Posted on December 18th, 2013 by Rachel
An assignment this week to create a list of the most memorable JMM activities of 2013 (see JMM Insights, December 19, 2013 – coming on Friday!) inspired quite a bit of discussion among our staff, and turned out to be a fun exercise. The pace here at the JMM is often so fast and it is rare that we have time to reflect on events that have taken place and to savor our successes as there is always something new that demands our immediate attention. Winnowing the list down to include twelve memorable events (we just couldn’t stop at 10) proved challenging, an indication of the many wonderful things that took place this past year across all departments.
As I reviewed the list that made the final cut, one activity really stood out from the pack, and that was the debut of our newest living history character based on the life of beloved Baltimore icon and caterer extraordinaire, Bessie Bluefeld.
Actor Terry Nicholetti performing as Bessie Bluefeld
When I first arrived at the JMM thirteen years ago, one of my first assignments was to begin work on an educational activity that would serve as a resource for Jewish day and congregational schools on the topic of immigration history. That kit became the Immigrant’s Trunk which explored the lives of two Jewish immigrants who settled in Baltimore in the early 20th century, Ida Rehr and Saul Bernstein, through reproductions of JMM collections items such as photos, immigration documents, and Jewish ritual items.
A photograph of immigrant Ida Rehr with her siblings before she left her home in Ukraine to settle in Baltimore
The concept of the trunk grew to encompass a living history component complete with professional actors who portrayed the lives of the immigrants whose experiences are explored through the trunk contents.
Actor Katherine Lyons who portrays Ida Rehr with the trunk
These performances proved popular, not just with Jewish students but also non-Jewish students attending public and Catholic school and adults too. Over the years it has been amazing to watch as this program that started with such humble ambitions has evolved in the Leo V. Berger Immigrant’s Trunk, one of the JMM signature programs for audiences of all backgrounds, including versions of the trunk designed for preschool audiences as well as for individuals with visual impairments.
Actor Tim King portraying Saul Bernstein at a performance for Cross Country Elementary students
And now we have added a brand new character, Bessie Bluefeld, who has already proved enormously popular with audiences. Bessie’s story encapsulates so many rich themes as the performance begins with her arriving fresh off the boat in Baltimore’s Locust Point where she marvels at just how different her new home is from what she has left behind and goes on to dramatize the extraordinary effort she places in creating a home for her husband and children and her determination to save the family from financial ruin after a bad business deal.
Bessie arriving in Locust Point
One of the joys of this particular living history character is that so many Baltimoreans have fond memories of Bluefeld Catering and loved sharing the stories of their special events during the Q&A session following performances.
Bessie answering questions following a performance
We have also been privileged to talk to members of the Bluefeld family including Bessie’s son Louis and grandchildren who have shared treasured family stories and photographs. At the performance debut this past spring, we were delighted to welcome so many members of the Bluefeld family.
Members of the Bluefeld family at the spring performance debut
Bessie greeting a member of the Bluefeld family following her performance
It was evident that the performance resonated with the members of the family in attendance and there was hardly a dry eye in sight when one of her grandsons stood up to thank the JMM. In his words, “You gave me back my grandmother.” This simple expression of gratitude sums up exactly what it is that the JMM strives to do. As I reflect back on a year of so many successes, this is my number one moment!
We are grateful to everyone whose hard work and dedication brought Bessie to life with a special thank you to script writer Jonathon Scott Fuqua, director and producer Harriet Lynn of Heritage Theatre Artists’ Consortium, and actor Terry Nicholetti. We are also most appreciative of the Leo V. Berger Fund for their continued support of our Immigrant’s Trunk program.
A blog post by Assistant Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts by Deborah, click here.
Posted on January 31st, 2011 by Rachel
On Sunday, February 6, the Leo V. Berger Immigrant’s Trunk living history performance will travel to Beth Israel Congregation’s Hebrew School in Owings Mills. While there is nothing unusual about this – after all, the Immigrant’s Trunk is a JMM outreach program that travels frequently – what is special about this performance has to do with a member of the audience with a unique perspective on the story.
The program interprets the life of Ida Rosen Rehr – a real life Jewish immigrant from Ukraine – who settled in Baltimore in the early 20th century. Ida came from a large family in a small shtetl in Ukraine where her father was the town’s rabbi. She left behind her parents and five siblings to join her older sister and uncle in Baltimore. Professional actor Katherine Lyons tells her story as she unpacks a trunk containing reproduced family photos from the JMM collections as well as artifacts meant to represent aspects of her daily life as a Jewish immigrant living in East Baltimore in the early 1900s.
The program was created eight years ago as a means of bringing immigration history – a key JMM theme – to life in an engaging manner for students at Jewish day and congregational schools. Since its inception, the program has been performed for thousands of students, teachers, and adults; it now travels regularly throughout the state (and beyond) to public, private, and parochial schools as well as senior centers and community organizations.
One of the reasons for the program’s success is because of the rich story at its heart. When we initiated this project, JMM staff began combing our archives in search of interesting photographs and documents that we could assemble to tell the story of a fictional character. We were delighted when we stumbled upon a collection of materials devoted to Ida. The collection included a scrapbook filled with handwritten index cards that recorded responses to oral history interview questions that Ida’s granddaughter Roz had conducted with her as a Hebrew school project. The scrapbook also contained photographs that documented Ida’s life and documents such as her naturalization certificate.
With such an abundance of materials devoted to Ida, clearly we had found the right person on whom to base this program.
We became even more excited after we hired historian Dean Krimmel who, thanks to some wonderful detective work, located the ship manifest with Ida’s name on it. From the manifest we learned the address in Baltimore where Ida lived upon arrival, the fact that her sister Minnie paid for her travel, and that she had $5 in her possession when she arrived in Baltimore’s Locust Point!
Ship manifest listing Chaye (Ida’s name before it was changed in the US) Rosen
Dean also managed to get us in touch with Ida’s daughter, Dorothy Sherman, who, at the time, was living in Owings Mills. One of the high points of the entire project was connecting with Dorothy and her daughter Roz (the granddaughter whose scrapbook launched the whole project) and having the chance to fill even more details about Ida’s life. From Dorothy we learned that Ida worked as a seamstress in Sonneborn Factory where she had to struggle with the fact that she had to work on Saturdays (in the performance, she talks about how difficult this was for her as the daughter of a rabbi). We also learned the sad fate of her family who remained in Ukraine – with the exception of one sister, they all perished in the Holocaust. Dorothy donated additional artifacts from Ida for use in the performance including a fabulous coat with a fur collar purchased at Hutzlers that has Ida’s name sewn into the lining!
All of this brings us back to the upcoming performance on Feb. 6. Ida’s great-grandson will be in attendance at the show as will his mother Roz. We are so grateful to the Rehr family for all of their assistance in creating this innovative program and for helping us keep Ida’s memory alive. To learn more about the Leo V. Berger Immigrant’s Trunk or to schedule a program, please contact Deborah Cardin, 410-732-6400 x236 / email@example.com.