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On Middle Ground

A History of the Jews of Baltimore

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.

About the Authors

Eric L. Goldstein is the Judith London Evans Director of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University, where he is an associate professor of history and Jewish studies. He is the author of The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity. Deborah R. Weiner is an independent historian. She is the author of Coalfield Jews: An Appalachian History.

Endorsementss

"This compelling, well-written, and thoroughly researched book fills an absence both in the literature on the history of Baltimore and in the field of American Jewish history."

- Hasia R. Diner, author of Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way

"A truly excellent and substantive book that embeds the Jewish experience within general and economic history. Nobody knows more about Baltimore's Jewish community than Goldstein and Weiner."

- Jonathan D. Sarna, author of American Judaism: A History

Reviewss

"On Middle Ground provides a holistic approach to chronicling Baltimore's Jewish community. Drawing upon rich sources spanning over 250 years—including manuscript collections, oral histories, and newspaper accounts—this history is told in concert with the history of Baltimore's Jewish institutions, and its diverse ethnic community bringing them to life in a way that is unique to Baltimore. On Middle Ground is a foundational work that uses Baltimore as a historical case study to analyze some of the influential culminations of American Jewish life."

- Charles L. Chavis Jr. - The American Jewish Archives Journal

"Eric L. Goldstein and Deborah R. Weiner trace the history of the Jews of the city of Baltimore from colonial times through the present, providing one of the few comprehensive histories of an American Jewish community outside of New York City. In addition to telling the story of the American Jewish experience at a local level, the authors ask how a variety of different factors—particularly geography, class conflict, and racial dynamics—have shaped the contours of American ethnic identity."

- Lawrence Charap - Journal of American History

"[On Middle Ground] offers an outstanding model of deeply researched local ethnic history."

- Joshua Furman, Rice University - Journal of Southern History

"As award-winning historians sponsored by the Jewish Museum of Maryland, Goldstein and Weiner write as both insiders and outsiders. Community members will see names and institutions acknowledged, and scholars will find informed argument. Anecdotes enliven the social history... Goldstein and Weiner argue for Baltimore's place as a "city and mother in Israel" among the foundational communities of American Jewry. In so doing they ask us to rethink our assumptions. Engagingly written, cogently argued, this book, like Baltimore itself, deserves a place among the exceptional Jewish histories of Boston, Cincinnati, and New York."

- Leonard Rogoff, Jewish Heritage Foundation of North Carolina - American Jewish History
Johns Hopkins University Press
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