Exploring Jewish South Africa

Posted on February 10th, 2016 by

A few weeks I got back from a vacation in South Africa, where among other things, I got to explore its Jewish culture and history. I learned that the first Jews came to region in the 15th century with the Portuguese navigators Bartholomew Diaz and Vasco da Gama. On board, were Jewish cartographers and astronomers assisting in the search for a sea route to India. More Jews started arriving with the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, but immigration really picked up with the British colonization in the 1820s. Many Jews moved to South Africa after the Holocaust and now the South African Jewish community is often described as one of the most cohesive and well-organized communities in the Diaspora.

Synagogue interior

The Great Synagogue interior

I visited the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town, founded by Nelson Mandela in 2000, which reminded me in many ways of the Jewish Museum of MD. Like us, they have two historic synagogues on their campus including St. John’s Street Synagogue (also known as the Old Synagogue, the first one built in South Africa, dating from 1863) and the Great Synagogue, (the oldest Jewish congregation in South Africa, dating to 1841). While St. John’s Street synagogue occupies a classical revival building (reminding me in many ways of Lloyd Street Synagogue in Baltimore), the Great Synagogue has a Baroque style edifice. There was also a Holocaust center in the Museum complex.

The Old Synagogue interior

The Old Synagogue interior

While in the exhibits, I discovered that many of the early Jews made their living as itinerant peddlers or as shop owners. In the late 1870s, some moved to the Oudtshoorn area to domesticate ostriches for their feathers to be used in hats. There was a section in the exhibit on how South African Jews were politically and socially active in the fight against apartheid. On the lower floor of the Museum, I found a reconstruction of a shetl from a village in Lithuania, the country from which most South African Jews trace their origins.

District Six Museum

District Six Museum

After my visit to the Jewish Museum, I walked over to the District Six Museum, which is a living memorial to the vibrant community that was forcibly removed to the city’s periphery during apartheid. The Museum wants visitors to “remember the racism which took away our homes and our livelihood and which sought to steal away our humanity.” Yet, it also aims to encourage others to rebuild the city where all races can live together peacefully. I learned that there was a Jewish connection as many Eastern European Jewish immigrants settled in District Six when they began arriving in the 1880s. On the floor of the gallery is a memory quilt where former residents have handwritten the names of businesses and community organizations that were once in their neighborhood.

Me at the ostrich farm

Me at the ostrich farm

While keeping in mind what I learned at the South African Jewish Museum, I later visited an ostrich farm in Oudtshoorn and drove by mansions owned by Jewish feather merchants. I concluded my trip with a ferry to Robben Island where I saw where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years.

Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island

Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island

GrahamA blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Number #2 – Check!

Posted on January 25th, 2016 by

As I write this blog, the weather reports are calling for a major blizzard to hit the Baltimore/Washington corridor.  The idea of snowstorm is kind of nice- thinking about it happening over the weekend-not really having to be anywhere except home with family, a fire, and lots of good food and drink.  However, my mind wanders back to two weeks ago, over Winter Break, enjoying 80 degree days in Hilton Head and Charleston, South Carolina.

The purpose of the trip to the south was to relax, ride bikes and visit Number #2 – Kalal Kadosh Bet Elohim (KKBE).  Why did do I care about Kalal Kadosh Bet Elohim.  Part of the visitor’s experience at the Jewish Museum of Maryland is to take a tour of the Lloyd Street Synagogue.  We tell our visitors that the Lloyd Street Synagogue (LSS)  is the third oldest synagogue in the country still standing in its original spot.  Touro Synagogue in Newport Rhode Island is Number #1 – built in 1759 and is the oldest existing synagogue building in  the United States.  Kalal Kadosh Bet Elohim is Number #2 and we as the owners of the Lloyd Street Synagogue here at the JMM are Number #3!

Kalal Kadosh Bet Elohim

Kalal Kadosh Bet Elohim

The Jewish community of Charleston can be traced back to 1695.  Jews were attracted to the civil and religious liberties of South Carolina, and by 1749, these early pioneers organized the congregation, Kalal Kadosh Bet Elohim (Holy Congregation House of God). Similar to the early Baltimore Jewish community, the congregation worshipped in people’s homes until 1794, they dedicated a synagogue described then as the largest in the United States, “spacious and elegant.”  The building was destroyed in the great fire of Charleston in 1838, and the new building was constructed in 1840 on the same Hasell Street site.  The building is one of the country’s finest examples of Greek Revival architecture.  The Kalal Kadosh Bet Elohim sanctuary is the second oldest existing synagogue building  in the United States and the oldest in continuous use.  It was designated a national landmark in 1980.

The sanctuary.

The sanctuary.

I was curious to as the similarities and differences between KKBE and the LSS.   The first thing that really struck me was the presence of an established Jewish community so early in the our nation’s history.  KKBE was established prior to the Revolutionary War- so it was very interesting to learn about the early Jewish Americans who settled in the US prior to the war.  KKBE has a letter on display from President George Washington dating from  1790 extending his congratulations to the congregation.  In thinking about Baltimore’s early Jewish community-the Jewish community is really not established until 1830, more than  50 years after the Revolutionary War.

The actual building of KKBE is very similar to  the LSS in that both buildings are built in Greek Revival architectural style.  The KKBE has six columns when compared to the LSS’s four columns.  The columns in Charleston also appear to be considerably  taller than the LSS too.   Both buildings have very  large doors for entranceways in the center of the buildings.  The Hebrew prayer and English translation of the Shma are on the outside of the synagogue in Charleston.  Both synagogue building have boot scrapers located outside the door.  My favorite detail of the “lego bricks” underneath the portico of the LSS can also be seen at KKBE.

My favorite detail of the “lego bricks” underneath the portico of the LSS can also be seen at KKBE.

The“lego bricks” of KKBE.

We walked inside the sanctuary, and the space is very beautiful and in ways similar to the LSS.  The ark is very impressive and is made of Santo Domingo mahogany.  The local tradition in the South is to keep the doors of the Ark open.   The Torah scrolls are enclosed behind glass inside the wooden frame.

The ark.

The ark.

The organ is in the back of the congregation and was installed in 1840 introducing instrumental music into its worship service. Since then KKBE has been connected with religious reform and the congregation was one of the founding members of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, making it  one of the earliest reform congregations in the country.   The organ is placed -very much in the way that I imagined the organ to have been installed by the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in 1870’s inside the LSS. in the back of the sanctuary on the balcony level.

The organ.

The organ.

One of my favorite things at KKBE was a beautiful mural that they had displayed in the social hall that depicts the “Patriots of Beth Elohim”. The figure on the horse represents the young Revolutionary patriot and legislator Francis Salvador who was killed and scalped by Tory-led Indians.  He was one of more than 20 Beth Elohim congregants who fought in the American Revolution, symbolized by the standing figure holding a Bible who represents Abraham Alexander, a Revolutionary officer and religious leader of Bet Elohim between 1764 and 1784.  The soldier seated with the broken sword and bowed head represents some 180 Jewish South Carolinians who served in the Civil War.  The tablet with the rampant lions and flames represent the brave Maccabees who fought for religious freedom in the second century BCE.  The soldier and the flag on the left represent KKBE members who served in subsequent wars.

“Patriots of Beth Elohim”

“Patriots of Beth Elohim”

I am so happy to place a checkmark on my bucket list – I have been curious to see KKBE, especially after so many visitors to the JMM have shared their own observations and stories about the rich history of the Jewish community in Charleston. I enjoyed making the connections between the two historic  buildings and I look forward to doing more research over the next few months as we try and showcase the Lloyd Street Synagogue as, “The American Synagogue.”  More details to follow!   Stay warm this weekend!

ileneA blog post by Education Director Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Ilene click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Weekend in New York

Posted on December 31st, 2015 by

At the Center for Jewish History.

At the Center for Jewish History.

A few weeks ago I visited New York City to see a few exhibits, Broadway shows and of course the holiday decorations around Rockefeller Plaza. My first stop was the Center for Jewish History in lower Manhattan. I had actually never heard of the Center, but was glad that I discovered it. It opened in late 2000 and includes both permanent displays, such as the stunning Luminous Manuscript which is shaped like a Talmud page, and temporary exhibits. I visited several exhibits including one called “Modeling the Synagogue: From Dura to Touro,” which contained ten scale models of history synagogues commissioned by the Yeshiva University Museum ranging from Dura-Europos in 3rd-centurey Syria to Touro Synagogue in 18th century Newport, Rhode Island.

Touro Synagogue model

Touro Synagogue model

I then headed uptown to the Museum of the City of New York.  While there, I saw an exhibit called “Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half.” Jacob Riis was a pioneering newspaper reporter and social reformer in New York at the turn of the century who worked tirelessly to improve housing, health care and education, particularly for immigrants. A review in the NY Times rightly points out that with nearly one of every two New Yorkers still struggling to get by, Riis’s exposure of extreme inequalities is still very timely and relevant. The exhibit featured Riis’s photographs as well as his handwritten journals and personal correspondence. I was most struck by images of children living in squalid conditions in the Lower East Side. I found one Jewish connection in a photograph of Jewish immigrants laboring in a tenement sweatshop on Hester Street. There were also two videos of the popular slide shows that Riis staged around the country showcasing his photographs.

Sweatshop in Hester St, 1889-90

Sweatshop in Hester St, 1889-90

The second exhibit I went to at the Museum of the City of New York was “Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival.” This exhibit traced the roots of the Folk Music Revival, its growth in New York and its impact on American culture and politics during the 1960s. It contained photographs, documents, instruments, videos and plenty of songs for headphone listening. Stephen Petrus, one of the exhibit’s curators, spoke earlier this month at JMM about the exhibit. I was excited to see early on in the exhibit a copy of The American Songbag by Carl Sandburg, as a couple of years ago I worked as a Park Ranger at the Carl Sandburg Home in North Carolina. One of my favorite pieces was Bob Dylan’s handwritten lyrics for “Blowing in the Wind.” I also found Odetta’s guitar, a broadside by Phil Ochs on the Cuban Missile Crisis and watched a video clip of my idol Pete Seeger and Judy Collins sing a duet. If you want to visit, I’d hurry, because it closes on Jan. 10th!

Folk City

Folk City

GrahamA blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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