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.

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Travels with Mendes

Posted on July 23rd, 2014 by

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.

Flat Mendes

Flat Mendes

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

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.

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.

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 enjoyed his trip up hilly San Francisco streets traveling by cable car.

Mendes even made some new friends!

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.

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.

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.

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!

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’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!

deborahA blog post by Assistant Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts by Deborah, click HERE.

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A European Adventure

Posted on July 3rd, 2014 by

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

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”

“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

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

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

The Hare with Amber Eyes

Ephrussi Palace today

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.

abby krolikA blog post by Visitor Services Coordinator Abby Krolik. To read more posts by Abby, click HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

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