Lessons from Across the Pond

Posted on May 14th, 2014 by

Over the Passover holiday I traveled to England, meeting up with my wife, who took a vacation from her dissertation research in Turkey.  I am normally quite reticent to share tales of my journeys, probably due to being subjected to one-too-many travelogues from my myriad aunts and uncles.  But Rachel has persuaded me that a few of my observations/adventures might be of more general interest.

1. One Site, Many Dimensions

My favorite site on the whole trip was Hampton Court Palace.  It is the home that King Henry VIII took off the hands of Cardinal Wolsey after he sent him to the Tower.  It continued to be “improved” by English monarchs up through the mid-1700s.

Anne Boleyn has a fight with her mother for the entertainment of 21st century guests.

Anne Boleyn has a fight with her mother for the entertainment of 21st century guests.

The custodians of this site showed tremendous imagination in interpretation.  They created separate tours for different time periods and though Henry VIII may be somewhat better known than George II, they managed to find attributes (like chocolate making) that evened the field.  They broke common museum labeling conventions, often pinning labels to tapestries or draping them on tables rather than pasting them on foam core.  It made the experience much more organic.  They also managed to use a wide variety of techniques simultaneously, including living history performances, audio guides and high-tech slide presentations.  I thought that the combination of techniques, great history to work with and truly beautiful paintings and gardens made this a historic site with very wide appeal… proving that sometimes More is More (and I don’t just mean Sir Thomas).

A truly impressive trump l'oeil from Hampton Court Palace.

A truly impressive trump l’oeil from Hampton Court Palace.

On the long bus ride out to the Palace we passed by a field with the targets set up for what appeared to be a professional archery tournament.  Wish I had taken a picture, especially after we passed by the scoreboard which identified the teams as London Welsh vs. Nottingham!!  Did I really lose my chance to meet Robin Hood?

2. Like No Other Night

When we decided that we’d meet over Passover, I thought I would try to find an interesting Second Night Seder.  I e-mailed Michael Leventhal, who runs the annual Gefiltefest in London, to ask for a recommendation.  He connected me to a group called the Carlebach Minyan which was holding its seder at a private home in the North London borough of Finchley.  Much of the ceremony was reminiscent of seders I’ve had here in Maryland or Illinois (with the exception of a Sephardic custom of lashing your neighbors with scallions during the singing of Dayenu).  But the dinner had an exceptional theme – “Eat Your Way Through the Plagues”.  The dinner had ten courses each course took its inspiration from the plague.  For course one, for example, each guest was given a plastic syringe, a thimble of tomato juice and a thimble of vodka or water – and it was our task to “turn the clear liquid of the Nile into blood”.  Course five, beasts, was brisket and potatoes but the potatoes had been dried to form a rampaging hippo as seen in this photo.  When we got to course eight, the host came in to proudly inform us that locusts were kosher and that this course was exactly what it sounded like.  Here I drew the line – I am not a grasshopper eater.

The "beast" rampages through the potatoes at the Second Night Seder.

The “beast” rampages through the potatoes at the Second Night Seder.

During the seder I was invited to share a story… I shared the tale of the Lloyd Street Synagogue’s own “wicked son” – Rabbi Illowy and the lessons we learned from America’s Civil War.

3. Expectations and Audience

I did take the opportunity to visit the Jewish Museum of London.  It is a little challenging to find, but worth the effort.  We have some elements in common with our London counterpart, including the exhibition of one of the oldest mikveh in our respective countries (well, ours is 1845 and theirs is mid-13th century).

This is the rather subtle entry to the Jewish Museum of London.

This is the rather subtle entry to the Jewish Museum of London.

The Jewish Museum of London has three exhibit floors.  The first level is “what is Judaism?”… objects that explain Jewish rituals and observances.  The second level is “the history of Judaism in Britain” and the third level is a changing exhibit gallery.  I found it interesting that such a large portion of the total footprint was dedicated to explaining Judaism in general.  It seemed to reflect an expectation that a significant portion of their audience was unfamiliar with Jewish practice… an expectation not often reflected in American Jewish museums.

This screen from the computer interactive of Jewish settlements in England tells the story of the Jews of Bristol (home of Mendes Cohen's mother).

This screen from the computer interactive of Jewish settlements in England tells the story of the Jews of Bristol (home of Mendes Cohen’s mother).

On the second floor there were some interesting display concepts.  The tailor shop section of the exhibit included tools partially encased in plexi – visitors could lift the iron or the scissors and feel their weight without risk of injury from sharp edges.  There was also a video that blended a historic photo with live actors.  The interactive that allowed you to look up dozens of communities in England and find out their Jewish stories was particularly well done.  I wouldn’t be surprised if someday you could do this with towns of Maryland at a certain museum in Baltimore.

How heavy were those scissors?

How heavy were those scissors?

The temporary exhibit in April was on Jewish participation in World War I.  I thought it was an excellent treatment of a difficult topic.  Naturally, the focus was on the Jews of Britain – but they did a credible job of explaining the participation of the much larger populations of Jews who fought for the Central Powers (Germany and Austria).

London's oldest mikveh was moved to the museum.

London’s oldest mikveh was moved to the museum.

4. York and Memory

We ended our visit to England with a trip to York, a beautiful, walkable small city in the north of the country.  It has an incredibly rich history… underneath the soaring Gothic York Minster lie the remains of the original Roman fort at Eboracum.  There is also a slightly hokey attraction focused on York’s Viking heritage in town.

York Minster, I believe it is the second largest cathedral in Europe.  It stands where Constantine was made Emperor of Rome.

York Minster, I believe it is the second largest cathedral in Europe. It stands where Constantine was made Emperor of Rome.

York plays a role in Jewish history as well, though not a happy one.  It seems that when Richard the Lionheart ascended to the throne in 1189 a rumor spread that it was the king’s wish to deal with infidels at home before heading on a Crusade against infidels abroad.  The small Jewish community of York, numbering about 150, fled the castle keep (a place later reconstructed in stone as Clifford’s Tower).  A mob descended on the keep and the Jews inside made the decision to kill themselves by burning down the keep rather than expose themselves to torture, forced conversion and/or death from the mob.

Memories of York were still fresh in my mind when I boarded the plane back to the US.  I had bought myself a wonderfully illustrated magazine for the long trip home – The Medieval World, published by National Geographic.  Its 127 pages of text and graphics attempted to summarize the major places and events of the thousand year span from 400 to 1400 A.D.  Not surprisingly, York made it into the list  of great places of the age.  The magazine attempted to give a balanced portrayal of the struggle between Christians and Muslims across this millennium.  But somewhere over the North Atlantic, I began to notice something was missing: the Jews.  Not just missing from the sidebar on York, but from the discussion of Moorish Spain and central Germany… as best as I could tell, missing from all 127 pages!

What struck me was how easy it is to erase a people from history… and how important it is that institutions like the Jewish Museum of London (and the Jewish Museum of Maryland) keep it alive and accessible to the public.  I came back from my journey, exhausted, refreshed and ready to go back to work.

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click here.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




China & the Jews

Posted on April 30th, 2014 by

We are less than a month away from the eighth annual Herbert H and Irma B Risch Program on Immigration.  This year’s program, to be held at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation at 2 p.m. on May 18, features Rabbi Marvin Tokayer.  Rabbi Tokayer will be speaking on the topic of the Shanghai refugees, the remarkable Jewish community that not only survived WWII but also flourished in the years that followed (former Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal among them).   The selection of this year’s program was influenced by JMM’s current exhibition, Project Mah Jongg, and its focus on cultural connections between Jewish Americans and Chinese traditions.

Mark Your Calendar!

Mark Your Calendar!

The connections between Jews and China are far older than most people think.  The merchant trade of the Silk Road brought the first Jews to this part of the world by the time of the 8th century Tang Dynasty.  When Marco Polo arrives in Beijing in the late 1200s he finds an active community of Jewish traders.  Kaifeng contained perhaps the largest and most enduring Chinese Jewish population, preserving kashreit and shabbat well into the 1700s.

Jews of K’ai-Fun-Foo (Kaifeng Subprefecture), China. Image via wikipedia.

In the modern era China has been a place of refuge for Jews on more than one occasion.  When the Inquisition reached Goa, India in 1560, the demand was made that Portuguese marranos and “New Christians” return to Portugal and the punishments meted out to the unfaithful.  A group of Portuguese marranos went further east to Macao instead.  “Captain” Bartolomeu Vaz Landeiro was among the most notable of these refugees. Taking on a role that combined piracy and diplomacy, Landeiro became an agent for the local Chinese authorities in their dealings with the European powers.  Without any sense of irony, his Chinese neighbors would call Landeiro, “The King of the Portuguese.”

Marranos: Secret Seder in Spain during the times of inquisition, painting by Moshe Maimon. Image via wikipedia.

Marranos: Secret Seder in Spain during the times of inquisition, painting by Moshe Maimon. Image via wikipedia.

In 1844, it was the opium trade that brought Elias David Sassoon, son of the treasurer of Baghdad, to China.  Initially setting up shop in Hong Kong, Sassoon becomes the first Jewish member of the international colony in Shanghai in 1850.  The big break for the Sassoons is the American Civil War.  Suddenly, Chinese cotton becomes an important international commodity and Elias David Sassoon its most prominent dealer.

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah) & Sassoon David. Image via wikipedia.

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah) & Sassoon David. Image via wikipedia.

In the early 1900s, Jews fleeing pogroms in Western Russia, managed to make it across the Trans-Siberian Railway to settle in Harbin, China.

And perhaps the most interesting Jewish emigre to China is Morris Cohen (known more commonly as “Two Gun Cohen”).  Cohen was a British born pickpocket, pugilist and con artist (as a boy, in a scene right out of American Hustle  Cohen is employed by glazier, breaking  windows to bring in business).  After leaving reform school in England, Cohen headed to Saskatchewan, Canada where he was hired on as a farmhand and taught to shoot with a gun in both hands.  He made an unlikely friendship with a Chinese restaurant owner in Saskatoon whom he saved from an armed robbery.  This brought him into the inner circle of Cantonese Canadians who were supporting Sun Yatsen independence movement against the child emperor PuYi (think Last Emperor of China).  He eventually became a body guard for Sun Yatsen and his family and later a “Brigadier General” under Chiang Kai Shek.

Image via.

Image via.

If these stories pique your interest, I have two resources to suggest:

1) There is a terrific on line magazine called Asian Jewish Life at www.asianjewishlife.org.  You will find much more detail on “Two-Gun Cohen” in one of their archival issues – this one to be exact!

2) In addition to his lecture in May, Rabbi Tokayer runs a series of highly-rated kosher tours of Jewish history in Asia.  His next China-Japan tour is in July.  You can find more information at www.jewisheyes.com.

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click here. 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Of Mah Jongg, Passover and Cultural Adaptation

Posted on March 27th, 2014 by

We are just a few days away from the opening of Project Mah Jongg.   Throughout the last month the team has busily been preparing.  Ilene has been developing activities for kids, Trillion has been working on program concepts and Rachel has been applying her creativity to ways to let people know the exhibit is here.

As for me, I’ve been using my weekends to research a little bit about the history of Jews and board games.  This is a convenient convergence of the needs of the project and my personal interests.  I have been in the museum business 25 years, but I’ve been playing board games – nearly continuously – for at least 55 years; moving from the childhood classics (Candyland, Monopoly, Risk, Stratego) to the 3M games of the 1960s to Baltimore’s own Avalon Hill war games of the 1970s to the rail games of the 1980s and the Eurogames of the 1990s.  I have somewhere around 150 board games in the basement, not enough to make me a collector, but more than enough to have my wife wince every time she sees a new box come through the door.  To prepare for the exhibit I have also learned Mah Jongg (it’s tough work, but someone has to do it).

A staff Mah Jongg lesson.

A staff Mah Jongg lesson.

Since we signed up for the exhibit, I have been intriguing audiences with the question “how did a game for Chinese menbecome a pastime for Jewish women?”  The empirical answer to this question involves Jewish flappers of the 1920s and Jewish charitable fundraising in the 1930s.  But this statement of facts sidesteps a more interesting question about Mah Jongg as an example of cultural adaptation.  Mah Jongg is just one example of many things that both Jews and non-Jews would point to as culturally Jewish that have no theological basis, no connection to Torah or Talmud – e.g. bagels on Sunday morning, Borscht Belt shtick, discount camera supplies.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Abba Eban-narrated PBS series, Heritage: Civilization and the Jews.  The point of the series was that Judaism had not merely survived 4,000 years of contact with other cultural communities, it had actually helped shape (and in turn was shaped by) those contacts.  With the passage of enough time we often loose our awareness of cultural adaptations and assume that our customs are native to our history.  In researching games, I found a fascinating example: dreidel.  Like many of you, I grew up thinking that the game of dreidel was contemporary with the Maccabees.  But with a little on-line searching I learned that the game probably becomes a part of Hanukah in the 17th century.  The dreidel is based on a top called a teetotum and a game known as “put and take” that originated in England in the 1400s.  In the following century, the top moves to Germany where it gains some familiar letters – G for “ganze”, H for “halb”, N for “nicht” and S for “stell ein” meaning “put in”.  It became a popular Christmas game in Germany.  Like “potato latkes” (19th century) and “gift giving” (20th century), dreidel is a piece of the Hanukah celebration borrowed from our neighbors and given new meaning in a Jewish context.

Of course at this time of year my senses are more likely to be excited by the anticipation of matzah kugel than the memory of latkes.  However, Passover too is a great example of the history of cultural adaptation – running the gamut from ancient rites of spring to the Roman custom of free men reclining to the contemporary examples of suffering and depredation often invoked during the recounting of our bondage in Egypt.  I have often looked at the seder as an archeological dig, not only through Jewish history, but through all the cultures we have touched.

So perhaps it is not as unusual as it seems to include Mah Jongg among our adapted treasures.  We have made the meld and now it’s a part of us.

 

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin, click here.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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