On Mid­dle Ground: A His­to­ry of the Jews of Baltimore

Eric L. Gold­stein and Deb­o­rah R. Weiner

December 18, 2018

In 1938, Gus­tav Brunn and his fam­i­ly fled Nazi Ger­many and set­tled in Bal­ti­more. Brunn found a job at McCormick’s Spice Com­pa­ny but was fired after three days when, accord­ing to fam­i­ly leg­end, the man­ag­er dis­cov­ered he was Jew­ish. He start­ed his own suc­cess­ful busi­ness using a spice mill he brought over from Ger­many and devel­oped a blend espe­cial­ly for the seafood pur­vey­ors across the street. Before long, his Old Bay spice blend would grace kitchen cab­i­nets in vir­tu­al­ly every home in Mary­land. The Brunns sold the busi­ness in 1986. Four years lat­er, Old Bay was again sold―to McCormick.

In On Mid­dle Ground, the first tru­ly com­pre­hen­sive his­to­ry of Baltimore’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, Eric L. Gold­stein and Deb­o­rah R. Wein­er describe not only the for­mal insti­tu­tions of Jew­ish life but also the every­day expe­ri­ences of fam­i­lies like the Brunns and of a diverse Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion that includ­ed immi­grants and natives, fac­to­ry work­ers and depart­ment store own­ers, tra­di­tion­al­ists and reform­ers. The sto­ry of Bal­ti­more Jews―full of absorb­ing char­ac­ters and marked by dra­mas of immi­gra­tion, accul­tur­a­tion, and assimilation―is the sto­ry of Amer­i­can Jews in micro­cosm. But its con­tours also reflect the city’s unique culture.

Gold­stein and Wein­er argue that Baltimore’s dis­tinc­tive set­ting as both a bor­der city and an immi­grant port offered oppor­tu­ni­ties for advance­ment that made it a mag­net for suc­ces­sive waves of Jew­ish set­tlers. The authors detail how the city began to attract enter­pris­ing mer­chants dur­ing the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, when it thrived as one of the few ports remain­ing free of British block­ade. They trace Baltimore’s mete­oric rise as a com­mer­cial cen­ter, which drew Jew­ish new­com­ers who helped the upstart town sur­pass Philadel­phia as the sec­ond-largest Amer­i­can city. They explore the impor­tant role of Jew­ish entre­pre­neurs as Bal­ti­more became a com­mer­cial gate­way to the South and lat­er devel­oped a thriv­ing indus­tri­al scene.

Read­ers learn how, in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the growth of sub­ur­bia and the rede­vel­op­ment of down­town offered scope to civic lead­ers, busi­ness own­ers, and real estate devel­op­ers. From sym­pho­ny bene­fac­tor Joseph Mey­er­hoff to Gov­er­nor Mar­vin Man­del and trail­blaz­ing state sen­a­tor Ros­alie Abrams, Jews joined the ranks of Baltimore’s most influ­en­tial cul­tur­al, phil­an­thropic, and polit­i­cal lead­ers while work­ing on the grass­roots lev­el to reshape a metro area con­front­ed with the chal­lenges of mod­ern urban life.

Acces­si­bly writ­ten and enriched by more than 130 illus­tra­tions, On Mid­dle Ground reveals that local Jew­ish life was pro­found­ly shaped by Baltimore’s middleness”―its hybrid iden­ti­ty as a meet­ing point between North and South, a major indus­tri­al cen­ter with a lega­cy of slav­ery, and a large city with a small-town feel.

    Discussion Questions

    In On Mid­dle Ground: A His­to­ry of the Jews of Bal­ti­more, his­to­ri­ans Eric L. Gold­stein and Deb­o­rah R. Wein­er explore the reli­gious, social, and eco­nom­ic devel­op­ments of one of Amer­i­can Jewry’s most impor­tant com­mu­ni­ties. Here, we learn how Bal­ti­more shaped the Jews who lived there. Whether in the polit­i­cal realm in the 1820s or the racial sphere in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Jews labored to strike a mid­dle ground” among their neigh­bors in Charm City, a posi­tion that res­onat­ed with local his­tor­i­cal trends and atti­tudes. In a won­der­ful­ly writ­ten and beau­ti­ful­ly illus­trat­ed nar­ra­tive, Gold­stein and Wein­er show that while nego­ti­at­ing a bal­ance among oth­ers, Baltimore’s Jews cul­ti­vat­ed a sense of iden­ti­ty that was informed by the his­tor­i­cal dynam­ics of the place in which they lived.