- On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore by Eric L. Goldstein and Deborah R. Weiner
Old Bay Seasoning, the spice blend associated with Baltimore and Maryland seafood, has gained legions of culinary adherents across America. Much less well known, however, are the origins of Old Bay and its creator. Gustav [End Page 737] Brunn, a German Jewish refugee, came to Baltimore with his family in 1938, fleeing Nazi oppression. With the spice mill he carried with him from Germany, Brunn opened his own company after he was fired from McCormick's Spice Company, apparently for being Jewish. Brunn's early clients included "sausage makers from Virginia to Florida," as well as Harry Attman's Jewish deli on Lombard Street (p. 1). A few years later, Brunn developed a unique spice blend, which he named for a Chesapeake Bay steamship company, to sell to the seafood vendors in the harbor. Thus Old Bay was born, and it rapidly became a Maryland institution.
For collaborators Eric L. Goldstein and Deborah R. Weiner, Brunn's story is an iconic example of themes central to the Baltimore Jewish experience, the subject of On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore. As they remind readers, "Baltimore is the only metropolis in the United States that is both a border city and a major port" (p. 2). When the Brunns arrived in Baltimore on the eve of World War II, they came to a city steeped in German culture, thanks to a direct connection with the port of Bremen that had brought large waves of Germans to Baltimore in the nineteenth century. Many of Brunn's early clients were German sausage makers and bakers, with whom his broken English was no impediment. Likewise, earlier generations of Jewish immigrants from central Europe came to embrace German identity as "an attractive way to adapt to Baltimore, with its large community of non-Jewish Germans and its many German-language associations and clubs" (p. 57). Besides Brunn, other Jews of central European descent helped establish some of the city's most notable retail stores and ready-made clothing firms. The garment industry, Baltimore's largest in the post–Civil War era, provided a first foothold for many of the thousands of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe arriving in the decades before 1920.
Perhaps the most significant contribution of the book, however, is the emphasis Goldstein and Weiner place on Baltimore's Jews as a community at the crossroads between North and South. Just as Gustav Brunn relied on southern clients for his spice business, so too other Jewish entrepreneurs in Baltimore "benefited from Baltimore's location between the manufacturing centers of the North and the untapped markets of the South" (p. 58). The experience of Baltimore Jewry during the Civil War—when Federal troops occupied the city, some Jewish merchants turned to blockade running to survive, and Rabbi David Einhorn was run out of town for his public denunciations of slavery—is also detailed. On Middle Ground thus makes significant contributions to southern Jewish history, arguing cogently for Baltimore's inclusion.
Race relations are also central to the story of Baltimore Jewry, as Goldstein and Weiner claim that Baltimore was the first city in the United States to house large Jewish and African American communities that interacted on a regular and significant basis. The authors trace this relationship from the colonial period through the Civil War and into the post–World War II era of white flight and suburbanization. At times, they find Jewish Baltimoreans scrupulously upholding Jim Crow practices in their downtown department stores; however, the authors also argue that "from their position just south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Baltimore Jews felt much freer than their counterparts [End Page 738] in the Deep South to actively and publicly assist blacks in their quest for equality" (p. 15). This book offers an outstanding model of deeply researched local ethnic history.