Posted on August 4th, 2016 by Rachel
Every week we’re asking our summer interns to share some thoughts and responses to various experiences and readings. This week we asked interns to respond to Edward Rothstein’s article The Problem with Jewish Museums, which we asked them to originally read and discuss during their orientation back in June. This week they need to reflect back as well as read a number of responses to that article before articulating their own.
Would the Refugees Agree with Rothstein?
The author of “The Problem with Jewish Museums,” Rothstein, has clearly visited and dissected more Jewish and Holocaust museums than I. Some of his critiques, such as Jewish museums emphasizing Jews who succeeded based on American ideals rather than Jewish ones, are likely true. However, some of his observations, even if true, I don’t view in a negative light. As one response noted, thousands of Jewish museums exist around the world, and hundreds in America. They can’t, and shouldn’t, all emphasis the same points and ideas. Rothstein criticizes both Jewish museums that function as a “Jewish morgue” by emphasizing artifacts and supposedly ignoring continuity, as well as museums that focus too much on “universalizing” the Jewish experience and providing warnings about the future. Perhaps if he believes Jewish museums only focus on one or another, I understand the critique. However, what’s the problem with some museums focusing on the Jewish past without focusing on the present? What’s wrong with the Tolerance Museum, which doesn’t call itself the “genocide” museum, focusing on exactly what it’s focused on, intolerance of all kinds and degrees?
To his point about Holocaust Museums relating the Holocaust to other genocides, he includes the line “hey, you have to pay attention, this isn’t just about us,” as a negative. I disagree. Museums about genocide should understand more than anyone both how terrible and how possible genocides are. In the United States Holocaust Museum, nearly the entire building focuses on the Jewish Holocaust and includes rooms that focus specifically on past and continued anti-Semitism. At the very end, however, they included one room about the Cambodian Genocide with the caution that genocides continued even soon after the Holocaust, and, even more importantly, a room about the Syrian Refugee Crisis, with videos and a plaque that states that the war in Syria has conditions for a genocide. It includes the essential line, “The Museum calls on public figures and citizens to avoid condemning today’s refugees as a group. It is important to remember that many are fleeing because they have been targeted by the Assad regime and ISIS for persecution and in some cases elimination on the basis of their identity”
President Barack Obama and Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel stop for a moment of silence in the Hall of Remembrance as they toured the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Monday, April 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Maybe Rothstein is worried that having these small exhibits at the end somehow detracts from focusing only on the Holocaust and how anti-Semitism in particular fueled it. But, for one, the exhibits about the concentration camps, witnessing the shoes, the testimonies, the pictures, creates a very powerful and lasting message, hopefully regardless of what they view right after. Second, if he believe that anti-Semitism is a special sort of hate that fuels genocide, then he should pay more attention to the parts of these museums that he believes don’t believe. Hatred, fear, nationalism, instability, and misplaced hopes and desires of any sort could potentially fuel genocide – and has. Speaking about the Syrian refugees right after going through Holocaust exhibits is probably one of the places most likely to garner people’s sympathy and have them help the refugees. Maybe he doesn’t think it belongs there, but I doubt the refugees feel the same way. I can’t help but think that if museums depicting past genocides existed while the Holocaust occurred, that Rothstein may not have been opposed to them explaining how the conditions that horrified visitors in the museum is occurring right now, and people need help. People of all kinds visit this museum, including politicians and diplomats and journalists and lawyers, people with a direct say in and about world events. Rothstein may be against Holocaust museums including these exhibits, but personally, I would criticize them if they didn’t.
The Jewish Identity
Edward Rothstein discusses the issue with group identity museums. He believes that other museums discuss their identity despite America, while Jewish museums base a lot of their discussion about their assimilation into America. He says “I can’t think of a single identity museum that is not disfigured by historical oversimplification and even delusion…” (Rothstein 9). While I agree with him when he says that each group deserves its own identity, and its own place to express it, I would have to disagree that all Jewish museums focus on the same thing.
I think what Rothstein misses is the fact that Judaism is multidimensional. There is the religious aspect, the identity aspect and the experience that combines the two. If a person is religious they will look for something different in a museum than someone who is just Jew-ish. Someone that prays three times a day verses someone who believes not eating bread is more of a friendly suggestion on Passover. Regardless, each person is a Jew and I think that concept is hard to grasp for some people. Being Jewish is more than religion it is a way of thinking and understanding. I think that is why there are so many Jewish museums and each one serves a different purpose.
Feeling displaced is a huge part of being Jewish and I think that is one of the reasons a lot of museums focus on Jews in America or Jews settling anywhere else. Maybe you have to be Jewish to understand that, or maybe you have to be an immigrant or born from an immigrant to understand, but maybe the message doesn’t come across well enough. Rothstein insensitively misses the point and might have to do a little soul searching to understand the importance of focusing not just on the particulars of one identity.
~ Rachel Morin
Jewish Museums: A Unique Problem Requires Unique Solutions
Eric Rothstein pegs Jewish museums as identity museums, then goes on to compare them to museums of Asian and African American culture and history. He notes that Jewish museums veer from the usual identity museum narratives of overcoming oppression and being liberated by being one’s self. However, the comparison between Jewish museums and museums based on ethnicity is in some ways false: to be Jewish can refer to ethnicity, culture, and/or religion. And the term “Jewish” itself is a broad term, an umbrella for various sects and streams, opinions, rituals, and stories.
In his response, Rothstein does seem interested in a Jewish museum capable of addressing this multiplicity, in a way that creates a public forum for the local Jewish community. I agree that this is a goal worth striving for; as we work here at the JMM to create a new core exhibit, which we hope will illuminate the diversity of Jewish experience and identity in Maryland, we do hope to be a part of an ongoing conversation about what it means to be Jewish, and who is a Jew.
At the same time, a museum is a business, and ours needs to increase its number of visitors. A Jewish museum has a decision to make: will it be designed for Jews, allowing non-Jewish visitors to be voyeurs of explicitly Jewish phenomenon, and Jews to have a place to discuss and explore their own identity? Or will it be designed with a broader audience in mind, where both Jews and non-Jews will find stories and themes that relate to or resonate with them? The JMM, with its tagline, “Find Yourself Here,” has chosen to be designed around the latter, but I don’t think that means sacrificing the goal of making our exhibit and our space a place for Jewish people to explore their identities.
I agree with Rothstein’s argument that making Jewish and Holocaust museums overly universal is detrimental to the museums. But Rothstein offers few solutions, pointing only to museums that are tailored to less contentious audiences, such as the Creation Museum or the Church History Museum, which he himself says are “for believers meant to strengthen both belief and belonging.” But even if you were to try to design a museum for Jewish “believers,” you would find yourself at a wall, since the definition of being Jewish is so broad, varied, and personal.
Nevertheless, I think our efforts at the JMM towards a core exhibit that highlights multiplicity while also illustrating universal themes have been so far successful, steps in a direction even Rothstein could get behind. I think we are on our way to creating an exhibit where one can find the universal in the particular.
~ Emilia Halvorsen
Never Again: A Response to Rothstein
When we first arrived here, we were asked to read an article by Ed Rothstein on the Jewish identity museum. In his article, he claims that Jewish Museums are too focused on universalism and not focused enough on the individual qualities of the Jewish identity. Rothstein claims that Jewish Museums, particularly Holocaust museums, “mitigate the point with other examples of injustice, genocide, and, yes, intolerance.” I completely disagree. Events do not happen in isolation and prejudices are still an unfortunate part of our world.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C.
This past Tuesday, we attended the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC. I spent nearly two hours in the exhibit and the effects were profound. The exhibit, while it focused on the Jewish people, did contain some elements about the other types of people who were put to death. The Roma and the physically or mentally handicapped were also seen as unfit for life by the German state. Their inclusion in the story, however, did not take away from the power of the museum. The docents wear buttons with two simple words that continue to linger in my mind: never again. The museum’s purpose is to keep the Holocaust in historical memory. The USHMM’s Never Again slogan reveals the greatest reason for keeping these memories alive. Identity does not happen in isolation. It is impossible.
~ Rebecca Miller
Why Jewish-American is Still Jewish
Edward Rothstein’s article “The Problem with Jewish Museums” is controversial for many reasons. In it, he tackles many different facets of Jewish Museums, but he focuses primarily on the contrast between Jewish museums and other identity museums such as African-American Museums. He argues that these identity museums follow a particular formula that highlights their distinctive culture apart from American culture, but that Jewish museums instead focus on their assimilation in American mainstream, thus ignoring or downplaying their “Jewishness”. And while Rothstein makes several important sub-points within his argument (he remarks that identity museums try to force together groups that have historically only been unified by the racism directed towards them, such as Chinese and Korean peoples being linked as “Asian”), overall I would disagree vehemently with his belief that Jewish identity museums fail to provide a group identity through Jewish culture.
I have been working at the JMM (obviously a Jewish identity museum) for a little over two months now doing research for the exhibit on weddings. Although I would say this definitely does not qualify me as an expert, it does allow me to say that a very significant portion of the work that I’m doing has involved Jewish wedding traditions. Many of our artifacts are related to the Jewish faith, such as ketubot, chuppas, wedding sermons, and more. Furthermore, one of the main themes in this exhibit is how to blend the traditions of one’s forebears into a wedding ceremony, since wedding ceremonies tend to be filled with a mix of old and new, traditions and modernity.
But even outside of this wedding exhibit, even outside of the JMM, an exhibit need not be religious for it to show and teach about Jewish-American culture. Rothstein seems to have trouble accepting that museums should express how Jewish identity goes beyond religion, or that there can be any sort of cultural overlap. An article written in response to Rothstein by Professor Laura Burd Schiavo at George Washington University explains the problem with Rothstein’s analysis of Jewish museums in contrast with other identity museums much better than I could. She writes, “Because, historically, American Jews were allowed to ‘become white’ (even given the American history of anti-semitism and the foreignness of Jews that still persists in many parts of the country), expressions of Jewish identity are acceptably understood to be American, at least by Rothstein, and become stories of assimilation.”
Rothstein seems unable to accept that Jewish-American culture might still be Jewish in nature if it is not religious in nature or vastly different from American culture. For what it’s worth, I would say that Jewish identity museums like the JMM do a fantastic job of sharing and educating on Jewish-American history and identity.
~ Gina Crosby
How is Jewish Identity Defined?
Ed Rothstein’s essay “The Problem with Jewish Museums” criticizes the absence of material about Judaism as a religion from most modern Jewish museums. He asks, “What has Judaism been as a religion, a living congeries of beliefs, laws, and practices? Who have the Jews been as a people and what does Jewish peoplehood imply or require of them? How have those laws and the texts embodying them made their peace, or failed to make their peace, with American life?” From what I’ve learned during my time at the JMM, this seems to be a gross oversimplification of the Jewish identity.
My research and experience here has taught me that Judaism is only one component of the identity and isn’t necessarily required in order to consider yourself Jewish. People can be ethnically and culturally Jewish, as well. Jewish communities have so many different perspectives and moving parts that any single attempt to portray the content of Judaism and Jewish identity would certainly come up short and risk presenting the truly diverse and colorful array of Jewish communities as monolithic.
Furthermore, Jewish identity is also defined by outsiders. Prejudice, for instance, may unite a Jewish community and encourage them to include people they may regularly exclude to combat the influence of anti-semitism. Ed Rothstein doesn’t see these ideas as important, which I think is incredibly shortsighted.
JMM’s “Beyond Chicken Soup” exhibit explores the cultural basis behind the “Jewish doctor” stereotype. Credit: Jewish Museum of Maryland
~ Alice Wynd
Trying to tell the story of many: response to “The Problem with Jewish Museums”
“The Problem with Jewish Museums” by Edward Rosenstein is a rather harsh article that feels that the main problem with Jewish museums is an underplaying of Jewish identity. Jewish identity, as Rosenstein mentions in a response he wrote tends to be very complex. To some Jewish identity is strongly linked to the religion; to others it is more about the culture. I went on a Birthright trip to Israel and we had an activity where groups of five of a larger mixed group of New York, Florida, Baltimore and Israeli Jews were told to rank a set of concepts associated with Judaism. The activity showed that the Israeli and American Jews had different concepts of Judaism. For example the Israeli’s ranked Zionism as being more important part of Judaism than us Americans did; my group put belief in a single god as very important, where most groups didn’t. Each group had a unique ranking of the concepts. Keeping this activity in mind it seems it would be almost impossible to create a museum that tells the story of Jewish identity that addresses all the unique forms it takes.
The Jewish Museum of Maryland addresses this issue by telling a very specific story of Jewish identity, particularly how the Jewish population of the Jones Falls area influenced and was influenced by the greater culture of Baltimore. The story it tells is not solely Jewish, but it recognizes that the Jewish culture does not exist in a vacuum. That is the lesson that I think other museums could learn from Jewish Museums. The Museum of the American Indian, in my opinion, glosses over the ways that greater American culture hurt and influenced Amerindians and how that culture enriches American culture. I have witnessed tour groups coming through the museum and the memories that the museum evokes, and the stories that visitors, especially the older ones, tell enrich the experience of the museum. By connecting the story of the Jews to the story of American history it fills in gaps in most people’s knowledge by building on that existing knowledge. Rosenstein criticizes Jewish museums for not celebrating their history more, but I don’t think that is their goal. I think the goal is more to say “hey we are a part of this history too!” which they do well.
~ Tamara Schlossenberg
What is the purpose of any museum?
Rothstein offers some serious criticisms of Jewish Museums, claiming that they are overly general, overlapping with one another, and do not serve a specified purpose as opposed to other museums, like those dedicated to natural history, science, etc. I think there is some truth to this criticism, but it is mistaken to apply these issues only to Jewish Museums, because they ring true in educational institutions of all types.
To dive more deeply into this issue, I think it important that we first ask: what is the purpose of any museum? This should not refer to a particular kind of museum, for example a Jewish one, but the defining features of all museums. I assert that a museum is nothing more than a collection of artifacts which serve to inform members of the public about the past. The goal of the museum is to educate all members of the public about the past through objects collected from that era. Any other function that the museum fulfills is simply secondary.
So a Jewish museum does fulfill its role as a museum in that it contains a collection of artifacts that serve to inform the public about the past. The problem is that a Jewish museum, although its aim might be to educate all members of the public, does not generally succeed. In labeling themselves as simply Jewish museums, they maintain a special appeal to Jews that may not exist for other potential audiences. So even if it is unintentional, Jewish museums limit their desired patrons to mostly Jewish people, and rely on them for donations, funding, volunteering, etc., as opposed to serving the entire community irrespective of cultural or religious affiliations. This is indeed a failure of Jewish Museums to fully qualify as all-community-serving institutions. They are not entirely public, and serve a particular community. This is against the ideal of education, and in my opinion is a serious failing.
This is not a problem exclusive to Jewish Museums, but endemic to cultural institutions around the United States and the World. In attempts to preserve culture which we see as valuable, we separate ourselves from other cultural elements within our society, and perpetuate inequality and conflict. This is true of schools that cater to specific religious or ethnic denominations, charities, and the like. Instead of successfully showcasing the diversity of society in an inclusive way, these kinds of institutions prolong a complacent segregation of peoples of different color, ethnicity, faith, etc., and for the sake of cultural unity, should be abandoned. Rather than a Jewish museum, or catholic museum, or buddhist museum, there should be a single museum dedicated to all faiths and comparative studies, which aims to serve the entire community, rather than a subset of a particular interest group. If we can all abandon the mentality that our group is more special, more culturally enlightened, and more worth attention that others, then we will live in a far more harmonious culture. Obviously it is not fair for this burden to rest entirely on Jewish Museums and similar institutions, but is an important cultural initiative in which every citizen must partake in order to form a more civilized and inclusive society.
~ David Agronin
Museums as Morgues?
One of the main points of the article states that Jewish Museums are essentially morgues, rather than a tribute to Judaism’s longevity and resilience in the world. I can’t say I agree with this sentiment, partly because I have not seen anything of the kind at the JMM. In addition to honoring the past, the JMM puts on plenty of programs during the year that are dedicated to the future of Judaism and Maryland. While I cannot speak for other Jewish museums, I do not think this sentiment resonates at all with the JMM. Not to mention, would this not consider every museum of every category as a morgue?
I also find issue with a statement later in the article. Rothstein criticizes the Holocaust Museums, and others dedicated to genocide, for drawing the visitor’s attention to CURRENT genocides that are currently taking place. That, in my experience, is the entire point of history! Learning about past errors so they are never repeated! Without getting too political, the current election in the United States has very clear similarities to the hate and prejudice that Jewish people saw prior to the Holocaust. How can this possible be a legitimate critique?
Rothstein’s article, though well written and well articulated, seems to take a very negative view of the concept of a Jewish Museum. For the first time in my life, I visited the DC Holocaust Museum. Prior to that, I had toured four concentration camps (Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Majdanek) on BBYO’s March of The Living. All of these locations are, naturally, careful to highlight the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. However, they also send the visitor home with inherent motivation to improve the world and fight prejudice. Not only does this not harm the museum’s content, it positively impacts the take away message.
Overall, my experience with Jewish Museums has been very positive. Obviously the content is geared towards the past, as it is a museum. But the overall message is concentrated on the future, and how we can impact it knowing what we know.
Responses to “The Problem with Jewish Museums”
When I initially read “The Problem with Jewish Museums” I had to go back and dig through its contents a couple of times. His complaint was loud and clear, Jewish museums aren’t Jewish enough; yet no solutions were offered. It is one thing to generalize an entire unique section of the museum world but it is another thing entirely to do so while not offering any real advice or constructive feedback.
Let’s use the Jewish Museum of Maryland as an example for his argument; the JMM is deeply rooted in local history and the anthropology of the East Baltimore area extending all the way throughout the state which served as a baseplate for Jewish immigrants in the United States. This helps keep it relevant in Baltimore a city where Judaism as a faith accounts for about 8% of the population according to the 2010 census. If the museum catered entirely to the Jewish community there would be certain repercussions, one of these being a further alienation of the Jewish community from the people of Baltimore. The majority of Jewish residents in Maryland live outside of the city and come in to visit. A museum only catering to such a specific demographic has a hard time providing content relevant to the community it resides in.
Jewish museums come in many different forms, Jewish art museums, holocaust memorial museums, Jewish historical museums etc.. It is this variety that keeps them interesting and relevant, it sounds like the ‘problem’ with Jewish museums is their lack of focus on the faith. The response article “Why are there so many Jewish Museums” touches on this point, the phenomenon of local Jewish museums and their purposes. These museums exist as institutions in local communities, while they are all very specific to certain details they are also important to the areas they are in as a whole. They serve as education platforms to educate people about different cultures and minorities within their communities while building a culture of tolerance. “The Problem with Jewish Museums” preaches that holocaust memorials don’t address antisemitism, yet antisemitism can be prevented by the very existence of these institutions.
~O. Cade Simon
Posted on August 3rd, 2016 by Rachel
After a few hours of flipping through old magazines, flyers, and ticket stubs, I’m convinced that this category of artifacts contains more information about modern history than anything else. I went into the basement collections to find objects for a Rosh Hashanah exhibit this past week, and became distracted by all of the modern history contained in each box. At first, I stayed focused. I knew which objects and manuscripts to locate and followed the directions to the correct box and dividing folder. My second time down there, however, I lugged the needed box onto the table, opened it, and promptly forgot about staying on-task. In looking for a specific greeting card, I stumbled upon boxes filled with my favorite parts of history.
I struggle to appreciate historical vases, instruments, or other objects; I look at them for a few moments and don’t learn that much about the time period. Written artifacts, however, such as magazines, newspapers, brochures, and flyers give me so much to think about. Looking through a magazine from the 1930s, you see the style of advertising, what they advertised (so many cigarette ads), the style of how people wrote, the words they used, the businesses open, not to mention what people wrote about during that time.
Where the goodies live
These specific artifacts speak about historical and approaching modern-day Baltimore, an especially interesting subject in terms of race relations, urbanization, and Jewish communities. One brochure for an art program from the 1930s included a large picture of Black and White children working together at the same table, even though Jim Crow laws still operated in Baltimore during that period. Another magazine included an opinion editorial written by a White woman about her (negative) opinion on Black churches and how they’ll affect the economy; an article disturbing in how similar to sounded to articles still published today, with slightly different wording. I held Baltimore first “colored” magazine and Yiddish bulletins for services.
15 cents per copy!
I had to pause to consider all the knowledge buried in these artifacts. When and how did different words begin to be used? How quickly did cigarette ads begin to decline in publications? When did each individual publication begin to include pictures of Black and White people together? How did two different publications tell the same story? In a Playbill, what did the actors look like? What did they include in their bios? What kind of paper did people use for flyers in different neighborhoods? Diaries, letters, and household objects, especially when combined, certainly speak to many people and contain useful information when deconstructing the past and present. For me, however, publications that include words, pictures, ads, and messages directed at the public, the things people absorbed every day, contain more information than anything. Therefore, the chance to see, touch, and flip through such a variety of these sources, from such an interesting and vibrant city, really excites me.
For the record, contemplating research questions and flipping through magazines wasn’t a complete waste of time; I stumbled upon a calendar to use in the Rosh Hashanah exhibit during my wanderings!
Blog post by Education & Programs Intern Anna Balfanz. To read more posts by and about interns click HERE.
Posted on July 28th, 2016 by Rachel
Every week we’re asking our summer interns to share some thoughts and responses to various experiences and readings. This week we asked them to read and respond to a variety of exhibition catalogs developed by the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
Lives Lost, Lives Found: Baltimore’s German Jewish Refugees, 1933-1945
Public officials calling for tighter borders, refugee turmoil in Europe, and few that are willing to help them. This is not a description of the contemporary Syrian refugee crisis, although it has many similarities. This is the refugee crisis caused by the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany that would up to and exacerbate the toll of the Holocaust, and the story of some German Jews, with the help of their American counterparts, came to live in Baltimore. And although there are differences between that refugee crisis and the one we face now, there are countless lessons to be learned from the former that could help us cure the latter.
Lives Lost, Lives Found. Exhibit was on view at the Jewish Museum of Maryland from March 14, 2004 to December 29, 2005.
When the Nazi’s gained power in Germany in 1933, it was only the beginning of trouble for European Jewry. The looming threat of the Holocaust was yet unforseen, and only the Jews of Germany had any real warning, culminating in kirstalnacht later in the decade. And of those Jews who desired to leave, sometimes only the wealthiest were actually capable. Many countries barred Jews from entering, with the reasons being that it was not their responsibility, xenophobic sentiment, or antisemitism. This made emigration even more difficult, and undoubtably resulted in countless deaths of those who failed to escape. In Baltimore, the Jewish community successfully petitioned the city to accept Jewish refugees, and in doing so saved many lives. The brave actions of a few saved many.
Although there were hiccups, the new immigrants successfully integrated into their new culture, and the Baltimore Jewish community continues to thrive. The xenophobic and antisemitic reasoning that contributed to so many deaths and so much suffering was, after all, completely unfounded.
So what does this tell us about the modern Syrian refugee crisis? I think there are several major lessons: failure to accept refugees will cost countless lives and increase the suffering of many who are already destitute, and should be avoided at all costs, fear of new groups ruining the cultural ethos of a nation is entirely baseless, and immigrants pose no real threat, and by working with other groups in the cities they immigrate to, and working with their kin and fellow immigrants, they may grow to be extremely successful and valuable to the society that adopts them.
Just something to think about.
~ David Agronin
Familiar Content; Different Layout: Response to “Chosen Food” Exhibit Catalog
Museum exhibit catalogs provide additional information about the topic displayed allowing for more in-depth research into the topic. Through my studies I have used them as research tools and generally found them as a way to interact with exhibits I might not be able to see in person. When reading the exhibit catalog for “Chosen Food” if found it an enjoyable and insightful read. I would never have thought that gifilte fish was ever not a staple of the Jewish diet. I particularly enjoyed the article “Passover Bunny Cakes” about the growing trend of trying to reconcile Jewish and Christian traditions as more families become multi-faith. This is something that I have been trying to reconcile in my own life as my family is Jewish and yet we celebrate Christian holidays such as Christmas. There weren’t too many references specific to Baltimore, but there was one in the article about dinning out where they mention “Corned Beef” row on Lombard St. and the sandwiches you can get there. They ended one description of a typical sandwich from one of the delis with “often washed down with an Almond Smash soda.” That made me nostalgic for a moment as I remembered fondly, drinking the now hard to find soda as a kid.
Chosen Food: Jews and Medicine in America was on view at the Jewish Museum of Maryland from October 23, 2011 to Dec 31, 2012.
There were a few aspects to this catalog that were different from exhibit catalogs I’ve read in the past. The way particular objects and images were highlighted and explained was not what I would have expected. Often in exhibit catalogs, after the article I see a section that looks a bit like a mini exhibit all its own with images of objects and their description as you might see on an exhibit card. Here the description of objects was tied into the articles and anecdotes. In general there didn’t seem to be any references to the exhibit, which I thought was a bit odd. The way anecdotes were interspersed between the articles was a nice personal touch to something that is very familiar to a lot of people. They made the catalog come to life and more of an experience than just reading a collection of scholarly articles.
~ Tamara Schlossenberg
Department Store Identity Crisis
My research at the JMM as of late has consisted of a lot of interesting reading on Jewish identity politics, which has led to my realization that there was a lot I had never critically considered about being Jewish. The big question we are facing with the development of our new core exhibit is, “Who is a Jew?” or, rephrased, “What makes someone Jewish?” But another question that has begun to spring up is, how do Jews fit into the white-black racial dichotomy, specifically in the United States? The answers to all of these questions have varied over history and upon a great number of variables. And I’d be terribly presumptuous in claiming I have a real answer! But reading the exhibition catalogue for the JMM’s 2001 exhibit “Enterprising Emporiums: The Jewish Department Stores of Downtown Baltimore” has added a few more pieces of the story to consider.
Enterprising Emporiums: The Jewish Department Stores of Downtown Baltimore. was on view at the Jewish Museum of Maryland from October 7, 2001 to February 2, 2003.
The two essays that struck me most were “White Sales” by Paul A. Kramer, and “Expressions of Jewish Identity in Baltimore’s Downtown Department Stores” by Melissa J. Martens. The first describes the segregating practices of many Jewish department store owners, and the eventual desegregation of department stores, while the second describes how the stores helped shape and express Jewish identity. But the implication of putting these two essays back to back is, of course, not that expressing a Jewish identity has ever meant inherently being prejudiced, but instead that both essays are two sides of a many-sided die, adding building blocks of identity that have shaped Baltimore Jews.
Hochschild Kohn was the first department store to integrate in Baltimore.
Both essays show the challenges of forging a Jewish American identity: the first tackles a formerly common anxiety about being white (as opposed to black or an “ethnic white”) and the second describes the anxiety of being American (but also Jewish). Such complex ideas are not uncommon to scholarly essays, but now I only wish I could see how the physical exhibited tried to convey them. Regardless of how the efforts were manifested, I’m glad they were made at all.
Keeping It Kosher
For this blog post, I was asked to read an exhibition catalog from before my time here at the JMM for the exhibit Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture, and American Jewish Identity. Before reading this, my knowledge of Jewish food was extremely limited, basically to knowing that kosher meant Jewish food. But reading this catalog helped me learn all sorts of new things about types and attitudes towards Jewish cuisine. One of the coolest things I learned is about the New Jewish Food Movement, a modern trend towards making Jewish eating more ethically sourced and prepared. Part of the NJFM is the eco-kosher movement, which tries to focus specifically on the sustainability of food and the way it’s eaten.
Entrance to the Chosen Food exhibition.
The foundation of the New Jewish Food Movement is in the core values of Jewish eating that originally led to kosher food practices. However, those in the movement argue that these kosher values do not simply apply to the death of animals, but rather to the treatment of the animal during its life span as well as the treatment of those working to produce the food, such as employees at kosher food plants. For some, this even means going vegetarian or vegan. Learning about the New Jewish Food movement really opened my eyes about Jewish food practices and eating culture in contemporary America. There’s a lot of food trends right now in America that are focusing on eating in a way that is both healthy and ethical; the exponential rise of organic groceries is just one example. But the NJFM uses Jewish eating culture and history to drive the movement, making it a uniquely Jewish force in a field that’s growing every day—which is pretty awesome if you ask me.
~ Gina Crosby
Cornerstones of Community: The Historic Synagogues of Maryland
This exhibit was presented at the Jewish Museum of Maryland from May 16, 1999 to July 15, 2001. It analyzed the growth and change in the Baltimore and Maryland Jewish communities through their building of synagogues. These religious spaces changed to fit the community’s needs. One obvious characteristic is documented by the gradual moving of sacred spaces first uptown and then out of the city as the German Baltimore Jewish population increased their status. Not only did the exhibit look at the spaces in their Jewish context when they were built, but it also looked at what the spaces eventually became when congregations moved on. The German Jewish population may have moved to the outskirts and then eventually out of Baltimore, but the newly arrived Eastern European Jewish population took over some of the city shuls formerly occupied by the German Jewish. Many others have become African-American churches and masonic lodges. The buildings remain “Cornerstones of Community,” even if they are no longer Jewish houses of worship. This exhibition was about more than the buildings, although it did look at architecture as a way of expression. It focused on the communities they contained and how the buildings fit their communities needs.
Lloyd Street Synagogue , JMM 2003.047.031
The Jewish Museum of Maryland has two historic synagogues on our campus. The oldest synagogue in Maryland, the Lloyd Street Synagogue has been occupied by both the German and Eastern European Jewish congregations and was briefly a Catholic church in between. The other synagogue on campus, now occupied by B’nai Israel, was originally built by the Chizuk Amuno congregation that broke away from the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and built the original Lloyd Street Synagogue. Both buildings tell their own stories of adaption and community and their presence on campus is a continuation of the “Cornerstones of Community” exhibit.
B’nai Israel, JMM 1984.045.001
~ Rebecca Miller
Establishing Identity: German Jews in America
For this week’s blogpost I read a book called Lives Lost, Lives Found: Baltimore’s German Jewish Refugees 1933 – 1945 produced by the Jewish Museum of Maryland. The center theme of Jewish immigrants finding identity in America has been prevalent through the history of Baltimore and the United States as a whole. While Jewish families experienced the pogroms (organized mobs meant to kill and harm Jewish people) for years in Eastern Europe and Russia many Europeans living in Germany, France and Belgium had experienced less of this violence, what could be called a relative degree of calm. This all changed after the First World War, Adolf Hitler a young soldier from the first world war quickly rose to power in the National Socialist German Worker’s Party later referred to as the Nazi party. As early as 1919 his publications such as (Mein Kampf or “My Country”) began to ride on the anger caused by the recession and poor resolutions established in the post war treaty of Versace, one particular outlet of his rage was Jewish Germans whom he accused of being corrupters and undermining Germany as a country.
Many German Juden (Jews) quickly noticed the trends of violence and hate seeing the foreshadowed consequences firsthand as their stores were blockaded and eventually destroyed. Those with the means fled abroad, many to local countries in Europe (France, Belgium, and Austria before it was annexed) Many were only able to send their children abroad to countries such as the United States, at the time Maryland was an established port city with a large immigrant population, some of which were Jews which had come over generations earlier and established themselves. With their eyes set to the United States a wave of German Jews began an exodus to the land of opportunity.
Nazis close Jewish businesses in Germany
Things became complicated, the United States had been lenient on immigrants for years but the 1920’s saw an unprecedented amount of quotas, the response was legislation such as The Quota Act of 1921 which limited the number of immigrants allowed in the US. A few families managed to make their way over only to find themselves isolated and with limited family. It was tough putting together the means to survive, the United States had just come out of a depression and previous immigrants had firmly established themselves in the community. Many arrived as mere children working to survive without the help of family. Discrimination was not unheard of in the United States as well, while less immediately dangerous it gave an incentive to try and establish a local identity to this new generation of immigrants. Throughout the years the Jewish families from the Deutschland (Germany) eventually garnered respect as they created their place in the local community while maintaining their faith, as generations moved on they assimilated to American culture, the city of Baltimore was truly shaped by their experiences and participation.
Jewish immigrants on Ellis Island, the main processing center for immigrants entering the United States.
~O. Cade Simon
Chosen Food and Shabbat
Chosen Food by the Jewish Museum of Maryland does a fantastic job discussing the impact that cuisine has had on the Jewish culture in America.
Matzah Ball soup, challah and brisket are a few family favorites that my grandmother prepared for Shabbat dinner on Friday night. It is a common stereotype, that Jewish mothers and grandmothers love to put a large amount of food on the table, while insisting that their guests are “too thin” or “need bulking!”. Generalizations are rarely a good thing, though upon reading Chosen Food, I see that this seems to compliment the Jewish family. Jewish immigrants struggled to provide enough food for their family which has resulted in an inherent instinct to keep children well fed. Today a large and colorful dinner table can be seen as the mark of a financially stable family.
Jewish food is often mixed with a variety of different cultures. In addition to the classic Chinese food accompanied by a movie, I have had Shabbat dinners with sushi, Mexican food, pasta and Mediterranean food. Most of these occurred with Towson Hillel or on a BBYO trip, and I continue to be impressed with how so many types of food can be incorporated into a Jewish meal. It speaks volumes about the nature of Jewish people who are willing to mix their culture with another, rather than stubbornly maintain the authenticity.
Lastly, the article discusses the importance of Shabbat and how it can provide a feeling of home to anyone, wherever they are. I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Whether I am in Baltimore, Jerusalem, or Philadelphia, I always feel home at a Shabbat Dinner. Shabbat at college allowed me to stay connected to the Friday night tradition I grew so accustomed to. Similarly, when I was in Israel for the March of The Living, our Shabbat meals were possibly the best parts of the weekend. The mood is lighter, there is an air of relaxation and of course, food is fantastic. Shabbat, to me, always acts as a time to relax and recharge for the week ahead. This is much better accomplished with a warm meal and some great company.
Tallits and Big Business
Jewish lawyers, Jewish doctors, Jewish deli owners, Jewish merchants. Mention any of these words together and Jews and non-Jews alike nod their heads in acceptance. But Jewish department store owners? Even after attending a Jewish school for many years, this combination never occurred to me. The “Enterprising Emporiums” catalog brought this connection to my attention, and in the “Expressing Jewish Identity” essay, it spoke about how Jewish businesses combined their Jewish customs and knowledge with their American image and business needs. I found it especially interesting that one radio show that included an episode regarding a bar-mitzvah, using terms such as “Shul” and “Tallits” which assumes that the general public understands these references. However, it left out whether or not the public did or didn’t understand everything in the episode. After working with different school groups during my internship, I know that many students and teachers in Baltimore rarely have any real exposure to Judaism and wouldn’t be able to define a “synagogue” much less the Yiddish “shul.” I wonder how that compares to Baltimore one hundred, or two hundred, years ago.
Going off this, I wonder how Jews and non-Jews felt about the occasional display of Jewish items in a store alongside the secular or Christian items. These days, I still consider it a small victory to see a menorah alongside a Christmas tree, but I’m disappointed that this feels victorious and notice the discrepancy between huge tree and the small Chanukah objects. Did the Jewish storeowners wish they didn’t need to cater to the Christian American majority for the sake of their business? Did they feel happy to be able to emote their Jewishness at all? Equally interesting, how did the shoppers feel about Jewish displays, objects, or events? Did they notice? Did it bother them? Did they know what the objects were? Did it ever spark any dialogue? I always wonder about the ‘human’ element, each side’s thoughts in relation to every action. This catalog and essay made me feel even more connected to Baltimore, and one day, maybe I’ll be able to find some related interviews and get to see inside people’s heads from this time and place even more!
The Other Promised Land
As I have come to understand it, being Jewish is not as much about the religion as it about having a consistent community of people around you. In The Other Promised Land: Vacationing, Identity and the Jewish American Dream, the article titled Baltimore’s Backyard: Jewish Vacations in Maryland speaks about this idea of vacation as a means of spending time with your surrounding community.
The Other Promised Land: Vacationing, Identity and the Jewish American Dream was on view at the Jewish Museum of Maryland from July 11, 2006 to April 9, 2007.
Deborah R. Weiner writes about 1910s “when Progressive Era values met Jewish traditions of tzedekah and mutual aid, Jewish philanthropies began to sponsor vacations for working-class women and girls who spent their days bent over sewing machines or raising large families in dark and cramped tenements” (Weiner 34). There are many members in a community and some are less represented than others, namely women, but when women band together to help each other that only makes the community grow stronger. What I found interesting is that The Daughters in Israel, a women’s charity, opened the Vacation Camp for Jewish Working Girls which then became what we know today as Camp Louise. The tradition of women helping women carries on today which means the efforts of the 1910s have not gone to waste.
In the article mentioned above discusses popular vacation sites and patterns that Jewish Baltimoreans created for themselves. These places have shaped the Jewish community of Baltimore. These spaces helped shape traditions and culture, community and identity and I think that was my biggest takeaway. If there were no spaces to relax and understand that leisure time is a necessity, there would be no Camp Louise today for young girls to enrich their lives, there would be no Ocean City or Pen-Mar to create new memories and feel the nostalgia of the old, there would not be a sense of closeness that can only happen in a relaxed state surrounded by the people who really matter. If there is one thing that being Jewish is really about (for me anyway) it is the company of those people in times of trouble and in times of leisure.
~ Rachel Morin