Symbolic Gesture or Big Deal?

Posted on April 20th, 2018 by

This month’s edition of JMM Insights is written by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.

I wanted to devote this month’s JMM Insights to one of the oldest documents in our collection – a short pamphlet with a very long title: “Sketch of the Proceedings in the Legislature of Maryland, December Session, 1818 on What is Commonly Called The Jew Bill.”

I bring this document to your attention not only because it will soon turn 200 years old, but also because it is so intertwined with the story of our current exhibit, Amending America: The Bill of Rights and the launch last week of the JMM-commissioned book on the history of our community, On Middle Ground: A History of Jewish Baltimore.

Let me begin by explaining what the pamphlet is and what it isn’t. The “Sketch” is a polemic, an argument in favor of the passage of the Jew Bill. The Jew Bill was intended to ameliorate the impact of the provision in the Maryland State Constitution of 1776 requiring a “Christian oath” for anyone holding public office (civil or military).

The Jew Bill failed to pass in 1818, but Thomas Kennedy of Hagerstown and his allies in the House of Delegates were not giving up.

The pamphlet consolidated the case for passage, including newspaper editorials from such diverse places as Natchez, Mississippi and Danville, Virginia condemning “Religious Intolerance” in Maryland, as well as letters of support from such notables as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In the great American political tradition, it also veers into the partisan, taking a shot at the Federalist Party for its nearly uniform opposition to the bill.

While this is a fascinating document, it is NOT the Jew Bill. The Museum does not currently own an original copy of the legislation that receives final passage in 1826 (though some members of our Board are still hunting for the possibility that the document exists and could be put on loan to us).

Dr. Eric Goldstein of Emory University, co-author of our new book, On Middle Ground, will be coming to JMM on May 9th to discuss his research on the Jew Bill in the course of writing the opening chapter of the book.

The program is called “Myth vs. Reality: The Maryland Jew Bill in Historic Context.

Without giving away everything that Eric will say (I do want you to come to the program or at least read the book), I would simply point out that Eric found ample evidence that the claims of disability and exclusion attributed to the “Christian oath” provision have been greatly exaggerated – that the rule was not rigorously enforced and that there were relatively easy work-arounds for those wishing to serve.

So was the passage of the Jew Bill just a symbolic gesture or was it a big deal? 

Working at the National Archives I ran into this sort of question often. After all, King George III had issued a proclamation declaring the colonies to be “in rebellion” in August, 1775 and sent armies to North America to suppress the revolution… so how significant was the much belated Declaration of Independence eleven months later? As our current exhibit points out, our vaunted FIRST amendment was actually the third article of amendment when it came out of Congress, and was only promoted to first place when the first two amendments failed to be ratified.  Lincoln put so many restrictive clauses into the Emancipation Proclamation that it fell well short of “freeing the slaves.”. He even went so far as to declare it a “war measure” rather than a charter of freedom. Are all these documents over-rated? Or is there something else at work?

I recently listened again to a 2013 interview with Lonnie Bunch, Director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lonnie responded to a reporter’s question by saying:

The Emancipation Proclamation is without a doubt the most misunderstood document in American history, that on the one hand the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery. Slavery was ended when the 13th Amendment was ratified. But what the Emancipation Proclamation does that’s so important is it begins a creeping process of emancipation where the federal government is now finally taking firm stands to say slavery is wrong and it must end.

I find myself echoing Lonnie’s sentiment with respect to the Jew Bill. Maryland was not an environment of horrendous religious oppression in 1818 (nor was it a paradise of tolerance after the bill’s passage in 1827). In many ways, the Jew Bill was a symbolic gesture, having limited practical impact beyond facilitating the political ambitions of Jewish Baltimoreans Jacob Cohen and Solomon Etting.  But sometimes, symbolic gestures are genuinely a big deal, moving, even if slightly, the long arc of the moral universe.

In conjunction with Amending America, we have developed a very small highlights brochure of the “Sketch.”  Pick it up at the Front Desk on your next visit to the Museum, while supplies last.

 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




History Can Inform Contemporary Family Life

Posted on March 15th, 2018 by

A blog post by JMM’s new Director of Development, Tracey E. Dorfmann.

While reading On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews in Baltimore, I realized that 21st century families face some similar challenges to those of 19th immigrant families.

The Industrial Revolution was underway when many Eastern Europeans moved to Baltimore. America provided many new opportunities, but new freedoms created new challenges.  Family structure often crumbled under the weight of earning an adequate living in a capitalist society.  Families began to spend more “hours away from the security of family” due to work. Even children were expected to support the household by working. Families began to grow apart as independence and individuality flourished. Jewish communal organizations, Hebrew schools, and Yiddish theatre became part of the functional glue that held people together in a new way.

Louis Israelson (behind the counter) and his son Reuben and daughter Annetta in their family grocery store on Pennsylvania Avenue, c. 1929. Theirs was a typical small business, with all family members expected to pitch in. Courtesy of Glenda Goldberg and Susan Grott, CP 5.2012.1.

The Technology Revolution provides us with opportunities for business, employment, communication, improved health care and more.  Today’s definition of what constitutes a family has broadened to mean family by marriage or family by choice. Thankfully, children in America are now protected under child labor laws and educational requirements.  Even with all these advances we face new demands on our lives and time.

Once again, a wedge has been driven into family life. Our current dilemma is preserving time for the family in an age of of 24/7 connection to the work place. Working adults are expected to be available far beyond the traditional nine to five workday. Children are often, by necessity, in child care settings several hours before school starts and several hours after. Adults often spend more time each week interacting with colleagues, and children more time interacting within a composite peer group with few adults around. Once again, we find ourselves spending “hours away from the security of family.” When together, family members regularly sit in silence, with headphones on, focusing on hand-held devices or computer screens ­­–immersed in individual worlds.

In both periods we discover that freedoms can become limitations. We can learn from these 19th century stories the importance of developing a community that is built through meaningful activities, uplifting connections, and cultural events.

Join us, author Deb Weiner, and Baltimore’s own Gil Sandler at the Museum on Tuesday, April 10 at 6:30 p.m. to find out more!

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April 10, 2018: A Decade in the Making

Posted on March 9th, 2018 by

Performance Counts: March 2018

This month’s edition of Performance Counts comes to us from Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

Ten Years in the Making

In 1971, Isaac M. Fein, the founder of the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland (predecessor to the JMM), published a comprehensive history of the Jewish community of Baltimore. The Making of An American Jewish Community: The History of Baltimore Jewry from 1773 to 1920, was originally published by the Jewish Publication Society of America and then re-released by the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland in 1985. It is an excellent book, and one that our Senior Vice President, Dr. Robert Keehn, recommends to friends and family alike.

In 2008, JMM’s then-director Avi Decter and JMM’s then-researcher Deb Weiner started talking about the successor to the Fein book. Deb suggested they bring in their colleague, Eric Goldstein to help research and write, and so began a journey that is scheduled to reach its finish on April 10 at 6:30pm with the official launch of On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore.

Samuel and Albertina Harrison at 1216 McElderry St., c. 1890. JMM 1991.36.1

We have notes in our institutional archives from a conversation the two colleagues had on August 28, 2008. Questions they were asking themselves included: How would they structure it? How could they update and complement the research Fein had done and tell the story into the twenty-first century? How could they include some of Gil Sandler’s important and compelling storytelling work? What distinguishes Baltimore’s story from other American communities?

The questions were intriguing to Museum staff and board, as well as some important patrons. At least seven donors made the book research, writing, and publishing happen, including: the Richard and Rosalee C. Davison Foundation, Willard and Lillian Hackerman, the Whiting-Turner Contracting Company, the Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Charitable Foundation, and the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds. Additional financial support for the project was provided by the Southern Jewish Historical Society and the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University.

“The Masquerade Ball of the Harmony Circle, New Assemblr Rooms, March 1st 1866.” JMM 1990.44.1

Johns Hopkins University Press (JHUP) is the publisher of the work, per a contract signed between the two entities nearly five years ago. The questions from ten years ago are now answered in the JHUP/JMM publication of five chapters (plus an introduction and an epilogue) across 320 pages of historical storytelling. An additional 46 pages convey 907 footnotes. And because this is a work created by and with the Museum, more than 130 images–curated from our collections or borrowed from colleagues at more than 20 other institutions or private collections–punctuate the story.

Rosalie Silber Abrams (top left) and Governor Marvin Mandel (bottom left) at a signing ceremony for legislation Abrams sponsored. JMM 1983.88.17.1

And what a story it is! Ranging from the eighteenth century until the twenty-first, On Middle Ground presents compelling characters and absorbing dramas. The authors argue that Baltimore, with its multiple modes of in-the-middle-ness (as a port for both products and people, and as an in-between space—geographically and culturally—bordering both north and south), created an environment that made it a microcosm of the broader American (Jewish) story.

At the Museum on April 10, Deb Weiner will give a preview of the story with a book talk entitled Life on the Border: The Role of Place in Shaping the Baltimore Jewish Experience. Gill Sandler will also be there to entertain and enlighten as he is wont to do.

Temple Oheb Shalom groundbreaking, 1959. Pictured are Philip Kaufman, Scott Preterman, Arthur Feldman, Helene Sacherman, Shelby Silver, Marge Hecht, Sammy Fox, Steve Agetstein, Roy Gamse, Louis Salai, and John Katz,JMM 2002.117.11

If you can’t make April 10 (or you want to collect that second signature on your personalized copy!), co-author Eric Goldstein will join us at the Museum on May 9, sharing a different aspect of the book with a talk entitled Myth vs. Reality: The Maryland Jew Bill in Historical Context.

Whether or not you can make it to the official launch event, we hope you’ll come see us soon, and pick up your copy of the book at Esther’s Place!

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