Posted on June 10th, 2015 by Rachel
My husband Bob just checked off one of the items on his bucket list – a trip to Morocco, a country in the northwest corner of Africa. Lucky me went with him. We had a fantastic time in Morocco seeing the various terrains from the fertile coastal plains, to the snow-capped mountains to the dunes of the Sahara. And the people we met were just as varied from college educated professionals to those with no formal education; western dressed to totally covered by jallaba and scarf; living in spacious multi-floor homes to a tent in the desert. And almost everywhere we went, we heard about the Jews who used to live there.
Wendy and Bob in Rabat, looking over at Sale.
In every corner of Morocco, we heard about the Jews that moved there with the Muslims after expulsion from Spain in1492. But, we also learned that the majority of Jews left the country between the 1950s and 1970s. The various local guides we had all commented that the Jews wanted to move to Israel and that the Jews have always been welcome in Morocco. But, the ultimate truth is that the non–African Arab states were putting considerable pressure on the African countries to ostracize their Jews. In spite of the pressure, we were told that there has always been a Jewish advisor to the king, even today; and, it is very common for those that have moved away to return with their children for visits and to check on their property that is rented to others. We saw remnants of their lives sold in shops – yads, menorahs, mezuzahs, carved doors, traditional wedding rings, tefillin, jewelry, books, sections of Torah…. I found the sale of these objects and the fact that the Jews felt a need to leave an area that had been their home for hundreds of years very disturbing.
Wendy introduces herself to her ride.
As we walked through the old Jewish quarters in the medinas (the walled cities) called mellahs we noticed streets with Jewish names. We noticed telltale scars of long gone mezuzahs on doorposts and the occasional plaque marking the location of a closed synagogue. Most of the remaining Moroccan Jews, just like the Baltimorean Jews, have moved out of the old cities into the newer sections of town. In the old mellah in Marrakesh, we did find an active synagogue that was established in 1492 according to the plaque on the wall. Unlike Baltimore’s B’nai Israel, there isn’t a renewal of younger congregants to replace those that are mostly elderly and are dying off.
Lazama Synagogue Mellah Marrakech
Contrary to what I heard before our trip, my husband and I felt comfortable traveling openly as Jews. It was obvious by the new Judaica (mezuzahs, hanukiahs, kiddish cups) for sale in shops and the way we were treated by the local retail salesmen and others with whom we engaged in conversation, that Jewish tourists are welcome.
A blog post by volunteer Wendy Davis, JMM Docent. To read more posts by and about JMM volunteers click HERE.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014 by Rachel
My husband and kids were having a wonderful time on their first day of vacation in San Francisco. They had visited the Japanese Tea Garden, hung out with an old friend of my husband’s and dined on dumplings in Chinatown. And then my husband, Jonathan, called with a crisis. “We forgot to pack Flat Mendes” he announced sadly.
For those of you unfamiliar, Flat Mendes is a paper doll cutout of one of Maryland’s most accomplished Jew and the subject of an upcoming exhibition, The A-mazing Mendes Cohen (opening September 14). Because the real life Mendes spent three years as an intrepid traveler throughout Europe and the Middle East, we have created a virtual Mendes so that he can continue his travels in the 21st century visiting places he may have visited more than 150 years ago and places that we are sure he would have loved to had he had the chance. For the Cardin-Willis Family, this meant bringing Flat Mendes with us to California and photographing him in every iconic spot we could find.
But first, we had to overcome this crisis. My husband and children flew out to San Francisco while the laminated version of Mendes was in Baltimore. Fortunately, I knew how to resolve this problem and directed Jonathan to a downloadable version of Flat Mendes on the JMM website. (You can do this too, go to http://jewishmuseummd.org/2014/06/flat-mendes/). Because the hotel did not have a color printer, my ever resourceful husband stopped at CVS, bought some crayons and the girls had fun coloring him in.
Jonathan and Mendes
Then the fun really began. Mendes fit in quite a bit in his one-week jaunt through California.
First stop, Alcatraz, the famed prison off the coast of San Francisco. Here he excitedly holds his own ticket.
Behind Bars – While the real life Mendes did have a brush with the law when he was fined for violating Virginia law by selling out of state lottery tickets there, thankfully, he never actually did time in prison.
Mendes enjoyed his trip up hilly San Francisco streets traveling by cable car.
Mendes even made some new friends!
With the Willis girls as his guide, Mendes got in some exercise biking over the Golden Gate Bridge. We have records of Mendes traveling by boat, train and horse but this mode of transport was surely a first for him.
What better way to refresh after a long and arduous bike ride then with a stop at San Francisco’s beloved Ghiradelli Chocolate Factory. Mendes proved to be quite the San Francisco fan and even picked up a souvenir baseball hat.
On the way down the coast, Mendes stopped to admire the beauty of California’s Redwood trees.
I met Jonathan, Madeline and Julia in Pismo Beach, CA, along California’s central coast where we had a blast taking surfing lessons. Mendes had to get in the action too. I think he may have even started a new surfing trend. The next day we saw many surfing dudes wearing turbans!
Mendes’s final adventure was kayaking in Morro Bay where he enjoyed viewing sea lions and otters.
Mendes is now home in Baltimore recuperating from jet lag. But he will soon be ready for new adventures and we can’t wait to see where else he goes!
A blog post by Assistant Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts by Deborah, click HERE.
Posted on July 3rd, 2014 by Rachel
You’re going to hate me right now. I’ve returned recently from gallivanting around Europe. For the first two weeks of June, I was visiting both sites and friends in beautiful places with world renowned chocolate and low humidity while Baltimore was suffering under a heat index of 102. I’ll spare you the lovely details and jump to my last stop, in Vienna, where I visited the local Jewish Museum (I have no qualms about taking busman’s holidays).
Chocolate Palace at Berlin’s Fassbender & Rausch’s chocolatiers
The Jewish Museum Vienna actually has two locations within the city: there is the main building on Dorotheergasse, just off of one of the main shopping/tourist strips, which houses their primary exhibition. The second location is on the Judenplatz, where, as you might have already guessed from the name, was the old (in this case, medieval) Jewish neighborhood. The focus of the Judenplatz location is the synagogue that stood there until 1420, when a pogrom led to the razing of the synagogue and forced the Jewish community to leave the city.
Because Judenplatz was very close to where I was staying, I ended up visiting the two locations in reverse order. The Judenplatz part of the museum actually starts outside its building. It begins on the square, where the Viennese Holocaust memorial–also known as “The Nameless Library”–stands. Designed by Rachel Whiteread, the memorial is made of “inside-out” shelves, filled with books whose spines are invisible–hence the name. It represents the loss of knowledge, memory, and the lives of “the People of the Book” who were killed, not just in the Holocaust (though that is definitely its focus), but also in the Viennese Geserah (Disaster) of 1420. This layering of memorialized tragedies makes it unique among European Holocaust memorials.
“The Nameless Library”
Inside the museum itself, there is a small and frustratingly spare exhibit on Jewish life in Vienna in the Middle Ages. Its highlight is the room in which you can see the actual excavated remains of the stone foundations for the old synagogue.
The museum also included a bizarre “exhibit” on the life of Amy Winehouse, curated by her brother. Interestingly enough, as described in the introduction by her brother, the exhibit was meant to be more like a memorial to her life geared towards those who never knew her personally rather than an actual academic exploration of her life and work. In this somewhat strange and roundabout way, it actually fit in with the memorial just outside.
Thankfully, the main location of the Vienna Jewish Museum was much more satisfying. Along with changing exhibitions that, much like the JMM, explore various, lesser-known corners of regional Jewish life (on display at the time of my visit was an exhibit of Jews who fought for Austria in WWI and a small display of Jewish textiles), the museum has a truly exceptional permanent exhibition on the Jews of Vienna, from the Middle Ages to the present. Entitled “Our City! Jewish Vienna–Then to Now,” the exhibition seeks to explain to outsiders the strong and complex ties between the Jews of Vienna and their city.
On display at the Vienna Jewish Museum
In a clearly calculated–and, I think, successful–move, the curators of the show decided to begin with the history of the Viennese Jewish community from 1945 to today. It starts with the bittersweet re-grouping of the community, attempting to grapple with their memories, confirming the fates of lost loved ones and the things they’ve left behind, and re-establishing relationships with their gentile neighbors.
Austria was slow to officially acknowledge its part in letting the Holocaust happen and its responsibility towards Austrian survivors, which caused significant tension between Jews and non-Jews in Austrian politics in the last half of the 20th century. My only criticism of this section is that, while specific instances of this tension, such as when Kurt Waldheim was appointed Austria’s president in 1986 despite having participated in the Austrian Nazi government, are mentioned in the exhibit, it was often with only very cursory explanations, as if they expected you to already know what had happened.
The section ends with a portrait of contemporary Jewish life, including photographs from various communal simchas. This drove home the point that the curators were trying make with their reverse chronological order: Jewish life in Vienna did not stop with the Holocaust. It was greatly reduced and continues to encounter challenges, but, thanks to the many Soviet Jews who moved to Vienna after the end of the Cold War, the community is there and it is thriving.
After that hopeful note, visitors are directed to go upstairs to see the second section of the exhibit–Jewish life in Vienna from the Middle Ages to 1945. This section makes good use of its vast collection of manuscripts, photographs, recordings, portraits, and Judaica to trace the ups and downs of the story of the Viennese Jews.
There were three historical Jewish communities in the city: the medieval one that ended with their expulsion in 1420; their brief re-entry in the 17th century; and the third and largest one, which began in the early 19th century under the reign of Emperor Franz Josef I, and continued until the Holocaust.
Emperor Franz Josef I
In each case, the Jewish community faced strong anti-semitism that in the best of times meant very high taxes (creating a deceptively wealthy Jewish community in Vienna in the 17th and 19th centuries simply because poor Jews couldn’t afford to stay) and in the worst of times meant humiliation and expulsion. Despite this, or really because of it, Jews contributed disproportionately to the empire’s military campaigns as well as to the city’s cultural life, whether it was through giving the money to build the opera house or having the talent to be appointed the director of that opera house.
A large section of the gallery is devoted to the many Jewish cultural figures in Vienna during the 19th-20th centuries. This includes the obvious names–Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Theodore Herzl, etc.–as well as lesser known but equally important ones, like the cantor Salomon Sulzer; the Olympic hopefuls, Fritzi Löwy, Lucie Goldner, and Hedy Bienenfeld; and the Ephrussi banking family (about whom I was simultaneously reading in The Hare with Amber Eyes–which is a fantastic book!).
The Hare with Amber Eyes
Ephrussi Palace today
Because of their invaluable contributions to the empire’s economy, the Habsburg rulers gradually eased the laws restricting Jewish life there–even eventually granting full citizenship–thus garnering a fierce loyalty from their Jewish subjects. This loyalty served the Jewish community poorly when nationalism and WWI disintegrated the empire and the Habsburg reign. Their contributions and sacrifices during the war were quickly forgotten or dismissed in the internecine years that followed.
The end of the exhibit details the sudden and violent decline of the Viennese Jewish community through postcards, movie reels, and official Nazi documents regarding Eichmann’s plan to address the “Jewish Question.” Before the start of WWII, Vienna had the third largest Jewish population in the world, with over 185,000. By 1946, there were only 25,000, and today there are barely 7,000.
I left the museum that day with an expanded appreciation for the tenacity of the Jewish communities in places like Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam, and the many other European cities where Jews have had to scatter and regroup so many times throughout history. And I hope that if any of you have the opportunity to visit the city of Vienna, you will take the time to visit this fascinating museum.
A blog post by Visitor Services Coordinator Abby Krolik. To read more posts by Abby, click HERE.