From Baltimore to Morocco

Posted on January 18th, 2018 by

A blog post by JMM volunteer and board member Lola Hahn.

Morocco is often described as a country of allure, mystery and beauty and we had the good fortune to spend 13 adventurous days, traveling 1,500 miles visiting cities & villages, experiencing the frenetic atmosphere in the souks (marketplaces), admiring different landscapes, taking in spectacular views of gorges & mountains, lush oases, valleys and of course, the dunes of the Sahara.

All of this was even more pleasurable as our late November weather was as mild as Baltimore in May/June. The roses were in bloom in the Riads (traditional house or palace with an interior garden; currently used as a guesthouse) and the flowers still exuded their intoxicating scent!

A very important element of Morocco’s beauty is its unique architecture.

Elaborate geometric patterns, ornamental Islamic calligraphy and colorful ceramic-tile mosaics.

Open courtyards with lavish gardens can be found at the center of most buildings and several of our hotels were fashioned in this manner.  They were created as places of privacy and relaxation.

Moroccan food offers flavorful combinations and aromatic spices which make even the most basic dishes insanely amazing. The best traditional Moroccan food is served at home, and 20 of us experienced it first hand as guests of a family in their beautiful home in Fez (the oldest of Morocco’s imperial cities).

Native products included in our meal and especially important in Moroccan cooking were lemons, olives, figs, dates and almonds. We saw these products growing in different places on our trip along with other home-grown fruits and vegetables that included oranges, melons, tomatoes, and potatoes.

A major highlight for our escorted group of 20, was being transported in four-wheel drive Jeeps through the desert to an overnight camp in the Sahara. After a one hour ride by camel, we arrived in time to observe a full sunset as days in Morocco do not fade gradually.

I was mesmerized by the velvet blue night which followed the sunset seamlessly. Once the moon had risen, our private camp was surrounded by numerous brightly shining stars.

Various Moroccan cities consist of Jewish Heritage sites where we found a synagogue, a cemetery, and the Mellah (preserved Jewish quarter in an old walled area) and other sacred places. These sites are either UNESCO Heritage sites and/or protected by the King and the Moroccan government. Although there is a small population of Jews currently living in Morocco (approximately 2,000), the history of the Jews go back to pre-Christian times, when they took part in trade expeditions across the coast of Morocco. Since the Arab-Islamic colonization of Morocco from the 7th Century, Jews & Muslims had coexisted peacefully in Morocco. Jews were favored by Moroccan Arabs for their business acumen.

Towards the end of our trip, we stayed in Essouira, an Atlantic seaport (formerly known as Mogador) in western Morocco.

My husband & I visited a renovated synagogue and two Jewish cemeteries. Although there is no longer a Jewish community there, the synagogue is used when there are Jewish groups visiting Essouira. A large area of the Mellah is currently under renovation and preservation with the goal to ensure the site remain fully intact as an integral part of Morocco’s living cultural heritage. At the end of the 15th century, the Sultan had invited 10 prominent Jewish families from the key commercial centers of Morocco to settle in Mogador. These families were largely descendants of those expelled from Andalusia (Spain) and had gained a strong reputation for their skills as merchants. By the start of the 19th century, the majority of the population of Essouira was Jewish and there was as many as 40 synagogues-some private while others were community centers of worship.  Mogador was unique in that Jews, Muslims and Christians lived side-by-side up until the mid-1950s.

Visiting Morocco is truly an adventure not to be missed. The history and geography has created enormous variety in the country.  There is so much to experience from the friendly people, flavorful food, beautiful landscapes, colorful architecture and a strong cultural heritage.

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From Baltimore to Iraq to India

Posted on December 27th, 2017 by

A blog post from JMM Volunteer Coordinator Wendy Davis. To read more posts from Wendy, click here.

I recently traveled with my husband to India.  It was an adventure into a culture and way of life that was fascinating.  But what surprised me was the connection between the current exhibit at Jewish Museum of Maryland and my recent travels to India.

The David Sassoon Library and Reading Room

In the Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage exhibit there is a facsmile of business correspondence of the Sassoon family.  The memory of this was trigger when I saw a sign on a building in Mumbai “David Sassoon Library and Reading Room.”  I remembered that David Sassoon was a Baghdadi Jew who moved to what was once called Bombay and established an international trading business in the mid-1800’s.  What I have learned since, is that he remained an observant Jew and built 2 synagogues in the Bombay area.

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah) & Sassoon David. Via.

Just a few blocks from the Sassoon library I visited a synagogue called Keneseth Eliyahoo.  It was built by Davis Sassoon’s grandson in 1884 when there was a huge Baghdadi Jewish community living in the area.  Upon looking up the synagogue on the internet, I found that when the Keneseth Eliyahoo recently dedicated a new Torah, a representative of the Midrash Ben Ish Hai, a New York synagogue/school, spoke at the dedication.

Interior, Kenesseth Eliyahu Synagogue. Photo by Reuben Strayer. Via.

The name “Ben Ish Hai” triggered another memory.  In the Iraqi Heritage exhibit there is a 1906 religious guidebook for women written by Yosef Hayin ben Elijah al-Hakam, also known as Ben Ish Hai.  Ben Ish Hai was an international known and respected rabbi whose name and teachings and Baghdadi traditions are expounded at the New York Midrash Ben Ish Hai.

Who knew that a trip to India would illustrate to me that, as the final panel in the Iraqi Jewish Heritage exhibit states, “Iraqi Jewish life continues as a vibrant tradition in Iraqi Jewish communities worldwide.”

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Museum Musings From Poland

Posted on November 13th, 2017 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts from Deborah click HERE.

I was privileged to spend ten days in Poland on a trip sponsored by the Council of American Jewish Museums with five colleagues from Jewish museums from across the country. During our trip we visited many museums where we explored the different ways that Poles interpret their complex (and often tragic) history. We also had ample opportunity to meet with staff at these museums and to discuss their interpretive strategies as well as to engage in conversation about the difficult task they face in commemorating the history of Polish Jews in a broader context than just the Holocaust.

Here are some highlights from our museum visits:

Museum of the City of Warsaw:

Our first day included a tour of the Old City of Warsaw where we learned about how the city was nearly completely demolished by the Nazis in 1944 following the Warsaw Uprising. The Museum of the City of Warsaw occupies several reconstructed town homes in the Old City. Rather than detailing the city’s history through text panels and recreated spaces, the museum makes innovative use of models, timelines and charts to identify keep events and periods in the city’s history.

Models of the city of Warsaw

A beautifully designed exhibit showcases artifacts, but rather than grouping items in chronological order, they are displayed according to type so that one room houses postcards while another, silver and so on.

My favorite gallery was devoted to mermaids which is the symbol of Warsaw.

Our group of museum professionals was impressed with the clean design of the displays and the interpretive strategy in which one selected object in each case is highlighted. The minimal amount of text allowed for a greater appreciation of the objects.

POLIN: Museum of the History of Polish Jews:

Being able to visit this recently opened museum was one of the impetuses for the trip. Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, the museum’s chief curator and advisor to the director, is an advisor to CAJM and was instrumental in helping to develop our trip itinerary. In preparation for our visit, we read several articles about the museum’s guiding principles and participated in a conference call with Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. The museum is immense and includes a resource center, educational program space, temporary exhibition gallery and café. We were most appreciative of the opportunity to meet with several of the museum’s staff, including its executive director and education director and were guided through the core exhibit by its co-curator, Joanna Fikus, who shared fascinating insight into how the exhibit came together.

The Museum is located within the boundaries of where the Warsaw Ghetto once stood and its entrance is adjacent to a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that was erected in 1948.

The museum’s mission is to educate visitors about the entire 1,000 year span of Jewish history in Poland and to highlight the extent to which Jewish history and Polish history are intertwined. The galleries are filled with multi-media displays and interactive stations that provide layers of interpretation and engage visitors of all ages and backgrounds. Despite the three hours we had allotted to tour the exhibit, we still did not have enough time to see everything.

One of the highlights of the exhibit is stepping into a recreated wooden synagogue that was built with the assistance of an American workshop – a video explaining the construction process can be found HERE.

Praga Museum

A very different kind of museum experience awaited at the Praga Museum within an old Jewish quarter in Warsaw that survived the destruction of World War II. Unlike the other museums where we received guided tours, at the Praga we were left to wander on our own as we encountered dimly rooms filled with a variety of quirky displays interpreting the history of the neighborhood, juxtaposed with contemporary art installations exploring issues such as multiculturalism and geographical boundaries.

I felt right at home seeing a case filled with sewing machine and tailor implements, just like in Voices of Lombard Street.

The museum is housed in a former townhouse that once contained a private shul. The museum has uncovered fresco fragments from the shul that visitors can view.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

Book of Names

Our day spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau was difficult and exhausting as we waited in lines and navigated crowds to enter different barracks that house museum displays (daily attendance at the camp can reach as high as 11,000 visitors). We had difficulty finding the personal stories that are so essential to understanding the Holocaust because the interpretation is from the perspective of the perpetrators and not the victims. A recently opened exhibition in Block 27 by Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum and memorial, seeks to address this issue by displaying photographs and films of pre-war Jewish communities and an enormous book listing names of Jewish victims of the Holocaust that visitors can peruse. This was an especially emotional experience for several members of our group who found listings of family members who perished during the Holocaust.

Auschwitz Jewish Center

A display at the Auschwitz Jewish Center.

I first learned about the Auschwitz Jewish Center when the JMM hosted the exhibition A Town Known As Auschwitz last year. The museum preserves and interprets the rich pre-war Jewish history of Oswiecim (the Polish name of the town) and also includes the only synagogue in town that was not destroyed during World War II.

The only surviving synagogue.

While there are no Jews living any longer in Oswiecim, the museum serves as an important educational and cultural center. We had the opportunity to meet with the museum’s director who talked about how his staff works to teach visitors that there is more to Polish Jewish history than the Holocaust. We found our visit to the Auschwitz Jewish Center an especially meaningful way to end our day spent in Auschwitz and as we ate dinner in a charming restaurant in the town that has become synonymous with the Holocaust, we discussed the importance of making all Poles understand the extent to which Polish Jewish heritage is an integral part of their history.

Galicia Jewish Museum

Our last two days were spent in Krakow, the center of Jewish renewal in Poland, where we learned about the resurgence of interest in Jewish culture. Unlike Warsaw, Krakow was left largely intact (the Wawel Castle served as the residence for the Governor of the General Government, Hans Frank) and its Jewish quarter contains six restored synagogues. Krakow also hosts an annual summer Jewish festival that attracts thousands of people. The Galicia Jewish Museum has been one of the leading institutions in the city’s Jewish renaissance. Our visit to the museum was the perfect way to bring our week to a close as we met with the museum’s director, deputy director and one of their board members. The Museum’s mission is to educate visitors that the Holocaust did not just happen at Auschwitz (so many visitors to Poland stop only at Auschwitz-Birkenau during their stay) and also to continue the story of Jewish history in Poland post-1945 during the communist regime and into the present. 40% of the museum’s visitors are non-Jewish, a reflection of the interest in non-Jews in learning about Jewish culture and history. As at the Auschwitz Jewish Center, we heard about their focus on working with the non-Jewish community as a means of gaining their assistance in preserving Jewish heritage in small towns and cities throughout the country.

We toured the museum’s temporary exhibit The Girl in the Diary: Searching for Rwyka from the Lodz Ghetto, a beautifully designed installation featuring original artifacts and interactive stations that reinforced the concept of how focusing on individual stories can bring to life the history of the Holocaust in such meaningful ways.

The core exhibit Traces of Memory: A Contemporary Look at the Jewish Past in Poland showcases color photographs by Professor Jonathan Webber and Chris Schwarz from the past 30 years documenting what remains of Jewish life in Polish towns. The exhibit powerfully reminds visitors that in order to learn about the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, it is important to look beyond Auschwitz and to visit small towns that once housed vibrant Jewish communities.

I arrived in Poland expecting to learn about the tragic history of its Jewish community in order to enrich my work at the JMM and also to bear witness to the loss of a culture. I was not prepared to visit such a broad array of museums that provide fascinating insight into Poland’s complex and nuanced history. I was inspired by the work that these amazing institutions and individuals are engaged in to ensure that Jewish Polish history is preserved in meaningful ways.

Read more about Deborah’s trip over at JMore: “Touring Poland Was ‘Life-Changing Experience'”

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