Intern Thoughts: A Weekly Response
Every week we’re asking our summer interns to share some thoughts and responses to various experiences and readings. This week we asked them to read and respond to a variety of exhibition catalogs developed by the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
Lives Lost, Lives Found: Baltimore’s German Jewish Refugees, 1933-1945
Public officials calling for tighter borders, refugee turmoil in Europe, and few that are willing to help them. This is not a description of the contemporary Syrian refugee crisis, although it has many similarities. This is the refugee crisis caused by the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany that would up to and exacerbate the toll of the Holocaust, and the story of some German Jews, with the help of their American counterparts, came to live in Baltimore. And although there are differences between that refugee crisis and the one we face now, there are countless lessons to be learned from the former that could help us cure the latter.
When the Nazi’s gained power in Germany in 1933, it was only the beginning of trouble for European Jewry. The looming threat of the Holocaust was yet unforseen, and only the Jews of Germany had any real warning, culminating in kirstalnacht later in the decade. And of those Jews who desired to leave, sometimes only the wealthiest were actually capable. Many countries barred Jews from entering, with the reasons being that it was not their responsibility, xenophobic sentiment, or antisemitism. This made emigration even more difficult, and undoubtably resulted in countless deaths of those who failed to escape. In Baltimore, the Jewish community successfully petitioned the city to accept Jewish refugees, and in doing so saved many lives. The brave actions of a few saved many.
Although there were hiccups, the new immigrants successfully integrated into their new culture, and the Baltimore Jewish community continues to thrive. The xenophobic and antisemitic reasoning that contributed to so many deaths and so much suffering was, after all, completely unfounded.
So what does this tell us about the modern Syrian refugee crisis? I think there are several major lessons: failure to accept refugees will cost countless lives and increase the suffering of many who are already destitute, and should be avoided at all costs, fear of new groups ruining the cultural ethos of a nation is entirely baseless, and immigrants pose no real threat, and by working with other groups in the cities they immigrate to, and working with their kin and fellow immigrants, they may grow to be extremely successful and valuable to the society that adopts them.
Just something to think about.
~ David Agronin
Familiar Content; Different Layout: Response to “Chosen Food” Exhibit Catalog
Museum exhibit catalogs provide additional information about the topic displayed allowing for more in-depth research into the topic. Through my studies I have used them as research tools and generally found them as a way to interact with exhibits I might not be able to see in person. When reading the exhibit catalog for “Chosen Food” if found it an enjoyable and insightful read. I would never have thought that gifilte fish was ever not a staple of the Jewish diet. I particularly enjoyed the article “Passover Bunny Cakes” about the growing trend of trying to reconcile Jewish and Christian traditions as more families become multi-faith. This is something that I have been trying to reconcile in my own life as my family is Jewish and yet we celebrate Christian holidays such as Christmas. There weren’t too many references specific to Baltimore, but there was one in the article about dinning out where they mention “Corned Beef” row on Lombard St. and the sandwiches you can get there. They ended one description of a typical sandwich from one of the delis with “often washed down with an Almond Smash soda.” That made me nostalgic for a moment as I remembered fondly, drinking the now hard to find soda as a kid.
There were a few aspects to this catalog that were different from exhibit catalogs I’ve read in the past. The way particular objects and images were highlighted and explained was not what I would have expected. Often in exhibit catalogs, after the article I see a section that looks a bit like a mini exhibit all its own with images of objects and their description as you might see on an exhibit card. Here the description of objects was tied into the articles and anecdotes. In general there didn’t seem to be any references to the exhibit, which I thought was a bit odd. The way anecdotes were interspersed between the articles was a nice personal touch to something that is very familiar to a lot of people. They made the catalog come to life and more of an experience than just reading a collection of scholarly articles.
~ Tamara Schlossenberg
Department Store Identity Crisis
My research at the JMM as of late has consisted of a lot of interesting reading on Jewish identity politics, which has led to my realization that there was a lot I had never critically considered about being Jewish. The big question we are facing with the development of our new core exhibit is, “Who is a Jew?” or, rephrased, “What makes someone Jewish?” But another question that has begun to spring up is, how do Jews fit into the white-black racial dichotomy, specifically in the United States? The answers to all of these questions have varied over history and upon a great number of variables. And I’d be terribly presumptuous in claiming I have a real answer! But reading the exhibition catalogue for the JMM’s 2001 exhibit “Enterprising Emporiums: The Jewish Department Stores of Downtown Baltimore” has added a few more pieces of the story to consider.
The two essays that struck me most were “White Sales” by Paul A. Kramer, and “Expressions of Jewish Identity in Baltimore’s Downtown Department Stores” by Melissa J. Martens. The first describes the segregating practices of many Jewish department store owners, and the eventual desegregation of department stores, while the second describes how the stores helped shape and express Jewish identity. But the implication of putting these two essays back to back is, of course, not that expressing a Jewish identity has ever meant inherently being prejudiced, but instead that both essays are two sides of a many-sided die, adding building blocks of identity that have shaped Baltimore Jews.
Both essays show the challenges of forging a Jewish American identity: the first tackles a formerly common anxiety about being white (as opposed to black or an “ethnic white”) and the second describes the anxiety of being American (but also Jewish). Such complex ideas are not uncommon to scholarly essays, but now I only wish I could see how the physical exhibited tried to convey them. Regardless of how the efforts were manifested, I’m glad they were made at all.
Keeping It Kosher
For this blog post, I was asked to read an exhibition catalog from before my time here at the JMM for the exhibit Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture, and American Jewish Identity. Before reading this, my knowledge of Jewish food was extremely limited, basically to knowing that kosher meant Jewish food. But reading this catalog helped me learn all sorts of new things about types and attitudes towards Jewish cuisine. One of the coolest things I learned is about the New Jewish Food Movement, a modern trend towards making Jewish eating more ethically sourced and prepared. Part of the NJFM is the eco-kosher movement, which tries to focus specifically on the sustainability of food and the way it’s eaten.
The foundation of the New Jewish Food Movement is in the core values of Jewish eating that originally led to kosher food practices. However, those in the movement argue that these kosher values do not simply apply to the death of animals, but rather to the treatment of the animal during its life span as well as the treatment of those working to produce the food, such as employees at kosher food plants. For some, this even means going vegetarian or vegan. Learning about the New Jewish Food movement really opened my eyes about Jewish food practices and eating culture in contemporary America. There’s a lot of food trends right now in America that are focusing on eating in a way that is both healthy and ethical; the exponential rise of organic groceries is just one example. But the NJFM uses Jewish eating culture and history to drive the movement, making it a uniquely Jewish force in a field that’s growing every day—which is pretty awesome if you ask me.
~ Gina Crosby
Cornerstones of Community: The Historic Synagogues of Maryland
This exhibit was presented at the Jewish Museum of Maryland from May 16, 1999 to July 15, 2001. It analyzed the growth and change in the Baltimore and Maryland Jewish communities through their building of synagogues. These religious spaces changed to fit the community’s needs. One obvious characteristic is documented by the gradual moving of sacred spaces first uptown and then out of the city as the German Baltimore Jewish population increased their status. Not only did the exhibit look at the spaces in their Jewish context when they were built, but it also looked at what the spaces eventually became when congregations moved on. The German Jewish population may have moved to the outskirts and then eventually out of Baltimore, but the newly arrived Eastern European Jewish population took over some of the city shuls formerly occupied by the German Jewish. Many others have become African-American churches and masonic lodges. The buildings remain “Cornerstones of Community,” even if they are no longer Jewish houses of worship. This exhibition was about more than the buildings, although it did look at architecture as a way of expression. It focused on the communities they contained and how the buildings fit their communities needs.
The Jewish Museum of Maryland has two historic synagogues on our campus. The oldest synagogue in Maryland, the Lloyd Street Synagogue has been occupied by both the German and Eastern European Jewish congregations and was briefly a Catholic church in between. The other synagogue on campus, now occupied by B’nai Israel, was originally built by the Chizuk Amuno congregation that broke away from the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and built the original Lloyd Street Synagogue. Both buildings tell their own stories of adaption and community and their presence on campus is a continuation of the “Cornerstones of Community” exhibit.
~ Rebecca Miller
Establishing Identity: German Jews in America
For this week’s blogpost I read a book called Lives Lost, Lives Found: Baltimore’s German Jewish Refugees 1933 – 1945 produced by the Jewish Museum of Maryland. The center theme of Jewish immigrants finding identity in America has been prevalent through the history of Baltimore and the United States as a whole. While Jewish families experienced the pogroms (organized mobs meant to kill and harm Jewish people) for years in Eastern Europe and Russia many Europeans living in Germany, France and Belgium had experienced less of this violence, what could be called a relative degree of calm. This all changed after the First World War, Adolf Hitler a young soldier from the first world war quickly rose to power in the National Socialist German Worker’s Party later referred to as the Nazi party. As early as 1919 his publications such as (Mein Kampf or “My Country”) began to ride on the anger caused by the recession and poor resolutions established in the post war treaty of Versace, one particular outlet of his rage was Jewish Germans whom he accused of being corrupters and undermining Germany as a country.
Many German Juden (Jews) quickly noticed the trends of violence and hate seeing the foreshadowed consequences firsthand as their stores were blockaded and eventually destroyed. Those with the means fled abroad, many to local countries in Europe (France, Belgium, and Austria before it was annexed) Many were only able to send their children abroad to countries such as the United States, at the time Maryland was an established port city with a large immigrant population, some of which were Jews which had come over generations earlier and established themselves. With their eyes set to the United States a wave of German Jews began an exodus to the land of opportunity.
Things became complicated, the United States had been lenient on immigrants for years but the 1920’s saw an unprecedented amount of quotas, the response was legislation such as The Quota Act of 1921 which limited the number of immigrants allowed in the US. A few families managed to make their way over only to find themselves isolated and with limited family. It was tough putting together the means to survive, the United States had just come out of a depression and previous immigrants had firmly established themselves in the community. Many arrived as mere children working to survive without the help of family. Discrimination was not unheard of in the United States as well, while less immediately dangerous it gave an incentive to try and establish a local identity to this new generation of immigrants. Throughout the years the Jewish families from the Deutschland (Germany) eventually garnered respect as they created their place in the local community while maintaining their faith, as generations moved on they assimilated to American culture, the city of Baltimore was truly shaped by their experiences and participation.
~O. Cade Simon
Chosen Food and Shabbat
Chosen Food by the Jewish Museum of Maryland does a fantastic job discussing the impact that cuisine has had on the Jewish culture in America.
Matzah Ball soup, challah and brisket are a few family favorites that my grandmother prepared for Shabbat dinner on Friday night. It is a common stereotype, that Jewish mothers and grandmothers love to put a large amount of food on the table, while insisting that their guests are “too thin” or “need bulking!”. Generalizations are rarely a good thing, though upon reading Chosen Food, I see that this seems to compliment the Jewish family. Jewish immigrants struggled to provide enough food for their family which has resulted in an inherent instinct to keep children well fed. Today a large and colorful dinner table can be seen as the mark of a financially stable family.
Jewish food is often mixed with a variety of different cultures. In addition to the classic Chinese food accompanied by a movie, I have had Shabbat dinners with sushi, Mexican food, pasta and Mediterranean food. Most of these occurred with Towson Hillel or on a BBYO trip, and I continue to be impressed with how so many types of food can be incorporated into a Jewish meal. It speaks volumes about the nature of Jewish people who are willing to mix their culture with another, rather than stubbornly maintain the authenticity.
Lastly, the article discusses the importance of Shabbat and how it can provide a feeling of home to anyone, wherever they are. I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Whether I am in Baltimore, Jerusalem, or Philadelphia, I always feel home at a Shabbat Dinner. Shabbat at college allowed me to stay connected to the Friday night tradition I grew so accustomed to. Similarly, when I was in Israel for the March of The Living, our Shabbat meals were possibly the best parts of the weekend. The mood is lighter, there is an air of relaxation and of course, food is fantastic. Shabbat, to me, always acts as a time to relax and recharge for the week ahead. This is much better accomplished with a warm meal and some great company.
Tallits and Big Business
Jewish lawyers, Jewish doctors, Jewish deli owners, Jewish merchants. Mention any of these words together and Jews and non-Jews alike nod their heads in acceptance. But Jewish department store owners? Even after attending a Jewish school for many years, this combination never occurred to me. The “Enterprising Emporiums” catalog brought this connection to my attention, and in the “Expressing Jewish Identity” essay, it spoke about how Jewish businesses combined their Jewish customs and knowledge with their American image and business needs. I found it especially interesting that one radio show that included an episode regarding a bar-mitzvah, using terms such as “Shul” and “Tallits” which assumes that the general public understands these references. However, it left out whether or not the public did or didn’t understand everything in the episode. After working with different school groups during my internship, I know that many students and teachers in Baltimore rarely have any real exposure to Judaism and wouldn’t be able to define a “synagogue” much less the Yiddish “shul.” I wonder how that compares to Baltimore one hundred, or two hundred, years ago.
Going off this, I wonder how Jews and non-Jews felt about the occasional display of Jewish items in a store alongside the secular or Christian items. These days, I still consider it a small victory to see a menorah alongside a Christmas tree, but I’m disappointed that this feels victorious and notice the discrepancy between huge tree and the small Chanukah objects. Did the Jewish storeowners wish they didn’t need to cater to the Christian American majority for the sake of their business? Did they feel happy to be able to emote their Jewishness at all? Equally interesting, how did the shoppers feel about Jewish displays, objects, or events? Did they notice? Did it bother them? Did they know what the objects were? Did it ever spark any dialogue? I always wonder about the ‘human’ element, each side’s thoughts in relation to every action. This catalog and essay made me feel even more connected to Baltimore, and one day, maybe I’ll be able to find some related interviews and get to see inside people’s heads from this time and place even more!
The Other Promised Land
As I have come to understand it, being Jewish is not as much about the religion as it about having a consistent community of people around you. In The Other Promised Land: Vacationing, Identity and the Jewish American Dream, the article titled Baltimore’s Backyard: Jewish Vacations in Maryland speaks about this idea of vacation as a means of spending time with your surrounding community.
Deborah R. Weiner writes about 1910s “when Progressive Era values met Jewish traditions of tzedekah and mutual aid, Jewish philanthropies began to sponsor vacations for working-class women and girls who spent their days bent over sewing machines or raising large families in dark and cramped tenements” (Weiner 34). There are many members in a community and some are less represented than others, namely women, but when women band together to help each other that only makes the community grow stronger. What I found interesting is that The Daughters in Israel, a women’s charity, opened the Vacation Camp for Jewish Working Girls which then became what we know today as Camp Louise. The tradition of women helping women carries on today which means the efforts of the 1910s have not gone to waste.
In the article mentioned above discusses popular vacation sites and patterns that Jewish Baltimoreans created for themselves. These places have shaped the Jewish community of Baltimore. These spaces helped shape traditions and culture, community and identity and I think that was my biggest takeaway. If there were no spaces to relax and understand that leisure time is a necessity, there would be no Camp Louise today for young girls to enrich their lives, there would be no Ocean City or Pen-Mar to create new memories and feel the nostalgia of the old, there would not be a sense of closeness that can only happen in a relaxed state surrounded by the people who really matter. If there is one thing that being Jewish is really about (for me anyway) it is the company of those people in times of trouble and in times of leisure.
~ Rachel Morin