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.

http://leeser.library.upenn.edu/ilproject.php.  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




JMM Insights: Dear Abby – The Mendes Cohen Edition

Posted on September 12th, 2014 by

Dear Abby,

My wife and I have an unfortunate tendency of putting things off—even past the last minute, sometimes! It’s quite a problem in our lives, as you might imagine. But what saddens us the most is when we just barely miss seeing an exhibit at the JMM.  And it’s always like that—we came to see the Civil War exhibit just a month after it closed, and we came to see The Electrified Pickle just one week after that closed.

We really don’t want to miss this next one—the Mendes Cohen exhibit—so, for once in my life, I’m going to (gulp!)…plan ahead! Unfortunately, my wife and I will be out of town this weekend, when the exhibit opens. I hope the exhibit will be here for more than just a few weeks! Please tell me, how long will the Mendes exhibit be on display?

And while I’m asking about it, could you clarify for me what the exhibit will be like? Nothing against mazes, but that sounds like the exhibit is geared more towards kids than adults. Is that true?

Thanks for your help!

Always A Little Late 

 

Dear Always Late,

I can certainly relate to procrastinating every once in awhile (OK, maybe it’s a little more than just “once in a while”!). Fortunately, The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen is going to be with us for a long time. We will have the exhibit on display here for a whole nine months! It opens this Sunday, September 14, 2014 (just in time for the Star Spangled Spectacular celebrations), and it will close on Sunday, June 14, 2015. That should give you plenty of time to plan a visit here. Also, if you are on our email mailing list, you will receive several reminders each month of all the wonderful public programs we’ll be having.

We always strive to have something for everybody in our exhibits, and this is no exception. The Mendes exhibit includes both artifacts and thoughtful content about the life of Mendes Cohen in the context of what was happening in Baltimore, in the country, and in the world. While history is not always enough to capture the attention of some, we hope that the interactives scattered throughout the maze (and the very concept of the maze itself) will do the trick.

See you soon (I hope)!

Abby

Deborah and Ilene hard at work!

Deborah and Ilene hard at work!

Editor’s note: The following letter to Dear Abby arrived in the form of a telegram. We have reproduced the message as authentically as possible. We previously had no idea telegrams were still possible.

TO: DEAR ABBY

FROM: MRS. JACOB B. FANCYPANTS, III.

MESSAGE: Have not yet received my pass to the members opening [STOP] Not a member, but should be OK [STOP] You know who I am, right? [STOP] Will be on 0500 train from NYC Fashion Wk. to Balt. Penn [STOP] Am looking forward to private tour of Mendes exhibit [STOP] Pls. confirm w/my P.A. at jane.smithATgmail.com [STOP] Thanks [STOP] Ta! [STOP]

END OF MESSAGE

 

Dear Ms. Smith,

I received the telegram from your boss, Mrs. Jacob B. Fancypants. Wow, who knew you could still send a telegram? It must be really interesting being her personal assistant. But I digress…

Please inform Mrs. Fancypants that, while the opening is only open to current members of the JMM, she is more than welcome to—in fact she is encouraged to—buy a membership when she arrives at the Museum. We will be happy to have her at our event!

While the exhibit, with its small spaces, does not lend itself easily to docent-led tours, groups may call in advance (to me) by at least a week to book a docent to take them through. However, I believe that the exhibit has so much detail and information that walk-in visitors who self-guide through the maze will come out with just as rich an experience. Additionally, we are developing a special tour of the Lloyd Street Synagogue in honor of the Mendes exhibit. Because Mendes Cohen and his family were always at the forefront of using the latest technologies available, the tour will shed light on technological firsts in Baltimore and at the Lloyd Street Synagogue.

This tour will take the place of the 3:00pm tour and will debut on November 9, 2014.

I hope the two of you will be able to come to our members’ opening this Sunday evening, and many other programs as well! Please don’t hesitate to contact me if either of you have any questions (though perhaps email or phone would be easier than telegram.)

Best Wishes,

Abby

Mendes Intro Panel_v4

Dear Abby,

All my life, I have been inexorably  drawn to the intricacies of the physics of the time-space continuum, and over the years, I’ve become a self-educated expert on the topic. Therefore, I was delighted to hear that your museum will be displaying an exhibit dedicated to the truly extraordinary life of Mendes I. Cohen.

You are probably wondering right now what does Mendes I. Cohen have to do with the time-space continuum. And well you might ask that! This unique individual has come to my attention through my studies because of his uncanny appearances all over time and space. Not only is he present at the pivotal Battle of Baltimore in 1814, but he also serves as president of the Maryland Historical Society in the early 1900s. Since he was born in 1796, that would make him at least 104 years old at the start of his tenure at the historical society—a feat that was virtually impossible in those days! It is my belief, then, that Mendes I. Cohen was—or rather, is—a time traveller.

I am further supported in my belief by other “impossible” sightings: just last weekend, he was sighted at the anniversary celebrations of the Battle of North Point, and I have reason to believe, from careful scrutiny of contemporary photographs, that he was present at the assassination of President John F. Kennedy! There is clearly something very mysterious about Mendes I. Cohen. In fact, he will be the subject of my next scholarly book, Mendes I. Cohen: Secrets of the Universe and its Time Travelling Assassin, which will—fingers crossed!—be published sometime next year. You will probably hear from me then about having a book talk at the museum. (Please see attachment with 1000 page excerpt from the manuscript.)

In the mean time, I would be much obliged if I could request some assistance from you. Judging from the level of detail contained in your exhibit, it would seem that you have some special connection or knowledge of Mendes I. Cohen and his whereabouts. Again, I would be much obliged if you would arrange a tête à tête for the two of us. We have so much to discuss! When we do have this meeting, is it permissible to take photographs? It would be purely for purposes of scientific evidence, I assure you.

Sincerely,

Doc D. Lorean 

 

Dear Doc,

While your theory about Mendes Cohen is fascinating, I must point out at least one part of your argument that I know to be incorrect. The Mendes Cohen who was president of the Maryland Historical Society is not the same Mendes Cohen who fought in the Battle of Baltimore—the former was the nephew of the latter! It can be very confusing when close relatives have identical names, so the mistake is an understandable one.

Barring a sèance, I probably can’t arrange a meeting between you and the real Mendes Cohen. Probably. What I can do, however, is arrange a performance of our living history character version of Mendes Cohen, played by the very talented Grant Cloyd. Mendes Cohen has joined our lively lineup of living history characters based on real Baltimoreans, including Ida Rehr, Saul Bernstein, and Bessie Bluefeld. Each of them can be hired to perform a one act play based on their lives that lasts about 45 minutes (with 15 minutes for questions) for either adult or school age audiences.  They can also be hired to walk around in character at an event. If you want to book them, or just find out more information, please contact me and I will do my best to help you!

Photography at these performances is generally allowed—though please don’t use flash as that can disturb the actor. At the exhibit here at the Museum, it’s a similar guideline (photography without flash is allowed), with a few exceptions: the case of Egyptian antiquities, the travel documents, and the passport are all items that we have borrowed from other museums, and so we cannot give general permission to photograph them.

I hope this was helpful to you. I look forward to reading your book when it comes out!

Best Wishes,

Abby

_RWK3797

Greetings and Salutations Mmlle. Abigail,

I sincerely wish you do not think me too forward for sending you a letter without a formal introduction, but I am told that you are the one to approach on matters regarding visiting the Jewish Museum of Maryland and its lovely souvenir and books shop. Although Baltimore is my homeland, these days I am but a weary traveler of many places and dimensions, and am no different than the majority of tourists who enjoy collecting mementos from the various stops on their journeys.

Word has reached my ears that your historical establishment is about to present an exhibition dedicated to the life and works of one Mendes Cohen (or have you done so already? Forgive me, I sometimes get confused about this sort of thing). I must confess, I am unusually familiar with this particular character, and I would care to have some memento of his new-found general notoriety.

If it would please you to catalog the items relating to Mr. Cohen that will be for sale in your shop for the duration of the exhibition, I would be most grateful. In addition to a desire to expand my own collection of sentimental trinkets, I believe that it never hurts to have a store of potential gifts for future occasions.

Ever your humble friend,

M.C.

 

Dear M.C.,

Of course I don’t think you’re too forward! I receive letters, emails, and phone calls from perfect strangers all the time. It’s just part of my job.

I would be happy to tell you all of The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen themed items we will be selling in the giftshop. Esther, our gift shop manager, is very excited about our offerings! We’ll have early 19th century children’s toys and games as well as a more modern artistic take on Mendes Cohen in paper doll form. Going off of the maze aspect of the exhibit, we will be selling maze games for all ages—several of them are 3D mazes, and one even has lasers!

For those who think they’re too old for games and lasers (not sure who could possibly be too old for lasers, but I’m sure they’re out there somewhere!), we’ll be offering the special opportunity to buy a vintage edition of our publication, Generations, which includes an article by Dr. Deborah Weiner on the life of Mendes Cohen.

And, most excitingly, we will be selling beautiful mugs with the exhibit logo and an image of the flag that Mendes Cohen made to hoist on his boat as he floated down the Nile. This is not an item you can get off Amazon.com!

Hopefully, at least one of these items will tickle your fancy or strike you as a worthy gift for someone!

Happy Travels, my friend!

Yours Truly,

Abby

Mendes-Blue-Rim-Handle-Mug-v2

abby krolikDear Abby is written by our Visitor Services Coordinator Abby Krolik. To read more posts from Abby, click here.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Travels with Mendes

Posted on July 23rd, 2014 by

My husband and kids were having a wonderful time on their first day of vacation in San Francisco. They had visited the Japanese Tea Garden, hung out with an old friend of my husband’s and dined on dumplings in Chinatown. And then my husband, Jonathan, called with a crisis. “We forgot to pack Flat Mendes” he announced sadly.

For those of you unfamiliar, Flat Mendes is a paper doll cutout of one of Maryland’s most accomplished Jew and the subject of an upcoming exhibition, The A-mazing Mendes Cohen (opening September 14). Because the real life Mendes spent three years as an intrepid traveler throughout Europe and the Middle East, we have created a virtual Mendes so that he can continue his travels in the 21st century visiting places he may have visited more than 150 years ago and places that we are sure he would have loved to had he had the chance.  For the Cardin-Willis Family, this meant bringing Flat Mendes with us to California and photographing him in every iconic spot we could find.

Flat Mendes

Flat Mendes

But first, we had to overcome this crisis. My husband and children flew out to San Francisco while the laminated version of Mendes was in Baltimore. Fortunately, I knew how to resolve this problem and directed Jonathan to a downloadable version of Flat Mendes on the JMM website. (You can do this too, go to http://jewishmuseummd.org/2014/06/flat-mendes/). Because the hotel did not have a color printer, my ever resourceful husband stopped at CVS, bought some crayons and the girls had fun coloring him in.

Jonathan and Mendes

Jonathan and Mendes

Then the fun really began. Mendes fit in quite a bit in his one-week jaunt through California.

First stop, Alcatraz, the famed prison off the coast of San Francisco. Here he excitedly holds his own ticket.

First stop, Alcatraz, the famed prison off the coast of San Francisco. Here he excitedly holds his own ticket.

Behind Bars - While the real life Mendes did have a brush with the law when he was fined for violating Virginia law by selling out of state lottery tickets there, thankfully, he never actually did time in prison.

Behind Bars – While the real life Mendes did have a brush with the law when he was fined for violating Virginia law by selling out of state lottery tickets there, thankfully, he never actually did time in prison.

Mendes enjoyed his trip up hilly San Francisco streets traveling by cable car.

Mendes enjoyed his trip up hilly San Francisco streets traveling by cable car.

Mendes even made some new friends!

Mendes even made some new friends!

With the Willis girls as his guide, Mendes got in some exercise biking over the Golden Gate Bridge. We have records of Mendes traveling by boat, train and horse but this mode of transport was surely a first for him.

With the Willis girls as his guide, Mendes got in some exercise biking over the Golden Gate Bridge. We have records of Mendes traveling by boat, train and horse but this mode of transport was surely a first for him.

 What better way to refresh after a long and arduous bike ride then with a stop at San Francisco’s beloved Ghiradelli Chocolate Factory. Mendes proved to be quite the San Francisco fan and even picked up a souvenir baseball hat.

What better way to refresh after a long and arduous bike ride then with a stop at San Francisco’s beloved Ghiradelli Chocolate Factory. Mendes proved to be quite the San Francisco fan and even picked up a souvenir baseball hat.

On the way down the coast, Mendes stopped to admire the beauty of California’s Redwood trees.

On the way down the coast, Mendes stopped to admire the beauty of California’s Redwood trees.

I met Jonathan, Madeline and Julia in Pismo Beach, CA, along California’s central coast where we had a blast taking surfing lessons. Mendes had to get in the action too. I think he may have even started a new surfing trend. The next day we saw many surfing dudes wearing turbans!

I met Jonathan, Madeline and Julia in Pismo Beach, CA, along California’s central coast where we had a blast taking surfing lessons. Mendes had to get in the action too. I think he may have even started a new surfing trend. The next day we saw many surfing dudes wearing turbans!

Mendes’s final adventure was kayaking in Morro Bay where he enjoyed viewing sea lions and otters.

Mendes’s final adventure was kayaking in Morro Bay where he enjoyed viewing sea lions and otters.

Mendes is now home in Baltimore recuperating from jet lag. But he will soon be ready for new adventures and we can’t wait to see where else he goes!

deborahA blog post by Assistant Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts by Deborah, click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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