Revolutionizing Experiences: Henrietta Szold’s First Visit to the Holy Land Part 1

Posted on August 14th, 2017 by

Letter by Henrietta Szold. Originally published in Generations 2007-2008: Maryland and Israel

Introduction:

Henrietta Szold (1860 – 1945) has long been celebrated for her role in building a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The founder of Hadassah and the force behind Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, she virtually created the public health system in pre-state Israel and also ran the Youth Aliyah, which safely brought thousands of Jewish youth out of Nazi Germany and into Palestine during the 1930s. Remarkably, all these achievements occurred after Szold turned fifty. Though she had been involved in Zionist circles in her native Baltimore and later New York City, it was not until she traveled to Palestine with her mother in 1909 that she made improving conditions her life’s work.

Henrietta Szold and her mother Sophie, August 1909, visiting friends in England before traveling through Europe to Palestine. JMM 1992.242.7.13

Henrietta Szold and her mother Sophie, August 1909, visiting friends in England before traveling through Europe to Palestine. JMM 1992.242.7.13

Not that Szold was a late bloomer. From 1889, when she became superintendent of the nation’s first immigrant night school in Baltimore, to her many years working as an editor at the Jewish Publication Society of America, she had been an important contributor to American Jewish cultural affairs. But in 1908, when leading Jewish scholar Louis Ginzberg, with whom she had worked closely and fallen in love, rejected her for a younger woman, she suffered an emotional crisis that led her to question her previous twenty years in service to male-run institutions. She needed a new direction, and her trip to Palestine enabled her to find it. She came to see that her longstanding belief in “spiritual Zionism” – the development of Jewish settlement in the Holy Land as a way to bring about spiritual renewal for modern Jewry – could be advanced by encouraging women to engage in practical work to address the dire health conditions she had witnessed during her trip.

This realization did not occur immediately, as demonstrated by the letter printed here, one of the gems of the JMM archives (1995.206.1). Writing to her mentor, Judge Mayer Sulzberger, just after leaving Palestine, she expresses doubts about herself as well as the state of the Zionist movement. But she also vividly describes the transformative effect the visit had on her. Upon her return to America, she embarked on a new path that led to the founding of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, in 1912. Another visit to Palestine in 1920 resulted in her settling there permanently to overs the various projects she had initiated.

Szold did not always agree with the Zionist establishment; in the 1930s and 1940s, for example, she publicly supported a bi-national state. Her strongly independent thought is on display here, in her honest critique of the Zionist project as she saw it “on the ground.” But her belief in the Holy Land as a way to renew the Jewish people shines through as well.

The Letter, page 1

The Letter, page 1

The Letter:

The Mediterranean, between Alexandira and Trieste

November 28, 1909

 

Dear Judge Sulzberger:

My very indefinite dating of this letter indicates only one thing definitely – that my face is at last set westward and homeward. I feel that this is the time when I may venture to give you a little account of my impressions – don’t be alarmed, I shall not subject you to a catalogue of sights and scenes. This is the proper time because I cannot help believing that Italy, even Italy, which is to fill out the rest of my long vacation, must be in the nature of an anti-climax after my Oriental experiences. If I were younger I should call them revolutionizing experiences. At all events, if I had undergone them earlier in life, they might have had a decidedly shaping influence upon my Jewish attitude and work. As it is, they will probably be a very stimulating memory without much noticeable result in action.

It was not due to any conscious arrangement on my part that my trip abroad arranged itself as it did. I spent the first month in Scotland and England, all the time I was there I tingled with the feeling that I was in my intellectual home. My Anglo-Saxon education announced itself at every step. I had no right to feel that blood was thicker than water, to be sure, but I discovered that brain tissue is not a negligible element in appreciating relationships.

From there we went direct to Vienna and Hungary, my mother’s home, from which she had gone away fifty years to a week when we returned. And there I did learn that blood is thicker than water. I found a really huge circle of relatives, ready-made and ready to receive me as though I had had the same intellectual and sentimental antecedents with themselves. It was as rare an experience as cathedrals and picture galleries to me, for we are a very small family in America and I have never known the pleasure of the intimacy that stands between family ties and friendships. And it was curious to observe how America had done little more than modify external characteristics; the family soul had remained unimpinged by time and distance.

But I feel that my real experiences began when I left Buda-Pest and was whirled through Servia [sic], Bulgaria, and Turkey to Constantinople. Again, in the ordering of my Oriental trip, chance was kind to me. I cannot be sufficiently thankful that I had the opportunity of seeing Constantinople, Smyrna, Alexandria, Beirut, and Damascus before I entered the Holy Land proper.

Also, it was lucky for me that I did not, like most tourists, enter by way of Jaffa and Jerusalem. That was intentional maneuvering on my part. I wanted to see the land with my own eyes, or spectacles if you will, not through the spectacles of the warring factions in the two intellectual centres. The other chance gave me a true Oriental setting for the Holy Land, the proper atmosphere. After seeing half a dozen cities and the country districts, even if only from the car window or the carriage seat, I knew enough to distinguish between what is peculiarly Jewish and generally Oriental. It was eminently useful knowledge. I know it to be such when I remember what other six-weeks-tourists of Palestine on their return.

Continue to Part II: Entering the Holy Land[1]

[1] Interested in more Henrietta Szold history? Check out Henrietta Szold’s Baltimore from 1860-1902, an innovative and interactive mobile tour on the early life of Henrietta Szold, developed by the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Download the free izi.travel mobile app and follow the JMM’s audio tour that will lead you through the progression of Henrietta’s early life, which also tells the story of the German-Jewish immigrants to Baltimore and the Russian Jews that followed decades later. Each stop on the tour includes unique, historical images that will transport you back in time to see Baltimore through the eyes of the Szolds.

 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




A Short Trip to Denmark

Posted on April 28th, 2017 by

Biking around Copenhagen

Biking around Copenhagen

I recently took a short vacation to Denmark where I spent time in Copenhagen, Northern Zealand and Aarhus. In between visiting castles, going on a canal boat tour, biking around the city and sampling lots of tasty dishes, I explored the country’s Jewish heritage. As I am writing this on Holocaust Remembrance Day, I thought I would also touch on some of the county’s WW2 history.

Inside the Danish Jewish Museum

Inside the Danish Jewish Museum

In Copenhagen, I stopped at the Danish Jewish Museum. The architecture by Daniel Libeskind (who also did the Jewish Museum in Berlin), was among the most striking parts of the museum. The space was a kind of labyrinth and the floors, walls and ceiling were slanted. I learned that Jews have lived in Denmark for 400 years. Denmark was the first Scandinavian country where Jews were permitted to settle. Jews were first invited by King Christian IV in the 1620s and they worked as merchants or as financiers and jewelers to the royal family. Similar to Maryland, Danish Jews only received full citizenship rights in 1849. In 1943, when the Danish Jews were about to be deported, the Danish Resistance Movement was instrumental in helping to evacuate nearly 8,000 Jews and their families from Denmark by sea in fishing boats to nearby neutral Sweden. While 500 Jews were taken to Thersienstadt concentration camp, Danish authorities often interceded upon their behalf and ordinary Danes protected the property of their Jewish neighbors while they were gone.

Danish fisherman ferry Jews to safety in Sweeden 1943 . Via USHMM.

Danish fisherman ferry Jews to safety in Sweeden 1943 . Via USHMM.

Since the war, the population has rebounded. Despite recent episodes of anti-Semitism, the Jewish population of Denmark remains at approximately 6,400.Later in my trip, I took the train up the coast to visit the Louisanna Art Museum  and Kronsborg Castle.  These were near several of the towns where Jews were smuggled on fishing boats across to nearby Sweden in 1943. I visited around the time of Passover so when I looked out over the water towards Sweden, it made me realize that the Danish Jews also had an exodus to escape a different kind of oppressor as they ferried across the Oresund strait towards freedom. Back in Copenhagen, I explored the historic center where I walked past the Great Synagogue, dating from 1833, which is the main synagogue of the Jewish community in Copenhagen. It is built in the semi-oriental classical style with mixtures of Greek, Roman and Egyptian elements.

The Occupation Museum

The Occupation Museum

The next day, I took the train to Aarhus where I toured the Occupation Museum which is dedicated to the history of the town during the occupation by the Germans in World War 2. The building served as the headquarters for the Gestapo headquarters during the war and as a place of interrogation and torture. I was interested in learning about the resistance to the Nazis in Aarhus, like a radio used to secretly communicate with England.

Throughout my trip, I thought back to our Remembering Auschwitz: History, Holocaust and Humanity exhibit. While many perished in the Holocaust, it was refreshing to hear some of the stories of ordinary Danes who stood up to the Nazis and as a country ended up saving the majority of Danish Jews from Nazi persecution.

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

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Great Lessons from Humble Places

Posted on March 24th, 2017 by

Have you noticed our obsession with top ten lists?  Our tendency to pay attention to something when it’s the first, or the newest, or the largest?

Museums have a long pedigree in displaying the rare and exceptional, but there is an inherent distortion of history in an exclusive focus on the “most important.”  In the 21st century, in an era of shared authority between visitor and curator, we need to re-learn the art of elevating the ordinary – of making the lives of everyday folks as compelling as the extraordinary.

On the recent trip to the Council of American Jewish Museums conference in Massachusetts, I found two institutions doing just that.  Neither would describe itself as a “museum” per se, but both are worthy of a visit.

Entering Vilna Shul

Entering Vilna Shul

The first was the Vilna Shul in Boston.  Built in 1919, the Vilna Shul (or as its original sign says in a Boston accent – the “Vilner Congregation”) is not the oldest, nor the largest, nor the most beautiful religious space by any stretch of the imagination.  It is rather the last remaining synagogue of the great wave of Eastern European migration to Boston’s West End (out of twenty or more than once were there).  Like our own Lloyd Street Synagogue the Vilna Shul was rescued from a city plan to tear it down and put in a parking lot.

Vilna's stained glass window

Vilna’s stained glass window

The architecture is a pastiche – a little Georgian, a little Romanesque, a little Eastern European folk.  It’s most notable feature is its huge stained glass Star of David, unambiguously facing the street.  The interior has some elements in common with LSS, including chandeliers purchased from a neighboring church.  But also some things I would never associate with a synagogue of this period – huge skylights, and in lieu of a balcony, a women’s section set up like a raked theater.  The Shul has literally pealed back the layers of paint to reveal its historic stenciling.

Skylight

Skylight

There is no golden age of the Vilna Shul.  As our guide pointed out, even by the time this was built, the Jewish community had begun to move elsewhere.  Yet this humble congregation offers a glimpse into Jewish immigrant life that is every bit as important and interesting as the most magnificent temple designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Yiddish Book Center

The Yiddish Book Center

The second non-museum on my “must visit” list is the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. Walking up to the building, the architecture already builds expectations – after all, how many American buildings are designed to resemble a shtetl?  The Yiddish Book Center takes “humble” to a whole new level… it’s logo is a goat, the same goat that we celebrate in Had Gadya each Passover, the gentle goat of the Yiddish lullaby Oyfn Pripetchik.  The exhibits do not exist in great galleries but rather mostly meander through the stacks of thousands of books.

Sharing one of the Yiddish newspapers in the collection.

Sharing one of the Yiddish newspapers in the collection.

 

The exhibits and tours don’t try to claim that Yiddish is the most influential language – noting that only 39,000 books were printed in Yiddish in the century in which Yiddish books were being printed.  Instead the focus is on the history embedded in the language.  A Yiddish linotype machine and cases of type are used to illustrate the intersection of technology and language.  A giant story book encasing a video screen connects themes in Yiddish literature to contemporary movies and plays.

Check out that address

Check out that address

Perhaps most intriguing they have a crate on display.  There is nothing terribly special about the crate except the shipped-from address.  The shipped-from address is Zimbabwe and suddenly the crate becomes a vehicle for telling the incredible story of books that escaped with their owner from Lithuania to Shanghai before the Holocaust and from Shanghai to Zimbabwe after WWII and from Zimbabwe to Amherst, MA in the 1990s (with duplicates returned to the Jewish community in Lithuania).  An otherwise ordinary crate turns into a ride through modern Jewish history.

What a fun "madlibs" style interactive!

What a fun “madlibs” style interactive!

It’s definitely worth the extra mile if you find yourself in New England.  If it provides an incentive, know that it is on my “top ten” list of Jewish sites to visit, and I say that in all humility.

MarvinBlog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




« Previous PageNext Page »