The beautiful synagogues draw me in first. I want to see the historic worship spaces, the mikveh, the matzoh oven, the Torah scrolls. But when I visit the Jewish Museum of Maryland I’m transfixed by the stories of family and faith.
There’s so much to see in the two historic synagogues — the Lloyd Street Synagogue, built in 1845, and B’nai Israel Synagogue, built in 1876 — that catches and holds the eye. We almost lost the Lloyd Street Synagogue. It was scheduled to be turned into a parking lot but got a last minute reprieve.
The country’s third oldest synagogue (older ones are in Newport, RI, and Charleston, SC) has been sheltering worshippers since 1845. The B’nai Israel Synagogue still gathers worshippers every week. And it is a marvel of Moorish Revival. The illuminated ark wall stopped me in my tracks. (As it does every time I see it.) Ask about the three Torah scrolls in the ark in the Lloyd Street Synagogue. They are Holocaust survivors.
Best of all, the museum puts together wonderful stories of the people and places that are part of Jewish Baltimore history. Permanent exhibits recall the congregations (not all Jewish!) that have occupied the Lloyd Street Synagogue and the ever-changing community around the museum. There’s always a changing exhibit that looks at Jewish life on a national or world scale. One recent exhibit looked at the life and music of Paul Simon and an upcoming exhibit will remember Auschwitz.
On my most recent visit, the newest exhibit Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America, takes a historical look at Jewish doctors with a few humorous moments thrown in.
I always find myself getting lost in the permanent exhibit, Voices of Lombard Street : A Century of Change in East Baltimore. Lombard Street, a major thoroughfare for Baltimore, is familiar to everybody even as it has been home to generations of working people. It draws me in with its memories of preparing gefilte fish on Thursdays, selling chickens in the markets, sewing clothes in the sweatshops, the local delis, the rise (and fall) of housing projects. As curious as I might have been stepping inside the historic synagogues, here I felt at home. It’s all part of my city, these are my neighbors.
With the guided tour of the two synagogues and a long leisurely look at the exhibits plus astop in the gift shop, we spent a good two hours at the museum. With all that talk of delis and food, we got hungry. So we crossed Lombard Street, where three delis still make up the traditional Corned Beef Row, for a knish and a piece of Jewish apple cake.
ⓒ Text and photos
Mary K. Tilghman