Portrait of Fredericka Herstein; or, an afternoon down the rabbit-hole of historical research

Posted on October 28th, 2015 by

Here at the JMM, some of our portrait collection is hung on move-able racks in one of our storage rooms, meaning there are certain faces that greet you when you access the archives.

Collections Storage Room 2, JMM, on a Tuesday

Collections Storage Room 2, JMM, on a Tuesday

Last week, thanks to the position of the racks, one of our 19th century ladies caught my eye several times; when, coincidentally, I came across her catalog record, I decided to delve into a little research on her history.

Fredericka W. Herstein, mid 19th century, donated by David Herstein. JMM 2005.60.1

Fredericka W. Herstein, mid 19th century, donated by David Herstein. JMM 2005.60.1

This is Fredericka (also known as Frädche) Wiesenfeld Herstein (1797-1873), painted by an unknown artist. Family information tells us that she was born and raised in Germany; her first husband, Joseph Wiesenfeld, died around 1820; by 1824, she had married Meyer Herstein. Immigration records show that in 1854 Meyer and Friedrike (Fredericka) Herstein, along with their daughter Bertha, traveled from Bremen to New York on the Hansa. Shortly thereafter they made their way to Baltimore, where their son Nathan may have already been established as a clothing manufacturer. Meyer died around 1858, and the 1860 census shows Fredericka living in the Baltimore household of Nathan and his young family. She died in 1873 and is buried in the Oheb Shalom Cemetery, Baltimore, as Fradche Herstein, “our beloved mother.”

At first glance the painting itself is not terribly informative. It is unsigned, with no inscriptions to tell us the date, sitter’s name, or place.  On the other hand, it is in great condition and in a relatively modern frame, telling us that over the years Fredericka’s portrait was well cared for as a treasured family heirloom. Looking more closely, the image gives a few other clues to her story – not many, but enough to start the speculation engines.

The donor suggested this was painted in the 1840s, and the fashion – a gown with dropped shoulders and wide sleeves, and the sitter’s center-parted ringlets – could support that. However, a few factors (including the high, straight waistline) make me think it may be from the late 1850s, when those details would still apply, but would make up a slightly different silhouette if we were seeing her at full length.  (Here are two summaries of mid-19th century fashions, from the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, if you’re interested.)

As much fun (seriously!) as it is to parse out the various details of a subject’s attire, when dating old photos and paintings it is important to remember that just because the fashion prints for a particular year are showing haute couture, not everyone adopted those trends immediately (or ever).  What was hot in New York or Paris might not make it to the seamstresses and tastemakers of far-flung cities for quite some time.  And who among us hasn’t clung to a comfortable and/or flattering garment, in defiance of shifting hemlines and changing color palettes?  Fashion and clothing style are good clues, but they don’t always provide the definitive answer we’re looking for.

Detail view of Mrs. Herstein’s brooch. JMM 2005.60.1

Detail view of Mrs. Herstein’s brooch. JMM 2005.60.1

Speaking of color palettes, that’s another telling element of this painting: the black gown and black lace cap indicate that she’s likely dressed in mourning, at least to some degree.  The brooch pinned to the center of her collar features the image of a man, currently unidentified and perhaps the object of her grief.  While it could be a son, or another recently deceased relative, or even her first husband Joseph Wiesenfeld (who died around 1820), I’m inclined to think it may be her second husband Meyer Herstein, who died in 1858.  If so, then this was painted in the United States – possibly even in Baltimore – in the late 1850s, when she was herself in her early 60s, which I think matches her apparent age and fashion choices.

…And this is the tipping point of the slippery slope that should be avoided, or at least approached with caution, by imaginative Collections Managers.  I can (and have!) come up with lots of theories and scenarios for the subjects of this and other portraits, but while entertaining, they shouldn’t be taken as anything other than speculation. In reality, I know that my reasoning is a trifle circular (1850s makes sense for the dress, so it must be Meyer’s brooch, so it must be the 1850s), and that there’s lots more research to be done before we can suggest with more conviction when this was painted, and under what circumstances.  But that’s the fun of historical research! There’s always something else to look up, and more stories to uncover.

Fredericka asks: What do you think? JMM 2005.60.1

Fredericka asks: What do you think? JMM 2005.60.1

JoannaA blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




The American Society of Human Genetics Comes to Town!

Posted on October 16th, 2015 by

Baltimore’s downtown was filled with more doctors than usual last week, as the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) held its annual meeting at the Convention Center. Though I’m not a real doctor, I dropped in to do some on-the-ground research for the “laboratory” section of the JMM’s upcoming exhibit, Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America. Most of the attendees were laboratory scientists who study the genome. Some look for markers of future illness, while others use genes to piece together the history of human populations, both topics that we’ll touch on in the exhibit.

Alicia poses with the conference catalog.

Alicia poses with the conference catalog.

Translating basic scientific research into medical applications used to be a slow process, but in genetics it’s become almost instantaneous: studies reveal a gene linked to a disease, and screening providers add the new marker to their massive and growing catalogues of potential maladies. On the surface this seems like a great development, but medicine is still figuring out how to understand and act on genetic risk.

Part of the ASHG meeting was an enormous expo of genetic technology companies, from big names like Affymetrix to garage start-ups. Roaming the booths to collect contemporary genetics ephemera, I was intrigued by the variety of services on offer. There’s big money in biotech, but who’s making sure that these innovations actually help patients?

Conference swag: Everyone loves an assertive pin.

Conference swag: Everyone loves an assertive pin.

The ASHG also includes genetic counselors and bioethicists whose job it is to integrate new technologies into medical practice with respect to patients’ rights and social values. I spoke with one clinician, Dr. Sophia Hufnagel, who specializes in pediatric genetics; she works with children and their families to make sure that they understand and consent to testing, and helps them interpret the results.  Her research explores how young people feel about the ethical questions that their elders sometimes try to protect them from.

The teenagers who Dr. Hufnagel surveyed didn’t want to be shielded from the results of genetic testing (at least in a hypothetical scenario). Many said that knowledge of an inherited risk “would help them plan for the future,” or even lead to scientific research that might produce better treatment. Hufnagel observed that many adolescents “have adequate decision-making capacities” and could be granted more agency in their own medical treatment. From a clinical perspective, though, it’s impossible to make hard-and-fast rules. “I’m a huge advocate for partnership” with patients and families, Hufnagel explained. “Everything has to be case-by-case.”

Conference Swag: Cute mascots, or, the mole who collects and stabilizes your biological samples.

Conference Swag: Cute mascots, or, the mole who collects and stabilizes your biological samples.

This notion of “partnership” kept popping up in my perambulations through the convention center. Interestingly, it got lots of play in the technology expo, where company reps described their approach as “partnering” with physicians, patients, and genetic counselors. This seemed to reflect the professional norms of bioethics that Hufnagel described. At the same time, there’s a different logic at work for corporations that sell genetic testing services. Their profit and competitive advantage comes, in part, from creating the desire to know everything one possibly can rather than protecting “the right not to know” that Hufnagel carefully defends for her patients. This desire plays on popular perceptions of scientific authority and genetic determinism that don’t capture the complexity and uncertainty of current medical genetics.

This new industry is still forming – the FDA intervened in 2013 to halt direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales of medical genetic tests by the company 23andMe, mandating that physicians request such testing. Just this year, the agency changed course and approved 23andMe’s DTC test for Bloom Syndrome, opening the gates for companies to market over-the-counter screening products for a wide range of diseases. FDA administrator Alberto Gutierrez said that Americans should have “direct access to their personal genetic information… [which] supports innovation and will ultimately benefit consumers.” I met a lot of people who will benefit from this ruling, prowling among pipette displays and novelty pens at the ASHG expo. But the implications for consumers seem far more ambiguous.

Conference Swag: Genetic testing companies like this one provide preimplantation genetic screening of human embryos, plus humorous stress balls to help you cope with the dystopian future.

Conference Swag: Genetic testing companies like this one provide preimplantation genetic screening of human embryos, plus humorous stress balls to help you cope with the dystopian future.

As part of our preparations for Beyond Chicken Soup, I and curator Karen Falk have been sketching out interactive ethical scenarios for museum visitors rather like the one that Dr. Hufnagel posed to her study subjects: would you want to know the results of a genetic test if it could reveal an untreatable condition in your future?  The goal isn’t to get a “right” answer, but rather, as Hufnagel underscored, to reflect on your personal priorities: what level of knowledge would you feel comfortable with? Hufnagel’s work brings out an important dimension to these questions: when would you want to know? “The big worry [with teens],” she explains, “is that they can’t unknow it – they have that knowledge for the rest of their life.”

Conference Swag: Chocolate with a candy shell promotes "innovation in clinical and process data management."

Conference Swag: Chocolate with a candy shell promotes “innovation in clinical and process data management.”

Questions of how well people understand risk, how much they want to know, and what technology can really tell us will only get more complicated as the biotech industry flexes its muscle and scientists burrow deeper into the genome. Look out for the genetics section of Beyond Chicken Soup, where we explore the history of genetic screening in the Jewish community and the directions it’s taking today.

Alicia PuglionesiA blog post by Assistant Curator Dr. Alicia Puglionesi. To read more posts about our Beyond Chicken Soup exhibit 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. 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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