Performing Community Part 2

Posted on March 29th, 2018 by

Article by Avi Y. Decter, former JMM executive director, with Erin L. Titter, former JMM archivist. Originally published in Generations – 2003: Entertaining Maryland. To order a print copy of the magazine, see details here.

Part II: A Long History

Missed the beginning? Start here.

Community performances have a long history in Baltimore, both within the Jewish community and beyond. Documentation of these performances is, however, relatively thin. In the Jewish contact, we know of programs, events, and presentations dating back to at least the late 19th century, but photographic evidence discovered so far carries the story only from the 1910s to the present.

“Biblical Pageant” – Sculptor Ephraim Keyser seated center, wearing a fez. JMM 1995.77.3

One of the earliest photos we have depicts a “Biblical Pageant” at the Maryland Institute around 1913, presumably a program organized by sculptor Ephraim Keyser, then a faculty member at the Institute. But the precise occasion, content, and audience remain obscure.

Members of the Clinton Club, including Shackman Katz, Bertram Oppenheim, Harold Miller, and Emil Rosenthal, c. 1921. JMM 1988.79.19

Jewish social clubs, such as the Clinton Club, organized by middle-class young men and women of German Jewish descent, are known to have produced a variety of entertainments including a burlesque on The   Merchant of Venice. Lester Levy reports in an unpublished memoir that during the 1920s the Junior Assembly, an offshoot of the venerable Harmony Club, created a playlet on Mah Jongg, which at the time was enjoying a craze throughout the country. In this show, Reuben Oppenheimer wrote the lyrics to a number titled “The Only Possible Place”: “You go out to dine and you’re feeling fine/ your tux’s a perfect fit. You meet a friend and you gallantly bend/ and you feel a terrible split/ A rip, rip, rip, a devastating rip/ You’re in an awful case. As you grab for a char, you can feel the cold air/ In the only possible place!” This kind of self-spoofing, like nicknames, simultaneously amuses and reinforces group identity.[1]

Hanukkah play featuring students at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 1972. JMM 1992.108.53

Inadvertent entertainment is a frequent by-product of a common form of community performance – the school play, which parents and grandparents typically attend with mixed feelings of anticipation and dread. School plays, like other community performances, run the gamut. Some are staged by students, others by teachers, parents, and other amateur volunteers, and still others by professional performers. Plays in Hebrew and those on traditional Jewish themes like the Purim story are usually direct (and often didactic) in delivering their moral messages about the virtues of being Jewish and leading a committed Jewish life. For many years, The Associated Players presented a puppet show for children about “the squirrel who would not share.” The theme of philanthropic giving was pronounced and obvious.[2]

HIAS Purim party at Baltimore Hebrew University, 1992, with Rosalie Hollner as Queen Esther. JMM 1995.114.121

Children performing in a Hebrew play at the Jewish Community Center, 305 W. Monument Street, n.d, JMM 1995.98.40

Other kinds of performance assert the importance and persistence of Jewish identity within pluralist, polyglot America. In the Bicentennial year 1976, for instance, the Jewish community was invited to present the essentials of “Jewish American” life at a festival staged at the Inner Harbor. The vehicle chosen for dramatizing the vitality of Maryland Jewish life was “Café Tel Aviv,” where performances of Israeli song and dance celebrated a primary theme of Jewish history and tradition – Zion as the Jewish homeland. In an earlier generation, performances in Yiddish by groups like the Yiddish Folk Theater served a similar function, maintaining continuity with Jewish culture in Europe.

Israeli folksingers at Café Tel Aviv, Jewish American Festival, Baltimore, 1976. JMM 1992.205.56

Within the Jewish community, particular organizations promote the interests of sub-groups, communities within the community, as it were. Congregations, for instance, promote their special position and group solidarity through various kinds of performance. Chizuk Amuno Congregation, long a leading Conservative synagogue in Baltimore, has sponsored numerous performances over the years. Beginning in 1931, the Chizuk Amuno Brotherhood presented an annual play at the Maryland Theatre. Most productions were community theater at its purest, with scripts by local amateurs. The 1933 production, in contract, featured a Broadway hit from 1930 (Mendel, Inc.), written by David Freedman, a writer for noted comedian Eddie Cantor.

Murray Slatkin and Selma Berkow are shown in an episode of the “Eutaw Place Scandals,” a musical revue written by Fred Katzner, which will be presented at the Maryland Theatre by members of Chizuk Amuno congregation, March 1935. JMM 1984.12.5

In 1971, on the occasion of the congregation’s 101st annual meeting, “The Chizuk Amuno Theatre” presented The Building Bug, a farce in one act. In this spoof of the congregation’s long history of dedicating a new synagogue every generation (1876, 1895, 1922, and 1958), Chizuk Amuno celebrated its own vitality and growth. One of several musical numbers went like this:

Contractor, contractor,

Build us a Shule

A Chapel that’s cool

A hip swimming pool

We want Beth Tfiloh and Beth El to drool

So build us a perfect shule![3] 

On another occasion, Chizuk Amuno feted its long-time cantor, Adolph (Abba) Weisgal. A cast of middle-aged men who had studied for their Bar Mitzvah ceremonies with the cantor performed in a musical revue, replete with canes and lapel buttons announcing them as “Adolph’s Boys.” Entertainments such as these mobilized the congregation while boosting morale.

Continue to Part III: Popular Entertainment

 

[1] JMM MS 77 Lester Levy Family Papers, Lester Levy’s Memoirs, n.d., Box 6, Folder 213.

[2] Telephone interview with Carole Sibel, August 13, 2002.

[3] Lyrics for The Building Bug were based on the book by Stanley I. Minch and written by Ronald Israel, Stanley I. Minch, Jerry Cohen, and Gwen Cohen. Courtesy of the Chizuk Amuno Congregational Archives and Congregational Archivist Jan Schein.

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Once Upon a Time…02.03.2017

Posted on October 31st, 2017 by

The Baltimore Jewish Times publishes unidentified photographs from the collection of Jewish Museum of Maryland each week. If you can identify anyone in these photos and more information about them, contact Joanna Church by email at jchurch@jewishmuseummd.org

JMM 1992.231.11

JMM 1992.231.11

Date run in Baltimore Jewish Times: February 3, 2017

PastPerfect Accession #: 1992.231.011

Status: Unidentified. Can you name any of the members of the Jewish Educational Alliance’s 1933 Olympic Club?

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A Club of Their Own: Suburban and Woodholme Through the Years, Part 1

Posted on September 25th, 2017 by

generations 2004Article by Dr. Deborah R. Weiner. Originally published in Generations – 2004: Recreation, Sports & Leisure. This particular issue of Generations proved wildly popular and is no longer available for purchase.

Part I: Uptown and Downtown – A Little Social Background

There are two things everyone seems to know about Baltimore’s Jewish country clubs. First, wealthy Jews of German ancestry founded the Suburban Club because they could not get into non-Jewish country clubs. Second, the “German” Jews would not let the “Russian” Jews in to their club, and so the Russians started their own, the Woodholme Country Club.

Both these things happen to be true. But is that all there is to be said about the city’s two oldest Jewish country clubs? Certainly not. Suburban and Woodholme span a hefty chunk of Baltimore Jewish history. They have changed with the times, in ways that have reflected not only the development of the Jewish community, but also trends in American society. More than simply playgrounds for the privileged or icons of status, they are dynamic institutions whose story helps to tell us who we are.

That story begins more than one hundred years ago. By 1900, Baltimore’s German Jewish community was over a half-century old. Its members, many far removed from their immigrant origins, had blended in to the business and civic life of the city. Socially, however, they moved in their own separate sphere. Although Jews mixed with gentiles in fraternal clubs such as the Masons and Odd Fellows, most of their organized social activities occurred in a separate, parallel universe to non-Jews.[1]

A number of Jewish clubs met the social and recreational needs of the community, with the wealthiest and oldest-established families creating their own institutions at the pinnacle of Jewish society. These included the in-town Phoenix Club for men (founded in 1886) and the Harmony Circle debutante balls (begun in the 1860s), where “daughters of the right families could meet sons of the right families,” in author Gil Sandler’s words. Jews constructed their own social hierarchy partly because they were not welcome in gentile high society. As social leader Marie Rothschild once explained, “not being eligible for the non-Jewish Junior Assembly,” wealthy Jews “decided to have a similar set-up.”[2] But internal factors as well circumscribed the social world of upper-crust German Jewry: business and family ties, a desire for their children to marry within the Jewish faith, and affinity with people of similar background.

This affinity did not extend to the Eastern European immigrants who began to make their presence felt in the late nineteenth century. Jewish Baltimore had become socially stratified well before they appeared, but class differences among German Jews began to seem less and less relevant in the face of the social chasm that existed between the established Jewish population and the tide of foreigners whose language, customs, appearance, poverty, and even religion bore little resemblance to the American Jewish lifestyle. Now there were two Jewish communities: the “uptown” German Jews and the “downtown” Russian Jews.

Continue to Part II: A Rural Retreat

Notes:

[1] Isaac M. Fein, The Making of an American Jewish Community: The History of Baltimore Jewry from 1773 to 1920 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1971).

[2] Gilbert Sandler, Jewish Baltimore: A Family Album (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 46-47.

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