Missing Mendes Cohen

Posted on August 5th, 2015 by

I love walking into the Feldman Gallery and looking at so many movie posters from the past .  I love the way that Joanna and our interns have delved into research to seek out the images of the movie theaters that actually showed the movies during the 1930-1960’s.  I have enjoyed listening to our visitors reminisce of the past but I do have to admit….I am missing the Amazing  Mendes Cohen!   I miss not seeing Mendes’ face in the Feldman Gallery, both donning a turban and also posing  as a young man in the early 19th century.  I miss not hearing the piano music of Charles -Valentin Alkan, as you enter the gallery; one of the first Jewish composers to incorporate Jewish melodies to his music.  I miss the puzzle pieces and watching groups of students working together to put puzzle pieces in place.  I see Flat Mendes every day- but I still miss the Amazing Mendes Cohen in my life at the JMM.

This past weekend- my hubby and I decided to play tourist in Baltimore in the hope that I could get “my fix” of Mendes Cohen. On Sunday we started our day at the Farmer’s Market underneath the Jones Falls Expressway.  After buying two coffees, pastry, and two kinds of string beans; we headed north to Mount Vernon.  In particular, I wanted to climb the Washington Monument which was rededicated on July 4, 2015; 200 years after the initial cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1815.  I wanted to see the building where Mendes and the famous Cohen brothers were instrumental in the state – funded lottery business that helped to raise the money to build the first monument dedicated to the first President of the United States, George Washington. I wanted to see some sort of mention of Mendes Cohen at the monument.

Washington Monument, 1890

Washington Monument, 1890

Robert Mills is credited with the design of the structure of the Washington Monument.  I understood that the citizens of Baltimore were particularly proud to erect this monument to Washington in light of their recent role in securing American liberty during the Battle of Baltimore, a turning point in the War of 1812.  Baltimoreans were also proud that the monument was built of local white marble, from quarries north of the city.

I was excited to begin my 160 foot climb to the top.   I thought it was interesting to see how the bricks were laid on their sides in a circular ring as we hiked up the steps.

Washington Monument bricks - circular staircase

Washington Monument bricks – circular staircase

I also thought it was interesting  to see how narrow the space was and I understood that the staff at the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy only allows five people to climb the monument at any given time during tours.

As we continued our climb up the narrow steps,  I was happy to see a marker dated 1818 noting that we had climbed 106 feet.

1818 marker denoting 106 feet

That’s a lot of steps!

I also noticed some graffiti where someone had written “1908” in black on the walls.  By 1829, the main column of the monument was completed, and the statue of Washington, sculpted by the Italian artist Henrico Causici, was raised to the top.  As we were getting closer to the top, I was excited to see the view- and I wondered if Mendes ever climbed the steps to the top and saw the spectacular view of Mount Vernon Place.

When you get to the top of the monument, you do get a chance to see Baltimore from all directions north, east, west and south.  However, you must stay inside and behind the glass to take your pictures….. a bit disappointing.   At the top, you begin to understand how the Washington Monument quickly became an important symbol of the city and state of Maryland.  President John Quincy Adams, who assisted in composing the text of the bronze inscriptions on the monument’s base outlining the key events in Washington’s life, dubbed Baltimore “The Monumental City.”

Images taken at the top of the Washington Monument

View From the Top

As we climbed down, I realized how lucky we were to have had the opportunity to climb to the top.  I am certain the citizens living in Baltimore  in the early 19th century  were in awe of this impressive structure built and dedicated to the nation’s first president. It was fun to imagine Mendes Cohen wandering the grounds where the monument was built in the early 19th century. The structure is a wonderful testament to the builders of Baltimore and a beautiful place for citizens to gather and enjoy all that Baltimore has to offer.

Kelly Suredam Potter poses at the Washington Monument

The wonderful Kelly Suredam Potter

I want to thank JMM Museum Educator, Kelly Suredam Potter, who also works at the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy for telling me about the opportunity to climb the monument.  It was a lot of fun to climb this iconic landmark as well as try to appease my longing to connect with the Amazing Colonel Mendes I. Cohen.  Long Live Mendes!

ileneA blog post by Education Director Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Ilene click HERE.

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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

 

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

 

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Yet More Responses From The Mendes Question Box!

Posted on January 7th, 2015 by

The fantastic and thoughtful questions about Mendes and his life continue to pour in through our little question box at the end of the exhibit. Some of the questions have even stumped our Mendes experts!

Without further ado, I present our best answers to your burning questions about the Amazing Mendes Cohen…

 

1)  To how many places in total did he travel?

This is a very tricky question to answer! First of all, if we are talking about countries, a world map from the 1830s looks very different from a world map today. Second, we don’t have all of his travel journals, so we can’t know for sure exactly how many cities he visited. Going by modern day national borders, and looking just at the travel journal we do have, Mendes visited 10 countries, but this is not a complete count.

maps_countries_world

World Map

2) What did he die of?

We don’t know exactly what Mendes died of, but he lived a long life and was suffering from blindness towards the end of his life.

Entrance to the Cohen Family Plot at Baltimore  Hebrew Congregation Cemetery, 2100 Belair Road.

Entrance to the Cohen Family Plot at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Cemetery, 2100 Belair Road.

3)  What drove Mendes to do all the things he did?

From what we can tell, Mendes was driven by a sense of adventure and a desire to experience new things.  He was also driven by his deep belief in American democratic principles and seeing how his beliefs contrasted with the ways that people lived in other parts of the world.

Panel 44.Raise Flag on Nile

Sailing Down the Nile

4)  Where was Mendes Cohen’s bar mitzvah held?

Great question! Mendes turned 13 shortly after moving to Baltimore. There were no formal synagogues in Baltimore at this time, so he most likely would have celebrated the occasion at his home.

drake bar mitzvah

Even celebrities have Bar Mitzvah parties!

5)            One of the travel documents on display is written in Russian, but the map doesn’t show him going to Russia. Where did he go that he needed a Russian travel document?

We have travel permits and customs documents that would put Mendes in Russian cities such as Odessa and St. Petersburg during the summer of 1833. However, we do not have all of his travel journals, so we don’t have much detail about his journeys in that region. Our map is based upon the travel journal that we do have, which is why Russia is not included.

European Russia 1833: Stieler, via.

European Russia 1833: Stieler, via.

6)  Are the current movie-making Cohen’s related?

Perhaps you mean the Coen brothers? Apparently there are about 100,000 people currently living in the United States with the last name “Cohen,” so I doubt that Mendes is related. We are also pretty certain (though not 100% certain) that there are no living descendants of his family tree.

coen_brothers

The Coen Brothers

 

What questions were still burning in your mind when you got to the end of the maze?

Let us know!

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