WHAT IS THE USE OF JEWISH HISTORY?

Posted on December 4th, 2013 by

People sometimes ask me, “What is the use of Jewish history?” And “why do you study and write about that so much?” Author and historian, Lucy Davidowitz, wrote a book on this subject.

2007.054.027  Book cover, The Hoffburger Journey in America: 1882-2005, compiled primarily by Lois Hoffberger Blum Feinblatt.

2007.054.027 Book cover, The Hoffburger Journey in America: 1882-2005, compiled primarily by Lois Hoffberger Blum Feinblatt.

Others take their concern and doubt to an annoying level, saying, “History is not important.” Perhaps not, for them, compared with the latest Hollywood gossip, the score of Sunday’s  football game or newest technological toy. Their view is short sighted, to say the least.

For me, researching and writing about Jewish history is akin to raising a memorial to departed relatives, ancestors and – yes – to strangers.  Some may be famous community or congregational leaders while others served their families quietly with love and dedication.

Only two of my relatives served the community in public ways – one was a Hershfield who served as secretary of a synagogue in New Jersey. The shul is now defunct, and I have no documentation about this except for Oral History tapes of my mother.

Another Hershfield in the same family in Jersey City served on the public School Board.  But this branch of the family are notorious for not answering letters, and we have been out of touch with them since the 1960s, so no documentation has been found to verify the anecdote.

(As for yichus, that is, genealogical status, I sometimes imagine that I am descended from a 2nd Century Sage or a Levitical priest.  But this may be ego on my part!)

Every time we quest for our family’s history, read an article in a Jewish History periodical or visit the JMM, we are raising a memorial to the whole Jewish people.  It is like placing rocks on the top of tombstones when we visit cemeteries. The purpose is to make the marker-stone larger, thereby, increasing the honor of those who have passed away. Saying Kaddish for one’s father is another example.  Sharing our genealogies with living relatives is a third example of zichron – remembering our ancestors.  And from where we came.

1973.008.001 Collage of Galitzianer gravestones (1903) from Gruft family collection. Artist unknown.]

1973.008.001 Collage of Galitzianer gravestones (1903) from Gruft family collection. Artist unknown.]

The value of learning, teaching and celebrating our many-faceted history becomes more apparent when we consider how often in history that the Jewish people have faced extreme adversity.  Even if our immigrant-ancestors lived a life of obscurity, toiling in the moderate Garment Industry of Jonestown or peddling as an arabisher, there is eternal value to our interest, care and memory of them.  We need the Eternal One’s eyes to perceive the value of Jewish history.

1997.149.003  Button sewing machine (1930s), made by Singer, from D. Schwartz and Sons Garment Machinery Co., of Baltimore Street and later, Gay Street.

1997.149.003 Button sewing machine (1930s), made by Singer, from D. Schwartz and Sons Garment Machinery Co., of Baltimore Street and later, Gay Street.

 

photo of Robert SiegelA blog post by Collections Volunteer Robert Siegel. To read more posts by and about JMM volunteers, click here.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




The Dating Game

Posted on August 19th, 2013 by

Earlier this month we served as a site for a mini-mission of The Associated dedicated to building a deeper understanding of downtown Baltimore and its resources.  One of the activities we planned for our visitors was a version of “The Dating Game”.  It’s not what you’re thinking.  There were no eligible bachelors or bachelorettes on stage – our “Dating Game” had real dates!  From the days before the Lloyd Street Synagogue to the UMBC coach who recently placed his team in a national championship, our quiz covered two centuries of Maryland Jewish history as represented in the artifacts and records of the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

I thought it might be fun to give all of you a chance to play…to see how your scores match up with some of the brightest minds in Jewish social services.  I am supplying twelve questions to test your metal (six toss up questions with an accompanying image and a follow up question for each).

Here are some special rules for the online version of the game:

1) Time yourself – you have twelve minutes to answer twelve questions

2) No googling, binging or similar shortcuts – it’s all too easy if you can look up the answer

3) Give yourself credit if you come within 2 years of a date

The answer key will appear in the next blog post.

Scoring:

3 or less, you need a visit to the Jewish Museum of Maryland

4-7, good job, reward yourself with a visit to the Jewish Museum of Maryland

8-10, you’re a maven, we need you as a volunteer at the Jewish Museum of Maryland

11+, The Associated staff will be recruiting you as a “ringer” for their teams next year

Object 1

Object 1

Q1:  What is this?

Follow-up:  This object belonged to the Shomrei Mishmeres Congregation the most recent religious organization to utilize the Lloyd Street Synagogue.  In what year does this congregation move into the building?

2

Object 2

Q2: In the years before Microsoft Word, people used devices like this to prepare documents.  This one is unusual in that it could print letters in two languages, what two languages?

Follow-up:  When was this manufactured?

Object 3

Object 3

Q3:  What was this object used for? (Hint – it’s something that was once used in food preparation on Lombard Street, but you would be surprised to see it used on a public street today)

Follow-up:  Speaking of Baltimore foodways, the Museum holds several bottles and cans from the Jewish-owned beer brand, National Bohemian.  When was the Baltimore icon “Natty Boh” first introduced to the public?

Object 4

Object 4

Q4:  If you type the words “tie pin” in JMM’s database, this is what will pop up.  Too big to be a pin on a tie, it’s actually a pin on a military cap.  What do the letters RF stand for?

Follow-up:  In what year did this military unit recruit in Baltimore?

Object 5

Object 5

Q5:  This guide book (also in our holdings) was prepared for the delegates to the last major party political convention to be held in Baltimore.  In what year was the convention held?

Follow-up:  Who was nominated at this convention?

Object 6

Object 6

Q6:  This object belonged to Baltimore adventurer Mendes Cohen, one of six Jewish defenders of Fort McHenry.  What is it?

Follow-up:  Mendes Cohen attended Queen Victoria’s coronation (his costume may have been more colorful than hers).  In what year did this happen?

And just one more rule:  Have Fun!

ETA: Check out the answers HERE.

MarvinA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. For more posts from Marvin, click here.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Performance Counts: The Baltimore Book Project

Posted on April 15th, 2013 by

As part of our mission to preserve and interpret Maryland Jewish history, the JMM strives to promote research that sheds new light on the past. Our collections offer an important window into the Jewish experience and scholars from around the world come here to study them. In addition to making our materials available to others, we mount our own research projects and present the results to diverse audiences in ways that bring the past alive and help people discover new meanings and interpretations, through our exhibitions, programs, and publications.

In 2011, former director Avi Decter embarked on ambitious project to reexamine the history of the Baltimore Jewish community and publish a comprehensive, full-length study. Under the JMM’s sponsorship, Emory University Professor Eric Goldstein and JMM Research Historian Deborah Weiner are engaged in writing On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore, a work grounded in current scholarship that will be made accessible to a broad audience. In this issue of “Performance Counts,” we thought we’d share with you some of the exciting discoveries they’re making that give us new ways of looking at Maryland’s Jewish past.

Here’s an example.  The “Jew Bill” is a well-known chapter in Maryland Jewish history. The story is typically told like this:  in early Maryland, the Christian oath requirement for holding public office indicated the low status of Jews and prevented them from participating in civic life. Their champion, state legislator Thomas Kennedy, managed to win passage of the “Jew Bill” in 1826 after years of battling prejudice. The bill (which allowed Jews to swear a more general oath) enabled Jews to finally become full citizens.

The Jew Bill. 1987.82.1

The Jew Bill. 1987.82.1

The real story is both more complicated and more interesting, as our new research has helped uncover. Jews had in fact already been key participants in Baltimore civic life and had even held public office (without swearing a Christian oath). The oath requirement was just one of many archaic provisions in the state constitution that figured in a power struggle between Federalist and Republican legislators, and became a source of rivalry between rural and urban factions. In a nutshell, many rural legislators opposed the Jew Bill because they believed it was part of Baltimore’s attempt to gain greater influence over state affairs. Jews and most other Baltimoreans favored policies that benefited commerce, which agrarian interests found threatening.  When changes in the voting laws expanded the electorate, more Republicans were elected to the legislature—among them, Thomas Kennedy. By 1826, Republican and urban forces had gained enough power to pass the Jew Bill, along with other measures.

This interpretation not only alters our view of the status of Jews during the era, it also sheds light on an important aspect of Maryland’s political history: the ongoing struggle for power between the city and the other sections of the state. And it shows how Jews were very much involved in that power struggle, as participants rather than simply as victims of prejudice.

Jumping 100 years to the 1930s, correspondence recently uncovered in our archives allows us to add to the factual knowledge about a contentious debate over the American Jewish community’s response to the rise of Nazi Germany. Some historians have charged that because of timidity, apathy, and disunity, American Jews didn’t do enough to pressure the U.S. government to oppose the Nazi regime or relax immigration restrictions before World War II. As a result, they say, American Jewry bears a share of responsibility for the Holocaust.  Others contend that American Jews did as much as they could, but there was little scope for effective action given both public opinion in the U.S. and the determination of the Nazis to carry out their plans. The debate has focused on the actions of national organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress.

What both sides lack is evidence on the local level of what Jewish communities around the nation were doing. The JMM’s Friedenwald collection begins to fill this gap. Harry Friedenwald and Simon Sobeloff, leaders of the Baltimore branch of the American Jewish Congress, were in constant communication with national leader Stephen S. Wise and gave him a running update of their campaign to unite the Baltimore Jewish community around a course of action. Their letters pulse with a sense of urgency and reveal an almost frantic flurry of activity as early as March of 1933, just after Hitler took power. We learn of their successes, frustrations, and strategies for overcoming obstacles that ranged from the “singularly silent” Baltimore newspapers to the passivity of influential Jewish leaders.

Harry Friedenwald from "Ten Jewish Leaders in America" by Samuel Strouse, 1968.1986.100.1

Harry Friedenwald from “Ten Jewish Leaders in America” by Samuel Strouse, 1968.1986.100.1

Among other things, the branch held rallies, convinced Baltimore newspapers to improve their coverage of the Nazis’ war on the Jews, and got prominent community figures to speak out. In 1934 they helped get Maryland’s U.S. Senator Millard Tydings to sponsor a resolution calling on Germany to stop persecuting its Jewish citizens. The Tydings Resolution would have been the first official U.S. statement on the matter—had it not languished in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. With supporting evidence from our research in the Baltimore Sun about the climate of opinion in the U.S. (did you know that a Nazi cruiser made a festive ten-day “good will” visit to Baltimore harbor in 1936 that included public tours of the ship, parties with public officials, and a soccer match against a local team in Gwynns Falls Park?), our interpretation will weigh in on the “did as much as they could” side of the argument.

These are just two examples of how our Baltimore Book Project is transforming our view of the past by bringing important stories to light. And because On Middle Ground will be the first comprehensive social history of an American Jewish community outside of New York, as well as of a Baltimore ethnic group, it will contribute considerably to the fields of American Jewish history and Maryland history.

The JMM is grateful to the following sponsors of On Middle Ground for their generous support of this project: Willard Hackerman, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds, the Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Foundation, and Rosalee and Richard Davison.

We are delighted to report that an essay Dr. Eric Goldstein has written for the book, “How German Were ‘German’ Jews in America in the Nineteenth Century?  A View from Baltimore,” has been awarded the 2012 Joseph L. Arnold prize for the best essay submission on Baltimore history. The award notification recognized Eric for writing “a nuanced investigation of the established interpretation that Jewish immigrants from German-speaking regions of Europe in the 19th century identified with German culture by exploring the complexities of German Jewish identity with Baltimore-based evidence regarding associational life, politics, and language preference.” This award sponsored by the Baltimore City Historical Society will be announced at a conference on Friday, May 3. We congratulate Eric on this achievement.

07-personal-span-new-articleLargeWe are proud of the role that the JMM plays in preserving our local Jewish heritage and helping to connect visitors of all backgrounds to the past. Please check out this wonderful article from last Sunday’s New York Times travel section in which the reporter describes how a visit to the JMM helped her learn more about her family’s history:  http:///nyti.ms/ZaRqdU

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