Performing Community Part 2

Posted on March 29th, 2018 by

Article by Avi Y. Decter, former JMM executive director, with Erin L. Titter, former JMM archivist. Originally published in Generations – 2003: Entertaining Maryland. To order a print copy of the magazine, see details here.

Part II: A Long History

Missed the beginning? Start here.

Community performances have a long history in Baltimore, both within the Jewish community and beyond. Documentation of these performances is, however, relatively thin. In the Jewish contact, we know of programs, events, and presentations dating back to at least the late 19th century, but photographic evidence discovered so far carries the story only from the 1910s to the present.

“Biblical Pageant” – Sculptor Ephraim Keyser seated center, wearing a fez. JMM 1995.77.3

One of the earliest photos we have depicts a “Biblical Pageant” at the Maryland Institute around 1913, presumably a program organized by sculptor Ephraim Keyser, then a faculty member at the Institute. But the precise occasion, content, and audience remain obscure.

Members of the Clinton Club, including Shackman Katz, Bertram Oppenheim, Harold Miller, and Emil Rosenthal, c. 1921. JMM 1988.79.19

Jewish social clubs, such as the Clinton Club, organized by middle-class young men and women of German Jewish descent, are known to have produced a variety of entertainments including a burlesque on The   Merchant of Venice. Lester Levy reports in an unpublished memoir that during the 1920s the Junior Assembly, an offshoot of the venerable Harmony Club, created a playlet on Mah Jongg, which at the time was enjoying a craze throughout the country. In this show, Reuben Oppenheimer wrote the lyrics to a number titled “The Only Possible Place”: “You go out to dine and you’re feeling fine/ your tux’s a perfect fit. You meet a friend and you gallantly bend/ and you feel a terrible split/ A rip, rip, rip, a devastating rip/ You’re in an awful case. As you grab for a char, you can feel the cold air/ In the only possible place!” This kind of self-spoofing, like nicknames, simultaneously amuses and reinforces group identity.[1]

Hanukkah play featuring students at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 1972. JMM 1992.108.53

Inadvertent entertainment is a frequent by-product of a common form of community performance – the school play, which parents and grandparents typically attend with mixed feelings of anticipation and dread. School plays, like other community performances, run the gamut. Some are staged by students, others by teachers, parents, and other amateur volunteers, and still others by professional performers. Plays in Hebrew and those on traditional Jewish themes like the Purim story are usually direct (and often didactic) in delivering their moral messages about the virtues of being Jewish and leading a committed Jewish life. For many years, The Associated Players presented a puppet show for children about “the squirrel who would not share.” The theme of philanthropic giving was pronounced and obvious.[2]

HIAS Purim party at Baltimore Hebrew University, 1992, with Rosalie Hollner as Queen Esther. JMM 1995.114.121

Children performing in a Hebrew play at the Jewish Community Center, 305 W. Monument Street, n.d, JMM 1995.98.40

Other kinds of performance assert the importance and persistence of Jewish identity within pluralist, polyglot America. In the Bicentennial year 1976, for instance, the Jewish community was invited to present the essentials of “Jewish American” life at a festival staged at the Inner Harbor. The vehicle chosen for dramatizing the vitality of Maryland Jewish life was “Café Tel Aviv,” where performances of Israeli song and dance celebrated a primary theme of Jewish history and tradition – Zion as the Jewish homeland. In an earlier generation, performances in Yiddish by groups like the Yiddish Folk Theater served a similar function, maintaining continuity with Jewish culture in Europe.

Israeli folksingers at Café Tel Aviv, Jewish American Festival, Baltimore, 1976. JMM 1992.205.56

Within the Jewish community, particular organizations promote the interests of sub-groups, communities within the community, as it were. Congregations, for instance, promote their special position and group solidarity through various kinds of performance. Chizuk Amuno Congregation, long a leading Conservative synagogue in Baltimore, has sponsored numerous performances over the years. Beginning in 1931, the Chizuk Amuno Brotherhood presented an annual play at the Maryland Theatre. Most productions were community theater at its purest, with scripts by local amateurs. The 1933 production, in contract, featured a Broadway hit from 1930 (Mendel, Inc.), written by David Freedman, a writer for noted comedian Eddie Cantor.

Murray Slatkin and Selma Berkow are shown in an episode of the “Eutaw Place Scandals,” a musical revue written by Fred Katzner, which will be presented at the Maryland Theatre by members of Chizuk Amuno congregation, March 1935. JMM 1984.12.5

In 1971, on the occasion of the congregation’s 101st annual meeting, “The Chizuk Amuno Theatre” presented The Building Bug, a farce in one act. In this spoof of the congregation’s long history of dedicating a new synagogue every generation (1876, 1895, 1922, and 1958), Chizuk Amuno celebrated its own vitality and growth. One of several musical numbers went like this:

Contractor, contractor,

Build us a Shule

A Chapel that’s cool

A hip swimming pool

We want Beth Tfiloh and Beth El to drool

So build us a perfect shule![3] 

On another occasion, Chizuk Amuno feted its long-time cantor, Adolph (Abba) Weisgal. A cast of middle-aged men who had studied for their Bar Mitzvah ceremonies with the cantor performed in a musical revue, replete with canes and lapel buttons announcing them as “Adolph’s Boys.” Entertainments such as these mobilized the congregation while boosting morale.

Continue to Part III: Popular Entertainment

 

[1] JMM MS 77 Lester Levy Family Papers, Lester Levy’s Memoirs, n.d., Box 6, Folder 213.

[2] Telephone interview with Carole Sibel, August 13, 2002.

[3] Lyrics for The Building Bug were based on the book by Stanley I. Minch and written by Ronald Israel, Stanley I. Minch, Jerry Cohen, and Gwen Cohen. Courtesy of the Chizuk Amuno Congregational Archives and Congregational Archivist Jan Schein.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




The Dancing Schools of Baltimore’s Jewish Society Part 3

Posted on February 19th, 2018 by

generations 2004 copyArticle by Gil Sandler. Originally published in Generations – 2004: Recreation, Sports & Leisure. This particular issue of Generations proved wildly popular and is no longer available for purchase.

Sidebar: Learning to Dance
Missed the beginning? Start here.

In his eighties, Baltimore’s Lester Levy reminisced about his life and times. The following excerpts describe his first efforts at dancing school.

I doubt if any of you ever went to a mixed dancing school. [My sister] Selma and I did, where the general form of instruction was grounded in so-called “ball-room dancing.” Our first class was on the second floor of a building in the vicinity of Maryland Avenue and Biddle Street. It was known as Heptasoph’s Hall and run by a Mr. Ball.

The class – the average age of whom was seven or eight – met once a week in the afternoons. I remember one detail and Selma reminds me of another: (1) the clumsiest child at school was a fat little boy named Reuben Oppenheimer [who married Selma in 1922]; and (2) I was elected to dance a “sailor’s hornpipe” before the pupils and their parents…

It was during the winter [of 1911-12] that we became part of Mr. Tuttle’s dancing class. Among other things, we had a dancing class to which some two- or three-dozen boys and girls belonged, and we would go out with different girls or boys each week to the class. There was no such thing as keeping steady company. At fifteen, I was beginning to feel that I was growing up…boys were more important to me than girls, for that was my shyest period, and even at dancing school I hardly wanted to hold a girl’s hand.”

Lester clearly got over his shyness. After securing a spot on Eleanor’s dance card, they went on to a happy and long marriage. JMM 2002.79.352

~END~

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Maryland Soldiers in World War I

Posted on September 13th, 2012 by

For the rest of the year we will be posting a series of blogs on the second Thursday of each month that highlight some of our collections related to World War I.  Each post will focus on a single topic illustrated with photographs, objects and archives from the museum’s collections.  This first post will focus on the troops.

Benjamin H. Goldstein on a bench, c. 1918. Courtesy of Agota Gold. 2002.73.75

Though the rest of the world waged war throughout Europe, Asia and Africa starting in 1914, the United States did not officially enter the fray until April 1917.  Despite a strong desire by many Americans to stay neutral, the US government had been building up the military before the declaration of war, and mobilization increased quickly after.  Over the next two years, young men from every state in the union entered the military – some willing, some drafted.  Not everyone wanted war, but once it started government propaganda did its best to stir up patriotism and support.

Troops parade down Baltimore Street near Calvert in 1918. Parades and other festivities would have helped stir patriotism and promote cohesion among Americans. Perhaps these young men were new recruits marching off toward their training bases, or maybe they were heading directly toward the war in Europe, either way, this celebration and apparent support from the civilian population must have bolstered them. Courtesy of Stanford C. Reed. 1987.19.22

The enlisted soldiers, who made up the bulk of the army, were ethnically diverse – a full quarter of the soldiers spoke no English and African Americans constituted more than 10% of the troops.  This was not new or unusual.  American troops throughout history included immigrants as well as native-born men.  The Jewish troops from Maryland would also have been a mixture of recent immigrants and descendents of men and women who had come to America during the nineteenth century.

Stanford Z. Rothschild, Sr. in front of his billet (the Rifand family home) in Tours, France during his service in World War I, 1918. Stanford immigrated to America as a child with his parents. Courtesy of Stanford Z. Rothschild. 1991.127.20

Once in the army the young soldiers shipped out to the training camps that sprouted up around the country.  These camps brought both business and headaches to the surrounding residents.  Men shipped out to parts of the country they had never seen before.  Lester Levy, a Maryland native, went to Augusta, Georgia for training in 1918.

Lester Levy’s army camp, Augusta, GA, 1918. Courtesy of Janet Fishbein (daughter of Susan Levy Bodenheimer), Ellen Patz, Ruth Gottesman & Vera Mende. 2002.79.569

Though the bulk of young men were destined for the trenches, others filled a variety of positions that keep the military running.  Only a few short years after the invention of the airplane, men like J. Jefferson Miller (a Baltimorean) became the first military aviators.  Nicholas Beser was a cartoonist for the Stars and Stripes which reported news to the soldiers.  Others were doctors or musicians, or provided any number other services that made the army function.

J. Jefferson Miller, Aviators Flight Log Book. Courtesy of the Weiler-Miller Fund. 2008.76.35 Nicholas Beser and friends in camp in France. Courtesy of the Beser Family. 1993.173.29

Nicholas Beser and friends in camp in France. Courtesy of the Beser Family. 1993.173.29

Print room of Stars and Stripes in Paris. Courtesy of the Beser Family. 1993.173.42

 

Honors and memorials for soldiers who fought and died during World War I began soon after the war ended.  Besides the public or government honors (statues and medals) individuals and private companies would sometimes recognize the veterans connected to them.

Tablet in honor of M.S. Levy and Sons employees who fought in World War I. T1989.4.1

 

Next month we will look at the role of women in World War I.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland