Posted on March 24th, 2016 by Rachel
Whenever I find myself blogging about a Jewish holiday (whether volunteer or voluntold), I always start with Seasons of Our Joy by Baltimore-native Arthur Waskow.
Seasons of our Joy
When I reviewed that go-to text on Purim, I was struck by this passage on page 118:
“The custom grew of making Purim-Torah—parodying the prayers themselves on Purim night, parodying the rabbis’ Talmudic debates and discussions over how to apply Torah to life-dilemmas.”
And then a few pages later, Waskow writes that in some congregations, after the megillah is read, a “Purim-rabbi—a mock rabbi chosen for the occasion—might give a sermon that pokes fun at established traditions and institutions.”
This idea of a Purim-authority who is a parody of authority, really struck me. In this season of American electoral politics, I suddenly realized that I am waiting for the Purim-candidates to yield the stage to the real candidates. They’re not going anywhere.
Large wooden gragger (noisemaker for Purim), made from solid wood pieces, c. 1900. This gragger was found in the basement of a Highlandtown rowhouse on Fairmont Ave. JMM 1999.162.1
But that’s one of the points that Purim makes, isn’t it? It’s the holiday on which we are commanded to get so drunk that we cannot discern the difference between “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman.” But maybe the drunkenness is necessary only to get us to drop our inhibitions that create the difference in the first place. Maybe the equality is always there for us to see, if only we could (indeed, Rabbi Waskow points out that using gematria, the two phrases are equivalent).
And see it we must, as a later passage made plain to me:
When the original history happened, the sublime liberation of Exodus came long before the farce of Purim. But when we finish living that history and begin to learn it, absorb it into our lives, digest it so that we can make a holy future, then it may be important for us to laugh first, to let the farce come first. For power is funny, and those who hold power are ridiculous. The first stage of liberation is that we learn to laugh at them.
But power is also profound, and liberation is also at the root of all the universe. Having learned to laugh, we become ready to seek our freedom seriously. There is a time laugh—and then there is a time to ask questions. (page 127)
Today, for Purim, we eat and we drink to excess. We poke fun at everything—especially authority. And Rabbi Waskow is right. If we can see the ridiculousness in authority, we can hope to challenge it when it oversteps its bounds. And so, with my mouth full of the taste of hamentaschen, wine, and laughter, I for one, am looking ahead to what will be needed to stand up to Pharoah, to choose right over comfort, and to leave my mitzrayim, my narrow place. I am putting on the costume of Esther’s bravery not to pretend to be something I am not, but to practice being something I know I am.
Pre- School Purim March 1974. JCC Collection, JMM 2006.13.1063
And so, dear friends, I leave you with this blessing: may we all use the foolishness of Purim to uncover the righteousness that is already in the world and in us, waiting to be exalted, and may “the memory of Purim never cease from among us.”
A blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.
Posted on December 9th, 2015 by Rachel
In a previous existence, I was in charge of decorating an historic house museum for “the holidays” every December. This usually meant Christmas decorations, since it was a house built in the early 19th century for a family of Episcopalians. However, the house is also the main museum of the Montgomery County Historical Society (Rockville, Md.) so we did our best to change things up, and incorporate the holiday traditions of 20th and 21st century County residents.
Thus, in 2013 we decorated the parlor as if it were ready for a 1960s Chanukah celebration. I borrowed era-appropriate menorahs and dreidels from a few County families, but other elements were harder to come by. Thank goodness for the internet and the public library, which provided me with some examples of vintage decorations (and the history behind them). I found several variations (like this one) on bright and colorful “Happy Hanukkah” banners, which would suit the parlor walls – so, being well-versed in having to invent ‘antique’ decorations, I made my own banner. Here it is, hanging on the wall of the circa 1815 Beall-Dawson House, above an 1840s pianoforte.
Photo courtesy of Montgomery History, Rockville, Maryland.
Why am I writing about this now, two years later? Well, for one thing, it’s a chance to show off my craft skills; for another, it’s an opportunity to encourage you to look for – and make noise if you do not find – Jewish history within ‘general’ history museums. But really, it’s because some of the sources I used in 2013 came from the JMM collections, via our online database, and last week I came across two of those fabulous images again:
Elayne Fedder, Bernice Friedman, Myrna Cardin, and Belle Legum at the JCC Volunteers’ Chanukah Party, circa 1970. Donated by the JCC. JMM# 2006.013.456
Chanukah crafts at the JCC, circa 1970. Donated by the JCC. JMM#2006.013.274b
These great photos prompted me to delve a little further into the collections, looking for even more holiday decorations. Alas, we do not have an original paper banner, but I did find some helpful hints for making your own décor. Many of the contemporary sources advise parents to make Chanukah – though not the most important of holidays – a bright and festive time for their children. Much has been written about the whys and hows of Chanukah celebrations in modern America, and I can hardly hope to cover it all in one blog post; but for now, it’s worth noting that as private and public Christmas decorations became more and more popular in the mid 20th century, so too did Chanukah decorations.
For example, in The Jewish Home Beautiful (The National Women’s League of the United Synagogue of America, 1941), the authors advise the liberal use of crepe paper flowers and streamers, or even “a large dreidel made out of parchment or crepe paper of many bright colors;” they continue, “the color scheme should be predominately orange, the usual color of the Hanukkah candles, with green or blue as a complementary color.”
In Happy Chanuko, a 1943 picture book written by Jane Bearman and published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (our copy was collected by Baltimore educator Louis L. Kaplan), the young protagonists are posed in front of a variety of decorative pieces, like this crepe paper streamer and electric Star of David.
“Happy Chanuko”, 1943. Louis L. Kaplan collection, donated by Efrem Potts. JMM#1995.192.158
Holiday decorating is not for everyone, and yes, Chanukah has already begun; but if this post has inspired you, I say it’s never too late to decorate! I’ll leave you with some instructions, and encouraging words, from the 1947 Hanukkah syllabus of the Holiday Institute for Jewish Mothers:
Decoration ideas, including wall streamers and a large star, from “The Holiday Institute for Jewish Mothers: Hanukkah,” (Bureau of Jewish Education, Buffalo, New York, December 1947). Rabbi Uri Miller Collection, donated by Jerome Kadden. JMM#1995.173.032
“There are so few ready-made decorations for Hanukkah one can purchase, and what fun would that be anyway! So with family cooperation, a little creativity and materials such as crepe paper, paste etc., it is surprising how well we can express our ideas. . . . We hope you will enjoy creating Holiday fun. This is your Decoration Committee signing off and wishing you all a very Happy Hanukkah.”
A blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.
Posted on November 9th, 2015 by Rachel
As Thanksgiving approaches, thoughts turn to family celebrations and all the preparations that go with them: making travel plans, or – if you’re the host or hostess – choosing recipes, decorations, and serving ware. After all, presentation is just as important as the food itself! If you’re feeling like your best china (or your favorite portable casserole dish) has been seen too many times before, now’s your chance to look around for something a bit different in advance of the holiday. May I suggest something with vintage flair, like our golden pheasant platter?
Donated by Bonnie Hoback, JMM 1994.139.1
Full disclosure: I originally intended to write about turkeys, and was pleased to discover that we had a turkey platter… only to find upon closer examination that, no, it’s not a turkey. No matter; our friend Pheasant looks jolly enough, if a trifle startled, and the platter has a nice little story.
Slightly startled pheasant.
The dish was made by the Pope-Gosser China Company of Ohio in the 1930s. In that decade, the company got into the business of selling customized promotional pieces: plates, dishes, and mugs with a pretty picture and the name of the shop. For small stores around the country, these pieces served as permanent advertising (reminding you of their fine goods with every meal) and, if given away or sold for a tiny price, they also made a nice customer perk. In this case, our platter was made for Checket, Gerber & Co., a clothing and furniture store on N. Gay Street, Baltimore.
“Compliments of Checket-Gerber & Co., Furniture – Clothing, 237-39 N. Gay St.” Yes, the first e in “Checket” is printed upside down.
Checket, Gerber & Co. was a partnership between Jewish businessmen Henry W. Checket, Benjamin P. Checket, and Jacob Gerber. I’ve not found much about these gentlemen (other than that two of them belonged to Shaarei Tfiloh Congregation), but looking through various Baltimore City directories can help trace the evolution of the company. The shop originated with Henry’s father Hyman Checket, who had a clothing store on E. Baltimore St. in the early 1900s; Henry and Benjamin (perhaps a cousin?) were working for him by 1908, and Jacob Gerber joined the firm in the early 1910s. By 1926 the store had moved from E. Baltimore to 239 N. Gay St., and in 1930 the listing includes the storefront at 237. Gerber left the partnership by 1937, for that year’s directory lists it simply as Checket & Co Furniture, on N. Howard.
The platter was donated by Bonnie Amend Hoback, whose mother Louise acquired it during one of her shopping trips in East Baltimore and – based on the worn condition, including chips in the rim and some light staining under the glaze – used it for some years. Mrs. Hoback recalled, “My mother took me shopping in the 1930s on Gay Street. It was around Thanksgiving. I remember the many kindnesses shown to us. The children were always given something. My mother bought me a coat at this store, and a very kind gentleman took care of us. There was a potbelly stove on each floor . . . . They knew us as customers because my family shopped on Gay Street and Lombard Street all the time [although] our family was not Jewish.” These pleasant memories prompted Mrs. Hoback to donate the platter to the museum in 1994.
…And, while looking through the Jewish Times for a Checket, Gerber & Co. advertisement (no luck) I found my turkeys after all:
Here’s the cover image for the November 18th, 1932 Baltimore Jewish Times.
A blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.