A Matzah Memory

Posted on March 22nd, 2013 by

MarvinA blog post from Executive Director Marvin Pinkert.

Somewhere along the way in my twenty-five year journey in the museum world, I asked me the question “Can you remember the first exhibit you ever saw?”.  I thought for a moment and answered “Sure I can, I was at a long dinner table and someone held up a plate of matzah and asked mah zot?”  It had all the elements of an exhibit – an artifact of historic significance, label copy in the Haggadah, it was interactive and at least when we got to the Hillel sandwich – multi-sensory.

I share this by way of confession that while I have a theological appreciation for other holy days, none holds a place in my heart like Passover.  I have so many fond memories of seders spent with friends and family that its easy to wax nostalgic about all of them.

There is one seder in my past, however, that truly stands apart.  A night unlike all other nights.  It was 1978, 35 years ago this season.  Passover fell late that year (April 21).  I was in Seoul, Korea serving as a “Junior Officer in Training” with USIA.  At age 25, I believe I was the youngest American officer serving at the post.  So I was somewhat surprised to receive an invitation to the Ambassador’s residence…it was highly unusual for a junior officer to share a social occasion with a senior ambassador.  Nonetheless, as there were only five Jewish American officers in Seoul at that time – the Ambassador, the Deputy Chief of Mission, the administrative assistants to both the Ambassador and the DCM and me – I was invited to seder at the residence.  I can’t remember all the details but I’m sure my wife gave me some helpful coaching on dinner table manners for such a fine event.

The seder began as expected, but shortly after the first cup of wine, an embassy official entered the room and whispered something into the Ambassador’s ear.  Ambassador Sneider rose abruptly and exited the room.  I strongly suspected this was more than a second washing of the hands.  He returned a few minutes later.  After another few prayers and songs, he left the room again, suggesting that we go on with the service.  The up and down pattern continued all the way to the cup of Elijah.  My recollection is that at about this point the DCM may have revealed what was going on.  That afternoon (Korean time) a Korean airliner that had strayed off-course on its way from Paris to Seoul had been fired upon by Soviet aircraft and forced to land on a frozen lake.  The 107 surviving passengers had been transported to Murmansk.  The Russians were refusing to release the passengers.  When the Ambassador left the room he was actually on the phone trying to secure their safe return home.  So on that night, “let my people go” had ceased to be an echo of an ancient exodus, but rather a contemporary reality that had made its way to our seder table. It took two days but the passengers did reach their destination (a much happier ending that the second shoot-down incident five years later).  I’m sure that any American Ambassador would have made the liberation of the passengers a top priority, but for all these decades I have thought that the fact that a Jewish American Ambassador was a part of this effort on the very night of our own people’s commemoration of freedom was very special – a reminder of the universal resonance of our story.

This year I’ll be headed for Boston, as the torch of making seder passes for the first time to my daughter.  Once more I have a feeling it will be a night different from all other nights.

Happy Pesach!

Note:  Please respond to this blog to tell us about a seder that you found particularly memorable.  It’s one more way to share our history!


Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Americanizing Chanukah

Posted on December 14th, 2012 by

A blog post by Historian Deb Weiner.

Last week, a reporter from the Jewish Times called to ask when Chanukah gift-giving first became popular in America. I had no clue, but I knew where to find the answer: in the book Wonders of America, by Jenna Weissman Joselit, a leading historian of American Jewish popular culture. I pulled the book off the shelf, looked up “Chanukah” in the index, and relayed the relevant details to the reporter. I thought it would be pertinent to share Joselit’s observations with you as well.


In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Joselit writes, “more American Jews were inclined to experiment with Christmas than with Chanukah. Beguiled by its charms, they adorned their homes with greenery and eagerly exchanged gifts.” Along with other Americans, Jews ignored the religious meaning behind Christmas and enjoyed its “secularized, commodified, and mirth filled dimensions.” The holiday’s appeal was not limited to “well-established Jews”—it trickled down to immigrants as well. “According to the Jewish Daily Forward, a startlingly large proportion of new arrivals took quickly to the custom of giving Christmas presents, a practice allegedly as widespread as the exchange of Purim gifts. ‘Who says we haven’t Americanized,’ the paper quoted several immigrants as saying. ‘The purchase of Christmas gifts is one of the first things that proves one is no longer a greenhorn.’”


Hutzler’s gift box, 1997.83.9a


Jewish leaders tried to promote Chanukah as an alternative to Christmas, but “no amount of rhetorical excess could disguise the fact that Chanukah’s charms paled in comparison with those of Christmas.” Joselit does not identify who came up with the idea of giving gifts as part of celebrating Chanukah, or precisely when the custom took off, but gift-giving was clearly a key part of the holiday’s revival in the 1920s. That’s when Chanukah “began to come into its own as a notable Jewish domestic occasion and an exercise in consumption.” Not surprisingly, this was a time of upward mobility for the increasingly Americanized immigrants, who were looking for ways to combine their American and Jewish identities. What better way than to fit Chanukah into modern American consumer society?


Yiddish newspapers of the 1920s “carried dozens of tempting advertisements for Chanukah gifts, from automobiles to waffle irons.”  While advertisers saw Chanukah as a way to sell a wide array of products, newspaper editors saw the products as a way to sell Chanukah. Editorials encouraged readers “to add the exchange of presents to the roster of Chanukah customs.” As one newspaper counseled, “To command the attention and affection of Jewish children, the holiday must become an occasion for storytelling, gift-giving, and merrymaking.”


In addition to its commercialization, Joselit writes, “a search for religious parity” proved to be the other key factor in Chanukah’s success in the years after World War II, “when it emerged not only as the Jewish antidote to Christmas but as its functional equivalent.” For second and third generation Americans, Chanukah became an important way to express Jewishness.  By the 1950s the celebration of Chanukah had become “one of the few Jewish ritual practices actually to grow rather than diminish in popularity.”

The perfect Chanukah gift, available from the Museum shop.

 Happy Chanukah everyone!

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Lost in Transliteration

Posted on December 12th, 2012 by

A blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert.

I think I’ve finally adjusted to Hanukkah. I don’t mean “Hanukkah”, the holiday I’ve celebrated for 60 years, I mean “Hanukkah” the spelling that has become popular in my lifetime.

Taking the holiday decorations out of the closet is my annual reminder that transliteration can transform tradition.  I grew up with a beautiful blue banner that proudly proclaimed “Happy Chanukah” right above our menorah (a metal candle holder of very simple design that made up in weight what it lacked in elegance).  I never for a moment questioned the perfection of this spelling.

But in the 1980s, – when our kids were young and our old banner disheveled from years of Scotch tape being applied and removed – I had to purchase a new banner and discovered that a lot of options had been added to the transliteration list.  I settled on a multi-colored model with fringe and the phrase “Happy Hanuka”.  It appeared that this peculiar spelling was an aesthetic choice, as the nearly even number of letters allowed the Star of David that separated the words to be placed exactly in the middle.

For many years I continued to look for “Chanukah” cards (just one of my atavistic preferences – like my nostalgia for the German beer hall melody for “Adon Olam”).

Of course, Hanukkah and its problematic initial letter are not unique.  I understand that before we renovated the Lloyd Street Synagogue there was a lively discussion about “mikveh” vs. “mikvah”.  As a former volunteer for Congressman Abner Mikva, I confess that I would probably have come out on the losing side of this debate.

Hebrew transliteration is actually relatively straightforward compared to my experience in East Asian Studies.  I still cringe when I hear commercials for Toyota Camry (to rhyme with “lamb tree”).  The Japanese word is “kanmuri”, meaning “crown”, and there is no “‘a’-as-in-‘can'” sound in Japanese – the sound is “a” as in “Genghis Khan”.

Speaking of Genghis Khan, when I started studying history his birth name was Temujin.  But in many articles written today you will find that he was born Tiemuzhen.  This reflects one of the most dramatic changes in transliteration in the 20th century.  Until the thawing of relations with mainland China, most Western scholars used the Wade Giles system to romanize Chinese words (named for the British diplomats who developed and refined the system). The dominant system today is the “pinyin” system, the official transliteration practice of the People’s Republic of China.

In “pinyin”, Mao Tse Tung became Mao Zedong and Mah Jongg became Ma Jiang.  No matter how you spell it, it’s still fun to play (I mean “Mah Jongg” not “Mao Tse Tung”).  So I hope you’ll join us on December 25 when we all have “phun” at the Dragons and Dreidels program – no transliteration required.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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