The Belly of the Whale

Posted on October 13th, 2016 by

On Yom Kippur we read from the book of Jonah. This ancient story of the reluctant prophet is particularly special to me. Nearly 20 years ago, as I listened to the story of Jonah on Yom Kippur, I had a revelation about myself. I was 23 years old, and recently diagnosed with Fibromyalgia—a life sentence of chronic pain (I’ve since more-or-less gotten it under control, but it took more than 10 years). I was angry: at my situation, at the world, at God. And as the English was read from the bimah, I heard Jonah’s anger. I felt it.

After he finally does God’s bidding and lets the people of Ninevah know of their impending doom, Jonah goes out to the desert to watch the fireworks when the city is destroyed. God sends a gourd vine to grow up and shade Jonah from the hot sun.

The next day, God sends a worm who eats the vine and it withers. Jonah is super peeved at the loss of the vine. He cries out to God in his anger, and wishes for death. God responds, “Do you do well to be so angry?” “Yes!” Jonah replies, “Angry unto death!”

Right on, I thought. Me too.

And then God lays it out for Jonah and me: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight.”

In the story, God is making a point about why he has decided to spare Ninevah, but for me, sitting there in the stew of my anger and resentment and pain, God was talking about my health. God was gently reprimanding me for my anger, encouraging me to take action, to care for myself.

I put a little post-it note on my computer screen at work that said “Do you do well to be so angry?” I didn’t get better, at least not right away, but I felt better. It was a pivotal moment. It was the reason, several years later, I chose to translate the Book of Jonah for my graduate Biblical Hebrew course.

A daily reminder

A daily reminder

Fast forward 17 years, and each time I read or hear Jonah, something new strikes me. This year I was struck by the truly bizarre section in the middle when God sends a fish to swallow Jonah so that he does not die at sea. This aquatic mode of transportation takes 3 days to get Jonah to his destination, during which he apparently composes poetry. After the three days, God commands the fish to spit him out on dry land.

When I returned to the Museum today, I decided to see what we might have in the collections about my favorite surly prophet.

It seems I am not the only one struck by Jonah. I found several child’s drawings from 1944 depicting our Yom Kippur haftarah.

Jonah sits below the gourd vine.  JMM 1995.28.259

Jonah sits below the gourd vine. JMM 1995.28.259

In one, Jonah sits happily below a gourd vine. In another he travels horizontally across the page from the fish’s mouth to dry land.

From out of the fish's mouth. JMM 1995.28.2.35

From out of the fish’s mouth. JMM 1995.28.2.35

Fascinatingly, these drawings were done by Max Heppner (photo of Max: 1995.105.110) while he and his family hid from the Nazis in the Netherlands.

The artist as a young boy in Amsterdam. JMM 1995.105.111

The artist as a young boy in Amsterdam. JMM 1995.105.111

And all of a sudden I am thinking about the meaning of this story to a child, in hiding from the forces of evil. Did he see the roiling sea in the foment that sent his family into hiding? Was his hiding place on the Dutch farm the belly of a fish? Was he longing for the day when he too would be spit out onto the security of dry land?

I learned this year from Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s Rabbi Bush that there is a Midrash that says that after the first few hours, Jonah grew quite comfortable inside the whale’s belly.

This drawing makes me think young Max might disagree with that Midrash.

A blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Another New Year

Posted on October 5th, 2016 by

There are so many ways to count the year. Each of us celebrates at least a half a dozen new years every year. There’s January first, of course. But there’s also a fiscal new year (at the JMM, that is July 1). There’s also your birthday (mine is February 14, in case you were wondering). For folks in school or who teach school or who have kids in school, there’s the first day of the new school year. And then there are the Jewish New Years. There’s the first day of the year, in Nissan (the same month as Passover). And there’s Tu B’Shvat, the “new year for the trees.” And, of course, there is Rosh Hashanah.

Jewish New Years card from the Sigel family, c. 1900. JMM 1989.132.1

Jewish New Years card from the Sigel family, c. 1900. JMM 1989.132.1

The “head of the year” is actually the first day of the seventh month. So though we refer to it to our non-Jewish neighbors as the “Jewish New Year,” it’s more nuanced than that. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, in his book Seasons of Our Joy speculates, “perhaps it is the head of the year because it is raised toward heaven, away from the earth–while Pesach [in the first month of the year] celebrates a more earthly liberation, the freedom of our bodies” (1-2).

That distinction between the heavenly and the earthly is interesting. Unlike our secular New Year, when we all make resolutions to lose weight or quit smoking or eat healthier, at Rosh Hashanah, we are expected to make a different kind of resolution. Instead of more trips to the gym, we aim for fewer trips to judgement; rather than counting calories, we are meant to count blessings.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of a new year, and about human capacity for change. Whether the resolution is to lose 10 pounds or to be kinder, we humans seem nearly incapable of making true and lasting change. On January first and on the first of Tishri, each year, we find ourselves in nearly the exact same situation as the year before. Even as we make the resolutions (or the confessions), we do so knowing that we will falter again–we will be right here next year. We do a dance with ourselves and with the Divine, but in the end, we always fail.

It is a depressing thought as I sit here writing on the third of Tishri.

And yet.

On this Rosh Hashanah, I had the honor of the third Aliyah at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, chanting the blessings before and after the third Torah portion was read. I delivered the blessings as intended, and received greetings from my fellow congregants and the clergy. It was lovely, and I felt truly grateful. But it was a moment as I returned to my place in the congregation that truly dispelled my recent feelings of hopelessness: my four-year-old daughter met me in the aisle, and jumped into my arms, smiling ear to ear.

The best traveling companion I could imagine.

The best traveling companion I could imagine.

As I returned to my seat in the sanctuary, now carrying 36 pounds of joy, love, and limitless potential, I felt something even before I had words for it. Yes, I am in the same place I found myself last year. I am confessing the same sins; mourning the same injustices of the past year; committing in the same way to nearly the same actions as last year. But I am not the same because she is not the same.

I intentionally brought that 4-year-old to the “grown-up” service, because I wanted her to see me fully engaged in synagogue life. I wanted her to see that striving that brings us all back to that place of commitment, year after year.

Seeing the service, the holiday, reflected in her eyes reminded me powerfully of the importance of the journey. I was mourning the destination and lost sight of the beauty of travel. That small voice in my ear “Mommy, I love you!” reminded me that while the destination is worth striving for, if I forget to notice my traveling companions, I can never reach it.

With gratitude to all of you on the road with me, I wish you a Shanah Tovah u’Metucha, a good and a sweet new year.

A blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

L’shana Tova

Posted on September 29th, 2016 by

At our Board meeting last week, we had our quarterly approval of new accessions to the JMM collection.  Just about every item we collect has a fascinating story behind it – but there was one set of items neatly tucked in a folder that really grabbed my attention.  It was a collection of “chromolithographs” donated by Myrna Siegel.  Joanna explained that these decorative die cut prints were fairly common in the late 19th and early 20th century… but it was the first set she had seen that was exclusively Jewish themed.  The collection included die cut “scraps” – typically used for early scrap books and home decorations and three rather elaborate Rosh Hashanah cards.

A beautiful Rosh Hashanah card.

A beautiful chromolithograph Rosh Hashanah card.

This got me thinking how traditional are Rosh Hashanah cards.  Regular readers of this blog post may remember my shock at learning that Dreidels are derived from a 16th century German Christmas toy.  Well it turns out that greeting cards/letters for Rosh Hashanah are also of German Jewish origin but have much deeper roots.  According to the Jewish Encyclopedia card giving for the High Holidays is documented in the Book of Customs of Rabbi Jacob in the 14th century.  That’s at least 500 years before the first secular New Year’s card is mailed. Though, truth be told, New Year’s rituals were explicitly discouraged by Christian churches until the late 1500s… so the secular New Year’s holiday itself is a relatively modern celebration.

The new cards are additions to some fascinating Rosh Hashanah greetings we already hold in our collection.

Some have classic themes:



But others stand out for their novelty, take for example this Jazz Age New Year’s greeting:



Among the most extraordinary items is this elaborate holiday greeting from 1917:



It is filled with symbols of the immigrant experience and filled with blessings in Hebrew and Yiddish, among these are:  May you live to be 120 years old”, ”May you be blessed on your coming, and on your going out”, ”May we have a life of life and peace and joy and happiness and pleasantness”, ”May you have peace, substantial earned income, good business success, enjoyment, happiness, salvation, pleasantness and everything good.”, ”Happy New Year, may your be inscribed in the book of life”, ”May you be delivered from all your enemies and plagues on your path… and may blessing issue from all your doings.”

99 Rosh Hashanah’s later – I wish you and your family all of the above.


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



Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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