China & the Jews

Posted on April 30th, 2014 by

We are less than a month away from the eighth annual Herbert H and Irma B Risch Program on Immigration.  This year’s program, to be held at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation at 2 p.m. on May 18, features Rabbi Marvin Tokayer.  Rabbi Tokayer will be speaking on the topic of the Shanghai refugees, the remarkable Jewish community that not only survived WWII but also flourished in the years that followed (former Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal among them).   The selection of this year’s program was influenced by JMM’s current exhibition, Project Mah Jongg, and its focus on cultural connections between Jewish Americans and Chinese traditions.

Mark Your Calendar!

Mark Your Calendar!

The connections between Jews and China are far older than most people think.  The merchant trade of the Silk Road brought the first Jews to this part of the world by the time of the 8th century Tang Dynasty.  When Marco Polo arrives in Beijing in the late 1200s he finds an active community of Jewish traders.  Kaifeng contained perhaps the largest and most enduring Chinese Jewish population, preserving kashreit and shabbat well into the 1700s.

Jews of K’ai-Fun-Foo (Kaifeng Subprefecture), China. Image via wikipedia.

In the modern era China has been a place of refuge for Jews on more than one occasion.  When the Inquisition reached Goa, India in 1560, the demand was made that Portuguese marranos and “New Christians” return to Portugal and the punishments meted out to the unfaithful.  A group of Portuguese marranos went further east to Macao instead.  “Captain” Bartolomeu Vaz Landeiro was among the most notable of these refugees. Taking on a role that combined piracy and diplomacy, Landeiro became an agent for the local Chinese authorities in their dealings with the European powers.  Without any sense of irony, his Chinese neighbors would call Landeiro, “The King of the Portuguese.”

Marranos: Secret Seder in Spain during the times of inquisition, painting by Moshe Maimon. Image via wikipedia.

Marranos: Secret Seder in Spain during the times of inquisition, painting by Moshe Maimon. Image via wikipedia.

In 1844, it was the opium trade that brought Elias David Sassoon, son of the treasurer of Baghdad, to China.  Initially setting up shop in Hong Kong, Sassoon becomes the first Jewish member of the international colony in Shanghai in 1850.  The big break for the Sassoons is the American Civil War.  Suddenly, Chinese cotton becomes an important international commodity and Elias David Sassoon its most prominent dealer.

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah) & Sassoon David. Image via wikipedia.

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah) & Sassoon David. Image via wikipedia.

In the early 1900s, Jews fleeing pogroms in Western Russia, managed to make it across the Trans-Siberian Railway to settle in Harbin, China.

And perhaps the most interesting Jewish emigre to China is Morris Cohen (known more commonly as “Two Gun Cohen”).  Cohen was a British born pickpocket, pugilist and con artist (as a boy, in a scene right out of American Hustle  Cohen is employed by glazier, breaking  windows to bring in business).  After leaving reform school in England, Cohen headed to Saskatchewan, Canada where he was hired on as a farmhand and taught to shoot with a gun in both hands.  He made an unlikely friendship with a Chinese restaurant owner in Saskatoon whom he saved from an armed robbery.  This brought him into the inner circle of Cantonese Canadians who were supporting Sun Yatsen independence movement against the child emperor PuYi (think Last Emperor of China).  He eventually became a body guard for Sun Yatsen and his family and later a “Brigadier General” under Chiang Kai Shek.

Image via.

Image via.

If these stories pique your interest, I have two resources to suggest:

1) There is a terrific on line magazine called Asian Jewish Life at www.asianjewishlife.org.  You will find much more detail on “Two-Gun Cohen” in one of their archival issues – this one to be exact!

2) In addition to his lecture in May, Rabbi Tokayer runs a series of highly-rated kosher tours of Jewish history in Asia.  His next China-Japan tour is in July.  You can find more information at www.jewisheyes.com.

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click here. 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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




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