Taking Leave

Posted on February 5th, 2014 by

At the end of this month we say good-bye to Passages Through the Fire:  Jews and the Civil War.  I, for one, will be sad to see it go.  I’ve not only enjoyed the exhibit and the chance to work with Karen and Todd on our “Maryland edition”, but also the outstanding programs that Trillion put together and the fun we’ve had with our volunteer docents and museum educators on the special tours.

Closing February 27th!

Closing February 27th!

I’ve gained dozens of new insights over the last few months but the one that sticks with me is actually about “saying good-bye”.

Ross Kelbaugh

Ross Kelbaugh

When Ross Kelbaugh came to speak at JMM at the beginning of December, he spoke about the boom in photography in Baltimore at the start of the Civil War (and the involvement of members of the Jewish community like the Bendann brothers and David Bacharach in this new “high tech” industry).  As many as 50 photo studios were doing business here in 1861.  Why the boom?  Well one of the causes that Kelbaugh points to is a technological innovation know as cartes de visite.  Just before the start of the war, photographers perfected the technique of printing multiple copies of playing card-sized images to card stock.  These images were affordable, even for people of modest means and could be easily slipped into the mail for loved ones.  You can imagine that soldiers sent to staging areas, like Baltimore, were very anxious to share pictures of themselves in uniform with their loved ones and images of nearby battlefields could bring the war home in a way that was unthinkable just 10 years earlier.  This keen interest fueled the photography craze (more about this can be found in a New York Times’ “Disunion” column by Andrea Volpe from August 6, 2013).

School students visit Passages Through the Fire.

School students visit Passages Through the Fire.

I look at this as a first revolution in the concept of “away”.  For thousands of years, when husbands and sons went off to affairs of war or commerce, there was an absolute loss of connection.  Their wives, children and siblings in most cases had only their memories to rely on (or perhaps an old portrait) to invoke the image of the person who was truly “away”.  But the Civil War chipped away at the concept that saying good-bye completely severed visual contact with those who were away.

Today, we’ve experienced a second revolution in “away”.  With Skype, Face Time, Facebook and more, we almost never completely lose visual contact with those who have gone away, whether they are at summer camp or at a base 10,000 miles from home.   The technology has changed what it means to take leave and endure separation.

All this is not to say that we have solved the problems of being apart.  Images can be a poor substitute for human contact.  But nothing ever leaves us as completely as it once did, and we’ll have the pictures of the Civil War exhibit on our website to prove it.

 

~Marvin

(editor’s note:  Passages Through the Fire closes on February 27th.  Due to the fragile nature of the artifacts this will be the end of the exhibit tour, everything will be returned to the lenders.  If you haven’t seen it yet, we encourage you to take advantage of your last opportunity)

Civil War cropped 1A blog post by executive director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Keeping the “tribe” without the “tribalism”

Posted on January 27th, 2014 by

What do political scientist Norm Ornstein, the Pew Study and the American Civil War have to do with one another?  I can’t speak to their relationships in the real world, but I would like to share some thoughts about they have started to link up in my mind.

Ornstein, author of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, has been speaking recently about a phenomenon he calls “tribalism”.  There are many aspects to his analysis, but at its core he defines the situation as one where people start to care more about who is making the argument than about the content of the argument.  Politicians switch positions on issues depending on which party or which leader has made the proposal.  Tribalism makes compromise nearly impossible – because while it’s conceivable to find middle ground on an issue there is no middle ground on identity.

It has occurred to me that this type of tribalism is a feature of the modern world that is by no means restricted to Washington.  The Pew Study is the most recent effort to slice and dice the American Jewish community and discern its subgroups.  I am aware of the controversy over the methodologies of the studies but I don’t think anyone would deny that differences within our community sometimes impede our collective well-being.  There are real disagreements about matters of policy, but I am often struck by the fact that the fiercest struggles are matters of identity.  At a recent forum it happened that a panel was introduced only by their names.  About midway through the policy discussion, a clearly distressed audience member raised her hand and said “we all have prejudices, tell us something about who you are so we will know your prejudices.”  The single item I found most striking in the Pew Study was that when the questions weren’t about labels or rituals, but instead about values – there was a surprising level of commonality across all groups.  I manage a museum, so I have a vested interest in the preservation of the inanimate objects we imbue with meaning (what flags we fly, how we dress, what we use to worship), but I find myself wondering whether we sometimes put so much value in the distinctive aspects of our material culture that we lose sight of the human bonds that tie us all together.

And this takes me to the topic of the Civil War.  When Ornstein was recently asked if this is the worst state that Congress has ever been in, he conceded that it was worse in the years immediately prior to the Civil War…but added, who wants to use that as a standard of comparison?  Our current exhibit points out that the war not only divided the Union but exacerbated divisions within the Jewish community.  As “who” became more important than “what”, factions became irreconcilable.  In many cases people stopped talking to their neighbors and shut themselves off from alternate points of view.  In the echo chambers that emerged, progressively more radical solutions started to seem normal.  Families and congregations were split forever.

I think that identity is a basic human need, and that museums like JMM perform a public service by expanding understanding of elements of both our common identity and of the distinctive sub-segments of the Jewish experience.  However, I hope we always keep in mind that identity should not be a wall but a window, something that draws us into new worlds and helps us reexamine our own assumptions.

Civil War cropped 1A blog post by executive director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Looking for Cohens in All the Wrong Places

Posted on December 23rd, 2013 by

Last week Joseph Abell, our professional researcher, shared some of his adventures in pursuit of the life of Mendes Cohen, defender of Fort McHenry.  But even amateur detectives, like me, can get in on the hunt:

It was a cold morning early this November.  I woke up and realized that this would probably be the last day I could really see fall foliage in all its glory.  After making my way through morning chores, I pointed the car towards Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia…my absolutely favorite autumn view.

The autumn view

The autumn view

On the shuttle bus from the parking lot to the town, an image flashed through my mind – a rather odd connection.  Just before I had left work for the weekend, I had been perusing a genealogical chart of the Cohen family.  Israel Cohen, the founder of the clan arrived in America on September 21, 1787 (four days after the completion of the US Constitution).  In addition to Mendes, Israel had eight sons and one daughter.  In the middle of the chart I had glimpsed the childhood deaths of two of Mendes’ great-nephews:  Solomon Etting Cohen and Benjamin Denny Cohen.  It now occurred to me that the place of death was listed as “Harper’s Ferry”.  I decided that as long as I was here I would go the ranger station and ask if anyone had knowledge of a Cohen family living in Harper’s Ferry in the 1840’s.

Now this was my tenth or eleventh trip to Harper’s Ferry so I knew that the ranger station was across the street from the 1850s clothing store.  I had never paid much attention to the name on the store, “Phillip Frankel”, but in light of my current search it took on a new meaning.  The Cohens it was clear weren’t the only Jews in historic Harper’s Ferry.  The ranger had no information on the Cohens but directed me over to the bookstore where he said there was a guide to regional cemeteries.  I opened up the guide – I found the Cohen Boys were buried at Harper’s Cemetery up the hill.  But another listing sparked my curiosity…there was a Ella Harper Cohen buried at the cemetery in nearby Shepherdstown, WV.  The date of death was 1920.  Was it just a coincidence that there was another Cohen in the neighborhood?  After all, it’s a pretty common name.

Now I was hooked.  The clerk in the bookstore said that if I wanted to find out more about the Cohens, I might try the Jefferson County (WV) Historical Society.  The organization was housed in the library in Charles Town just 15 minutes up the road.  It was past 3:30 – I might just make it before the library closed.  What started as a casual search that afternoon became an obsession.  I caught the shuttle bus back to my car and made a bee line for Charles Town.  I ran towards the library and went through the open door.  But I was too late, the library had already shut its doors – but off to the side I noticed an opening to something called the Jefferson County Museum and one docent was still inside preparing for end of day.  I told him my whole story.  He searched a database and found obituaries for the kids and for Ella Harper Cohen.

It appeared that the children had died within weeks of each other.  He speculated that this was probably the result of an epidemic that swept the town in 1847.  Diseases like Typhus were still a problem in this part of the country then.

Ella Harper Cohen, known as Sally, was the wife of Benjamin I. Cohen, a first cousin to the boys.  She had her body shipped back from Portland, OR to West Virginia when she died.  With a little more on-line research at the National Archives, I was able to determine that Sally was a direct descendant of Richard Harper – the man who created the ferry.  She converted to Judaism in 1876 and married Benjamin in Portland in 1881 in a ceremony officiated by a rabbi.  Their marriage lasted 34 years until Benjamin passed away.  This new data raised so many more questions than it answered.  How did this Jewish boy from Baltimore meet and fall in love with this girl with roots in Harper’s Ferry?  What pushed/pulled them out to Portland, OR?  Why did she send her body back to a home she hadn’t lived near in at least forty years?

That’s the great thing about exploring history, every mystery you unwrap leads to another one to be revealed.

We have not yet found any living descendants of Israel Cohen and his ten children.  The last name on the genealogical chart passes away in the 1990s.  If any reader of this blog post has a clue to a descendant we might have missed I invite you to contact us.

Civil War cropped 1A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more post by Marvin, click here. 

 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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