In Israel's 50th year, Jewish heritage abounds here


June 04, 1998|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Israel and Maryland go way back.

In his book, "Uncommon Threads," a history of Jews in Baltimore, Philip Kahn Jr. makes note of an editorial penned in 1816 by a local journalist who prophesied the return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland.

By the late 19th century, as thousands of Russian Jewish immigrants arrived in Baltimore, Zionism caught fire in outdoor markets and more formal settings. In 1895, the first American Zionist group was founded in Baltimore, and in 1900, the city was the site of the Federation of American Zionists' first national convention.

Since then, Maryland has played an integral role in the founding and development of the state of Israel through Zionism, philanthropy, cultural exchange, travel and other means. It stands to reason that Marylanders have much to celebrate at this Sunday's Gala Street Festival marking Israel's 50th anniversary.

The Holy Land will come to Park Heights Avenue with folk dancing, an open-air marketplace, archaeological dig, Judaic crafts, a kibbutz farm and other Israeli touchstones.

For one day, the festival will re-create a dynamic sense of life in Israel. Throughout 1998, Jewish organizations have planned other birthday events, including a film series, conferences and an evening with saxophonist Kenny G at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on June 17.

But for those who seek a consistent connection to the Holy Land, the Baltimore region presents plenty of options for full cultural immersion, from Web sites to camp sites to the hottest Israeli CDs. Here is a list, by no means complete, of opportunities to link up with Israel:

The natural place to establish Israeli ties (after you've attended the street festival, of course), is the Jewish Museum of Maryland, where the exhibition "Bridges to Zion: The People of Maryland and the Land of Israel" examines Marylanders' efforts to create and sustain a Jewish national homeland.

Curator Barry Kessler blends historical narrative with medals, song books, Zionist documents, postcards, souvenirs, photographs and Israeli-made products to illustrate the interplay among Baltimore's competing Zionist factions, the support of local philanthropists and the everyday efforts of Maryland's Jewish community dedicated to a peaceful and vibrant homeland.

On exhibit are 450 objects that speak eloquently of the emotional stake in Israel, including a five-foot scale model of the Maryland steamer, the President Warfield, which became the Exodus 1947,whose unsuccessful attempt to deliver World War II Jewish refugees to Palestine hastened the creation of the Israeli state. The exhibit, co-sponsored by the Jewish Museum and the Baltimore Zionist District, is open through Nov. 29. (Call 410-732-6400).

The Maryland Historical Society is also a source for those pursuing the Maryland-Israel connection. The society's collection includes documents and other possessions of Mendes I. Cohen, a member of the prominent Maryland banking family who kept thorough record of his travels to the Middle East and even brought back a cookbook with a recipe for "Soup a la Palestine." (Call 410-685-3750).

At Baltimore Hebrew University and off-campus sites, teachers use the same intensive methods employed in Israel to teach modern Hebrew. At monthly meetings of the Ulpan Social Club, students enjoy Israeli snacks and speak Hebrew only. Baltimore Hebrew University is also the site of weekly Israeli folk dance lessons. (Call 410-578-6905).

Courses, including one taught by Baltimore Hebrew University president Robert O. Freedman on politics in the Middle East, afford students a sense of history as well as day-to-day human events in Israel. (Call 410-578-6900). And the Baltimore Hebrew University library, a rich source of Israeli literature, periodicals, film and more, is open to the public for a $10 annual fee. (Call 410-578-6936).

Many organizations also offer chances to connect with Israel. Hadassah, the national women's organization founded by Baltimorean Henrietta Szold, is devoted to strengthening the state of Israel and presents a multitude of volunteer possibilities for Jewish women and their families. Hadassah's Baltimore Chapter is sponsoring a 5K "Run and Fun Walk" on Aug. 9 to benefit breast and prostate cancer research at a health institute in Jerusalem. Hadassah is also launching a women's leadership academy this fall that will include intensive study of Zionism and Israel. (Call 410-484-9590).

The Baltimore Zionist District offers numerous ways to learn about Israel, including summer programs for students, public forums with Israeli leaders, fact-gathering missions and Israel investment clubs with currently over $1 million in assets. (Call 410-602-1200).

If you want to track down a CD by Israeli musicians, including the group Esta, folk icon Chava Alberstein, or transsexual pop star Dana International, look no further than Tara Publications, an Owings Mills-based distributor of Jewish music. (Call 800-TARA-400 or look up Tara on the Web at:

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