The Life of Mendes I. Cohen: “American-Jew, or Jewish American?”

Posted on July 4th, 2013 by

Yonah RebackA blog post by Exhibitions Intern Yonah Reback. Yonah is working with Curator Karen Falk on our upcoming “A-MAZE-ing Mendes” exhibition as well as on programming for our Jews on the Move traveling exhibition. To read more posts by Yonah and other interns, click here.

young mendes

Mendes Cohen, 1818. Portrait by Joseph Wood.
Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1978.67.1

It’s a familiar trope to anyone who has considered the issue of Jewish identity within the United States—is one an ‘American-Jew,’ or a ‘Jewish American?” Though the answer is arbitrary, the distinction seems to imply an order of precedence. To identify as an ‘American-Jew’ is to identify foremost as an American, whereas being ‘Jewish-American’ retains the moniker of ‘Jew’ as primary.  Of course, delineating one’s Jewish identity as an American is a task hardly reflected by a choice of words alone. Indeed, reconciling Jewish identity within a non-Jewish state is perhaps the most emblematic challenge of the Diaspora. For all of Jewish history since the Diaspora, Jews have been forced to grapple with the duality of their identity in a foreign land.

Imagine for a moment that you are the first Jew in America. It’s not easy to picture, given that today Jews are a small but prominent demographic feature of American society. Yet for Baltimorean Mendes I. Cohen, the social landscape of early 19th century America was one with very few Jews. Though Cohen was not literally the first Jew in America, he grew up in Baltimore at a time when its Jewish community was defined by only two families—his own, and the Etting family. In this sense, Cohen experienced Jewish life in a manner that was solitary, though deeply personal. Despite the fact that he lived without a typical community structure, Cohen openly practiced his Judaism. It was in these moments of expression—against the backdrop of early American life—that the novelty of his experience was apparent. While defending Fort McHenry against the British in the War of 1812, Cohen nonetheless ate kosher food, which he received from his family daily. Well before American Jews were categorized and labeled, Cohen practiced his own, unique brand of American Judaism.

older mendes

Mendes I. Cohen, c. 1835-1840 by Unknown Artist.
Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, 1947.22.2

Perhaps the most interesting way in which Cohen defined his American/Jewish identity occurred not in America, but abroad. From 1829 to 1835, Cohen traveled throughout Europe and the Middle East. Most significantly, Cohen spent time in Israel, becoming the first American Jew to encounter the land. What Cohen wrote about his time spent in Israel captured the tensions he felt as an American Jew, which foreshadowed many of the attitudes that persist today.   After spending time with the small contingent of Jews in Israel living under Ottoman rule in the 1830s, Cohen wrote that, “America is the land of milk and honey where each may sit under his own vine and fig tree and none to make them afraid.” In this sense, Cohen extolled his native homeland as a country where religious freedom enabled Jews to practice unimpeded by government rule. Still, Mendes I. Cohen understood the significance of Jews living in Israel and was genuinely moved by his visit to the Old City of Jerusalem.

As we enjoy July 4th, may we all take a moment to appreciate the religious freedom that America affords its citizens, which has allowed for a Jewish legacy spanning the days of Mendes I. Cohen until today.

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Meet Bessie Bluefeld!

Posted on November 30th, 2012 by

A blog post by Director of Education Ilene Dackman-Alon.

While working at the JMM over the past 7 ½ years, I can honestly say that each day has been different and there has never been two days that have been alike.  Some days we have school groups, other days we do outreach program at schools.  Some days are spent trying to develop new education curriculum and programs.  Over the past year, we have been working with the playwright, Jonathan Scott Fuqua to help us develop a new living history character for our successful   Leo V. Berger Immigrant’s Trunk Program in connection with our acclaimed exhibition, Chosen  Food: Cuisine, Culture and American Jewish Identity.

Bringing a history character to life is no easy task and the JMM staff has been working on this project at a very steady pace.  There are so many components involved in trying to create a living history character. First, we had to choose the character that we would try and recreate.  As a staff, we had to figure out whose life we would highlight.  It needed to be someone from Maryland who had a story and it was our job to do the research within our collections and figure out who that person would be …

Meet Bessie Bluefeld…… the matriarch of the beloved Bluefeld Caterers. Bessie was an immigrant who grew up during a turbulent time in Russia in the 1890’s.  We have found evidence from the ship’s manifest of where Bessie and her husband Charles were born. Novgorod-Volinsk (aka Zvihil) is a large town in the Volhynia region of modern day Ukraine. We know that Bessie’s family, the Biskers, was known in the town as the go- to lodge for Jewish visitors because they ran a clean and efficient house, and would serve delicious kosher food to their guests. Bessie and Charles were married at 16 and 17 respectively.

Bessie arrived in 1906 on a ship that came directly to Locust Point in Baltimore.  At the time that she arrived, Locust Point was at its height of its history – with about 40 thousand immigrants passing through each year. Part of what made Baltimore such a popular port for immigrants was that it was the starting point for the B & O railroad, and many passengers opted to buy single tickets that included a journey out west after arrival in Baltimore. But for Bessie and Charles, Baltimore was their final destination and so they likely joined the other Baltimore bound immigrants by taking a ferry across the harbor to Fells Point.

Through research of  our oral history collection, we listened to the oral transcriptions from Bessie’s sons, Louis and Phillip Bluefeld, and we were better able to understand the Bluefeld family story.  We learned that upon arriving to Baltimore, Charles took work in construction, and Bessie spent her time at home, raising the first children of the family.  After time, Bessie felt that Charles’ work was too dangerous and she told him that things had to change. He quit his job and they used their savings to buy a small grocery store near Fell’s Point. Through the next decade they bought and sold grocery stores and real estate throughout Baltimore city. By the 1920s, the family was also working a stall in Lexington market, and they had earned enough money to purchase two cars, a rarity in that era.

Bessie and Charles Bluefeld

During this period of prosperity, Bessie traveled to Atlantic City and Florida, beginning to develop her refined taste that would later be known as the “Orchid touch” that gave Bluefeld catering its edge as one of the premier kosher catering businesses in the area. Bessie and her family survived the initial crash of the stock market in 1929, but in 1933 the family’s well-known financial reliability would eventually be the cause of their downfall. They were signatories for a land deal with Sunoil, which fell through and they lost almost everything

The Bluefelds were able to scrape together enough to begin working at Lexington Market again, but now they had no choice but to work on Saturdays and to sell pork (as it was the most profitable option). The whole family, including the children who were old enough, worked at this point; Louis recalls that it was this or starve. Slowly, they were able to earn back enough money for Bessie to begin volunteering with the sick benefit and relief association at the Progressive Lodge. From here, she bought a stand on the nearby beach for 1200 dollars, and started the business that was the seed of Bluefeld catering. From 1937 to 1941 Bluefeld catering blossomed, and Bessie was at the heart of things. She always sought to provide the very best for her patrons, and rarely asked for much in return. Her sons recalled one particular incident when a client suggested that he should give a deposit for Bluefeld’s services. Bessie refused, replying “I wanted to give your mother a deposit and she said, “I should give you a deposit; you are trusting your daughter’s wedding to me.”

In 1941, Bessie Bluefeld died suddenly. She had rarely even been mildly ill, but a cerebral hemorrhage struck her and she lapsed into a coma and died three days later. The week that she died her family carried on with the 13 events they had planned because they felt it was not an option to let down so many families. Though the company had really only just begun at that point, Bessie’s ideals remained the driving force behind the company long after her death. Years later her son Louis would recall, “She was our charm, she was our mentor, she was the one who had all the foresight. What we did years after was only a matter of doing what she had planned. She had set the guide rules of what our business was to be, the adding the dignity that catering was beautiful, that the responsibility was on us to do a good job for the people.” 

So, as you can see… this is an incredible, Maryland  family story-and we wanted others to learn and be inspired from Bessie and her family’s unbelievable determination and work ethic. Over the past two weeks the JMM has been holding auditions to cast Bessie Bluefeld with the help of Harriet Lynn, Producer/Artistic Director with Heritage Theatre Artists’ Consortium.  Harriet sent an audition notice to various venues and we received responses from aspiring actresses living in both Baltimore and the DC area.

It has been a lot of fun over the past two Mondays morning holding auditions and got to meet some very talented and gifted actresses.  Secretly, I felt like one of the judges on America’s Got Talent and I loved watching each actress perform her monologue and read from the script with her best Russian, Yiddish accent……..  It was a very hard decision to choose one person as each of the actresses brought such different gifts to the role.  After a lot of discussion, we feel confident in our choice….

We look forward to sharing Bessie’s wonderful story with the community and we are excited to introduce Terry Nicolletti to the Baltimore community, as she has been chosen to play the role of Bessie Bluefeld. Terry and Harriet will be working together over the next few months to put together a rehearsal schedule and further develop Bessie’s character.  Terry’s excitement about the Bessie is contagious and we look forward to bringing Bessie Bluefeld out to the community in the late spring.  

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




The Museum is Holding Auditions!

Posted on November 12th, 2012 by

For our new living history character Bessie Bluefeld!

This is a living history one-woman show; approximately one hour in length (45 minute performance and 15 minute Q & A) for an actress, age range: 25 – 35 years old, preferably 5’ 4” or shorter, dress size 12 – 18 and can speak with a realistic Russian accent.

For more information, click here!

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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