It isn't the oldest item of the more than 400 objects on display in the Jewish Museum of Maryland's new exhibit, "Beyond Chicken Soup," and its cash value is practically nil.
But the tiny engagement ring crafted of red plastic by an impoverished dental student tells a very human tale about a young Baltimore-area couple who fell in love at the turn of the 20th century. Edmund Kahn made the ring in 1904 from materials lying around the students' laboratory at the University of Maryland. In place of a diamond, he inserted a fake but realistic-looking tooth.
His bride-to-be, a sprightly Baltimore girl named Gertrude Fried, accepted his proposal — and the ring has been part of family lore ever since.
"We have things in this exhibit that are real showstoppers," says Deborah Cardin, the museum's deputy director. "But we also have other things that just tell sweet and poignant little stories."
"Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America," open now and running through Jan. 16, 2017, is an ambitious exhibit that explores the close connection between Jewish people and medical professions from the sixth century, when the earliest known Hebrew medical work was written, to the present.
The objects, documents and photos on display draw not only from the Baltimore museum's collection, but also from such institutions as the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
The show explores American anti-Semitism in the 20th century, which took the form of medical school quotas and a surge in the popularity of eugenics, a pseudo-science that promotes selective breeding and was a large part of the ideology adopted by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis during World War II.
"Beyond Chicken Soup" also delves into the rise of hospitals, from charitable organizations that catered to the poor to contemporary high-tech medical centers. The exhibit honors such Jewish medical pioneers as Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine, and Rosalind Franklin, whose work was instrumental in revealing the structure of DNA.
But the show doesn't neglect the at-times humorous and surprising role played by medicine in popular culture, from the depiction of Jewish doctors on television to fashion.
Take those white coats. The exhibit tells viewers that doctors switched from wearing formal black attire to milk-colored, loose coats in the 1880s, when the germ theory of illness caught on. White cloth was thought to symbolize good hygiene.
Oh, and stethoscopes weren't always worn around doctors' necks. Before about 1850, stethoscopes had just single earpieces and resembled ear trumpets.
"What people sometimes miss is that medicine is very much a social system," said the museum's curator, Karen Falk, who spent three years putting the show together. "The medical system has a way of saying, 'This is what is right, this is who is right, this is who is acceptable, and this is who is not.' People think of science and culture as being totally separate and distinct, when really, they're enmeshed in all kinds of ways."
The exhibit doesn't cite numerical data to back up its assertion that Jews in the early 20th century pursued medicine as a profession "far out of proportion to their percentage of the population," as the wall text puts it.
Falk says she tried hard to document what has become accepted wisdom, but the statistics simply don't exist. Instead, the show backs up the assumption indirectly, through application records (at some medical schools, half of all candidates seeking admission were Jewish), a 1934 letter by Rabbi Morris Lazaron, who worried that "too many of our Jewish students are going into medicine," and strictly enforced limits on the number of Jewish students permitted to enroll in medical and nursing schools.
For instance, the exhibit includes a letter from A.C. Curtis, who in the 1930s served as secretary of the University of Michigan Medical School. He wrote that Jewish students "are an entirely different type, sometimes radical, sometimes asocial, often unstable."
But the show also showcases gentiles who went out of their way to help Jewish doctors — and the exhibit turns up surprising names.
In the mid-16th century, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Julius III, was treated by the physician Amatus Lusitanus, who didn't hide his Jewish identity.
A few decades later, the grand duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando I de' Medici, issued a decree in 1593 granting crucial privileges to Jewish physicians.
There's also a diploma issued to a Jewish physician in 1695 by the University of Padua's medical department. The officials went so far as to alter the inscription on its diploma for Copilia Pictor to read "in the name of the eternal God" instead of "in the name of Christ."
The show's oldest item is a handwritten book made in the late 13th or early 14th century. It's a copy of a 10th-century medical text which, in its turn, cites portions of the earliest known Hebrew medical book, thought to have been written in the sixth century by Asaph Judaeus ha-Rofe, who was known as "The Healer."
There's also a 1508 copy of the "Aphorismi Rabi Moysi" (Sayings of Moses Maimonides), a seminal work by the 12th-century Jewish philosopher and physician that distills the wisdom of two Greek medical giants, Galen and Hippocrates, into 25 chapters, each dealing with a different subspecialty.
"This work was the Physician's Desk Reference of its day," Falk says.
It was Maimonides who may have first raised the medical profession to the status of a holy calling for Jews. In 1190, he wrote: "By keeping the body in health and vigor, one walks in the ways of God," reasoning that only healthy people are strong enough to worship as devotedly as they ought.
And it was Maimonides who first made the observation that would become music to the ears of a millennium of bubbe when he prescribed chicken soup for his patients suffering from the flu. In 2008, researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center found that chicken soup inhibits white blood cells called neutrophils that cause inflammation associated with colds and flu.
The show doesn't stint on interactive elements to keep the attention of its youngest visitors. They can test their physical strength by squeezing two metal handles and find out where they rank, from "greiner couziner" (greenhorn "cousin") to "shtarker Amerikaner" (a strong American).
They can check out the mysterious contents of a doctor's bag from the 1950s, with its pill case, blood pressure cuff and reflex hammer.
They can peer inside a former medical office at 1705-07 E. Baltimore St. that from 1912 on was occupied by Dr. Morris Abramovitz. Later, he shared office space with his physician son, Leonard.
Adults as well as kids will smile when they view a replica of the exuberant window from Morris Cooper's former pharmacy near North and Park Avenues. The window playfully contrasts the quack remedies of the past (on the left side of each display) with the vastly superior advances of modern medicine (to the right.)
One sign, circa 1955, from the left side of Cooper's window: "A dead mouse, dried and powdered. One whole one to be taken each morning for three consecutive days. Recommended for diabetes."
Elsewhere, museum visitors learn that "a live spider, rolled up in butter and swallowed as a pill was a cure for jaundice."