President’s Day

Posted on February 16th, 2015 by

Today is President’s Day.  A day usually celebrated with a sale on linens.  But I’ve decided to start a new JMM tradition and devote a blog post each President’s Day to the relationship between the Jewish community and one of our 44 Chief Executives.

Now the story of these relations is often fairly well documented.  There are whole books on the relationship of Lincoln, Grant or FDR and their Jewish constituents.  I though I might cover some of the less well known connections.

But where to begin? Since Wednesday is the bicentennial of the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent and end to the War of 1812 (known by its critics as Mr. Madison’s War), I thought that James Madison, Jr. – our 4th President was a great place to start.  I found a couple of great connections between Madison and Mendes Cohen! So the subject was irresistible.

James Madison, Jr.

James Madison, Jr.

Early Years

Madison was a diminutive figure (at 5′ 4″, our shortest president) whose incredible accomplishments (“Father of the Constitution”, “Father of the Bill of Rights”) cast a long shadow on our history.  In my quick research for this blog post I was not able to discover Madison’s first encounter with a member of the Jewish community but I do know when he first learned Hebrew.  Yes, Madison is the first president of the United States to both speak and read Hebrew.  He graduates Princeton in 1771, at age 20, but stays on for a year to study Hebrew language with the president of the university, Rev. John Witherspoon.

We also know that sometime during the revolutionary period Madison receives a loan of $50 from Jacob Cohen, Mendes’ uncle who lived in Richmond.  Though his father was a tobacco planter who would eventually become the largest landowner in Orange County, Virginia, Madison himself seems to have had precarious finances prior to the death of his father in 1801.  When Madison serves as a young member of Congress in the early 1780s, he appears to have been dependent on his salary.  One problem – Congress has no funds to pay salaries.  So they ask revolutionary war funder Haym Salomon to advance the salaries of Madison and two other members of Congress.  Technically this was a loan.  But in his writings, Madison tells us that Salomon refused to accept repayment.  I suspect that Salomon’s generosity made a lasting impression on Madison’s assessment of the character of Jewish people.

Haym Solomon

Haym Solomon

Religious Freedom 

Madison is a tireless advocate of the cause of religious freedom in America.  As early as the Boston Tea Party in 1774, Madison writes to a friend that American has avoided “slavery and subjection” thanks largely to the fact that the Church of England had failed to establish itself as the official religion of the colonies.

In 1785 there is an attempt to help fund Virginia’s coffers with a tax on religious dissenters.  Madison writes a “Memorial and Remonstrance” against the tax. He wrote, “The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.  This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”

The following year, Madison introduces Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom into the state legislature.  This historic document, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but championed by Madison, lays out such a clear concept of religious liberty.  Madison fought an attempt to amend the statute so that it only applied to followers of “Jesus Christ”.  In Jefferson’s words, the statute needed to grant equal rights to “Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”

Three years later Madison had the opportunity to take his ideas to a national scale as he introduced the first proposal for amending the Constitution to incorporate freedom of religion.  Here is Madison’s language from June 8, 1789:

Fourthly. That in article 1st, section 9, between clauses 3 and 4, be inserted these clauses, to wit: The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.

Compare Madison’s expansive clause with the actual final language of the first amendment.  How might our history of struggle for religious liberty have changed if Madison’s broader concept of civil rights had been adopted?


Madison and Mordecai Noah

The other significant connection between Madison and the Jewish community dates to his period as president.  As the war with Britain approached, Mordecai Noah, an aspiring lawyer, journalist and politician in Charleston, SC came to the attention of the Madison administration through a series of articles he wrote in support of resistance to British aggression.  This was a minority point of view in Charleston and, according to historian Simon Wolf, Noah’s life was threatened on multiple occasions because of his outspoken opinions.

In 1811, Madison offers Noah an appointment to be counsel in Riga, (today Latvia, then Russia).  This is the first diplomatic post offered to a member of the Jewish faith – Noah turns it down.  But two years later, Noah accepts an invitation to become counsel in Tunis.  The most critical part of his job was negotiating with the Barbary Pirates for the release of American sailors.  It turns out that Madison’s policy of paying ransom to a group we were today call terrorists may have saved many lives, but was not very popular.  Secretary of State Monroe decides that the best solution is to recall Noah on the grounds that his religion offended his hosts.  To add insult, Monroe claims to have been ignorant of Noah’s religion before his appointment.

It appears that Noah and the Jewish community vented their outrage on Madison.  Some sources go so far as to declare this the only act of overt religious discrimination against Jews in a government appointment.  Further reading convinced me that the situation is far more complex and that the role played by Monroe in the recall may be much more important than that of Madison.

In fact, Madison later writes the following to Noah:

As your foreign mission took place whilst I was in the administration it cannot be but agreeable to me to learn, that your accounts have been closed in a manner favorable to you. And I know too well the justice and candor of the present executive [Monroe] to doubt that an official preservation, will be readily allowed to explanations necessary to protect your character against the effect of any impressions whenever ascertained to be erroneous. It was certain, that your religious profession was well-known at the time you received your commission, and that in itself it could not be a motive in your recall.

Cutting through the 19th century pleasantries, I think Madison is basically laying the problem at Monroe’s doorstep.

Mordecai Manuel Noah

Mordecai Manuel Noah

Maryland Jew Bill and Cohens v. Virginia

Even after leaving office, Madison remains active in public life.  His opinions are sought out on issues of controversy.

In 1818 advocates of the repeal of the oath to the New Testament in Maryland (the “Maryland Jew Bill”) solicited and received endorsements from all three living former presidents (Adams, Jefferson and Madison).  Madison’s letter read in part:

Having ever regarded the freedom of religious opinions, and worshippers, equally, belonging to every sect, and the sure enjoyment of it, as the best human provision, for bringing all into the same way of thinking, or into that mutual charity, which is the only proper substitute, I observe with pleasure, the view you give of the spirit in which your sect partake of the common blessings, afforded by our government and laws. 

No points for writing style, but the sentiment is in the right place.

In 1821 Madison is asked to comment on case of Cohens vs. Virginia.  According to Kevin Gutzman in James Madison and the Making of America, his Democratic compatriots expected him to castigate Chief Justice Marshall for his aggrandizement of power in the Supreme Court.  Marshall decides that the court has authority to take a case from criminal defendants – in this case Mendes and Phillip Cohen for the “crime” of selling DC lottery tickets in Virginia – when state and federal law are in conflict.  Madison takes a more measured view, arguing that it would be better to pressure Congress to stop writing laws that interfere with state authority than it would be to constrain the Supreme Court in its rulings.  Of course, the part that interested me is that Mendes Cohen is everywhere – even in the commentaries of James Madison.


I welcome your suggestions for which of the other 43 men we should explore next President’s Day.




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


Posted in jewish museum of maryland

A False “Rosetta Stone”

Posted on December 3rd, 2014 by

Earlier this fall I had the opportunity to speak to the brotherhood of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation about the life of Mendes Cohen and the origins of Jewish Baltimore.  In preparation for the lecture, I thought it was incumbent on me to try to answer the question: “was there a connection between the Cohens and the community that built the Lloyd Street Synagogue (the original site of BHC)?”

I had the benefit of the research of Dr. Eric Goldstein, the Emory University scholar, who has been studying early Baltimore history on our behalf.  Dr. Goldstein had pointed out that the early Jewish settlement in Baltimore was highly transient.  A majority of Jews arriving between 1780 and 1820 stayed for just a few years, making it a tough environment for the establishment of permanent Jewish institutions.  There was a Jewish cemetery by 1797, but no regular minyan or congregation.  Baltimore was a frontier of Jewish world.

The Cohens were an exception to the pattern of transience.  Arriving in Baltimore from Richmond in 1808, they prospered in the lottery and banking business.  Like their close friends, the Ettings, the Cohens followed Sephardic traditions.  By contrast, new Baltimoreans after 1820 were almost entirely Germans practicing Ashkenazic rites.

Different sources give different accounts of when the first weekly minyans were held in Baltimore, some cited 1827, just a year after the passage of the Maryland Jew Bill.  Others claim that the practice of minyans in people’s homes began following the High Holidays in 1829.  Everyone seems to agree that this gathering called itself Nidche Yisrael (the “scattered of Israel”) and sought a formal charter as Maryland’s first Jewish congregation in 1830.

This is where my online research began.  Several sources, including the 1976 official history of the BHC, put the first minyan in the home of Zalma Rehine.  The Jewish Virtual Library stated that Rehine was a successful Richmond merchant (and a founding member of the Richmond Light Infantry) who moved to Baltimore in 1829.  The short article also pointed out that Rehine was the uncle of Isaac Leeser.

Now I may never have heard of Rehine, but Leeser was another story.  One of the most prominent Jewish spiritual leaders of pre-rabbinic America.  Leeser, technically the “cantor” of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, is known today for having introduced the practice of weekly sermons and for having made the first English translation of the Torah in the United States.  Leeser was present at the opening of the Lloyd Street Synagogue in 1845.

It turns out that Leeser and his uncle carried on an active correspondence in the 1830’s.  That correspondence is now archived as part of the 2100 letters in the Gershwind-Bennett Isaac Leeser Digital Library of the University of Pennsylvania:

Image courtesy of the Leeser Library.

Image courtesy of the Leeser Library.  And that’s where I thought I found my Rosetta Stone!

Here was one letter that connected the “founder” of  BHC with the Cohens.  Moreover, it suggested that the relationship was so close that Dr. Joshua Cohen (Mendes’ brother) was among the trusted few who actually previewed Leeser’s sermons.  The story about chasing after the home robbers was just icing on the cake.

As so often happens, further research burst my bubble.  In trying to gather more detail on the relationships I ran across an article in the November 1976 issue of the American Jewish Archives.  The article by Ira Rosenswaike was entitled “The Founding of Baltimore’s First Jewish Congregation:  Fact or Fiction?”.  Rosenswaike explores in some detail the Rehine story, tracing its origins to an early 20th century lecture by Henrietta Szold.  Szold reportedly told her audience that a respected community elder had once recollected that an early minyan was held at the home of Zalma Rehine on Holliday Street.  Szold noted “this may possibly have been the beginning of Nidche Israel”.  Later accounts simply dropped the “may possibly” caution and said with certainty that the minyans began at Rehine’s home.  After noting the low likelihood that a Sephardi just arrived from Richmond would start an Ashkenazi Jewish minyan in Baltimore, Rosenswaike moves to some fairly solid census evidence that points to Rehine still residing in Richmond in 1830…at least a year after the regular minyan started meeting in Baltimore.

Although this nearly 40 year old article disproved my “Rosetta Stone”, I still remain hopeful that we’ll find a link between the Cohens and the Lloyd Street Synagogue.  I invite you to join me in this quest – the search is at least half the fun.

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

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Gaining Perspective from 1,000 Miles Away

Posted on October 1st, 2014 by

St. Paul

A beautiful shot of the St. Paul Skyline!

A week before Rosh Hashonah, Education Director Ilene Dackman-Alon and I attended the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) conference in St. Paul, Minnesota.  The trip had many virtues – a chance to see some truly innovative museums, a chance to renew and develop acquaintances with colleagues and collaborators, and perhaps, most important, a chance to think about the directions we are taking at JMM through the lens of innovations happening elsewhere in the country.


What a great conference poster – does anyone know the artist?

The tone for the conference was set by keynoter, Garrison Keillor.  He peppered his folksy (and irreverent) stories of the history of the state with observations about the museum enterprise.  Paraphrasing Tip O’Neill, he observed that “all history is local” and that those who try to sweep human experience into great global generalizations are probably sharing as much fiction as truth.  “The 60s may have been about drug, sex, and rock ‘n roll in parts of New York or San Francisco”, he noted, “but in small town Minnesota the 60s was all about moving into the middle class.”  I reflected on our Mendes Cohen exhibit at JMM and thought, actually “all history is biography” and every human life has the potential to illuminate its times.

Feature exhibit at the Minnesota History Center:  Toys of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Feature exhibit at the Minnesota History Center:
Toys of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

I attended 7 workshops and presentations during my two and a half days in St. Paul.  These included:

“Creating Connections:  Integrating STEM Learning into History Exhibitions and Programs” – a collaboration of the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Conner Prairie historic village outside Indianapolis.  Conner Prairie recently took a big leap outside its comfort zone, training its history docents to facilitate visitor-driven exploration of historic technologies.  We worked in groups to develop model exhibits.  Ilene’s group was turning architecture into an engineering lesson.  My group worked on letting visitors “put together” a 1910 electric car.

Workshop at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Workshop at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Directors Breakfast – turned out to be a perfect complement to the session above.  The focus of the breakfast was “how do we build a political coalition strong enough to promote history in the way that scientists promote STEM?”  They had some interesting ideas and I expect that I will participate in future forums on this topic.

My favorite artifact - We definitely need something like this in our collection.

My favorite artifact – We definitely need something like this in our collection.

“Blurred Lines:  Museum as Community Center” – This session looked at four specific program innovations at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle (outdoor film festival, evening socials for young adults, yoga in the museum and after school tech clubs).  They talked about successes and failures, but even more interesting, the process of assessing successes and failures.  I think that as we increase our community outreach there is much to be learned from the experience of others.

“Seeing the Forest: A National Perspective on History Organizations” – this was a straightforward (and slightly depressing) set of research results from NEA and AASLH.  It told a story that was not terribly surprising – after holding their own through the first electronic revolution (the Internet of the 1990s and early 2000s), museums were now experiencing a significant decline in attendance during the period 2005 to 2013 (the era of the smart phone and social media) – actually all physical contact with the arts – attending concerts, art galleries, dance performances as well as participating in creative arts activities are declining.  The only uptick in “arts” creation was a boom in photography (perhaps those smart phones).  Of course, these are averages – and any individual institution can figure out a way to buck the trend.

Paul, Babe, me and Mendes at Minnesota History Center. One way to get people to recognize the front of the museum!

Paul, Babe, me and Mendes at Minnesota History Center. One way to get people to recognize the front of the museum!

“Blink” – Local Baltimore/DC consulting group QM2 was invited by the Massachusetts historic properties trust to perform an activity inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink.  They were given 36 hours at each of three historic sites to assess and suggest new directions for reawakening public interest and growing attendance.  The idea was to not get bogged down in all the impediments of “we’ve tried that before” or “management won’t let us do that” and make constructive snap judgments.  It seemed like an interesting experiment.

“Talking about Religion in History Museums” – Three speakers looked at the challenges that the topic of religion generates, not only in public museums, but even in religious-sponsored institutions.  There was discussion of why most museums are willing to host exhibits on religious practice but few are willing to have any discussion of religious belief.  Even small differences of opinion on belief can easily escalate into institution-threatening conflict.   The panelists had some great examples.

“Support Young Children, Grow Future Audiences” – our own Ilene was joined by speakers from the Smithsonian’s Center on Early Learning, a museum in San Antonio and the still-to-be-built National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall.  The topic was how history museums could relate to our youngest visitors (ages 3 to 7).  Call me prejudiced, but I thought Ilene’s presentation was outstanding and really reminded me that we can hold our own even with much larger institutions when it comes to educational innovation.

Mill City Museum: The ruins of a flour mill destroyed by fire are transformed into a first-rate history experience.

Mill City Museum: The ruins of a flour mill destroyed by fire are transformed into a first-rate history experience.

Living History Actress plays 1940s "Anne Pillsbury" at Mill City Museum

Living History Actress plays 1940s “Anne Pillsbury” at Mill City Museum

Lest you think I spent all my time in sessions, some of the highlights of the trip are documented in the photos below.  I had the chance to explore the beautiful Minnesota State Capitol building, the first major project of architect Cass Gilbert, now under restoration.  I went back to the Minnesota History Center, on everyone’s short list of the best history museums in the US and also had the chance to visit their newest project, the Mill City Museum.  In 1991 an abandoned flour mill, once the largest in the world, was nearly destroyed by fire.  Instead of tearing the building down the folks at MNHS turned into an extension site and, in my opinion, perhaps the finest single topic museums ever.  Combining clever exhibit design (an elevator ride that seems to owe a lot to MSI’s Coal Mine and Disney’s Tower of Terror), extensive research, live performance, great use of artifacts and the ruins of the building and some great exhibit filmmaking – I would rate this as a “must see”, even if you never thought you had an interest in making flour.

Detail from the ceiling of the Minnesota State Assembly - it was breathtaking.

Detail from the ceiling of the Minnesota State Assembly – it was breathtaking.

And of course I brought my trusty Flat Mendes with me!

And of course I brought my trusty Flat Mendes with me!

If I had to describe the conference in one word, it would be: “inspiring”.  I am glad I could take you along for a little bit of the ride.

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE. Interested in knowing more about AASLH? Check out their website, or follow them on Twitter!

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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