Posted on November 22nd, 2013 by Rachel
That November day, the one we can’t forget, was exceptionally pleasant in Chicago with temperatures in the 60s. Most of us at Caldwell Elementary went home everyday for lunch, so by 12:45 we were walking back to the building. Some of us had heard the breaking news, others had not. On the corner – even as fifth-graders -we began to ask questions that have endured for fifty years – “how could this have happened?”, “what does this mean?”.
This week it seems that every night brings another documentary or drama on the life of President Kennedy and the tragedy of that November. It is hard to imagine that there is much to add.
But I thought that this might be a moment to reflect on the special relationship between John F. Kennedy and the Jewish community…a relationship that is all the more unusual for the fact that Kennedy’s father was an active proponent of the appeasement of Hitler and widely reviled among Jews as being overtly anti-Semitic.
Anti-Defamation League Award Dinner for President John F. Kennedy, seated at the main table, in Washington, D.C. January 31, 1963. Photo by Cecil Stoughton.
It’s estimated that JFK won about 80% of the Jewish vote in the 1960 election. He had worked hard to cultivate support of the community on both domestic and international issues. He expressed empathy with the Jewish struggle for a political voice in America which he equated with the Irish American struggle for full political acceptance.
For example, when he was still a US Senator in 1957, here’s how he introduced then Connecticut governor, Abraham Ribicoff to the Massachusetts Democratic Convention:
Exactly one hundred years ago, in the political campaign of 1856, a new element was introduced into American politics – a secret party – secret because its members were instructed to reply, whenever they were asked about the party’s policies, “I know nothing”. But the objectives of the Know-Nothing Party, as it was called, were not secret – it was an anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant organization. It was the party of bigotry and intolerance of the American people. The Democratic Party, I am proud to say, met that challenge head-on – declaring in its convention platform its unending opposition to secret parties and religious and national intolerance, as not “in unison with the spirit of enlightened freedom which distinguishes the American system of popular government.”
Leaving aside the odd reference to the Democratic Party of 1856 as a model of enlightened freedom (the party nominates James Buchanan and it’s platform opposes all “agitation” against slavery and the enforcement of the fugitive slave law), Kennedy clearly sees Jews and Catholics as having common cause in a society where anti-immigrant forces have continually sought to undermine their success. As president, Kennedy would make some very prominent appointments of Jewish Americans, including former Governor Ribicoff as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and Arthur Goldberg as Justice of the Supreme Court.
Kennedy was also seen as an early and strong supporter of the state of Israel. I found this photo online of a very young Congressman Kennedy with Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion. and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. taken in Jerusalem in 1951. While Richard Nixon, was the first President to visit Israel while in office, JFK is the first US President to have visited Israel before taking office.
David Ben-Gurion, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., and Congressman John Kennedy. It was taken in Ben-Gurion’s Jerusalem home in early October 1951.
In November 1956, Senator Kennedy came to Baltimore to speak to the annual banquet of the Histadrut Zionist Organization. His remarks laid out an agenda for more active US involvement in the Middle East:
The future of the Middle East is far from clear. But it is clear, in my opinion, that its future will be based upon the interrelation of these seven factors — its strategic position, its oil, increase in Communist influence, economic and social problems, Arab nationalism, Egypt and Israel. No nation can neglect or forget any of these seven factors in formulating future policies in the Middle East — particularly the United States. There was a time, not so long ago, when our primary concerns abroad were with Europe and the Far East. Even last summer, at the time our policies in Suez were established, the Middle East was not looked upon as one of our primary interests. But now, I hope and I am sure, that view has changed.
As president, Kennedy would substantially increase the scope of America’s support for Israel’s defense.
Fifty years after that unforgettable November day, there has been a lot of revisionism. It has become fashionable to downgrade the importance of the Kennedy administration and to put more attention on his frailties, as a human being and a leader. Looking back from the 21st century that’s not hard to do. But when you remember the reasons why so many people embraced this young president – when you remember what a departure he represented from the world of the 1940s and 1950s – then perhaps the high regard for JFK by the people who actually lived through that era is understandable.
A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more post by Marvin, click here.
Posted on October 11th, 2013 by Rachel
Tomorrow night is the member’s preview for Passages through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War. It is one of those times when exhaustion meets elation. I wanted to take a moment to make an observation on how this exhibit has changed my perspective on this period of history and to thank a few of the people who made it possible.
Looking through my old e-mails I recently realized that I had been working nearly continuously on Civil War themed exhibits (first at the National Archives and now at JMM) for about five years. I have to point out that this is longer than the war itself!
This has been an unexpected journey. I don’t consider myself a Civil War aficianado. I was never a reenactor. Growing up in Chicago ,I wasn’t exactly surrounded by Civil War sites. My first historical passions were cowboys and tales of the wild west (when the occasion is right, I might share a copy of the photo of me in my pajamas and my Davy Crockett “coonskin” cap).
Now I’m not saying I had no connection with Civil War history. I did own a copy of the 1961 How and Why Book of the Civil War. Though I think that the book was a lot stronger on the “how” than on the “why”…not atypical of its time. In that same year the National Archives produced a centennial exhibit that never mentioned the word “slavery.”
How and Why, 1961.
As a kid I also enjoyed climbing up to the dome of the Chicago Public Library to visit Grand Army of the Republic Hall – my favorite artifact was the century-old hard tack.
But I had no real passion for the topic. When I finally did get to tour the battlefields, it seemed that every visitor center’s exhibit boiled down to two uniforms, three rifles and interminable details about troop movements.
I certainly felt no personal connection. When people would speak of ancestors as Union or Confederate, my response was that mine were all “anti-Czar” at that time. The Civil War, and all its horrors, were someone else’s struggle.
While working on my National Archives project, Discovering the Civil War, substantially raised my interest in the topic it really didn’t change my level of personal detachment.
The last six months have been different. Looking at the war through a Jewish lens has really helped clarify the connection that all of us have to these events – even the folks who arrived 40 or 50 years later. The “battles” of the Civil War weren’t just at Gettysburg, Antietam and Manassas but also on Baltimore Street. This was a fight for hearts and minds as much as for territory. Embedded into the conflicts of the early 1860s were struggles over acceptance and assimilation which profoundly shaped the American Jewish experience. The Civil War is part of my history because the social justice oriented, pluralistic Jewish community that I live in was built out of the events of those years.
As for my ancestors being far away in Poland and Lithuania… consider the following thought: I recently looked up the front page of the New-York Daily Tribune for October 12, 1863 – 150 years to the day before our exhibit opening. As it happens the headline article for that day was about the arrival of the Russian warship Alexander Nevsky at the port of Baltimore. The article contained a resolution from the mayor and city council conveying “the high respect of the authorities and citizens of Baltimore for the sovereign and people of Russia” and thanking the Russians for abstaining from any effort to give aid to the “Rebels of the South”. Over on the left column of the same day’s paper is a much smaller notice reading “the chief rabbi of Warsaw had been arrested”, followed by the curious comment “Continental news is unimportant”. With a little more research I learned that Dov Ber Meisels, the Chief Rabbi of Warsaw had become involved in a Polish uprising in 1863. Russian authorities imprisoned the rabbi as part of their effort to put down the rebellion. Britain and several other Western nations were outraged by Russia’s suppression of the Poles and threatened to “de-recognize” Russia’s acquisition of the territory. America, by contrast, was silent – after all, Russia’s neutrality in our Civil War was an important diplomatic objective. Perhaps my ancestral shtetl was not as far from Gettysburg as I originally thought.
A blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click here.
Posted on September 17th, 2013 by Rachel
Opening October 13th!
Everyone at the JMM is very excited for our upcoming exhibit, Passages Through the Fire: Jews and the American Civil War. Karen and Jobi are preparing the gallery while Rachel and Trillion are putting together the advertising and logistics for our various programs, and Ilene is creating new curricula and activities for the schoolchildren to do, and Esther is buying all the Civil War tchotkes you could ever want to buy. Meanwhile, Marvin has been developing a brand new tour of a very familiar space: the Lloyd Street Synagogue circa 1861, at the beginning of the American Civil War.
Docent training begins.
The new tour will enable our visitors—especially our return visitors—to see the Lloyd Street Synagogue through new eyes. The extension of the synagogue in 1860 isn’t only significant because it covered up the original mikveh, but, more importantly, it demonstrates just how quickly the city of Baltimore—and by extension, its Jewish population—was growing. However, that same growth of the Jewish community created new problems that came to a head during the Civil War, as our visitors will learn on this tour. Visitors will also gain an intimate understanding of how Jews justified taking either the Confederate or the Union side of the conflict by hearing excerpts from contemporary writings by two prominent Baltimore rabbis (Rabbis Illoway and Einhorn, of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and Oheb Shalom, respectively).
Marvin holds up one of our cast of characters!
It won’t be easy for us and our volunteer docents to learn a whole new tour in just a few weeks, but we’re all eager for the challenge! Last week, we invited our docents to see the new tour, and we received some excellent constructive feedback in return. Marvin led us through the synagogue, giving us tips on how to guage the knowledge and interest of our groups by using a Civil War-era kepi as a shibboleth, and showing us how different parts of the synagogue illustrate the various issues that were important to the Jewish community here during the Civil War.
Marvin with the docents.
We will be premiering the 1861 Tour of the Lloyd Street Synagogue when we open the new exhibit on October 12th for the Members Preview and on October 13th for the Public Opening. At the openings, the tour will be offered twice, and after that it will offered once a day in the place of the regular 3pm tour (all other daily tours will be the regular overview tour of the two synagogues).
We encourage you to come and “experience the Lloyd Street Synagogue you never knew!”
A blog post by Visitor Services Coordinator Abby Krolik. To read more posts by Abby, click here.