Baltimore (Matrix and Memory) (Jewish Culture and Jewish Thought )

For me, the mix of people and memory that is “Baltimore” is the matrix of modern and contemporary Jewish religion, thought and culture. I care a lot less about big concepts like creation, revelation, redemption. I think I’m anti-intellectual.

Years ago, I ran into a colleague in the department who told me with great charm, “D. and I were in your city last weekend.” Instantly I beamed, “Oh, you were in Baltimore!!” She looked at me like I was daft, “Nooo, New York.” But Baltimore will always be my first matrix. I was born and raised there, in a tight-knit family of cultural Jewish Labor Zionists. I went to an echt WASP private boy school, against which I rebelled. With my late father’s support and against my mother’s considered judgment, I left for a progressive private school founded by the Baltimore German Jewish elite in 1912.

I had happy occasion this weekend to go back to Baltimore for my cousin’s bat-mitzvah. The weather was hot and the sun was unseasonably bright. It all made for intense waves memory. I haven’t been to Baltimore maybe since my father died about six or seven years ago, or, more likely, since my mother moved to New York a few years after.  For me, Balitimore is loaded with associations. Guilford, Roland Park, Cross Keys, Mt. Washington, Greenspring, Pikesville, which is now orthodox and ultra-orthodox. And all the cousins, the ones who live in Baltimore and the ones who flew in, or took the train, or drove in from New York, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Hadera. And, of course my mother, the brother, the sister-in-law and nieces. Old friends from Habonim drove up from Rockville with their daughter, who is good friends with my cousin the bat-mitzvah.

I know intellectuals are supposed to hate their families. It’s a pose and an affect I don’t tend to like, or try to avoid, or just simply don’t share. I am severely sentimental by nature. Pretty much, I was was lucky growing up. I got out of prep school, and I got out of the house a lot when I was in high school, which made it easier between my father and me. As a middle child, it could also be the case that less, much less, was either expected or demanded of me. At least that’s how I remember it. I know all of this is extremely subjective but, then again, that is the nature of family affect. I can’t and won’t speak for other people, inside or outside my family. But I don’t think people who “hate” their families are any more objective, even when they so for good reason, and even when they do so no more than is necessary.

I am going to assume, at least for the moment, that I am not completely deluded and confess that I loved every minute of the weekend in Baltimore. In general, I think other people are pretty smart, including my relatives.  Some of them are amazingly smart. They have interesting things to say, have deep life experience, do interesting things. Collectively, and this is the point, other people, including my relatives, have more and better common sense than do I or the people about whom I write. And they have a keen nose for bullshit. It is not always clear to me that the “modern Jewish philosophy” that my colleague-friends and I study, pursue, assess, and practice with such earnestness is any match for the more indigenous forms of reflex and reflection called ”Jewish culture.”

I know these types of culture matrices aren’t “deep,” and I know that they can tend towards the tacky, and even banal, which for me is precisely the point. A cultural matrix runs along and binds things up on the surface of things. Under the right conditions, the reflex and reflection are more sensitive to local conditions, more malleable, more emotionally generous than the works of the big thinkers. I don’t think this counts as philosophy, or Jewish philosophy. But I do think that “families” constitute one condition of possibility, one among others, the type that is easy to lose sight of.

It was my cousin’s bat-mitzvah, the passage of time, the living and their presence and the dead and their memory, and the physical passage through space that moved me to reflect about this. Driving back up on the way home with Baltimore behind me, I entered into what for me is everyday terrain –the Turnpike along the industrial wastelands of central and northern New Jersey, watching the planes take off and land at Newark International Airport, the New York skyline in the distance. The clouds were heavy; it started to rain big heavy drops, the temperature cooled down. For my cousins who live there, just down the road on I-95, Baltimore is real, quotidian space. For me, it’s a hot, humid memory place. My cousin in from Israel might come spend a couple of nights. I might take him downtown to a Cambodian sandwich dive near NYU. The brother and brother-in-law are coming in from Tokyo.

[JPP invites any and all Baltimore testimonials. From Jews or non-Jews, about Judaism and religion or not. They can be nostalgic, non-nostalgic, or anti-nostalgic; from family members or from anyone. I will come back to tinker with this post given the right critical pushback.]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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5 Responses to Baltimore (Matrix and Memory) (Jewish Culture and Jewish Thought )

  1. ADDeRabbi says:

    A fellow Baltimorean, I’m amazed at how so much of this rings so true, and yet the Baltimore I grew up in is simply not the same Baltimore you grew up in.

    • zjb says:

      Please tell more! “JPP” invites any Baltimore testimonials or counter-testimonials, past or present, from family members or others.

      • ADDeRabbi says:

        I grew up in Upper Park Heights, a few blocks from Northwestern High School, and attended the Talmudical Academy K-12. There’s a certain blue-collar ethic within the Orthodox community that both attracts and repels me.
        Would love to continue this conversation over a Natty Boh some time. Go O’s.
        Also – have you read Antero Pietila’s “Not in My Neighborhood”? Eye-opening.

  2. Marta Braiterman Tanenbaum says:

    Hi, Zachary. For those reading over our shoulders, I’m your first cousin who also loved last weekend, flying in from Buffalo after 43 years away. We grew up around the corner from each other. Our lawyer dads were brothers deeply bonded by genes and the intense family personalities that surrounded them, commenting upon their every life decision without holding back any opinions. From the exact same family, these two men emerged with many different political opinions but united in their absolute belief that family is a value worthy of preservation, right up their with the U.S. Constitution, gold backing of the U.S. dollar, and pride in accomplishment of the Baltimore Orioles (the team..I don’t think either of them looked much at birds.)

    So I feel it’s natural that we both appreciate, adore and enjoy visiting our Baltimore family for these lifecycle moments. Without even needing to say so, everyone there (I believe) felt the oft-said expression, “it’s great to be here for a simcha.” Last time I was in was for your dad’s funeral, and the time before that– our grandfather’s funeral. So yeah, this was a real treat! My brothers have made it in for other simchas that I missed. There’s always the sense that we “represent” an entire branch of a family when we attend. Also there’s a big report afterwards among us: who came, how did they look, who was happy and why, and complete acceptance for whatever setbacks anyone might be experiencing that year. I find the acceptance amazing. Whether it’s the recession’s impact of someone’s livelihood, or another’s struggle to get a spouse into rehab, news like this is always met with heartfelt hugs and a sigh, the word that it’ll get better. Looking around, we have a common memory base of various cousins who did tank but then, like phoenixes, rose again to be able to pay rent, find a new partner, and otherwise move forward. Our family, while celeberating achievements of all kinds (a T-ball trophy! a college acceptance!) refrains from judging anyone negatively for having a bad year or five. It’s a very strong safety net of love. It is SO RELAXING, I find to shmooz it up with our relatives, enjoy t children and fall in love with the next generation.

    On Baltimore and how it’s changed, I saw this large through the lens of exploring the much-changed city with my eldest son, a 28-year-old working actor who lives nearer to you today (Brooklyn) than to his parents. Exactly as it should be…why should he live in Buffalo? Besides, he’s married and his wife is the native New Yorker to his adoptedness. But even my son managed to put everything down and break away for a weekend with his Mom to visit family, show off the wedding band to those who couldn’t travel up for his recent wedding. That much family joy I expected…but what surprised me was how much we communicated about Baltimore. I had rented a car from the airport so we had complete freedom (shored up by a GPS) to go anywhere we wished when not at the Bat Mitzvah events.

    WHAT WE SAW, WHAT WE SAID>>> Of course we went daown to Harborplace (not a misspell, that’s Baltimore accented English) twice, once to crawl all over those famous ships, the other time for the National Aquarium. As we spined through the neighborhoods between residential Northwest Baltimore and the now-snazzy downtown harbor, I could articulate in small throw-off phrases how much change had occurred since I left the city at age 17 bound for college.

    I picked up my son at Penn Station (Baltimore’s) and recalled how my Dad came in nightly from the Washington, D.C. Metroliner, as he worked at the Religious Action Center on Dupont Circle. He chose not to move his family (my brothers and me) out of Baltimore, which he considered a real city, to Washington where people moved in and out every four years. He wanted us to have roots, and was willing to commute for that. On that train, a young Congressman named Joe Biden, recently widowed, similarly felt loyalty outside of D.C. to his hometown of Wilmington. They and a half-dozen other commuters from D.C. talked over the day’s events as they rode, with relief, outside the beltway together, only to return the next day but bringing in that perspective of people who are grounded in their hometowns beyond the D.C. metropolitan area. Sometimes my Dad would fall asleep, miss the Baltimore stop, and have to go all the way to Wilmington to take a train back home by midnight. Ah well. When I picked up my own son at Penn Station, I was able to tap into that memory and era, to represent a grandfather he knew well through his teens.

    As I drove near Western High School’s new campus, I was able to recall the year 1968, my senior year of high school, in a public school entirely for women (the oldest public school for women in the US that provided education to women beyond 8th grade). Imagine a magnet academic school that in those years naturally attracted a 50% white and black population, without any testing or bussing. It just worked out that throughout the city, those girls who were willing to sit on 2-3 public busses daily each way HAPPENED to be from Black and White homes in equal measure. My girlfriends from h.s. had parents who were lawyers, judges, policemen and custodians. The education we received was too heavily based upon the ladylike subjects of History, Literature and Language. I’m told that a later class sued for equal access to the new science labs built for Polytechnic (one of two all-boys public magnet highschools). But in my day, the math and science educations for women were cripplingly weak. But watch out for my girlfriends and me when we write, speak, or lobby a legislator!

    Still, in 1968, Baltimore City was a challenging place to live when you came from a liberal Jewish household, with a Dad who’d logged in time in Mississippi as a volunteer civil rights lawyer. The day after MLK was shot, school closed down. When students returned to school, some of the Black students were showing off new clothing, looted from stores that belonged to the grandparents of my Jewish friends. I kept silent; sometimes it’s good just to listen.

    I was grateful that our grandfather’s store downtown on Gay Street wasn’t burned, because he had a Black tenant living above so the words “Soul Brother” were painted on his modest office. I imagined it like Passover, that the shmear on the lintel saved his tenant’s life and of course the property — not that he ever cared about property, really. But still.

    When RFK was shot, it just about did us all in. Recently I reconnected with two Jewish h.s. friends by Facebook, and the shared memory base is a strong bond among us.

    As I drove further in with my son, I mentioned about the decisions my parents made to stay as long as possible in the Liberty Heights neighborhood (Barry Lewison had it down well in his movie) as it morphed quickly from a Jewish to Black residential neighborhood. When they finally did decide to move, it was reluctantly as we knew and liked our new neighbors. Still, I think it wasn’t fun for them when i got mugged on the way home from Garrison Jr. High school for lunch money. Their liberalism was beyond the tipping point, and they too put up a For Sale sign.

    But where to move TO? My Dad was a Temple President over in NW Baltimore, but he didn’t want to leave the city limits or proximity to Penn Station. My parents made the unusual decision to “break” Roland Park, a WASPy neighborhood surrounding Johns Hopkins U. I recall during my own Bat Mitzvah year our family forays to view For Sale houses “across the Jordan River” (Falls Rd.) in the nonJewish neighborhoods. My grandparents were apoplectic that we’d move there! These houses had deed covenants then against selling to Blacks or Jews; my son asked how it was possible as the Fair Housing Act had just passed. But it was a case of local ugly laws not having kept up with Federal legislation; shortly after our hunt, someone brought suit to rid those clauses off the property deeds. But when we looked, my parents learned that as Jews, we didn’t always make it to the Second Showing of a house! Once we looked and enjoyed the house; my brothers and I came along to imagine our next bedrooms. For the return visit, however, the “For Sale” sign was down and curtains drawn. My mom called back in a false voice to ask if the house was still for sale. The realtor gushed, “Oh yes!” Asked to clarify the policy about selling to Jews (which my Mom asked as if she hoped the answer was ‘no’) the realtor replied, “Oh of course we don’t sell to Jews! Although, the other day, there was one Jewish family who came to view. They were nice and their children were SO CLEAN! But no, we won’t sell to them, don’t worry.” My mom retold us the story, amused, I think because it was to her credit we were so “clean.”

    We finally DID find someone who’d sell us a home, off of 39th near Charles St. He was a Hopkins professor, and wasn’t going to discriminate. When we moved in, the neighbor girls met me for the first and last time, as they had No Interest in a neighbor girl who attended public school. My younger brother in 6th grade got a visit, too. My mom was So Impressed with their WASP good manners, “please, thank you ma’am” that David didn’t have the heart to tell her they had taken him down the street to beat him up. It is essential David that he didn’t want to upset the Mom who was so excited over our new home, the week we moved in. He attended Roland Park Jr. High, and I really need to ask him more about what that was like for him. I just continued to Western H.S. but on different buses.

    NOW, Zach, that helps explain why my parents were ECSTATIC when your parents moved around the corner, just a year later if my math is correct. Soon other Jewish families came in, and the entire mid-60’s world changed with the Civil Rights movement. It finally trickled down to Roland Park, and we did that. I was off to college before I ever knew any non-White neighbors in Roland Park, but driving around now of course it’s is looking very 21st century rainbow, at least what I could surmise driving through in a rental car last weekend.

    That my son found my ethnic and racial roots stories interesting and important, as we drove towards Harborplace, really soothed me to the depths of my soul. I have Stories to Tell because I grew up in Baltiimore. Being back there this past weekend rekindled these and other memories unique to those times. Why, sure son, I used to hang out in Washington Park under the monument because schools were so crowded we went from 8a.m to noon, then done. I got in so much trouble there! And everyone was talking about the local girl gone famous: Cass Eliot (Mama Cass of the Mama’s and the Poppas). We were all proud at the gut level when she appeared on Ed Sullivan. She was one of us! Western HS, in those days, was all the way downtown on Howard St. across from the Greyhound Station. True to the traditions of that pre-Civil-War era school, our principal advised us that if ANY of us were seen leaving school and going into that station, she would presume we were trying to pick up guys. Punishment: immediate suspension. We didn’t dare. And we knew she watched us from outside her Principal Window as school dismissed. So yes, we obeyed. Six blocks away, however, we could get into trouble with the hippie dropouts in Washington Park, or go smoke cigarettes and buy a soda at Hutzler’s Department Store. We were urban and sophisticated. We didn’t know any boys to invite to the prom, but that’s what our big brothers were for. My own big bro fixed me up with a Sr. Prom date from among his friends from City College H.S. In those days, girls didn’t ask boys out…but if you went to Western or Eastern HS, it was understood those were all-female publics, so you weren’t a hussy if you had to scare up your own prom date and ask for the evening together. You just had to line it all up long in advance if you wanted a good date, as pickings were slim close to Prom. We really didn’t care or think that much about boys, as we had all the leadership positions at school locked up and liked it that way.

    As my son and I enjoyed the heck out of Harborplace, I talked to him about the Rouse Company, the HUD grant leveraged to begin the redevelopment under LBJ that would be impossible money to find today for a place such as downtown Buffalo, which has the same “bones” and potential of a Baltimore harbor. I’m aware that the redevelopment of an area I struggled to describe to my son for its Dickensian poverty now looks like a Tourism brochure, full of families enjoying the day. Often in Buffalo, people who’ve visited Baltimore come back and comment on how they wish this could happen in Buffalo. And what I used to ask is — “you VISITED Baltimore? Really? It was your honeymoon? Wow.” Now I know that Baltimore has genuine appeal for conferences and more, but when this first began to happen,I could only think how I used to muffle my reply when folks asked me where I grew up. “Ballmer” I said and tried to change the subject, but it was different then.

    “And how come you can read Hebrew if you grew up Reform?” I describe the heterodox Baltimore HEbrew College H.S. afterschool program, 10 hours weekly. Preceded by my older brother, we 2 were rare there as Reform students, but we could study texts with Conservative and Orthodox students who attended public schools and had parents serious about Jewish training post-B’nai Mitzvah. As a girl, I felt privileged as my Bat Mitzvah had identical academic requirements as my older brother, from the Reform Temple Emanuel. But I kept that to myself, as sometimes it’s better just to listen, no? Recently while teaching at an 8th grade Judaic afterschool in Buffalo, one student asked me “what did you even study until 12th grade, and for l0 hours a week?” I found myself speechless for a moment, then said, “Texts. Rashi. Chumash in Hebrew. Stuff like that.” But that has stood me in good stead now as wife of a Reform rabbi. I can do a decent aliyah, if no other congregant feels up to it. So that’s good, and it’s all from Baltimore.

    “nuff said…can’t believe I’ve typed this long. Won’t edit. I hope this pleases you, dear cousin. I am enjoying reading your blog entries; thanks for sharing so much.

    Marta Braiterman Tanenbaum

  3. Robert Schwartz says:

    I had left a reply once which was deleted, so I’ll try again. My name is Bob Schwartz and I graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 1967. It was a very confusing time as the “Vietnam War” interfered with planning rational personal and professional goals. The war along with the blatant racial disparities in Baltimore gave rise to anti war and racial freedom groups which united to change the nation. I became involved with The American Friends Service committee as did Marta as I recall. The group was an intellectual oasis which allowed me to develop my own methods for confronting injustice. This was quite valuable in future problem solving both personally and professionally.

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