JMM Insights: Fun (with a serious purpose)

Posted on January 22nd, 2016 by

I would be the first to admit that we’ve had a great deal of fun with our recent projects – “Paul Simon: Words and Music”, “Cinema Judaica”, “The A-mazing Mendes Cohen” but in this JMM Insights I want to remind us of why this type of fun matters.  You can call this my version of a “State of the History Museum Address”.

I begin with an observation: Today we sit within an ocean of information, never have so many Americans had easy access to eyewitness accounts of history; visual databases of historic artifacts; timelines, graphs and charts of every description.  Yet it is hard to argue that we have a deeper understanding of our past.  Politicians and pundits invoke an imaginary past with impunity – pretending, for example, that Japanese internment was a solution to a real problem in WWII or that slavery wasn’t the primary cause of the Civil War.  Nonsense is repeated with the same authority as fact and we lose our grip on reality.

So why don’t more of us take advantage of available resources to make ourselves better informed?

  1. We lack motivation and inspiration – this is where the “fun” part matters; we need to build good habits for exploring history the same way you would develop good habits for physical exercise or reading books – you need for lower barriers of engagement and increase rewards of participation. History museums are particularly good at this.
  2. We don’t see ourselves as history “makers” – we offer labs for science courses because we know that true understanding of scientific processes is more durable and deep when people make discoveries for themselves; history is not commonly taught this way in school – often relying exclusively on secondary sources written decades or centuries after the events. History museums allow visitors to “uncover” information from original sources.
  3. As a society we don’t value history. To many of us in the museum field today this is the most troubling cause of our collective version of Alzheimer’s. Most of us have heard of STEM, some of us have heard of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) but for at least a generation the history community has been pretty quiet about promoting its brand.  Public history has been starved of resources both within the formal education system (social studies as it turns out was “the child left behind”) and in public support for history museums, historic sites and historic parks, all of which lost government funding in the 2008 recession – and to put it politely, “have not participated in the recovery.”

A group of us have decided the time has come to change the public dialogue.  At the AASLH meeting in 2013 there was the formal launch of a national History Relevance Campaign, spearheaded by Baltimore’s own John Durel.  For more information on the Campaign check out their website: http://www.historyrelevance.com/

The core of the Campaign is the Value of History statement – a common expression of the public history community.  Both the Jewish Museum of Maryland and the Greater Baltimore History Alliance endorsed the statement this fall.  If you feel as we do, I urge you to download a copy of the statement for yourself – share it with friends and family and let people know why history isn’t just a “nice-to-have”, it’s an essential.

Closer to home Preservation Maryland is organizing a Preservation and History Advocacy Day in Annapolis on February 9.  This year Preservation Maryland has included new funding for history museums in its advocacy agenda in addition to its ongoing strong support of the Maryland Heritage Area Authority.  In a subsequent newsletter we will share details on how you can let our legislators know that history matters to you.

MarvinA blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

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Forgotten Anniversaries

Posted on December 28th, 2015 by

OK, lucky for me this topic is not about MY anniversary, but rather the anniversaries of historic events that link to the Jewish community.  As we approach the end of 2015, I made myself a list of anniversaries that we had not covered in a blog post or newsletter.

For example, May 7 was the centennial of the sinking of the Lusitania.  I found a site that claimed that 30 Jewish passengers on the ship lost their lives in this attack – one of those who died in the sinking was an entertainer by the name of Dave Samuels (born in Romania as David Samoilescu).  Samuels worked in Yiddish theater and was successful not only in the US but in England and Australia as well!  He was on his way to a booking in London when he had the misfortune to sail on the Lusitania.

Dave Samuels

Dave Samuels

We also missed the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo on June 18.  The big picture story for the Jewish community is that the defeat of Napoleon ushered in a reactionary rollback of Jewish liberties throughout Central Europe that had been secured during the period of his reign.  On a smaller scale, I also found this story with the misspelled headline in the British Jewish News: http://www.jewishnews.co.uk/the-mild-agressor-the-unsung-jewish-hero-of-waterloo/.

It appears that a Jewish surgeon named Georg Gerson was awarded the Waterloo Medal for his service to the “King’s German Legion”, a British unit made up largely of expatriate Germans His graveside was in the Jewish cemetery the Grindelfriedhof. In the time of the Third Reich the cemetery was dissolved and the dead were reburied with their gravestones in the Jewish Cemetery Ohlsdorf. There his memorial can still be seen today. The inscription on one side reads:  Mitissimus Aggressor — Acerrimus Defensor (a mild aggressor — a sharp defender).

Georg Gerson

Georg Gerson

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But the really important date we missed was on September 26th – the 170th anniversary of the consecration of the Lloyd Street Synagogue in 1845.  Well we actually didn’t miss it completely.  Those who read our newsletters are aware that this fall we launched the “Sounds of Synagogue” specialty tour of the LSS.  In researching the script for this tour, Ilene found articles describing the sights and sounds of the synagogue on that opening day.  Through these sources I gained a new appreciation for the historic marvel that we serve as custodians.

Friday, September 26th, 1845 was the beginning of Shabbat Nitzavim, the parsha that precedes the Days of Awe.  Just before 4pm, as evening settled on Baltimore, an extraordinary gathering took place (as described by Isaac Leeser): “we found ourselves surrounded by many believing Israelites, to whom were joined many Christians, among whom were ministers of many denominations, come to testify by their presence their friendship and good-will to the remnant of Jacob’s sons…” He later adds “we record it to their credit that mixed as was the assembly of Jews and Christians, natives and foreigners, a general spirit of decorum marked them all…”

In addition to their Christian neighbors the congregation’s rabbi, Abraham Rice, and cantor, A. Ansell, were joined by two visiting rabbis who came to make remarks: Rabbi Samuel M. Isaacs of B’nai Jeshurun in New York and Rabbi Isaac Leeser of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia.  Rabbi Isaacs had a reputation as the first American rabbi to offer his sermons in English, and Rabbi Leeser had just earned the distinction of being the first rabbi to offer sermons every week, fundamentally altering the role of rabbi.

Isaac Leeser

Isaac Leeser

That evening the first to enter the synagogue was not one of the distinguished rabbis, but rather the cantor carrying a new copy of the Torah to be placed in the ark. The procession followed.  The first sound in the synagogue was the shechiyanu prayer pronounced on the steps of the ark.  This was quickly followed by the shema – “and he was answered by the united voices of the congregation, in which were heard mingling voices of early youth and mature manhood, falling with overpowering harmony on the ear, testifying that all there, who came to worship, felt that they were indeed members of the ancient people of G-d, adherents to the holy covenant.”  And thus begins more than a century of sounds of worship for the Lloyd Street Synagogue and the first permanent home for Maryland’s Jews.

If you would like to hear more “sounds of the synagogue” join us for special tours on Sundays at 3pm.  And if there is a special 2016 anniversary you want me to remember, write to me at mpinkert@jewishmuseummd.org.

MarvinA blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

 

 

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Happy Bar Mitzvah (Anniversary) Marvin!

Posted on October 7th, 2015 by

Fifty years ago this week there were only two topics at Rodfei Zedek Hebrew School in Chicago (where I spent many hours of my childhood).

For half the kids the topic was Sandy Koufax who had just refused to pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur.  In Koufax’s absence, Don Drysdale pitched a losing game and then the next day when Koufax came back to the mound he lost as well.  At 0-2 it did not seem that Koufax had induced a divine blessing on the Dodgers.

For the other half the topic was the new hit single by the Beatles, a song called “Yesterday”.     It reached the top of the charts this week and would stay there for the rest of October.

I didn’t find myself in either half:

  1. Because (aside from Ernie Banks) I had almost no interest in baseball, either watching it or playing it.
  2. Because I was so turned off by the crowds of screaming teens that followed the Beatles, that I decided that I must also dislike the Fab Four – even if there songs now ended with something other than “yeah, yeah, yeah”.
  3. But most importantly because I was rather preoccupied with an event coming up that Saturday – my Bar Mitzvah.
An announcement of the big day!

An announcement for the big day!

Yes, this week marks the 50th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah (October 9, 1965).  In honor of the occasion I pulled out my Bar Mitzvah book to try to aid my somewhat foggy memory of that day.

Not pictured: the lyrics to "Mazeltov, Mazeltov," a clever rewrite of "Matchmaker - Matchmaker."

Not pictured: the lyrics to “Mazeltov, Mazeltov,” a clever rewrite of “Matchmaker – Matchmaker.”

Like many, my memories of preparing for the day are stronger than the day itself. My haftorah reading for Ha’azinu seemed particularly long and difficult, but I suspect that had more to do with the pupil than with the parsha.  I can still smell the decomposing reel-to-reel magnetic tape as it passed up and back through the recorder – month after month delivering a trope that I truly could not sing.  I think that I might have mentioned in a previous blog post that singing was not my strong point to start with – Cantor Goldberg asked me to leave the choir… at about the same time he made my cousin the star.  In this program from our 1965 Hebrew School commencement, you’ll see that I was assigned a speaking part (in English) while cousin Mandy followed in a Hebrew duet.  He was headed for Broadway… I was on the road to the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

Check out that line-up!

Check out that line-up!

My Bar Mitzvah speech was the first time I ever addressed a public audience and the first and ONLY time I asked my father for speech-writing advice.  Don’t get me wrong, dad was a great manager and engineer, but not much of a public speaker.  My speech included the line “today my cup runneth over” – which when delivered by a 13 year old boy becomes a gag line for the rest of your life.

The Bar Mitzvah “party” was very subdued by today’s standards, just a lunch in the synagogue auditorium.  The party was my mother’s domain, she had the reputation within the family for making clever lyrical adaptations for special occasions.  My luncheon songs were sung to melodies from the new musical Fiddler on the Roof (e.g. Matchmaker, Matchmaker became “Mazel tov, mazel tov, Pinkerts and Drays, Marvin’s Haftorah merits our praise” – trust me, you don’t want to know the rest).

The Bar Mitzvah Book also contains lists of gifts received.  Most of these possessions have long ago been abandoned as we moved from Chicago to DC to Korea to Hawaii to Boston to Chicago to Maryland over the past five decades.  I think the three “dicky”s I received did not even make it to my junior year of high school.  The exceptions to the rule are the Lucien Piccard watch from my grandparents (almost never worn, but a treasured keepsake) and the five historical atlases that have travelled thousands of miles with me.  At age 13 I think I already had a reputation as a historic geek and I especially appreciated the aunts and cousins who recognized my passion.

A list that includes atlases and dickeys, oh my!

A list that includes atlases and dickeys, oh my!

So my Bar Mitzvah week came to a happy conclusion.  I had come out of my shell (just a little bit).  Sandy Koufax went on to win his next two games – leading the Dodgers to victory in the World Series.  The Beatles kept innovating, though it would be a decade before I would finally admit I liked the Beatles.  But in that October, I was actually attracted to a new song on the radio– not a song for screaming teens – but a song that sounded like it belonged to quiet kids like me – it was called the “Sound of Silence”.  Little did I know…

Marvin PinkertA blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

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