Graven Images

Posted on August 24th, 2017 by

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

 

The civil war was long since over.  One side had won.  One side had lost.  But in 1929, the defeated commissioned a statue to honor the bravery of their ancestors.

The plaque below the statue reads in part:

This monument is dedicated to the lasting memory of

THE UNITED EMPIRE LOYALISTS

who, after the Declaration of Independence, came into British North America from the seceded American colonies and who, with faith and fortitude, and under great pioneering difficulties, largely laid the foundations of this Canadian nation as an integral part of the British Empire.

Neither confiscation of their property, the pitiless persecution of their kinsmen in revolt, nor the galling chains of inprisonment could break their spirits, or divorce them from a loyalty almost without parallel.

No country ever had such founders —
No country in the world —
No, not since the days of Abraham. – Lady Tennyson

Yes, the “civil war” I’m talking about is the “civil war” for British North America.  A war in which American loyalists supported the king and American rebels supported independence.  The statue is located in Hamilton, Ontario.  I think you would be hard pressed to find a statue to the bravery of loyalists inside the USA.  This does not mean there were no brave loyalists.  It does mean that as a nation we have decided to celebrate the cause of Independence as the American cause.  In fact, we started taking down statues at the very start of the revolution.

Most famously, the statue of King George III was toppled by the mob (otherwise known as “the Sons of Liberty”) on July 9, 1776.  To the best of my knowledge, no one made speeches about “erasing history” or the loss of British “heritage.”  It was simply that the new nation stopped venerating kings, so keeping up a statue of a king in the public square seemed completely inappropriate.

America’s second civil war, the one in the 1860s, might have ended the same way.  The initial reaction of the United States army on to how to deal with General Lee was not to put up a statue but to transform his beloved home into a cemetery.  The National Republican reported in 1864:

The ‘powers that be’ have been induced to appropriate two hundred acres, immediately around the house of General Lee, on Arlington Heights, for the burial of soldiers dying in the army hospitals of this city. …. The people of the entire nation will one day, not very far distant, heartily thank the initiators of this movement…. This and the contraband establishment there are righteous uses of the estate of the rebel General Lee, and will never dishonor the spot made venerable by the occupation of Washington.

Though Arlington Cemetery is today a place of honor, its origins were in part a punishment for Lee’s decision to join the rebels.

Most of the statues that honor the Confederacy were not erected in the immediate aftermath of the war but rather decades later as part of an ongoing effort to normalize the rebellion as a “war between the states” rather than treason against our national government.  This was an effort that coincided with the interests of those who wished to persecute and marginalize African-American citizens.  So for those genuinely concerned with efforts to change history, I would suggest reexamining the origins of these statues in the 20th century.

The events of the last ten days have me thinking not only about American history but about my Jewish roots as well.  As a kid, I always remember thinking that the Ten Commandments were rather uneven – mixed in with injunctions to avoid murder, theft, adultery and other behaviors that clearly harmed people was a prohibition on “graven images.”  Back then I thought that this commandment was not only easy to keep but probably unnecessary in the modern world.  After all, I didn’t know many idol worshipers.  But seeing statues turned into quasi-religious vessels has caused me to reevaluate the merits of aniconism (prohibitions related to idolatry and sculpture). In addition to multiple references in the Torah itself, there is an entire section of the Shulchan Aruch dedicated to the topic.  The prohibition is said to broadly apply to creating an image of “anything in the heaven above, on the earth below, or in the water below the land.”   I feel reasonably confident that statues of generals, both Confederate and Union, are covered by this ban.  Personally, I am comfortable with statues as art (if art was truly their purpose) and I am ok with statues as symbols of shared values (see my last post on the Statue of Liberty), but statues are not a substitute for history and we should not confuse respect for history with veneration of graven images – in my view that’s as problematic today as it was 5000 years ago.

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“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.

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A False “Rosetta Stone”

Posted on December 3rd, 2014 by

Earlier this fall I had the opportunity to speak to the brotherhood of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation about the life of Mendes Cohen and the origins of Jewish Baltimore.  In preparation for the lecture, I thought it was incumbent on me to try to answer the question: “was there a connection between the Cohens and the community that built the Lloyd Street Synagogue (the original site of BHC)?”

I had the benefit of the research of Dr. Eric Goldstein, the Emory University scholar, who has been studying early Baltimore history on our behalf.  Dr. Goldstein had pointed out that the early Jewish settlement in Baltimore was highly transient.  A majority of Jews arriving between 1780 and 1820 stayed for just a few years, making it a tough environment for the establishment of permanent Jewish institutions.  There was a Jewish cemetery by 1797, but no regular minyan or congregation.  Baltimore was a frontier of Jewish world.

The Cohens were an exception to the pattern of transience.  Arriving in Baltimore from Richmond in 1808, they prospered in the lottery and banking business.  Like their close friends, the Ettings, the Cohens followed Sephardic traditions.  By contrast, new Baltimoreans after 1820 were almost entirely Germans practicing Ashkenazic rites.

Different sources give different accounts of when the first weekly minyans were held in Baltimore, some cited 1827, just a year after the passage of the Maryland Jew Bill.  Others claim that the practice of minyans in people’s homes began following the High Holidays in 1829.  Everyone seems to agree that this gathering called itself Nidche Yisrael (the “scattered of Israel”) and sought a formal charter as Maryland’s first Jewish congregation in 1830.

This is where my online research began.  Several sources, including the 1976 official history of the BHC, put the first minyan in the home of Zalma Rehine.  The Jewish Virtual Library stated that Rehine was a successful Richmond merchant (and a founding member of the Richmond Light Infantry) who moved to Baltimore in 1829.  The short article also pointed out that Rehine was the uncle of Isaac Leeser.

Now I may never have heard of Rehine, but Leeser was another story.  One of the most prominent Jewish spiritual leaders of pre-rabbinic America.  Leeser, technically the “cantor” of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, is known today for having introduced the practice of weekly sermons and for having made the first English translation of the Torah in the United States.  Leeser was present at the opening of the Lloyd Street Synagogue in 1845.

It turns out that Leeser and his uncle carried on an active correspondence in the 1830’s.  That correspondence is now archived as part of the 2100 letters in the Gershwind-Bennett Isaac Leeser Digital Library of the University of Pennsylvania:

Image courtesy of the Leeser Library.

Image courtesy of the Leeser Library.

http://leeser.library.upenn.edu/ilproject.php.  And that’s where I thought I found my Rosetta Stone!

Here was one letter that connected the “founder” of  BHC with the Cohens.  Moreover, it suggested that the relationship was so close that Dr. Joshua Cohen (Mendes’ brother) was among the trusted few who actually previewed Leeser’s sermons.  The story about chasing after the home robbers was just icing on the cake.

As so often happens, further research burst my bubble.  In trying to gather more detail on the relationships I ran across an article in the November 1976 issue of the American Jewish Archives.  The article by Ira Rosenswaike was entitled “The Founding of Baltimore’s First Jewish Congregation:  Fact or Fiction?”.  Rosenswaike explores in some detail the Rehine story, tracing its origins to an early 20th century lecture by Henrietta Szold.  Szold reportedly told her audience that a respected community elder had once recollected that an early minyan was held at the home of Zalma Rehine on Holliday Street.  Szold noted “this may possibly have been the beginning of Nidche Israel”.  Later accounts simply dropped the “may possibly” caution and said with certainty that the minyans began at Rehine’s home.  After noting the low likelihood that a Sephardi just arrived from Richmond would start an Ashkenazi Jewish minyan in Baltimore, Rosenswaike moves to some fairly solid census evidence that points to Rehine still residing in Richmond in 1830…at least a year after the regular minyan started meeting in Baltimore.

Although this nearly 40 year old article disproved my “Rosetta Stone”, I still remain hopeful that we’ll find a link between the Cohens and the Lloyd Street Synagogue.  I invite you to join me in this quest – the search is at least half the fun.

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE. 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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