By Marvin Pinkert
Jewish Museum of Maryland
Shortly after taking the job as director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland (JMM) last summer, I found myself in a conversation with colleagues from the Yeshiva University Museum and the American Jewish Historical Society. Those two neighboring New York institutions had embarked on the development of an exhibition on Jews and the Civil War.
“Does JMM have any Civil War artifacts?” they asked. “Several,” I answered, “including one the size of a building … but I don’t think it will travel.” I was aware that the Lloyd Street Synagogue, which once housed Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, had played a role in Civil War history, but it turned out that was just the beginning of the story.
“Passages through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War” opens at the Jewish Museum of Maryland on Sunday, October 13. The New York museums have assembled an exceptional collection of artifacts, letters, books, paintings and photographs that make up the core of the exhibition. They also conducted interviews with leading scholars of 19th century history (Harold Holtzer, Jonathan Sarna among others) and added these commentaries to the space.
JMM, the only venue outside New York to be able to host the exhibit, augmented this core with additional Maryland stories, added family activity stations, and yes, created a new tour of the Lloyd Street Synagogue that takes visitors back into the world of 1861.
As we move through the sesquicentennial period, there are many commemorations of Civil War history, but none is quite like “Passages.” The exhibit and its companion tour use the lens of the relatively small Jewish community of the 1860s to illuminate the complexities of the larger conflict. Our Maryland edition of the exhibit illustrates four major points:
- We Were There – American Jews, most of them recent immigrants from Germany, fought in significant numbers on both sides (an estimated 7,000 for the Union and 3,000 for the Confederacy). Jewish participation was by no means restricted to the battlefield, we worked in the hospitals, in supplying the troops, in political office and even in the world of espionage.
- There Was Here – Much of the conflict, from Manassas to Gettysburg, was fought within a 70 mile radius of Baltimore and Baltimore itself was the site of some of the war’s first bloodshed. All five Baltimore synagogues were located within a few blocks of the Pratt Street Riots. The home front and the battle front were not that far apart.
- We Changed America – The exhibition examines the ways in which the struggle to create Jewish chaplains and to overturn the infamous order expelling Jews from parts of Kentucky and Tennessee helped weave American Jews into the national fabric and paved the way for the accomplishments of the post-War period.
- The Civil War Changed American Judaism – The events of the Civil War exacerbated fractures over religious practice. The debate over slavery became intertwined with questions of tradition and reform. In the “1861 Tour,” we use the words of two prominent Baltimore rabbis to convey the flavor of the conflict.
The news in the last few weeks has been filled with stories of dysfunctional government. Many throw up their hands in despair about our ability to work together as a nation and sometimes, even as a coherent Jewish community. We touch and teach the difficult chapters in our past, not to wallow in our missteps, but to understand more deeply our capacity to overcome.
I invite you to visit “Passages through the Fire,” not merely to recapitulate our division and suffering, but to appreciate that at the end of these tribulations we became a better and stronger nation. And American Jews became a more important part of the future of that nation.
Come explore the Civil War you never knew.
“Passages through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War” will be open in the Rossetta and Sadie B. Feldman Gallery through February 28. The Museum and Gallery are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. The “1861 Tour” will take place at 3 p.m. on most days. Please check our website jewishmuseummd.org or call 410-732-6400 for more details.