally Simon Nathanial Rief. He switched it to Nathan Simon Rief to avoid confusion with his uncle, Simon Rief, whom he was obviously very close with. Knowing Nathan’s original name, I was able to locate his naturalization papers, which provided many more details about his origins and journey to the United States.

Moving on in my search, I started tracking Simon Rief’s family using the U.S. Census records. Since he was the first Rief in the United States, I thought studying him might provide me with more insight. I spent many hours tracking Simon Rife in the 1900 Census, Simon Reif in the 1910 Census, and Simon Rief in the 1920 Census.

Then, through a very big coincidence which needs a blog post to explain in itself, I discovered that one of Simon Rief’s descendants happened to go to high school with me. Even though Rob Rosenberg lived in Harrisburg, we both attended Beth Tfiloh for four years together and never knew we were related. He also happened to be engaged and getting married right around the corner from Emory, in Atlanta Georgia, where I go to school. I had already planned on attending the wedding. Suddenly, it wasn’t just a friend from high school getting married; it was mishpacha! Our great-great grandfathers, Simon Rief and Moshe Rief were brothers.

Rob’s aunt, Janet Abromowitz, who lives in Baltimore informed me that Simon Rief was instrumental in founding the Hebrew Free Loan Society. She also told me he was president of B’nai Israel Congregation. However, back in October when I spoke to her, that didn’t really mean anything to me. As I began my internship here, and started to learn more about B’nai Israel, I became more curious as to my family’s connection with the synagogue.

From the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s online archives search, I knew that there was a printing block and glass slide with a picture of him. So, last week I ventured downstairs and with the help of one of my fellow interns, Ginevra, I located the printing block and slide. I had never seen a picture of Simon Rief before and had no idea what to expect. Looking at Simon Rief’s picture, I saw a reflection of my grandfather who passed away this past June. I couldn’t have been more excited with my newly found treasure. However, I wondered what the printing block had been used for. To try and figure it out, I started digging through the B’nai Israel archives. As I opened the first folder, I found a pamphlet from the celebration of B’nai Israel’s Diamond Jubilee in 1948. Inside the pamphlet was a page with all of the faces from the printing blocks. In the upper right corner was the picture from the printing block. Underneath was labeled ‘Simon Rief, president.’ It must have been a copy of an old newsletter that they used for the Diamond Jubilee celebration.

Assuming that I had found all that there was to find, I skimmed through the rest of the folder. But, I stopped for a moment when I came across the translation of the original by-laws and names of the members of the congregation. Perhaps Simon’s name would be listed. The names were listed alphabetically by Hebrew first name. As I began scanning the names, my jaw dropped. I saw ‘Yishayahu Nachum ben Moshe Michal HaLevi Reif,’ also known as Simon Nathanial Rief, also known as Nathan Simon Rief, my great-grandfather. Sure enough, I found Nathan’s brother, along with Simon Rief and his wife. Afterwards, I found the original book and found all of their names, handwritten in Hebrew over 100 years ago. It never crossed my mind that my great-grandfather might have attended the same shul as his uncle. Here I am, over 100 years later, giving tours of what is most likely the first synagogue that my great-grandfather ever attended in the United States.

…just another typical day at the Jewish Museum of Maryland!




Posted in jewish museum of maryland

A Visit to the Cemetery

Posted on April 8th, 2011 by

With Passover approaching, we’re seeing an increase in calls and emails from people wanting to find out more about their family history. This tends to happen every year before Passover as well as before the High Holidays. As people make plans to gather together with family members, many also make plans to visit the relatives who are no longer with us. Also, it seems to be a natural time for people to reflect on their family origins and act on their desire to know more about their grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, not to mention ancestors they never had the opportunity to meet. And if you are Jewish, from Maryland (especially Baltimore), and want to know more about your background, the best place to turn to for help is the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

Rosedale Cemetery

That’s because, despite the wealth of genealogy material available on the internet, we have resources here that can be found nowhere else. Our Jack Lewis Funeral Home collection can tell you when your great-grandparents died, where they are buried, and even the cause of death. In our Baltimore Jewish Times collection (going back to the 1920s), we can find obituaries for your ancestors that, working forward in time, can help to reveal the existence of long-lost cousins who might live within a few miles of you. And our database of burial listings, collected painstakingly by staff and volunteers over the past twenty years in cooperation with Maryland Jewish cemetery administrators, is often the last resort for people who feel a compelling need to visit the graves of their grandparents or more distant ancestors, but have no idea where they’re buried.

America's first rabbi.

I start to hang out in cemeteries around this time of year, not only because the weather has gotten nicer and I find them peaceful and pleasant places to go (I’ll admit to being a bit morbid), but also because it’s a service the museum provides: using our database of Jewish burials, we locate graves and then go out and take digital images of the gravestones, which we email to people who cannot come to Baltimore to visit the graves for themselves. Mostly, we do this for people working on their family trees, people who live in places like California, Missouri, and Israel. Sometimes the only way for them to find out their great-great-grandparent’s name is to read the Hebrew or Yiddish writing engraved on their great-grandparent’s headstone, which often says something like, “Here lies Chaim, son of Yitzhak, who passed away on….” Yitzhak probably never set foot on American soil. This gravestone may be the only place where his name is recorded, at least on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Note the age of death.

You may have seen these names before.

Baltimore’s Jewish cemeteries are amazing places. Wandering around them can be a powerful way to connect with your heritage, even if you don’t know anyone buried in them. If your ancestors are indeed there, the experience is all the more powerful, I’m told (as a newcomer to Baltimore, having lived here a mere nine years, I don’t have any family buried here). But, as befits a place that is not part of our modern, efficient, convenient way of life, the average Baltimore Jewish cemetery can be a bit hidden away and difficult to find. Some of the older ones won’t show up on the GPS, and even those that are clearly marked on maps can be tricky to access. And once you manage to find the cemetery, locating the right gravesite can be even more of a challenge: unmarked, straggly, and crowded rows, fallen headstones, and faded lettering all add to the difficulty.

Sometimes gravestones are hidden by shrubbery.

We help people navigate through this journey, sometimes by guiding them via cell phone while they’re in their car searching for the right road, or even as they walk along the cemetery path. It gives me a sense of satisfaction when they find what they’re looking for—and they are often very appreciative. I feel sad on those occasions when we can’t seem to locate the person they’re seeking. Helping people through this rather intimate moment in their lives is something I never expected to do as an historian, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

Another view of Rosedale Cemetery.


A blog post by Research Historian Deb Weiner.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland