Jewish Food is in the News Again

Posted on June 2nd, 2014 by

Just when I think I’ve finally left Jewish food behind (reading about it, that is; I’m still eating Jewish with enormous enjoyment!) comes a wonderful article by Julia Moskin for The New York Times (you can read it here). Artisinal gefilte fish! Wood-fired bagels! Whitefish chowder! It’s fusion, it’s sustainable, it’s simultaneously creative and nostalgic.

Jeff Yoskowitz—one of our friends from Gefilteria, who came down to Baltimore a couple years ago for our GefilteFest—has my favorite quote in the article: “Kosher food didn’t reflect our generation or our tastes, and modern food didn’t reflect our history.” Recognize who we are, but what’s wrong with changing it up a little bit, right? The only thing this baby-boomer curator takes issue with is that these new recipes are for the young. They sure sound delicious to me!

karenA blog post by Curator Karen Falk. To read more posts from Karen, click here. 

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JMM Insights: January 2014

Posted on January 17th, 2014 by

People are often surprised to hear how long it takes from the time an exhibition idea is conceived to its installation in one of our galleries. In fact, exhibition development is a long and multi-tiered process and involves the contributions of a team of individuals each of whom brings diverse skills and areas of expertise to the table that are necessary to create a rich and engaging high quality exhibition. In addition, we often find that the final exhibition is vastly different from what we had anticipated when the project was conceived as we follow the trail of research that often reveals new exciting discoveries suggesting a different interpretive tact than what was originally proposed.

Curator Karen Falk

Curator Karen Falk

At the JMM, we are fortunate to have a skilled exhibition curator, Karen Falk, who takes the lead on developing original exhibitions (including Chosen Food and the upcoming Jews, Health, and Healing project). The curator plays a pivotal role in shaping the exhibit’s big ideas and concepts; conducting research; selecting photographs, documents, and objects to include and determining where in the exhibit they best fit; writing the exhibit script and label text; and supervising the exhibition design and fabrication process. While the curator guides the process, exhibition development at the JMM is very much a collaborative effort. Other members of the team from within the JMM include our collections manager (Jobi Zink), who oversees loan processing, artifact conservation, and exhibit installation; our education director (Ilene Dackman-Alon) who ensures that exhibit content and interactives meet the needs of school audiences; CFO (Susan Press) who develops project budgets; and our executive director (Marvin Pinkert) and assistant director (Deborah Cardin) who participate in various stages of exhibition development. Additional JMM staff members play significant roles in other important aspects such as program development, marketing, gallery preparation, and fundraising. The JMM also relies on the talents of consultants to assist in the critical areas of exhibition design and fabrication. The exhibition designer is typically brought in early in the process and works closely with the project team to refine concepts and to create floor plans, interactive activities, and a graphic identity for the exhibit. Once the design stage is complete, exhibition fabricators work to build exhibit elements including printing panels, labels, and background images. This entire process from start to finish takes a minimum of two years.

Mark your calendars!

Mark your calendars!

Because we do not have enough resources in house to develop original exhibits to install something new in the Feldman Gallery once, much less twice a year, we also rent exhibitions for display that originate at other museums. While traveling exhibits do not involve as much work, JMM staff still must oversee details large and small from negotiating contract agreements to taking care of shipping and insurance arrangements to modifying the exhibit’s design to fit the specifications of our galleries. Some exhibits, such as the upcoming Project Mah Jongg which comes to us from the Museum of Jewish Heritage, are installed more or less as they were originally designed with just a few modifications. For others, we make larger adjustments to the exhibit’s design so that we can add materials that reflect the Maryland experience. For example, for our current exhibit, Passages through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War, we conducted extensive research into the history of Maryland Jewish involvement in the war and added many new stories and artifacts. The resulting installation in our gallery is quite different from how it originally appeared at Yeshiva University Museum.

Mendes Cohen, 1818

Mendes Cohen, 1818

We often get asked how we come up with ideas for exhibits and there really is no simple answer to this question. Topics come to us from many sources including staff, volunteers, board members, visitors, and interns. Sometimes an exhibit project is proposed for a specific reason such as a desire to showcase a particular collection or to tie in with larger communal events.  One current exhibit under development, The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen, was initially proposed by executive director Marvin Pinkert as we were looking to fill in what we thought was going to be a small gap between two other exhibits. The original rationale for this project was an interest in participating in Baltimore’s anniversary celebration of the War of 1812 through the creation of a small scale exhibit focusing on Mendes Cohen, a member of one of Jewish Baltimore’s early prominent families who was a traveler, adventurer, and collector. Our initial proposal was to focus on his wartime involvement at Fort McHenry. We also were eager to display some of the artifacts that we have on display belonging to Mendes including a portable writing desk and jacket.

A puzzle preview

A puzzle preview

As we began exhibit research, we uncovered many new discoveries about Mendes and his family and what began as plans for a small temporary exhibit have turned into a full-fledged interactive exhibit taking the form of a maze (designed by Minotaur Mazes) that will be on view for nine months. The maze format serves as an apt metaphor for Mendes’ life which took many twists and turns. At certain points in the maze, visitors will have to make choices that simulate decisions that Mendes made. Thanks to the efforts of researcher Joseph Abel, who has been working with us on the project for the past few months, we have been able to immerse ourselves in his life by exploring a treasure trove of letters written by Mendes housed at the Maryland Historical Society that provide meticulous accounts of his journeys to Europe and the Middle East (Mendes was the first American citizen to receive official permission from the Ottomans to visit Palestine). Through Joseph’s analysis of these letters as well as of documents housed in other archives, he has uncovered some wonderful new insight into the difficulties of traveling in the 1830s as well as new information about the places he visited during his journey.

The resulting research has led us in a new path. Our latest concept for the exhibit focuses on the search for identity and tasks visitors to explore the many different ways that Mendes defined himself through his family relationships, religious observance, professional obligations, and search for adventure through travels. At a recent meeting with our exhibit designer, Kelly Fernandi of Minotaur Mazes, we were delighted by how he captured the essence of this concept through interpretive panel designs and interactive activities. We all left the meeting feeling enthusiastic about our plans for The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen and are continuing to research new sources and explore new avenues for bringing Mendes’ incredible story to life. We look forward to keeping you apprised of our progress and hope you will join us to discover Mendes for yourself when we open the exhibit in September 2014.

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Museum Insights, July 19, 2013

Posted on July 19th, 2013 by

Those of you who follow our blog posts may have noticed the accent this summer on Civil War stories (June 28, July 2, July 3).  This reflects not only the 150th anniversary commemorations but our own work in preparing for next fall’s exhibit.  I have asked curator, Karen Falk, to tell you a bit about her take on what makes this exhibit important.

Insights from the Civil War

It may come as a surprise to some, but all American Jews can find a connection to the Civil War, whether or not they have ancestors then in the country and in the conflict.

At least, that’s our observation, based on our work with the upcoming exhibition, Passages Through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War, which will open at the JMM on October 13. (Thank you to the organizers of the exhibition, the American Jewish Historical Society and Yeshiva University Museum.) Here are some ways that I’ve connected with the story.

The Jewish debate over slavery. Daughter of the sixties that I am, I was brought up to believe that social justice was a central tenet of Judaism. I’ve learned, however, that such thinking was not as common among the Jewish immigrants of the mid-19th century as it became for later generations. Jews were divided on the question of slavery: they tended to gravitate towards the opinions of their neighbors, North and South. As new immigrants (of 150,000 Jews in America on the eve of the Civil War, 100,000 had been in this country for a decade or less) struggling to make a living and unsure of their place in American society, most Jews preferred neutrality.

Lloyd Street Synagogue, home of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in 1864. Photo by D.R. Stiltz & Co. photographers. Used with permission from Ross Kelbaugh. JMM 1997.71.1

Lloyd Street Synagogue, home of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in 1864. Photo by D.R. Stiltz & Co. photographers. Used with permission from Ross Kelbaugh. JMM 1997.71.1

There were those, however, who expressed strong opinions, among them, the rabbis of Baltimore. Rabbi Bernard Illoway, who served Baltimore Hebrew Congregation from 1859 to 1861, defended slavery from the pulpit saying, “Why did [Moses] not, when he made a law that no Israelite can become a slave, also prohibit the buying and selling of slaves from and to other nations? Was there ever a greater philanthropist than Abraham, and why did he not set free the slaves which the king of Egypt made him a present of?”

Rabbi David Einhorn of Har Sinai Congregation (1855-1861) was incensed by this biblical justification of slavery by Rabbi Illoway and other rabbis.  A staunch defender of human rights, he also used the Torah to support his position: “The ten commandments, the first of which is: “I am the Lord, thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt,—out of the house of bondage” can by no means want to place slavery of any human-being under divine sanction….”

Rabbi David Einhorn, c. 1860, artist unknown. JMM, L1987.018.001.

Rabbi David Einhorn, c. 1860, artist unknown. JMM, L1987.018.001.

Rabbi Einhorn’s views enraged the secessionist-leaning population of Baltimore and he fled the city, taking a pulpit in Philadelphia. Rabbi Illoway also left Baltimore soon after his speech, for a pulpit in New Orleans.

The attempt to expel the Jews.  The Civil War era was not without anti-Semitism. There were commonly-repeated canards about the Jews: they didn’t fight in the military; they were profiteers; they were cunning cheats. At its worst during the war years, these doubts about the Jews translated into General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous Orders No. 11, whereby “The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the Department [including Kentucky and parts of Tennessee and Mississippi] within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.”

Grant issued his order on December 17, 1862. Fighting in his area delayed dissemination of the order throughout the whole of the territory he governed, but enforcement began immediately in Paducah, Kentucky. (Kentucky was a border state: slave-holding but part of the Union.) Jews throughout the country raised an outcry. One man ousted from his home, Cesar Kaskel, immediately traveled to Washington, DC, seeking an audience with President Lincoln. He was seen and supported by the president, who directed Grant to revoke his order.

Telegram announcing the revocation of Grant’s General Orders No. 11, January 6, 1863. Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society.

Telegram announcing the revocation of Grant’s General Orders No. 11, January 6, 1863. Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society.

All of this happened quickly; the order was officially rescinded by Grant on January 17, 1863. American Jews had learned something very important about their home. As historian Eli Evans observes, “the Northern Jewish community had stood beside the Jews in the South, demonstrating a sense of community that transcended sectional bitterness.  Jews [in the Union] had publicly petitioned their government to revoke an order by its most popular general in the midst of a war, and the head of the nation had agreed.” Jews had come together to protest an injustice, had been heard, and been protected.

It’s personal. Civil War stories often illuminate difficult personal decisions. One such story is told by one of the most remarkable documents in the exhibition, a draft of a will for Benjamin Owens Cohen. Cohen, his Jewish father, Barnet Cohen, and non-Jewish mother Catharine Owens, a “free woman of color,” lived in South Carolina. As a free person of mixed race, Benjamin Cohen would have had limited potential marriage partners, so he purchased his wife and owned their children. By 1841, when he was thinking about a pathway to freedom for his family, South Carolina was passing laws that made it nearly impossible to simply emancipate one’s slaves. His will thus bequeaths his wife and children to his white half-brother. On advice from his lawyer, Cohen stated in his will that while “it may be thought that this devise is intended to avoid and defeat the laws of this commonwealth, which affords me protection….I therefore declare…that I intend no such unlawful act. I know that by the law, [my family] are slaves and must remain so….”

Draft of a will for Benjamin Owens Cohen, 1851. Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society.

Draft of a will for Benjamin Owens Cohen, 1851. Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society.

This draft of Cohen’s will is part of an AJHS collection documenting Cohen’s situation. Scholars have been unable to find a legally-filed will for Benjamin O. Cohen, and we do not know how the family resolved the problem. Historian Bertram Korn suggests that “perhaps Benjamin Owens Cohen outlived the institution of slavery and was able to spend his last days with a family freed from involuntary servitude.” I hope so, too.

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