Place Matters: New Book Explores History of Baltimore Jewry

“On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore” is a deep dive of Jewish Baltimore (JHU Press)

Baltimore’s geographical location has always played a prominent role in its peculiar array of characteristics. Local novelist Laura Lippman once quipped that Baltimoreans move at a Southerner’s pace, but with a Northerner’s manners. In debates, the city’s proximity to the Mason-Dixon line makes it difficult to determine whether it is the northernmost Southern city, or the southernmost Northern city.

According to Eric L. Goldstein, co-author of “On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews in Baltimore,” both the Southern and Northern influences on the city played a role in establishing Baltimore’s robust Jewish community. To understand Baltimore’s Jewish history, one must also understand the larger context of Baltimore’s race relations and the emergence of civil rights.

“Baltimore in many ways was influenced by its geographical position between North and South,” he said. “It was really the city where African- Americans and Jews interacted on a significant level before they did in other cities.”

Although Goldstein resides in Atlanta, where he is a professor of history and Jewish studies at Emory University, his roots are in Maryland. Because of this, The Jewish Museum of Maryland frequently commissioned him to contribute articles and essays about the history of Baltimore Jews to their collection.

Similarly, Baltimore-based historian and author Deborah R. Weiner, who worked as the JMM’s research historian from 2002 to 2013, had a backlog of articles and essays written for the museum. The pair realized that between their two bodies of work, they could compile an extensive historical document of the Baltimore Jewish community from its founding all the way to the 21st century.

“At one point, we said to each other, ‘Each of us has done so many of these individual pieces, it would be great to put it all together and write a comprehensive Jewish Baltimore history,’” Goldstein said.

In many historical documents, a disproportionate amount of attention is paid to famous figures. Goldstein and Weiner aimed to do the opposite in their narrative.

“In some ways, the history of the Jews in Baltimore is similar to the history of Jews in other communities,” said Weiner. “But the angle that got us really interested was how much it intertwined with the history of Baltimore itself.” That meant including the stories of many unsung, non-famous community members.

The authors also wanted to add new perspectives to the traditional narrative about early Baltimore Jews, which paid much attention to wealthy, socially prominent families who were involved in the passage of the Jew Bill in 1826.

According to Goldstein, affluent and prominent Jewish families like the Cohens and the Ettings were rather atypical. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Baltimore had a boom and bust economy. Goldstein asserts that because of this, most Jews who settled in Baltimore were living a frontier kind of lifestyle, and many were transient and unsavory characters.

Goldstein and Weiner also believed that the narrative about the Jew Bill needed some tweaking. According to the authors, while the Jew Bill did extend the rights of Jews in Maryland by no longer mandating that elected officials recite a Christian prayer upon being sworn into office, by that time, Jews of Baltimore were already quite active in civic affairs.

“Contrary to the common rhetoric, they were serving in militias, serving in the military, serving on juries and active in political organizations,” said Goldstein. “They were active in founding some of the key civic institutions, including fire companies, insurance companies and banks.”

An unfortunate and unavoidable topic in many Jewish history books is xenophobia and anti-Semitism. The history of Jewish Baltimore is no exception.

“One particular time that was filled with anti-Semitism was during the ’20s and ’30s. Coming out of World War I, the United States became a little more isolationist,” Weiner said.

At that same point, the children of Jewish immigrants began to attend professional schools and compete with native-born Americans. “Which is ironic,” said Weiner, “because those Jews were more Americanized than past generations.”

Goldstein said that while anti-Semitism is by no means strictly a Baltimore issue, the discrimination Jews faced in this city was part of a much larger problem.

“Residential discrimination existed in a lot of cities, but in Baltimore it was bound up with the larger practice of discrimination of African- Americans and other racial minorities,” he said.

In the past, there have been several books written about the history of Baltimore’s Jewish population, including Isaac M. Fein’s “The Making of an American Jewish Community: The History of Baltimore Jewry from 1773 to 1920,” and Gilbert Sandler’s “Jewish Baltimore.”

“The critical difference between my book and ‘Middle Ground’ is that the former is a conversation about the times, and the latter is true and thoroughly documented history of them,” Sandler said. “In this history, the authors are quick and wise to discern trends. Movements that began small and were writ large, that in other histories were insufficiently treated, if they were treated at all.”

“We wanted to make the book accessible to a larger audience and not be a strictly academic book while still doing the things historians do, like examining the significance of events,” Weiner said. “I think we accomplished that.”

On April 10, the Jewish Museum hosted a book launch for “On Middle Ground,” which featured addresses by both Weiner and Sandler. Although Goldstein was not at the launch event, he will be at the JMM on May 9 to give a talk about the Jew Bill.

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