In the Jewish immigrant's trunk are cooking utensils and clothes, a small menorah, a Yiddish book and silver cups for the ritual drinking of wine. "When you came," says Barry Kessler, "you brought your cultural heritage with you." Of course, not everybody had even those few things. "Many came with nothing but a pillow and a copper pot."
The immigrant's trunk is one of the smaller segments, but perhaps the most moving, in the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland's exhibit "Fertile Ground: Two Hundred Years of Jewish Life in Baltimore." Organized by Mr. Kessler, the society's assistant director and curator, its series of vignettes deftly tells the story of how successive generations of Jewish immigrants ++ developed a community, always trying to balance cultural identity and assimilation.
It begins with the families who arrived during the American Revolution. Among them, the Ettings and the Cohens were pre-eminent; J. I. Cohen Jr. ran the lottery that paid for the Washington Monument, and members of the two families were directors of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, and the first Jews to hold public office in Maryland -- on the Baltimore City Council.
The first great "wave" of immigration took place from 1830 to 1880, and is known as the influx of German Jews, although Mr. Kessler points out that there were also Polish and Baltic Jews in this wave. Baltimore was a popular point of immigration because there was a lot of shipping between the city and the north German ports, and the Jewish immigrants settled in East Baltimore in a large area that reached from the Fallsway to Patterson Park and from Orleans Street to Eastern Avenue.
"They formed the first institutions, [including] B'nai B'rith, the synagogues, Sinai Hospital." For a livelihood, many began stores, Mr. Kessler says. "Sometimes they were very small traders on the margins of the economy. The big businessmen and bankers, those people stayed [in Europe]." But, he adds, "Baltimore needed the skills of trading that those Jews brought with them," and in succeeding generations the names of some of those who prospered became household words, including Hutzler, Hochschild and Hess.
In 1889 the Hutzlers built their famous "palace" department store on Howard Street, and the year after that David Hutzler gave his wife a miniature of the building in the form of a china cabinet, complete with turret, that is one of the most delightful objects in the show; it's the centerpiece of a vignette that simulates the dining room of the Hutzler mansion, still standing at Eutaw Place and Laurens Street.
By the 1880s, when the second wave of immigration began, the wealthier Baltimore Jews had moved to the area around Eutaw Place in what was then Northwest Baltimore, and the new immigrants replaced them in East Baltimore. The principal areas from which they came were Eastern European -- Russia, Poland, Hungary, etc. There were institutions in place here to aid them on arrival, such as the Hebrew Benevolent Society, and many got jobs in the then-flourishing garment industry.
When Jews came to this country, Mr. Kessler says, there was much pressure to assimilate and give up one's religious and other traditions. "Customs broke down and religion broke down. For one thing, store owners found out that Saturday in America was a shopping day, so if you were going to make a living in the store there goes your Sabbath." Still, Baltimore was known for more religious observance than other American cities. "There were a number of eminent orthodox rabbis here, and that got around, even in Europe."
The vignette of an early 20th-century kitchen shows the table set for the Sabbath meal, complete with candles, bread, silver wine cups and a prayer book. Even in poor families, the Sabbath meal was important, Mr. Kessler says. "Even if there was not a lot to eat the rest of the week, [for this meal] it was important to have two loaves of bread, a fish course and a meat course, soup and a sweet."
The third major section of the exhibit is given over to the suburbanization of the Jewish population in the mid-20th century. "The Jewish community in the 1950s stayed together and moved out Park Heights Avenue as a bloc," Mr. Kessler says. As a result, the community retained more coherence here than in other cities. He isn't exactly sure why this happened, but offers a couple of clues. "This is a city of ghettoized ethnic groups; [and] there are a higher observant number of orthodox."
Aside from its vignettes, the exhibit contains a time line of local Jewish history from 1657, when the Portuguese Jacob Lumbrozo landed in Maryland, to 1990, when Harry Weinberg died and left a $900 million foundation. Along the way it records many contributions to the community at large.
Where: The Jewish Heritage Center, 15 Lloyd St.
When: Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m. Through Feb.28.
$ Call: (410) 732-6400