JMM Insights, July 2014: Where Culture Meets Science

Posted on July 18th, 2014 by

This week I have invited curator Karen Falk to share her recent research for the exhibit Jews, Health and Healing.  The exhibit is scheduled to open at JMM in the fall of 2015.  I think you will agree that Karen has uncovered some compelling insights.


karenOur upcoming exhibition about Jews and medicine has required a revolution in my consciousness, one that has brought me new awareness of the medical professions, the history of medicine, and the impact of medicine on Jewish identity.  So a request to share some insights gained while working on this exciting project was a welcome assignment.

Perhaps the most enduring lesson I learned—to my surprise, I admit— was just how absorbing it is to study the history of medicine! Other surprises, from each section of the exhibition, include:


Caliphs, princesses, popes and saints.

Many people have noted with a sense of irony that even while Jews were persecuted in medieval and renaissance Europe, rulers seeking medical advice often turned to Jewish physicians. Turns out there’s a lot of fact underpinning this conventional wisdom. Baltimore ophthalmologist Harry Friedenwald thoroughly documented this history in his collection of books and manuscripts produced by Jewish physicians from the fourteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Among them: a 14th century manuscript of works by Isaac Israeli (c. 850-950; yes, he is said to have lived 100 years!), who was court physician to the Fatimite Caliph Obaid Allah; several works by Maimonides, philosopher and physician to Saladin, first sultan of Egypt; a full set of the  700 case histories written up by  the 16th century physician Amatus Lusitanus, who treated Pope Julius III but spent his life outrunning the Inquisition; a letter from the physician Felipe Rodriguez (Elijah) de Luna Montalto to his patient, Queen Marie (de Medicis) of France (wife of King Louis XIII);  even a 1487 woodcut depicting a 4th century scene in which the Jewish physician Ephraim attends the ailing St. Basil. Friedenwald’s collection became the first-ever exhibition about Jews and medicine, shown at Johns Hopkins University in 1943.

The Jewish physician is shown in 15th century German clothing, including distinctive headwear.

The Jewish physician is shown in 15th century German clothing, including distinctive headwear.

“Never admit more than five Jews…”

The number of Jewish doctors in Europe in the early twentieth century was astounding. Almost half the physicians in Berlin were Jewish; in Vienna, it was about 60%, and in Warsaw it was 70%. As the children of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe began to enter colleges in the first decades of the twentieth century, similarly high percentages were aiming for medical school. All across the country, university and medical school deans were alarmed, and began to put into place measures that limited Jewish enrollment. The University of Michigan, for example, used interviews to determine a candidate’s “personal acceptability and magnetism” (many Jews failed this test). Many schools determined Jewish heritage based on last names, and when that failed because of the growing practice of Americanizing one’s name, they asked for the applicant’s mother’s maiden name.  What is perhaps most surprising about this situation is the response of some Jews. Milton Charles Winternitz, the Jewish dean of Yale Medical School, was complicit. “Never admit more than five Jews, take only two Italian Catholics, and take no blacks at all,” Winternitz told his admissions officers. Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s Rabbi Morris Lazaron did a national study of medical school admissions practices in 1934, and concluded that Jews were admitted at a rate of about 20% of the student bodies. He felt he had documented discrimination, but advised accommodating the quotas. He never published his report, afraid it would make things worse. Leon Sachs, longtime head of the Baltimore Jewish Council, negotiated with both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland medical schools in the 1940s and 50s over the numbers of Jewish students admitted each year. Documents in the JMM collection show that Hopkins claimed that 75% of its applications came from Jewish students. The university began with a 10% quota on Jewish admissions, and thanks to Sachs, raised it first to 14% and then to 17% in subsequent years. [Credit goes to Antero Pietila for making these documents public in his book Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City (2010, Ivan Dee, Inc.)]

2006.013.1224  Leon Sachs was executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council from 1941-1975.

2006.013.1224 Leon Sachs was executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council from 1941-1975.

“Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews.”

Jewish hospitals surprise people today, possibly because the maintenance of a hospital seems like a daunting project for a tiny minority community. They were founded by necessity. As places of danger and death throughout most of the nineteenth century, hospitals were the stamping grounds of missionaries hoping to save the souls of the sick and dying and Jewish patients were their prime targets. Baltimore’s Hebrew Hospital and Asylum (now Sinai Hospital and part of Lifebridge Health, a sponsor of our exhibition) was built in 1868, one of many founded in cities across the country to alleviate this pervasive problem. The practice of proselytizing in hospitals was global and persistent. Henrietta Szold and the women of Hadassah founded Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem in 1902 as a specific response to this issue.


1991.203.003. An early view of the Hebrew Hospital and Asylum.

“They wanted to make ladies of us.”

The alumni of Sinai Hospital’s training program for nurses, which closed in 1975, have been valued supporters of the JMM, sharing memories and donating uniforms, caps, tools, photos, and documents from their years as students and on the job. We were completely agog, however, when they brought in an elaborate silver tea set, with matching candelabra.  How was this unexpected set of objects part of a nursing curriculum? “Tea” was held every Friday afternoon. “They wanted to make ladies of us,” Bobbie Horwitz told us. It appears that Jews—along with most Americans—had very different ideas about the ways in which men and women could be involved in medicine. Parents were sometimes hesitant to allow their daughters to go to nursing school. “My older sister broke them down. She was the first to become a nurse,” Myra Framm told us. Young women might face harassment in the workplace. Toby Mower recalled, “The doctors used to kid around with the new nurses that were rotating through the operating room: ‘Oh would you run to central supply and get me a fallopian tube?’ and we would run off to the central supply to get these fallopian tubes. They would have a laugh and we would wind up being embarrassed.”


2010.020.027 Nurses enjoy Friday afternoon tea at Sinai hospital.


Garcia da Orta: Converso, physician, plant hunter.

Born in Portugal just a few years after the Jews were expelled from Spain, Garcia da Orta was a Converso physician in Lisbon and professor of medicine at the Lisbon University. As the Inquisition in Portugal became more repressive, he signed on as a ship’s doctor with the Portuguese navy and soon found himself in India, where he began a thriving medical practice, and learned about the curative properties of the sub-continent’s botanicals. His book, Conversations on the simples, drugs and medicinal substances of India (1563) introduced many new remedies to the European material medica. The Inquisition finally caught up with him and his family. Da Orta died in 1568, but his sister was burned as a heretic in 1569, and da Orta’s remains were exhumed and burned in 1580. Still, he is remembered as “the most illustrious representative of the Portuguese spirit in the natural sciences.”


Doctor, scientist, entrepreneur.

Dr. Morris Abramovitz came to Baltimore from Lithuania in 1901, had completed his medical studies at University of Maryland by 1906, and was a special student taking classes at Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1907. He opened a practice in East Baltimore, tending to a diverse immigrant neighborhood as well as sailors on leave in Baltimore’s harbor. Although a practitioner with a humble neighborhood practice, Abramovitz represented the scientific sprit of his time. Observing that many sailors among his patients suffered from syphilis, he was intrigued with the opportunities and problems of a new chemical treatment from Germany, known as Salvarsan. Unstable and difficult to prepare as a solution for injection, a more stable compound called Neo-salvarsan came out in 1912. Neo-salvarsan was less effective against the disease, however. Abramovitz developed and marketed an apparatus to administer both drugs at once, minimizing the problems of preparing Salvarsan while boosting the effectiveness of its replacement with some of the original. Side effects were unpleasant, and the treatment was replaced by penicillin in the 1940s.


2001.026.062.006 Marketing postcard from Dr. Morris Abramovitz, showing the “Combined Method Apparatus,” c. 1915.

 To catch up on previous JMM Insights, click HERE. 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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. 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

« Previous PageNext Page »