Getting to Know Mendes

Posted on August 21st, 2014 by

MC_Exhibit Assets_v2

Exhibit Opens September 14th!

Mendes I. Cohen was born in Richmond VA in 1796, the son of a German Jewish father and an English Jewish mother.  His family moved to Baltimore in 1807 and lived until 1879.  He was a witness to many events in history both at home and abroad and a participant in a surprising number of transformational moments.  Here are a dozen highlights:


1. Mendes is one of six Jewish defenders of Ft. McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore.  When one bomb falls into the powder magazine rather than “bursting in air”, Mendes and two other artillerymen are sent in to rescue the ammunition.  (To Mendes’ great fortune, the bomb was a dud)


2. The Cohen family starts out in the lottery business.  Mendes and his brother are sent to Norfolk to sell DC lottery tickets (federal lottery tickets).  Virginia authorities arrest the Cohens for selling tickets without the authority of the state of Virginia.  The case of Cohens v. Virginia goes to the Supreme Court where Chief Justice Marshall technically rules against the Cohens, but establishes the principle that the Court has standing in resolving differences between state and federal authority.


3. The Cohen family is very active in the campaign for “The Maryland Jew Bill”.  Finally passed in 1826, the bill allows people to serve on juries, serve in the militia and serve in public office without taking an oath to the New Testament.  Mendes will later provide assistance to English Jews fighting for the same liberties in the 1830s.


4. Thanks to the success of his family’s banking enterprise, Mendes Cohen is able to “retire” at 33 and start an extensive tour of Europe and the Middle East.  His first stop is England where he combines business with pleasure, dining with Nathan Rothschild and striking up a friendship.


5. Mendes arrives at the barricades in Paris just two weeks after the Student Revolt (think “Les Miserables”) and reports some disappointment in having just missed the action.


6. When in Rome, Mendes is invited to the installation of the new pope (Pope Gregory XVI).  He writes a letter dedicated to the thorny question of whether a Jewish American democrat should kiss the feet of the pope.


7.  Mendes decides to take up Egyptology.  He sails down the Nile in a boat with an American flag of his own design, acquiring rare antiquities.  The artifacts he collects are later purchased by Johns Hopkins University and are today the core of their archeology collection.


8. Mendes heads for Palestine, becoming the first American to ever acquire a firman (permit) from the Ottoman sultan to visit the Holy Land.  Mendes spends his time trying to trace places mentioned in biblical passages.


9. After returning to the US, Mendes becomes a special assistant to Governor Veazey.  He is asked to serve as Maryland’s representative at the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837.


10. Mendes becomes one of the early directors of the B&O Railroad and Baltimore’s first Jewish charity, the Hebrew Benevolent Society.  The Cohen brothers are very involved in the development of Baltimore’s first and only Sephardic synagogue in the 1850s.


11. Mendes is elected to the State House of Delegates in 1846.  He votes for leniency in the sentencing of debtors.  But as a loyal Democrat he also votes to condemn Pennsylvania for helping Maryland’s slaves escape to freedom.


12. Mendes spent his final years near his home in the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore (Mendes lived with his mother and then his brothers for his entire life).  He spent his last years in the 1870s recounting tales of his youth to passersby, intensely proud of his adventures.

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100 Years & the War that Will End War

Posted on August 1st, 2014 by

Here in Baltimore no one has any doubt what war we are commemorating.  As summer slips into fall one celebration after another will remind us of the events two hundred years ago that gave us our anthem, our pride and our continued independence.  As most of you know, JMM is a part of these festivities, honoring our own favorite Ft. McHenry defender, Mendes Cohen.

However, in much of the world the war being remembered this year is a century later.  On July 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declares war on Serbia, the first in a series of domino triggers that will take the world into its first global maelstrom.  Within a month of the outbreak, futurist H.G. Wells had already published an article declaring that this would be “The War that Will End War”(it’s ok, we also don’t have time travel yet…or a Martian invasion).

The war would be twice tragic for the Jewish people.  First in the loss of life of soldiers drawn to patriotic duty at the early stages of the conflict and second in the inflammation of prejudice as pundits and politicians throughout Europe looked for a scapegoat for their ill-fortune in the fight.

When I was at the Jewish Museum of London this spring, I had a chance to see the exhibit “For King and Country?: The Jewish Experience of the First World War”.  As the “?” in the title implies there were a lot of ambiguities in the Jewish response to the conflict.  After all, many English Jews of the period were recent refugees of lands controlled by Russia and they did not necessarily favor a victory for the Czar, even if he was allied with Great Britain.  Moreover, reflecting the relative size of Jewish populations, more than twice the number of Jews fought for the Central Powers (Germany and Austria) as for the UK and France. In our collection at JMM we have several medals acquired by Jewish soldiers in the service of the German army, carried with them when they were forced to escape on the eve of WWII.

In our collection at JMM we have several medals acquired by Jewish soldiers in the service of the German army, carried with them when they were forced to escape on the eve of WWII. Cross-shaped WWI medal earned by Hugo Bessinger, 2011.4.1

Cross-shaped WWI medal earned by Hugo Bessinger, 2011.4.1

In fact, quickly browsing our collection, it becomes obvious that Baltimore Jews played important roles in the war.  Even before the doughboys went to Europe, the British Royal Fusiliers had begun recruiting American volunteers.  In particular they sought out Jewish young men who wanted to be sent to the front to face the Ottoman Empire in Palestine.

This cap pin, belonging to Simon Soibel, still bears the initials RF, even though the Royal Fusiliers units, the 39th and 40th battalions, were already referred to as the “Jewish Legion.” 1992.154.057

This cap pin, belonging to Simon Soibel, still bears the initials RF, even though the Royal Fusiliers units, the 39th and 40th battalions, were already referred to as the “Jewish Legion.” 1992.154.057

We have just one WWI uniform in our collection, but it unites two prominent Baltimore families.  This coat belonged to Lester Levy, hat maker and civic leader.  Levy, who had ambitions to fight in France, had been turned down by the Army for his poor eyesight.  Although he eventually got a waiver from the US Attorney General’s office, he was assigned to ordnance and never actually went overseas.  And the other prominent Baltimore family?  Well, the coat was manufactured by Henry Sonneborn & Co.



The collection also contains quite a few photos from the war effort.

These include an image of a rabbi and troops at a Passover seder in Paris in 1918, 1993.173.1.15



three Red Cross nurses, named Levin, Fuxman and Ribakow, 1990.44.2

three Red Cross nurses, named Levin, Fuxman and Ribakow, 1990.44.2

As Jennifer Vess wrote in this blog several years ago, the role of women in WWI including not only the nurses but other participants in the combat support effort is particularly well documented in our holdings.

Members of the Jewish Welfare Board in Paris, France; Rose Lutzky, 3rd from right, 1993.173.12

Members of the Jewish Welfare Board in Paris, France; Rose Lutzky, 3rd from right, 1993.173.12

Barbara Tuchman, author of the most famous treatise on WWI, The Guns of August, once wrote “Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill.”*  I would add just one thought to her cogent analysis – “without records and artifacts there are no books.”

*Bulletin of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 34, #2, 1980 (pp. 16-32)

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

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Performance Counts May 2014: Planning Ahead

Posted on May 16th, 2014 by

In the past few months you have read quite a bit about our current and upcoming exhibits:  Project Mah Jongg, the Electrified Pickle, The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen and Jews, Health and Healing.  We also are preparing for some wonderful events including the 8th Annual Herbert H. and Irma B. Risch program this Sunday, featuring Rabbi Marvin Tokayer and our June 1 Annual Meeting with Dr. Len Saxe.

Yet even as we busily engage in the business of creating, funding and presenting these exciting current projects, we still keep one eye focused on the road ahead.  You will recall that in the fall of 2012 the Board’s ad hoc “Futures Committee” produced a new vision document for the Jewish Museum of Maryland.  The vision reinforced our focus on some of the attributes that make a museum successful, the so-called “four Ds”:  destination, documentation, discourse and discovery.  This vision has guided us in much of what’s been accomplished in the last eighteen months – the doubling of our public hours, the dramatic growth in our attendance, the strengthened relationship with The Associated, our reaccreditation by the American Alliance of Museums and even the painful decisions that have led us to a balanced budget in FY ’14.

This summer we will enter into a second phase of institutional planning.  A new ad hoc “Planning Committee” will be formed with the goal of diving into the next level of the question “What is the Jewish Museum of Maryland?”.  The concept is to build on the work from 2012.  For example, we have made the commitment to focus on becoming a destination – now we’ll ask the question, “what are the distinguishing features of that destination?”.  How are we similar or different from other Jewish museums?  from other Baltimore museums?  How do we make the most of our unique assets?  This stage of planning will be critical as we look ahead to the way we develop our core environment, the historic synagogues and our permanent or signature exhibit.

Simultaneously with this search for “who we are?”, we are launching a second planning process this summer that seeks to answer the question “how do we fit in?”.  This neighborhood vision/plan is being conducted in partnership with The Associated and in conjunction with the Jonestown Planning Council.  As an anchor institution of historic Jonestown, JMM is a key stakeholder in the future development of our community.  The success of the museum is ultimately dependent on what is built around us, not just on what we build.  JMM has contracted with the firm of Mahan Rykiel to serve as our consultant for a planning process that will attempt to understand the needs and interests of current residents and businesses, the downtown Jewish community, and the potential museum audience to craft a compelling vision of what this area might become.  Mahan Rykiel will also work with JMM, The Associated and the community to give some thought to the “branding” of Jonestown and its identity as a great place to live, work, play and visit.

Both planning processes are open to your thoughts.  We will speak to many people over the next few months, but you don’t have to wait for us to call, you can hit the “reply” button to share your ideas.

Marvin Pinkert

This month’s Performance Counts was written by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click here. To read past issues of Performance Counts, click here.

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