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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When We Were the Strangers

Posted on February 18th, 2013 by

MarvinA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert.

On the eve of Valentine’s Day, 100 years ago this week, the lame duck president of the United States, William H. Taft sent a message to Congress conveying his refusal to sign the Dillingham Bill.  This veto delayed, but did not end, the efforts to close America’s borders to non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants, including millions of Jews desperate to avoid persecution and war in Europe.

Senator William P. Dillingham of Vermont is now a forgotten figure, but early in the last century he was the leader of a movement to stem the tide of “undesirable” immigration.  From 1907 to 1911, concurrent with his Senate duties, he served as chair of the United States Immigration Commission (often called the Dillingham Commission).  The Commission spent thousands of dollars studying every alleged connection between Southern and Eastern European immigrants and social degradation, from prostitution to mental illness – and after publishing 41 volumes of detail, to no one’s surprise, concluded that something must be done to protect the nation.

To be fair, it wasn’t the first time that politicians claimed that immigration would be the ruination of our society.  Ben Franklin singles out the problem of German immigration in 1753:   I am perfectly of your mind, that measures of great Temper are necessary with the Germans: and am not without Apprehensions, that thro’ their indiscretion or Ours, or both, great disorders and inconveniences may one day arise among us;   Still it was generally true for much of our early history that merely making it to American territory was deemed sufficient grounds for pursuing a pathway to naturalization.  Our first post-Revolution naturalization law offered US citizenship within two years!

Post-Reconstruction attitudes about race began to close the open door, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  The whole new pseudo-science of eugenics sought to put a veneer of scholarship on age-old prejudices.  The Dillingham Commission opens its report with a “Dictionary of Race” that purports to be able to distinguish between the “races” of Northern Italians and Southern Italians, and repeats well-worn stereotypes about the “race” of Jews.

The Dillingham Bill (S 3175 of the 62nd Congress) that followed the Commission’s report brought a couple of new twists to previous attempts to control immigration.  First, it would impose a literacy test on all new immigrants.  Second, it would make steamship companies responsible for ensuring that their America-bound passengers could meet this test (imposing steep fines for failing to screen their guests).  Nearly every immigrant community, including America’s Jews, understood that these provisions could and would be used to stop immigration and they vigorously opposed the measure.

After all this wasn’t the first time that a “literacy test” had been suggested as a way to curb the rights of individuals.  Since 1890, such tests had become a legal fixture in the Jim Crow South, regularly used to bar African-Americans from voting.

A key question about literacy tests is who decides what “literacy” means and who evaluates the qualifications of the applicant.  Senator Simmons of North Carolina (who had built his reputation on a “white supremacy campaign”) proposed an amendment to the bill that answered this question in amazing detail:

That for the purpose of testing the ability of the immigrant to read, the inspection officer shall be furnished copies of the Constitution of the United States, printed on uniform pasteboard slips, each containing no less than twenty nor more than twenty-five words of said Constitution printed in the various languages of the immigrant in double small pica type…no two immigrants listed on the same ship manifest shall be tested with the same slip.

The advocates of the Dillingham Bill were not able to secure a super-majority to overcome Taft’s veto.   Immediately following their defeat, they switched tactics, dropping their demands for literacy tests in favor of national quotas that directly regulated the flow of people from around the globe. By the 1920s the quotas had blocked the vast majority of those seeking a new life in America from a path to legal immigration.

Reading the arguments on both sides in 1913, I was struck by how little the debate has changed in a hundred years.

The President’s veto message included the argument that the new immigrants added to the economic wealth of the country and were especially critical in supplying farm labor.  It also made a practical point that the cost of deporting large waves of immigrants would be too high.

On the other hand, the case made by Dillingham and his allies was that these new immigrants of 1913 were different in character than the old “aryan” immigrants; harder to assimilate, prone to live “with their own” in crowded urban areas, easily exploited by unscrupulous employers, and more likely to become wards of the state or engage in criminal activities.

One might of thought that a century of contributions to our society by the children and grandchildren of Dillingham’s “undesirable” immigrants might have put these arguments to rest but it appears to be one of the great continuities of American life.

This year, the Museum’s annual Risch Program on Immigration will take place on April 14 at 4pm in the Langhorne Auditorium of the University of Baltimore.  The program, entitled “Songs of Arrival, Stories of Refuge” will feature HIAS President Mark Hetfield and a musical program that links the Yiddish traditions of the early 20th century with performances by today’s immigrants from Africa, Latin America and Asia.   Our history makes it easy to understand this linkage.

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Three Roses for Women’s History Month

Posted on March 26th, 2012 by

A blog post by Research Historian Deb Weiner. In honor of Women’s History Month, here are profiles of three Baltimore Jewish women whose landmark accomplishments are worth recalling, culled from the JMM archives.

Rose Shanis Glick came from Russia with her family in 1911, at age 12. As a young woman she became manager of a loan company. The owner promised she would have her job waiting for her when she returned from getting married, but when she got back, his son was sitting at her desk. So she started her own lending firm in 1932, in the midst of the Depression. Rose used the fact that she was a woman to her advantage. First, she built her business around lending to other women. This was a wise financial move: since women couldn’t get loans from conventional sources, she had the field to herself. She lent to housewives and waitresses, teachers and cleaning women, and entrepreneurs like herself. Second, she developed a great slogan: “Let me handle your financial problems as only a woman can.” It worked: soon she was serving all kinds of people.

Even as her company grew, Rose kept a personal touch. She lent money for purposes that more established companies wouldn’t touch: for a winter’s supply of coal, for Catholic families to buy school uniforms, for a taxi driver to get a license, for a gambler to pay off a Pimlico race track debt, for a woman to get an abortion. (Her husband disagreed with her over this last loan, but she told him it was better to help the woman go to a competent doctor, rather than get a cheap and dangerous procedure.) She loaned striking Bethlehem Steel workers money to tide them over until they went back to work, at no interest. During World War II she waived the interest on loans to customers serving overseas (and also sent each of them a pack of cigarettes).

Shanis’s reputation grew to the point that a Baltimore Sun columnist began calling her “The Lady Santa.” Combining her instinct for helping people with a shrewd business sense, she started using the nickname in her advertising. She became extremely successful—eventually, there were nine Rose Shanis Loan operations. She loved her work so much that at the end of her life she had her children bring her monthly business reports to her death bed. Her son took over the business after she died.

Rose Shanis in 1924.

Rose Zetzer became one of only five woman lawyers in Maryland in 1925. Unable to get a job at an established firm—though some offered to hire her as a secretary—she worked on her own before forming Maryland’s first all-female law firm with partner Anna Carton in 1941. (Two other women later joined the partnership.) Zetzer also waged a campaign to join the male-only Maryland State Bar Association, which finally admitted her as its first woman member in 1946. She and other female lawyers had formed the Women’s Bar Association in 1927; she served as president for several years.

Zetzer was a champion of legal aid for the poor, becoming the first woman to serve on the board of the Legal Aid Bureau. She devoted herself to Jewish causes as well, including Hadassah and the Jewish Big Brother League. Rosalie Silber Abrams graduated from the Sinai Hospital School of Nursing and served as a nurse in the U.S. Navy before marrying and raising a family. At age fifty, she decided to embark on a political career. She won election to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1966 and became a state senator four years later. During her eighteen-year career, she helped pass bills focused on patient rights, child welfare, mental health care reform, environmental protection, and women’s rights. Her accomplishments included the creation of the state’s Health Service Cost Review Commission, a groundbreaking initiative to control hospital rates and enhance patient care.

Chosen Senate Majority Leader in 1979, Abrams was the first woman to hold a major leadership post in the Maryland General Assembly and also became the first female chairman of the state’s Democratic Party. She retired from the Senate to head the state Office on Aging in 1983, where she served until retiring in 1996. Though she began her political career relatively late in life, her background in health care, confidence, and practical political skills gained her the respect of her colleagues and made her an exemplary advocate for health and welfare issues.

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