Troubled History

Posted on February 15th, 2016 by

It’s President’s Day again.  You may recall that last year I wrote a post on James Madison and American Jews.  This year I am going to share a few thoughts about Woodrow Wilson.  It seems like a timely choice:  1) This year marks Wilson’s 160th birthday;  2) In a presidential contest marked by questions of “who is a genuine progressive?” and “who is the ‘outsider’ candidate?”, Wilson is arguably a poster child for both; but perhaps most importantly 3) Wilson has become the focal point of a debate about how we treat the ugly pieces of our history and how we balance honor and ignominy in a pluralistic society.  In fact the Wilson Legacy Review Committee will be holding an open forum this Friday afternoon as part of its historical assessment of our only president to have worked as a professional historian.

Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United State

Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United State

There seems to be a broad consensus that Wilson was among the most philo-Semitic leaders in American history.  The list of tributes recorded by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on his passing in 1924 gives some flavor of the contemporary Jewish community’s esteem (view here).  Wilson is lauded his nominations of Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court and Bernard Baruch to chair the War Industries Board., for his support of the Balfour Declaration and his three vetoes of bills that would have restricted immigration from Eastern Europe.  It is no exaggeration to say that there are some American Jewish families who owe their very existence to Wilson’s actions – considering what was likely to have happened to those unable to immigrate.

So how do we square this courageous Woodrow Wilson with the Woodrow Wilson who appointed overtly racist cronies to key government offices, presiding over the re-segregation of the federal workplace.; the president who dramatically reduced the number of  African American appointees to positions of government authority and who waited to the sixth year of his presidency to finally speak out against the growing wave of lynchings across the South that coincided with his term in office.

Wilson himself asserted that his policies were for “the benefit” of black people.  His argument for the segregation of peoples was clothed in the language of “administrative science” as a method of reducing friction in the workplace.  One suspects that his underlying attitudes are more easily understood as a product of his upbringing in Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas and his deep-seated belief that Reconstruction was an evil perpetuated on the South.  Wilson was certainly not the only academic of his age to put a scientific veneer on his cultural prejudices (more about that in the eugenics section of our upcoming exhibit  Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America).  Wilson was however the only academic to also be president of the United States – so his veneer proved much more harmful.

Wilson was not beyond making disparaging remarks about Jews and other immigrants and had no problem encouraging Henry Ford to pursue a career in politics, but he was not burdened with a similar core ideology about the suitability of the Jewish community (at least the assimilated Jewish community) for full participation in American life.  And it seems that some of his Jewish advisors may have actually shared his views on Reconstruction and the “Lost Cause” of Southern independence.  Bernard Baruch, son of a Confederate doctor, endowed the United Daughters of the Confederacy and supported their publications.

Some students at Princeton have made a case that Wilson’s failings generate uncomfortable feelings for those who study in the “Wilson School” or live in a “Wilson Dorm” and have argued for the removal of Wilson’s name  from the campus.  I would encourage readers of this blog post to look at the comments of scholars and biographers on this topic.

I wonder if erasing names is really the best solution to our troubled history.  It leaves us in the awkward position of having only heroes and villains, rather than real human history – as messy as it is.  I do not advocate giving Wilson a “pass”, but simply think it would be more effective to remember the name – but to acknowledge both good and bad associations.

It is a principle I can live with even when the shoe is on the other foot.  Two years ago I visited the Henry Ford Museum – an institution I much admire for the quality of its exhibits, although I admit a fair amount of personal distress walking into an institution named for the most notorious anti-Semite in American history.  At the Museum you can visit the Ford Home and the Ford Factory, but I didn’t see a single panel on “The Dearborn Independent.”

Article The International Jew: The World's Problem in Henry Ford's newspaper The Dearborn Independent, May 22, 1920.

The International Jew: The World’s Problem in Henry Ford’s newspaper The Dearborn Independent, May 22, 1920.

Yet if I could make a change, it would not be to remove Ford’s name from the front door, it would rather be that somewhere in the 12 acre site there might be room to remember the damage inflicted by his baseless accusations rather than simply praise for his contributions to our industrial economy. If we erase the names of all the flawed human beings, all of our institutions will need to become “anonymous”.

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

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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:

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.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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:

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


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

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




Posted in jewish museum of maryland


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