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.
Posted on October 2nd, 2013 by Rachel
September 22, 2013
The evening was very relaxed. In addition to the performance, there was plenty of tea, cake and conversation. It seems to have been enjoyed by everyone who was able to attend, and it even brought in a generous donation to the museum.While most things here at the museum are becoming increasingly all about the upcoming exhibit, Passages through the Fire, yesterday, we held one of our premium members events. In addition to the usual benefits, premium members receive invitations to more exclusive events. For this event we planned a salon and tea with a performance of our most recent living history character, Bessie Bluefeld. Bessie was a well known Baltimore figure who, for many years, ran Baltimore’s premium kosher catering company.
The most special thing about the evening was the presence of a number of Bessie’s descendants, from grandchildren to great-great-. There was a wonderful moment after the performance when the family and the museum members discussed their memories of Bessie. Unfortunately, Bessie’s daughter who lives in the area was unable to attend, but we recorded the event on video, so she will be able to share in the experience.
Everyone present had some yummy cake or strudel, one of Bessie’s signature dishes.
There was also a tasty selection of teas.
Some of Bessie’s descendants, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
After the performance: Bessie, performed by Terry Nicholetti and the museum’s director Marvin Pinkert.
A blog post by Program Manager Trillion Attwood. For more posts by Trillion, click here.
Posted on July 4th, 2013 by Rachel
A blog post by Exhibitions Intern Yonah Reback. Yonah is working with Curator Karen Falk on our upcoming “A-MAZE-ing Mendes” exhibition as well as on programming for our Jews on the Move traveling exhibition. To read more posts by Yonah and other interns, click here.
Mendes Cohen, 1818. Portrait by Joseph Wood.
Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1978.67.1
It’s a familiar trope to anyone who has considered the issue of Jewish identity within the United States—is one an ‘American-Jew,’ or a ‘Jewish American?” Though the answer is arbitrary, the distinction seems to imply an order of precedence. To identify as an ‘American-Jew’ is to identify foremost as an American, whereas being ‘Jewish-American’ retains the moniker of ‘Jew’ as primary. Of course, delineating one’s Jewish identity as an American is a task hardly reflected by a choice of words alone. Indeed, reconciling Jewish identity within a non-Jewish state is perhaps the most emblematic challenge of the Diaspora. For all of Jewish history since the Diaspora, Jews have been forced to grapple with the duality of their identity in a foreign land.
Imagine for a moment that you are the first Jew in America. It’s not easy to picture, given that today Jews are a small but prominent demographic feature of American society. Yet for Baltimorean Mendes I. Cohen, the social landscape of early 19th century America was one with very few Jews. Though Cohen was not literally the first Jew in America, he grew up in Baltimore at a time when its Jewish community was defined by only two families—his own, and the Etting family. In this sense, Cohen experienced Jewish life in a manner that was solitary, though deeply personal. Despite the fact that he lived without a typical community structure, Cohen openly practiced his Judaism. It was in these moments of expression—against the backdrop of early American life—that the novelty of his experience was apparent. While defending Fort McHenry against the British in the War of 1812, Cohen nonetheless ate kosher food, which he received from his family daily. Well before American Jews were categorized and labeled, Cohen practiced his own, unique brand of American Judaism.
Mendes I. Cohen, c. 1835-1840 by Unknown Artist.
Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, 1947.22.2
Perhaps the most interesting way in which Cohen defined his American/Jewish identity occurred not in America, but abroad. From 1829 to 1835, Cohen traveled throughout Europe and the Middle East. Most significantly, Cohen spent time in Israel, becoming the first American Jew to encounter the land. What Cohen wrote about his time spent in Israel captured the tensions he felt as an American Jew, which foreshadowed many of the attitudes that persist today. After spending time with the small contingent of Jews in Israel living under Ottoman rule in the 1830s, Cohen wrote that, “America is the land of milk and honey where each may sit under his own vine and fig tree and none to make them afraid.” In this sense, Cohen extolled his native homeland as a country where religious freedom enabled Jews to practice unimpeded by government rule. Still, Mendes I. Cohen understood the significance of Jews living in Israel and was genuinely moved by his visit to the Old City of Jerusalem.
As we enjoy July 4th, may we all take a moment to appreciate the religious freedom that America affords its citizens, which has allowed for a Jewish legacy spanning the days of Mendes I. Cohen until today.