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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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. 

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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)!


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.



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]



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,


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.


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,



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,



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

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