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

Gaining Perspective from 1,000 Miles Away

Posted on October 1st, 2014 by

St. Paul

A beautiful shot of the St. Paul Skyline!

A week before Rosh Hashonah, Education Director Ilene Dackman-Alon and I attended the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) conference in St. Paul, Minnesota.  The trip had many virtues – a chance to see some truly innovative museums, a chance to renew and develop acquaintances with colleagues and collaborators, and perhaps, most important, a chance to think about the directions we are taking at JMM through the lens of innovations happening elsewhere in the country.


What a great conference poster – does anyone know the artist?

The tone for the conference was set by keynoter, Garrison Keillor.  He peppered his folksy (and irreverent) stories of the history of the state with observations about the museum enterprise.  Paraphrasing Tip O’Neill, he observed that “all history is local” and that those who try to sweep human experience into great global generalizations are probably sharing as much fiction as truth.  “The 60s may have been about drug, sex, and rock ‘n roll in parts of New York or San Francisco”, he noted, “but in small town Minnesota the 60s was all about moving into the middle class.”  I reflected on our Mendes Cohen exhibit at JMM and thought, actually “all history is biography” and every human life has the potential to illuminate its times.

Feature exhibit at the Minnesota History Center:  Toys of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Feature exhibit at the Minnesota History Center:
Toys of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

I attended 7 workshops and presentations during my two and a half days in St. Paul.  These included:

“Creating Connections:  Integrating STEM Learning into History Exhibitions and Programs” – a collaboration of the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Conner Prairie historic village outside Indianapolis.  Conner Prairie recently took a big leap outside its comfort zone, training its history docents to facilitate visitor-driven exploration of historic technologies.  We worked in groups to develop model exhibits.  Ilene’s group was turning architecture into an engineering lesson.  My group worked on letting visitors “put together” a 1910 electric car.

Workshop at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Workshop at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Directors Breakfast – turned out to be a perfect complement to the session above.  The focus of the breakfast was “how do we build a political coalition strong enough to promote history in the way that scientists promote STEM?”  They had some interesting ideas and I expect that I will participate in future forums on this topic.

My favorite artifact - We definitely need something like this in our collection.

My favorite artifact – We definitely need something like this in our collection.

“Blurred Lines:  Museum as Community Center” – This session looked at four specific program innovations at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle (outdoor film festival, evening socials for young adults, yoga in the museum and after school tech clubs).  They talked about successes and failures, but even more interesting, the process of assessing successes and failures.  I think that as we increase our community outreach there is much to be learned from the experience of others.

“Seeing the Forest: A National Perspective on History Organizations” – this was a straightforward (and slightly depressing) set of research results from NEA and AASLH.  It told a story that was not terribly surprising – after holding their own through the first electronic revolution (the Internet of the 1990s and early 2000s), museums were now experiencing a significant decline in attendance during the period 2005 to 2013 (the era of the smart phone and social media) – actually all physical contact with the arts – attending concerts, art galleries, dance performances as well as participating in creative arts activities are declining.  The only uptick in “arts” creation was a boom in photography (perhaps those smart phones).  Of course, these are averages – and any individual institution can figure out a way to buck the trend.

Paul, Babe, me and Mendes at Minnesota History Center. One way to get people to recognize the front of the museum!

Paul, Babe, me and Mendes at Minnesota History Center. One way to get people to recognize the front of the museum!

“Blink” – Local Baltimore/DC consulting group QM2 was invited by the Massachusetts historic properties trust to perform an activity inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink.  They were given 36 hours at each of three historic sites to assess and suggest new directions for reawakening public interest and growing attendance.  The idea was to not get bogged down in all the impediments of “we’ve tried that before” or “management won’t let us do that” and make constructive snap judgments.  It seemed like an interesting experiment.

“Talking about Religion in History Museums” – Three speakers looked at the challenges that the topic of religion generates, not only in public museums, but even in religious-sponsored institutions.  There was discussion of why most museums are willing to host exhibits on religious practice but few are willing to have any discussion of religious belief.  Even small differences of opinion on belief can easily escalate into institution-threatening conflict.   The panelists had some great examples.

“Support Young Children, Grow Future Audiences” – our own Ilene was joined by speakers from the Smithsonian’s Center on Early Learning, a museum in San Antonio and the still-to-be-built National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall.  The topic was how history museums could relate to our youngest visitors (ages 3 to 7).  Call me prejudiced, but I thought Ilene’s presentation was outstanding and really reminded me that we can hold our own even with much larger institutions when it comes to educational innovation.

Mill City Museum: The ruins of a flour mill destroyed by fire are transformed into a first-rate history experience.

Mill City Museum: The ruins of a flour mill destroyed by fire are transformed into a first-rate history experience.

Living History Actress plays 1940s "Anne Pillsbury" at Mill City Museum

Living History Actress plays 1940s “Anne Pillsbury” at Mill City Museum

Lest you think I spent all my time in sessions, some of the highlights of the trip are documented in the photos below.  I had the chance to explore the beautiful Minnesota State Capitol building, the first major project of architect Cass Gilbert, now under restoration.  I went back to the Minnesota History Center, on everyone’s short list of the best history museums in the US and also had the chance to visit their newest project, the Mill City Museum.  In 1991 an abandoned flour mill, once the largest in the world, was nearly destroyed by fire.  Instead of tearing the building down the folks at MNHS turned into an extension site and, in my opinion, perhaps the finest single topic museums ever.  Combining clever exhibit design (an elevator ride that seems to owe a lot to MSI’s Coal Mine and Disney’s Tower of Terror), extensive research, live performance, great use of artifacts and the ruins of the building and some great exhibit filmmaking – I would rate this as a “must see”, even if you never thought you had an interest in making flour.

Detail from the ceiling of the Minnesota State Assembly - it was breathtaking.

Detail from the ceiling of the Minnesota State Assembly – it was breathtaking.

And of course I brought my trusty Flat Mendes with me!

And of course I brought my trusty Flat Mendes with me!

If I had to describe the conference in one word, it would be: “inspiring”.  I am glad I could take you along for a little bit of the ride.

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE. Interested in knowing more about AASLH? Check out their website, http://www.aaslh.org/ or follow them on Twitter!

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Getting to Know Mendes

Posted on August 21st, 2014 by

MC_Exhibit Assets_v2

Exhibit Opens September 14th!

Mendes I. Cohen was born in Richmond VA in 1796, the son of a German Jewish father and an English Jewish mother.  His family moved to Baltimore in 1807 and lived until 1879.  He was a witness to many events in history both at home and abroad and a participant in a surprising number of transformational moments.  Here are a dozen highlights:


1. Mendes is one of six Jewish defenders of Ft. McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore.  When one bomb falls into the powder magazine rather than “bursting in air”, Mendes and two other artillerymen are sent in to rescue the ammunition.  (To Mendes’ great fortune, the bomb was a dud)


2. The Cohen family starts out in the lottery business.  Mendes and his brother are sent to Norfolk to sell DC lottery tickets (federal lottery tickets).  Virginia authorities arrest the Cohens for selling tickets without the authority of the state of Virginia.  The case of Cohens v. Virginia goes to the Supreme Court where Chief Justice Marshall technically rules against the Cohens, but establishes the principle that the Court has standing in resolving differences between state and federal authority.


3. The Cohen family is very active in the campaign for “The Maryland Jew Bill”.  Finally passed in 1826, the bill allows people to serve on juries, serve in the militia and serve in public office without taking an oath to the New Testament.  Mendes will later provide assistance to English Jews fighting for the same liberties in the 1830s.


4. Thanks to the success of his family’s banking enterprise, Mendes Cohen is able to “retire” at 33 and start an extensive tour of Europe and the Middle East.  His first stop is England where he combines business with pleasure, dining with Nathan Rothschild and striking up a friendship.


5. Mendes arrives at the barricades in Paris just two weeks after the Student Revolt (think “Les Miserables”) and reports some disappointment in having just missed the action.


6. When in Rome, Mendes is invited to the installation of the new pope (Pope Gregory XVI).  He writes a letter dedicated to the thorny question of whether a Jewish American democrat should kiss the feet of the pope.


7.  Mendes decides to take up Egyptology.  He sails down the Nile in a boat with an American flag of his own design, acquiring rare antiquities.  The artifacts he collects are later purchased by Johns Hopkins University and are today the core of their archeology collection.


8. Mendes heads for Palestine, becoming the first American to ever acquire a firman (permit) from the Ottoman sultan to visit the Holy Land.  Mendes spends his time trying to trace places mentioned in biblical passages.


9. After returning to the US, Mendes becomes a special assistant to Governor Veazey.  He is asked to serve as Maryland’s representative at the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837.


10. Mendes becomes one of the early directors of the B&O Railroad and Baltimore’s first Jewish charity, the Hebrew Benevolent Society.  The Cohen brothers are very involved in the development of Baltimore’s first and only Sephardic synagogue in the 1850s.


11. Mendes is elected to the State House of Delegates in 1846.  He votes for leniency in the sentencing of debtors.  But as a loyal Democrat he also votes to condemn Pennsylvania for helping Maryland’s slaves escape to freedom.


12. Mendes spent his final years near his home in the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore (Mendes lived with his mother and then his brothers for his entire life).  He spent his last years in the 1870s recounting tales of his youth to passersby, intensely proud of his adventures.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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