Exploring Jewish South Africa

Posted on February 10th, 2016 by

A few weeks ago, 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




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




Looking to learn more about Jewish history and culture?

Posted on July 28th, 2015 by

Consider an excursion to the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) in Philadelphia. Located in the Old City, near the Liberty Bell, this 100,000-square-foot, glass-and-terra-cotta-cloaked building explores the history of Judaism in the United States from the 1600s until modern day.

NMAJH Exterior

NMAJH Exterior

I visited the Museum last month to explore my Jewish heritage and to see how we can improve our own visitor experience services at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. At the National Museum of American Jewish History there are three floors of interactive state-of-the-art exhibits, focusing on the theme of American Freedom, with each floor offering a historical chapter: “Foundations of Freedom, 1654-1880,” “Dreams of Freedom, 1880-1945” and Choices and Challenges of Freedom, 1945-Today.”

My visit to the Museum gave me an opportunity to learn why Jews immigrated to America, the choices they faced, the challenges they confronted and the ways in which they assimilated into American culture. I was excited that the Baltimore Jewish community and the establishment of our own Lloyd Street Synagogue was included in the “Establishing Communities” exhibit.  As I grew up near Newport, RI, I was fascinated to read more about the Touro Synagogue and learn about how some Jewish merchants were connected to the slave trade.  The Civil War portion of the exhibit mentioned the debate between Rabbi Bernard Illoway of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and Rabbi David Einhorn of Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore. Throughout the core exhibit, I was impressed by the inclusion of evocative objects such as a Dutch record from 1654, depicting one of the earliest references to Jews in North America, as well as immigrant belongings, Jewish themed movie posters, and expressions of political and social issues ranging from the push of equality for Jewish women within American society and the fight for gay marriage.

Establishing Communities Exhibit

Establishing Communities Exhibit

The exhibit ends in the present day with the opportunity to share your personal views in two high-tech, interactive experiences: Contemporary Issues Forum and It’s Your Story. The Contemporary Issues Forum asks the visitor to respond to questions such as “Should religion play a role in American politics?” There are also video recording stations called, It’s Your Story, where you can respond to questions such as “What is the most valuable thing you learned at summer camp” or “share your favorite holiday tradition.”

The “Only in America” Gallery, located in the lobby area, contains images and artifacts honoring 18 Jewish-Americans selected by voters on the internet. I was honored that they included Louis Brandeis, from my alma mater Brandeis University. The lobby level also contains a small installation on “The Pursuit of Happiness: Jewish Voices for LGBT Rights.” There is also a first rate gift shop (with a fantastic book for sale on the core exhibition which I purchased).

I am happy to report that I developed a stronger connection to Judaism and greater understanding of how the Maryland Jewish story fits into the larger American Jewish experience at NMAJH. I hope that others can have an equally rewarding experience at this museum.

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

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Next Page »