Posted on April 9th, 2014 by Rachel
I think museums are such fascinating places. They are wonderful spaces that promote learning and engagement. Over the years at the JMM, I have enjoyed creating both public programs and educational programming that encourage both discovery and discourse with our visitors. I love how history museums can enable individuals to make meaningful connections to the past. Last spring was no exception, with the creation of our latest living history character from the Leo V. Berger Immigrant’s Trunk – Bessie Bluefeld. I wanted to share with you an extraordinary circumstance that has united two families, showing just how important a role museums play in our lives.
Bessie & Charles, CP 69.2012.001
Bessie and her husband, Charles Bluefeld immigrated to Baltimore by way of Locust Point in 1906. Concerned about her husband working in construction, Bessie persuaded Charles to open a grocery store in Fell’s Point, and by the 1920s the Bluefelds were operating a stall in Lexington Market. Bessie opened a food stand on a beach near Baltimore, and it became the seed for the Bluefeld Catering business. Traveling to Atlantic City and Florida, Bessie developed her refined taste that would later be known as the “Orchid touch” that gave Bluefeld Catering its edge as one of the premier kosher catering businesses in Baltimore – a business that would include her entire family. From 1937 to 1941, Bluefeld Catering blossomed, and Bessie was at the center of everything. Although Bessie died suddenly in 1941, her husband and children maintained the kosher catering business she had worked so hard to build. For decades, Bluefeld Catering was synonymous with elegance and quality in Baltimore’s Jewish community and beyond.
The JMM hired the actress, Terry Nicholetti to play the role of Bessie. Terry wanted to learn more about Bessie, so we went to Bethesda to meet one of Bessie’s children, Mrs. Freda Bluefeld Cohen. We had a lovely afternoon with Freda and she shared some of her memories of her parents and of her early years growing up in Baltimore along with 8 other siblings. As I witnessed Terry and Freda chatting- I knew that these two women were destined to become special friends.
Terry brings Bessie to life.
On April 30, 2013, Terry premiered the role of Bessie Bluefeld at the JMM to a crowd of 100 people. Many of our visitors that evening were the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Bessie. Following the performance, one of Bessie’s grandsons stood and was visibly moved by the performance. He expressed his gratitude to the JMM for helping him to meet his grandmother that he never had the opportunity to meet as she had died prior to his birth.
Last week, I received a call at the JMM from one of Bessie Bluefeld’s granddaughters. She had just learned that her Aunt Freda Bluefeld Cohen had passed, and she wanted to reach out to Terry Nicholetti to let her know, as she knew of the special relationship that Terry and Freda shared. I spoke to Terry the following day. She told me that she was so touched to be notified by the family, and so sad because of the sweet connection that she shared with Freda. Terry went to visit the family during the Shiva and Freda’s family welcomed Terry as if she were a member of their own family. Terry shared with me, “When I took on this role, I had no idea how deeply I would be connected to so many dear people in Bessie’s life. I feel blessed.”
Terry and Freda
The Jewish Museum of Maryland plays such an important role in our community in helping people find connections and meaning to history. The Leo V. Berger Immigrant’s Trunk: Bessie Bluefeld Living History Performance is just another example of how our institution creates those meaningful connections. This incredible performance has enabled one family to connect to its own history; but it has also given meaning to Terry Nicholetti, the actress who portrays Bessie- who has found personal meaning and contentment in her role.
A blog post by Education Director Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Ilene click here.
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.