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The Nitty-Grits-y: An Extremely Brief Crash-Course of Southern Jewish History

Posted on July 30th, 2015 by

“So the consensus is that Elizabeth just melted cheese into a box of cornmeal, right?” I addressed the table of laughing interns in the break room, making sure I was up to date with the debate over whether or not she actually prepared grits the night before, or some unknown mystery substance from a bulk package at the store– I’d missed some information after laughing too loudly. The giggles continued as Elizabeth tried to scowl at me, to which I retorted with “don’t worry, everyone makes mistakes!”

“NO, that’s not the final answer! We still haven’t gotten everyone’s opinion!” Elizabeth tries to hold onto her hope and her dignity as she passes the Tupperware container of chunky yellow quicksand to Tracie, our Projects Manager, and we beg for an expert opinion to settle the dispute.

Jewish Food? Coarse White Grits on Spoon

Jewish Food?

After almost an hour of the Great Grits Debacle of 2015, we interns were aware of our inability to differentiate grits from, apparently, everything else, which was as disappointing as it was inspiring. Intern Wrangler Rachel suggested we use this as a learning experience, to which I replied “challenge accepted” and began researching the intersection of two environments: that of grits, and that of Jews.

While the former seems to have a relatively specific point of origin: grits are a maize-based porridge, typically eaten at breakfast, and are of Native American origin.The word itself, “grits,” comes from the Old English “grytt,” meaning “coarse meal.” The latter, however, might not prove as easy to define. Honing such a skill for millennia, Jews have grown to be impressive shapeshifters, even assimilators, into whichever culture by which they find themselves surrounded. Especially in a country with such a variation of culture as America. As the early settlers started to expand down the Atlantic coast and further west, Jews began to do the same: in fact, two Jewish merchants from Virginia, Isaiah Isaacs and Jacob Cohen, were among the settlers commissioned by the government to explore areas of what is now Kentucky. But it wasn’t just Jews from more northern colonies and states wanderlusting over new places to live; when mass immigration from Europe commenced around the 19th century, waves of Jews from the Old Country claimed new Jewish-American beginnings in the South, accepting the challenge to thrive under the Confederacy, and they did. Personalities like Judah Benjamin, a lawyer and diplomat who, some argue, would come to be one of the most influential Jews in the Senate, began to pop up around the South, and Jews became such a part of the South that at 1800, Charleston had more Jews than any city in the States at that time, with a population of over a thousand Jews (it might not sound like much now, but it was a huge deal at the time!), and there is documentation of General Robert E. Lee, in responding to a rabbi in Virginia, turning down a request for Jewish soldiers to be able to honor the high holidays during the Civil War, citing that “neither you nor any other member of the Jewish congregation would wish to jeopardize a cause you have so much at heart by the withdrawal, even for a season, of a portion of its defenders.”
The Jewish presence in the South has fluctuated in terms of exact numbers, but what hasn’t changed is our response to a new culture, and how we make it our own. So, whatever it was in that Tupperware container that Elizabeth brought from home, it definitely belongs in the JMM breakroom refrigerator.

Interested in finding out more about Southern Jewish life and food? Check out:

From Free Republic: A Tribe Apart: Jews of the American South

From NPR: Souther Jews Put Their Spin On Soul Food – interview with Marcie Ferris Cohen, author of “Matzah Ball Gumbo”

From Tablet Magazine: A TASTE OF THE JEWISH SOUTH: Jewish food festivals across the South by Joan Nathan.

Also from Tablet Magazine: Kosher Soul Food Brings Together African-American and Jewish Cuisine by Michael Twitty.

Southern Jewish Life Magazine

IMG_1605A blog post by Museum Intern Rachel Sweren. To read more posts by interns click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Breaking the Sound (and Cultural) Barrier

Posted on July 16th, 2015 by

Music has been prominent in my life as long as I can remember. My parents would blast Led Zeppelin, Yes, and Rush in through the speakers of our sensible navy-blue Honda Odyssey when I was a young kid, and when I’d jump out of the backseat, pull closed the sliding door, I’d walk into a preschool whose naptime soundtrack often was the light indie-beat of Sixpence None the Richer. As I got older, I’d beg for an hour before I started my homework after school to cultivate the perfect playlist, and the following day at school my friends and I would lean against the lockers like we’d seen cool kids do in the movies and synchronize our iPods so that we could sing together whatever Rihanna song we were listening to. And the more I learned about my own American-Jewish culture and the cultures of others, I took an interest in the music of a people, specifically my own people, and the equation of beats +melodies = connection.

A familiar melody

A familiar melody

Lately, at the JMM, with preparations for the upcoming Paul Simon: Words and Music exhibit and general immersion in American-Jewish news, I’ve found a surprising amount of Hava Nagila covers, whose performers run the gamut of cultural diversity. I’ve sifted through some of my favorites for your viewing pleasure, and in my humble opinion, they combine the the roots of the Jewish folk song itself with the rhythm of the traditions its performers cherish, giving the song a whole new meaning, but not one any less familiar or beautiful.


Performed by the Indian band Amrutam Gamaya, their only song so far is this version of Hava Nagila, debuted on an Indian music television channel viewed in English, Hindi, and Tamil.


Violina, a female trio from Tallinn, Estonia, performing the entire song on electric violins.


Andre Rieu, the famous Dutch classical violinist and conductor, performs his rendition of Hava Nagila with his Johan Strauss Orchestra in Maastricht, Netherlands


Gad Elbaz, a Sephardi Jewish singer of Moroccan heritage from Israel, has a well-known pop-dance cover of the folk song, with a few of his own lyrics thrown in as well. And the video includes a flash mob in Jerusalem, which is always a bonus!

IMG_1605A blog post by Museum Intern Rachel Sweren. To read more posts by interns click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




A Home Away from Home

Posted on June 29th, 2015 by

“So I check my inbox, open the new email, and there it is– Tina Louise’s manager, telling me that Tina would like us to stop pursuing the matter, that she knows her family history and that we are not included in it. But what does she know?” Zayde laughs as he shares his hope that our loud, yet humble Ashkenazi Jewish family might just be directly related to a real live celebrity, and his audience around the dining room table laughs and claps in time with the fall of the climax of Zayde’s favorite, and most famous story. I roll my eyes, but I laugh and clap anyway, just to feed his ego, and secure my post as his favorite grandchild.

The adrenaline rush that was Lombard Street.

The adrenaline rush that was Lombard Street.

Zayde’s most enduring legacy was his storytelling ability, and he could make any mundane pseudo-truth sound like Nicolas Cage’s announcement of his plans to steal the Declaration of Independence. His stories are synonymous with memories of a 5-year-old me sitting in his seat at the head of the dining room table, with enough trays of kugel, platters of lox, and pots of matzah ball soup decorating on the smooth green tablecloth to block my view of the family member sitting at the opposite end of the table. His stories are reminiscent of his family’s pre-World War II exodus from Hungary and from Poland, explained in English but understood in Yiddish, and given the momentum to time-travel through the family tree by hours of hora dancing. And his stories echo our walks around Baltimore City, breathing life into his American Jewish anecdotes and scouring the streets for hidden, buried memories Zayde might have forgotten about to make room for the Tina Louise debacle. Grateful for the air conditioning of my most recent walk down memory lane, I felt at home during my tour of the Voices of Lombard Street exhibit three weeks ago, during my first week as a JMM intern.

The Jewish influence on Baltimore City.

The Jewish influence on Baltimore City.

Stepping into the exhibit for the first time, I was immediately hyper-aware of my bias in the Baltimore Jewish persona: I’m Jewish, and my family emigrated from the Old Country to Baltimore. But the entrance of the exhibit, and the first few italicized blurbs positioned next to the black-and-white almost life-size cutouts of 19th and 20th century Lombard Street citizens welcomed me with open arms, and didn’t care if I didn’t have firsthand experience with how to properly schecht a chicken. The exhibit made it very clear to me that what I didn’t know, I could be taught, and my skills, whatever they might be, would be put to use in a different way in the community. I walked through fruit and vegetable stalls, shoe shining booths, the infamous and Corned Beef Row, stopping to chat with shopkeepers, babushkas, and watching the potpourri of Jewish, African American, and Italian kids chasing each other in the street. I nursed a bowl of soup at old-fashioned Attman’s Deli, ducked and flinched near the chicken coops and shops to avoid making enemies with loose chickens and the people who were trying to subdue them, sat intimidated in front of a sewing machine that is basically half my size, surrounded by the faded, multicolored confetti of 20th century linen scraps, and introduced myself politely to the Saye clan, a family of 6 who were new in town and looked a bit apprehensive, but were making a life for themselves in the New World. The places I was seeing in the photos began to build themselves brick by brick, the people I was meeting steadied their breathing and offered their hands for me to shake. I was beginning to see that life as an American Jew, or as a Jewish American, meant a life as shapeshifters, constantly and consistently adapting to our surroundings to find our place in society, without having to blend in with the background like a chameleon.

Up close and personal with one of Briney’s chickens.

Up close and personal with one of Briney’s chickens.

I’m not sure what I was expecting before I walked through the exhibit, but I know it wasn’t this. I grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore, and was fed secondhand stories. They tasted great, but I never looked at the nutrition facts on the back of the box; I knew that they were important, but I wasn’t sure exactly which details of which stories gave them that extra sweetness or spicy kick, so I didn’t think I would be able to share in the collective memory of Jewish Baltimore and genuinely understand the significance because I didn’t live through them myself. But the best part about the exhibit is that the story can be meaningful whether or not you have ties to the characters; the messages are universal, the details are what give it their flair. So really, we could all be related to Tina Louise.

Two of Saye family children, immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Two of Saye family children, immigrants from Eastern Europe.

IMG_1605A blog post by Museum Intern Rachel Sweren. To read more posts by interns click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland