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Reading with Talia: America’s Jewish Women

Posted on November 7th, 2019 by

Our Visitor Services Coordinator, Talia Makowsky, is highlighting books currently available in our shop, Esther’s Place. Today’s featured book is America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today, by Dr. Pam Nadell, who will be speaking here at JMM on Wednesday, November 13, 2019 as part of the 2019 Jewish Literature Festival. To read more posts from Talia, click here.

Pamela Nadell starts her work, America’s Jewish Women: A History From Colonial Times to Today, looking to the women that came before her: her mother and grandmother.

Inspired by their strength and compassion as they worked to support their families, Nadell builds the history of Jewish women in America. Looking through the wide lens of women’s roles throughout American history, Nadell illustrates a rich history, full of fascinating women who juggled family life and work, fought for equal rights, or proudly adapted to their new American life.

The book covers a wide distance of time, starting with the early American women in the mid-1600s who fled to New Amsterdam looking for religious freedom. Despite the book’s scope, Nadell highlights particular individuals, some famous, such as poet Emma Lazarus, and some not so much, or at least don’t have their words written on the Statue of Liberty. The immigrant experience is an important theme throughout the book, as well as the question of American identity, as Jewish women yesterday and today wrestle with balancing religion with modern life or seek to fight for social justice through a Jewish lens. One thing all these women share, in addition to their Jewish identity, is this long and important history of Jewish women, whether they were the heads of their home  or leaders in the public sphere. As a Jewish woman myself, I’m proud to have this history as a part of my culture, and I enjoyed learning the stories of these women. There were a few individuals I wanted to highlight, as a preview to Pamela Nadell’s talk on Wednesday, November 13, at the Museum, as part of the Festival of Jewish Literature.

One woman who caught my attention was Ernestine Rose. One of our summer 2019 interns, Hannah Balik, dedicated a whole blog post to Rose, and I highly recommend reading through it for a more in depth look into Rose’s life. In Nadell’s book, what’s so fascinating about Rose (born Ernestine Potowski) is her uncommon position as a proclaimed atheist, even as she defended Jewish Americans. Rejecting Jewish teachings at a young age, Rose, refusing to marry at 16, sued her father for financial independence, Her rebellion against what she felt were patriarchal teachings led to her struggle for religious freedom and women’s independence. Supported by a devoted husband, William Rose, Ernestine dove into political action when they moved to the United States in 1836. She used her oratory skills to fight for the right for women to control their own property, religious freedom in this new country, and an end to slavery.

Ernestine Rose: “Courtesy of Jewish Women’s Archive”

What I find so interesting about Rose is her defense of the Jewish people even thoughshe proclaimed her atheism (along with her views on slavery and women’s rights) loudly and proudly. However, when the Jewish people were attacked by Horace Seaver, editor of the abolitionist Boston Investigator, Rose responded: “I don’t like your prejudice against the Jews, nor against any other people; and above all, keep your temper in an argument.” Despite her life-long journey as a rationalist and atheist, Rose still chose to use her position as a famous speaker to draw attention to the anti-Semitism of her day. Her commitment to speak against injustice, even for a people who followed teachings she vehemently rejected, speaks to the compassion displayed by many of the Jewish women in this book.

Nadell also describes the life of Henrietta Szold, a native Baltimorean, also found activist work through her compassion for others. In contrast to Rose, Szold embraced her father’s teachings about Judasim, in his work as a rabbi. As the oldest child in a family with no sons, Szold quickly became her father’s personal assistant in his rabbinic work. Guided by her passion for Judaism, Szold continued to work for others, including as a teacher for her father’s congregation, Oheb Shalom. As the Baltimore Jewish community transformed in the 1880s with Russian Jews settling in our local neighborhoods, Szold saw their need to learn English and American culture in order to be successful. She started the first night school in the United States to teach these immigrants; her school was located right down the street from our Lloyd Street Synagogue.

Make sure you say hi to Henrietta when you visit the Museum! JMM 1989.79.6.

Szold’s life of learning and teaching continued as she became a writer and editor at the Jewish Publication Society of America. She also studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, after promising that she had no intention of becoming a rabbi. While in New York, Szold joined a women’s Zionist study group which led to her advocating for the care of children and immigrants in Palestine. During a trip to Palestine in 1909, Szold was horrified by the miserable conditions people were living in. Upon returning to New York, she was ready to take up the cause for these communities.

In 1912, on the Purim holiday, Szold met with thirty-seven women to create a new organization: Daughters of Zion, Hadassah chapter, naming their new organization after the Hebrew name for Esther, who was the heroine in the story of Purim. Shortly afterward, the organization changed its name to Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America and it still thrives today as women lead the charge in charitable work.

Szold’s life was long and fascinating. There are far too many stories to recount, but luckily, we have a master storyteller to help us share them. We offer a Living History performance of Henrietta Szold’s life, performed by the wonderful Natalie Pilcher Smith. We’re pleased to offer this program for school and adult groups, off or on-site. Natalie’s masterful acting blended with the extensive research we’ve done about our local lady brings the audience back to Szold’s time as a local activist and national leader. This performance is a great way to celebrate Jewish women and to share the history of Jewish Baltimore.

Of course, Baltimore’s history includes stories of struggle as well. In particular, the garment industry in Baltimore and throughout the United States often forced workers to deal with extreme conditions. The garment industry was filled with immigrant workers, many of them Eastern European Jews. The industry was booming as mass production became the norm, and mechanization helped workers to complete tasks faster. This was work that didn’t require a mastery of English or an education, much like the scrap yard industry that we’re featuring in our new exhibit,

Clara Lemlich: “Courtesy of Jewish Women’s Archive”

Clara Lemlich fought for the women workers in New York garment factories, often staffed by?Jewish and Italian immigrants. Lemlich knew that women faced unfair conditions in both the workplace and in the unions; not only were women paid less than their male counterparts, but women were also denied strike benefits. However, Lemlich continued to display the dedication and power of women strikers, laying her body on the line when strikers were attacked by strikebreakers and hired thugs. Her passion for fairness was clear when she interrupted a public meeting to urge the people there to declare a strike. Most uniquely, in 1909, Lemlich demanded for this strike in Yiddish, resulting in thousands of people to vow on Jerusalem that they would support the cause. Lemlich’s commitment to the cause, as well as her connection to the Jewish community, was enough to sway fifteen thousand shirtwaist workers to walk off their job, resulting in a series of strikes in Philadelphia and Cleveland.

Bessie Abramowitz continued the fight, as she joined protests in the 1910s, while working at a men’s suit company in Chicago. She led women on a walkout that eventually led to a mass strike of 35,000 workers and was recognized as the leader of that particular movement. Her own courageous tangles with police trying to end the strike earned her the nickname, “Hatpin Bessie,” because she would jab the police horses with her hatpin.

“Bessie and her husband Sidney dedicated their lives to support the rights of workers. Courtesy of the Forward Association.”

However, Abramowitz faced anti-Semitism as well during her time organizing women for the United Garment Workers union. The leaders of the union were paranoid that Jews were trying to take over. In response to this unfounded fear the union leaders urged non-Jewish women to join, pitting them against the Jewish members. Abramowitz led over a hundred delegates to walk out of the organization to start a new group: the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. She refused to stand for the prejudice against her people and in doing so created a successful and powerful union that transformed the garment industry.

All these Jewish women displayed their great compassion and strength as they helped others and changed the world. Pamela Nadell’s book is chock-full of more stories of how they strove for equality, worked to take care of their families and made history as representatives of a long line of Jewish women. It’s an easy read about the way women have shaped history and how they were shaped as they became American women.

I highly recommend picking up a copy at our gift shop, Esther’s Place and getting your free ticket to Pamela Nadell’s presentation as a part of the Festival of Jewish Literature.


Posted in jewish museum of maryland

JMM Insights: The Upstanders Initiative

Posted on September 20th, 2019 by

For more than three decades JMM’s exhibits have been providing curious visitors with meaningful experiences that inspire discussion, thought and further study.  Recently, as part of JMM’s evolution we’ve been exploring ways to take the next step – to turn memory into action. This exploration has led to a new partnership with The Associated’s Jewish Volunteer Connection. In this month’s edition of JMM Insights, Visitor Services Coordinator Talia Makowsky shares the first tangible benefits of that partnership. We hope it will inspire you to join in!

JMM loves volunteers. Of course, this includes the volunteers who work directly at our site, but our love of volunteers goes beyond just the individuals supporting us. With stories of amazing and hardworking people informing our mission at the Museum, we know how much of a difference a single individual can make. We also know how transforming volunteerism can be, when people work together towards a common goal. That’s why we’re sharing in Jewish Volunteer Connection’s (JVC) motto, in Living with Purpose, and partnering with them to create the Upstanders Initiative.

An upstander is the opposite of a bystander. An upstander sees a problem and works to solve it. We’re connecting the stories of our exhibits with JVC’s network of volunteer opportunities, to encourage our Museum community to become upstanders. Plus, when you participate in the Upstanders Program, you can be eligible for raffle drawings and even a free trip to the Museum!

In anticipation of our new exhibit, Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling and to celebrate JVC’s Season of Service, our focus is on the innovative ways that people have worked to recycle used materials, the immigrant stories that make up the scrap industry, and how people have worked to create more green spaces for community members to share.

One opportunity we’re carrying over from our past exhibits is sorting clothes for Sharp-Dressed Man. Sharp-Dressed Man works to empower men by providing them with recycled suits they can wear as they participate in job development. As we learned with our Fashion Statement exhibit, the way we dress can express a lot about us, our personalities, our favorite sports teams, our religion. This, of course, extends to the first impression in a job interview. As a well-worn saying goes, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have,” and Sharp-Dressed Man is doing just that in Baltimore and LA, for many low-income men.

Because Sharp-Dressed Man achieves their mission through recycling used clothing, we decided to feature it with our Scrap Yard exhibit. Not only is Sharp-Dressed Man helping people to reenter the workforce, but they’re also working to repurpose used materials to improve lives. It’s an excellent fit, and we’re pleased JVC brought this opportunity to our Museum visitors. To find out how to help, visit this link.

When thinking about coordinating a volunteer opportunity with Stitching History from the Holocaust, all of us were taken with Hedy Strnad’s story, as she tried and failed to escape the Holocaust. In order to pay tribute to her memory, we chose to feature ¡Adelante Latina!, which works with high school Latina girls as they overcome barriers toward their college careers. By providing these ambitious young women with a meal for the evening, you can help them focus on working towards their goals and their future.

Wanting to reflect the hardworking, immigrant stories found in Scrap Yard, we will continue to offer this opportunity. We invite you to honor those immigrant stories, which are so closely tied with Jewish experiences in the US, by helping to provide meals to these hardworking students. More information can be found here.

In addition to these continuing opportunities, we also have a few new ways to help that relate to our Scrap Yard exhibit.

The 6th Branch works with neighborhood leaders to transform vacant lots into community green centers. Their mission fits in well with our Scrap Yard exhibit, as they repurpose old lots into new spaces for people to enjoy the outdoors. By leveraging the leadership skills of military veterans, the 6th Branch is transforming Baltimore neighborhoods and bringing communities together.

Their story of empowerment and vision is an exciting addition to the opportunities we have already shared. To find out how to volunteer with the 6th Branch, which has hours four days a week, visit this link.

We are also pleased to feature Leveling the Playing Field, which gives underprivileged children the opportunity to enjoy the mental and physical benefits of youth sports participation. Through donations of used and excess sports equipment, Leveling the Playing Field helps sports programs become more accessible to more children. By saving on equipment costs, these programs can lower registration fees, expand their programs, and develop new ones.

Leveling the Playing Field needs volunteers to help sort donated items, practicing the same skills that scrap workers do as they try to figure out what what kind of value discarded items have as raw material. Learn these skills yourself by volunteering with them here.

Finally, to continue to theme of repurposing used materials, we want to feature Chana’s Clothing Sheds. CHANA offers a Jewish community response to the needs of people who experience abuse and other forms of interpersonal trauma. One of the ways they provide support is through clothing donations. The four sheds, located at Beth Tfiloh Congregation, Temple Oheb Shalom, the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC, and the Weinberg Park Heights JCC, collect gently used clothing, shoes, linens, and stuffed animals.

Simply drop off items for donation in a tied plastic bag to any of these locations.

Join JMM and JVC in becoming Upstanders and help us support our Baltimore and Maryland communities. Every time you participate in an Upstanders Initiative program, you’re eligible for an entry in JVC’s monthly raffle. Once you volunteer in person with the Upstanders Initiative, you’ll also receive free admission to the Museum. We want to celebrate your hard work, and we hope that you join us in standing up for others and living with purpose!

Missed any previous editions of JMM Insights?
You can catch up here!

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Autumn in New York

Posted on September 16th, 2019 by

From Visitor Services Coordinator Talia Makowsky. To read more posts from Talia, click here.

Earlier in September, my mom asked me to visit her in New York as a birthday present to her. Glad for the opportunity to visit a couple museums there, and unable to say no to my mother, I took the train up for the weekend. We enjoyed good food, a great concert by her favorite musician, and had a chance to visit the Jewish Museum in New York.

The main feature of the visit was the special Leonard Cohen exhibit, which closed on Sunday, September 8th. But before we could explore this tribute to the artist’s life, we needed breakfast. And on a Saturday morning in New York, we wanted a classic Jewish brunch.

Polish immigrant, Joel Russ, arrived in Manhattan in 1905. Bringing Polish flavors and foods to the Jewish community already established in New York, Russ worked his way up from selling herring from a push chart, to opening a storefront called J Russ Appetizers in 1914. Appetizer foods are known to the Jewish communities as “food typically eaten with bagels”, such as smoked salmon or lox, homemade salads, and cream cheeses. Appetizers would sell dairy meals and fish. This sets Russ’ store apart from our local Attman’s, as delis were known for selling cured and pickled meats.

Russ’ business grew, and he moved the store to 179 East Houston Street in 1920 where it remains to this day. With all the extra work to be done, his three daughters were enlisted to help out, as Russ had no sons to run the business. In 1935, he made his daughters his full partners in the business and renamed the store “Russ & Daughters”, the first US business to have “& Daughters” in its name.

Starting the day off right with a visit to a historical and delicious restaurant.

As the business evolved and family members took turns running it, they were able to expand in 2014 by opening a Russ & Daughters Café. Their expansion continued in 2015, when Russ & Daughters opened at the Jewish Museum in New York.

This particular location is situated in the basement of the Museum, and they offer pre-paid reservations for Saturday mornings, to support visitors who observe Shabbat. This way, people who observe Shabbat would not have to handle money, which is forbidden because it’s considered work. Russ & Daughter’s Shabbat prix-fixe menu included a fresh salad, deviled eggs, a breadbasket of freshly baked treats, a board of cream cheese and smoked fish, and ended with halvah ice cream and chocolate babkah.

It was a delicious taste of New York Jewish culture, and a satisfying way to begin our visit to the Museum.

My mom’s favorite was the pickled herring. I was partial to the lox and capers.

With full bellies, my mom and I set off to explore three floors of galleries dedicated to the Leonard Cohen exhibit.

“I just set out to write what I felt as honestly as I could, and I am delighted when other people feel a part of themselves in the music.” – Cohen in an interview in the Los Angeles Times, 9/24/1995.

Leonard Cohen situated himself in words. His novels, books of poems, and many song lyrics speak to a man dedicated to the composition and power of words. Cohen’s works also express a man who grappled with questions of spirituality, social issues, sensuality and love, and the end of life. The exhibit that was on display at the Jewish Museum, organized by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, featured performances and works by Cohen, but was made up of videos, installations, and objects created by other artists, mixing Cohen’s rich source material into experimental presentations.

A theme throughout the galleries was Cohen’s obsession with words and language, though the many artists chose to share and present them in very different ways.

The artist Christophe Chassol literally remixed Cohen’s poem, “The Only Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward”, by scoring the poem and inviting singers to perform the music, adding Cohen’s spoken lines. By applying speech-harmonizing techniques that creates what Chassol calls an “ultrascore”, the echoing sounds made for haunting emphasis, as Cohen’s words appear onscreen.

The other artists chose different ways to play with Cohen’s work. One room on the second floor was a large, open space, with an old-fashioned organ situated in the middle. The organ was connected to several vintage speakers. As a visitor presses on the keys of the organ, Cohen’s voice rings outs, reading poems from his Book of Longing. Each key corresponds to a different poem, and so playing one after another can lead to the creation of a new poem, out of Cohen’s lines. Playing more than one key causes multiple recordings to play, allowing Cohen’s voice to fill the space.

Artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller call the installation The Poetry Machine and say, “with this piece we were attempting to create a magical machine that would be a small monument to Leonard Cohen’s brilliance.”

This exhibit was fun to experiment with, and it was especially interesting to watch people interact with the work. One visitor simply listened to one of the poems read, pressing down on only one key. Another visitor played line after line, creating their own poetic verse. I practiced pressing down on multiple keys to get the full experience, and was joined by another visitor, playing the other end of the organ, causing multiple readings to jumble up as Cohen’s words overlapped. The room filled with Cohen’s voice, immersing the people inside in his work, though the words were hard to distinguish in the noise.

There were plenty more ways that the exhibit played tribute to Cohen’s works. A humming machine played the song ”Hallelujah”, Cohen’s self-portraits were projected across a screen, and a blank room streamed his music while people could lounge on bean bag chairs and listen. All across the Museum, I saw people connecting with his words, their eyes closed or welling with tears, talking to their friends about the works, or standing silently in awe. The exhibit was immersive and unconventional, just like Cohen’s music. If you want to find out more about the exhibit, visit the Jewish Museum in New York’s exhibit page here. If you want to get a bit of the experience yourself, watch the video here.

Visiting as a museum professional, I found myself watching other people’s experiences of the exhibit, seeing how they connected with the content. I hope to bring these reflections, as well as future inspiration from visiting other museums, to the JMM, to help improve the experience of our guests, and challenge their own immersion into the exhibits.


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