A Successful First Event in Our Sephardic Lecture Series!

Posted on January 21st, 2015 by

Despite the icy weather this past Sunday, Rabbi Ronnie Perelis of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies of Yeshiva University transported us both back in time and to a much warmer and sunnier place – the Caribbean. Before there were thriving Jewish communities in cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Charleston and Savannah, most Jews in the Americas lived in the Caribbean. They were part of a dynamic Sephardic network of trade and culture which connected major metropolitan centers such as Amsterdam and London to colonial ports such as Curacao and Kingston.

Rabbi Perelis welcomes the crowd.

Rabbi Perelis welcomes the crowd.

Rabbi Perelis began his talk around the turn of the 16th century, in 1492, when Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World and as the Spanish Inquisition reached its peak. In the “Prologue” of his Diary dedicated to the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, Christopher Columbus writes “And thus after having expelled all of the Jews from your kingdoms and possessions, in the same month of January, Your Royal Highnesses sent me . . . to these parts of the Indies. . .” Then, within 5 years of Spain expelling its Jews, Portugal followed suit. Iberian Jews were forced to either practiced their faith in secret or seek refuge in the cities and towns of Europe, North Africa, the Near East, and even as far as Dutch-ruled Brazil.

Rabbi Perelis shared some great images.

Rabbi Perelis shared some great images.

However, in 1654, Portugal regained control of Brazil and continued the expulsion of its Jewish colonists. As a result, most either returned to Holland or relocated to Caribbean colonies. In hopes of building a new life, a small group of Jewish refugees settled in New Amsterdam. As the Jewish community continued to grow in the subsequent years, they appealed to the government in an effort to gain the rights offered to other settlers, such as the right to engage in civic duties and to own property.

In response, George Washington wrote to the Newport Hebrew Congregation in 1790 that

“happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support… May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Throughout his talk, Rabbi Perelis shared several intriguing maps, drawings and artifacts. Among my favorites were:

Illuminated Ketuba of Meir Meyerstone and Rebekah De Meza on November 7, 1819 New York

Illuminated Ketuba of Meir Meyerstone and Rebekah De Meza on November 7, 1819 New York 

Solomon Carvalho painted the interior of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim from memory after the synagogue was destroyed by fire in 1838. He offered the canvas to the congregation “for such Compensation as the Board may deem proper to allow.” They judged it to be “neat & accurate” and paid him $50.

Interior of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim by Carvahlo

Interior of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim by Carvahlo

John Rubens Smith (1770-1840). Jews Synagogue in Charleston [Beth Elohim], ca. 1812.

John Rubens Smith (1770-1840). Jews Synagogue in Charleston [Beth Elohim], ca. 1812.

Overall, Rabbi Perelis’ talk was incredibly informative and a great first program in our Sephardic Lecture Series.  You definitely don’t want to miss the second, and final talk in this series: Ladino, a Language of the Jewish Diaspora.  Dr. Adriana Brodsky of St. Mary’s College of Maryland will talk about the history and current state of Ladino, a Jewish language that arose in the Iberian Peninsula and spread in the wake of the expulsion of Jews in 1492 as new Jewish communities settled throughout the Mediterranean region.

La Epoca was a Judeo-Spanish newspaper.

La Epoca was a Judeo-Spanish newspaper.

Rabbi Perelis also sent me a list of books that may be of interest!

Continued Reading: 

Atlantic Diasporas: Jews, Conversos, and Crypto-Jews in the Age of Mercantilism, 1500–1800, edited by Richard L. Kagan and Philip D. Morgan

Jews in the Caribbean, edited by Jane Gerber

A Nation upon the Ocean Sea: Portugal’s Atlantic Diaspora and the Crisis of the Spanish Empire, 1492-1640; Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert

Carolyn BevansA blog post by Carolyn Bevans, Museum Educator and Programs Associate. To read more posts from Carolyn, click HERE. 

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Health, Healing, History: New Thoughts on Jews and Medicine

Posted on July 31st, 2012 by

A blog post by Exhibitions Intern Meryl Feinstein.

As the sole exhibitions intern currently on staff at the JMM, I have had the exciting opportunity to fully delve into the initial workings of exhibition development. Along with curator Karen Falk, I have been exploring the “big ideas” for an exhibition regarding Jews and the medical profession in Maryland.

When first approaching the topic, we mainly looked at Maryland Jews who had contributed to the medical field (largely from Hopkins and Sinai Hospital) and Jewish-founded institutions in the Baltimore area. For me, aside from the stereotype of “My son the doctor,” I didn’t think there was a deeply Jewish connection to the medical profession. Many of today’s Jewish doctors see themselves as doctors who just happen to be Jewish. American modern medicine is a profoundly Western concept – of a scientific foundation – not one inherently religious or cultural per se… Right? This line of thought guided the direction of the exhibition for the past few weeks. We saw the Jewish facet as a case study; that is to say, we were going to look at the development of modern medicine through the lens of Jewish people and institutions in Maryland and the achievements that followed. This would include a wide array of professionals: doctors, nurses, pharmacists, psychiatrists, etc.

With this mindset, Karen and I took a short daytrip to New York City to see the Yeshiva University Museum’s current exhibition, Trail of the Magic Bullet: The Jewish Encounter with Modern Medicine, 1860-1960 at the Center for Jewish History. Trail of the Magic Bullet was not limited to the achievements and institutions of Maryland; thus, the exhibition’s main goal was to provide an image of the larger modern Jewish experience through the lens of the Jewish relationship with – and contribution to – modern medicine. Trail of the Magic Bullet began with a nod to the pre-modern history of Jewish physicians by way of a series of ancient manuscripts and one very lovely Rembrandt etching of the Jewish physician Ephraim Bonus. The majority of the show, however, was dedicated to highlighting specific Jewish personalities who made significant contributions to medical science in the modern era. Public health was also included, such as the Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society, the Visiting Nurse Service, Hadassah, and the establishment of various Jewish hospitals. The exhibition concluded with a short video discussing current issues of medical ethics.

Center for Jewish History, NYC.

Rembrandt etching of Ephraim Bonus (1647), the Jewish physician to discover the first cure for syphilis shown at YUM’s Trail of the Magic Bullet: The Jewish Encounter with Modern Medicine, 1860-1960.

After our tour through the exhibition, Karen and I stopped for some delicious falafel at taim before heading back to Baltimore.

As I walked through Trail of the Magic Bullet, I was conflicted. The exhibition explored some truly intriguing and important themes and dichotomies: anti-Semitism vs. assimilation, Jewish particularism vs. universalism (or rather, serving the Jewish community vs. the global community), science vs. tradition. These themes are as wholly relevant to the Jews of Maryland as anywhere else in the Western world; we could easily adapt the YUM template for our purposes. Yet although the exhibition was informative and widely acclaimed – and closely related to our own ideas – I walked away feeling that the YU approach just wasn’t for us. I thought about the JMM’s demographic: how could we make this topic exciting and interactive, especially for school groups? And, on a more personal level, how could we make this exciting and interactive for me – that is to say, others like me – a young adult with little knowledge of science and medicine?

Karen and I seemed to share this opinion, and after a series of brainstorming sessions and exploring our collection, we kept circling back to the same idea: instead of talking about Jews and medicine, why don’t we talk about Jews and health? It may be a minor adjustment, but the word ‘health’ rings more inclusive, more positive in its connotation than the word ‘medicine.’ Furthermore, everyone engages with health. From the doctor’s office to yoga to alternative, holistic medicine to nutrition, optimal health is something we all constantly strive to attain and maintain. Health touches upon the physical, the mental, and the emotional – the body, the mind, and the soul. It’s personal, it’s communal, and it’s global. This small change could thereby attract a larger audience and more diverse demographic.

On a most basic level, the switch to ‘health’ allows us to explore the general cultural constructions of health and illness in America. Ultimately, however, the question remains: is there a Jewish meaning embedded within these cultural constructions? If so, what is it? If not, why not? The themes we are currently considering include the relationship between patient and healer, the communal response to caring for the sick and promoting wellness, the evolution of the connection between Jews and health/illness over time, and the meaning of “Jewish diseases.” We intend to approach these topics from a regional perspective.

Though there are still more questions than answers, it seems like we may be on to something. Right now I am starting at the source: Jewish text. This includes health-related passages in Biblical, Talmudic, and Rabbinic sources (especially Maimonides). These texts focus largely on healing – the root of health – and the relationship between the body and soul. To be healthy, the individual must maintain balance in all things physical and mental – extreme states are strongly discouraged – and moderation is key. When illness strikes, the physician acts as God’s helper, one whose duty is to encourage the natural course of healing to restore good health. One of the more amusing passages I have come across was written by Jedaiah ben Avraham Bedersi, or “HaP’nini,” a Medieval French poet and philosopher:

When you need a physician, esteem him a god;
When he has brought you out of danger, you consider him a king;
When you have been cured, he becomes human like yourself.
When he sends you the bill, you think him a devil.

It doesn’t look like much has changed!

 

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