Like much of the nation, I was shocked to read about the abrupt passing of Rep. Elijah Cummings, whom I greatly admired for his impassioned defense of humanitarian causes. I had been especially struck by his remarks at the hearing of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen before the House Oversight Committee, regarding the presence of Cohen’s young daughter:
“Your daughter…had braces or something on,” he said. “Man that thing, man that thing hurt me. As a father of two daughters, it hurt me. And I can imagine how it must feel for you.”
A few weeks ago, I traveled to Cummings’ native Baltimore for a Nov. 8 rock concert featuring three ’80s UK acts at Ottobar, in the Charles Village of the city. (Indeed, I also saw the show the previous night in Richmond, Va.) But I had something important to do first. So, immediately following the hotel breakfast buffet, I boarded a bus to the Midtown area.
Buses are my preferred mode of travel because I enjoy being with the locals, as well as taking in the views. Along the way, we passed the University of Maryland Medical Center, Camden Yards, Ravens Stadium and the outskirts of downtown Baltimore. I snapped photos of these sites, which included the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Pigtown, where butcher shops once lined the streets.
Bypassing the more elite harbor area in order to experience the city in all its true grit and glory, I got out by MLK Jr. Boulevard and North Howard and walked toward the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center, which honors the iconic ragtime pianist. I soon arrived at Baltimore’s Cultural Center itself, which houses the city’s symphony orchestra and other arts institutions.
As I had read, urban sections mix right in with the city’s more highbrow segments. Walking through Baltimore’s streets was as eye-opening as I expected, although they seemed to be as safe as City-Data commenters routinely professed.
I arrived at my destination, the office of Rep. Cummings, where I wanted to lay stones and say Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer. As I voiced my thoughts and recited the lines, I found myself in tears. A passerby offered to take a photo, and after some time, I moved on to the gravesite of Edgar Allan Poe, where I performed the same ritual.
I proceeded through stark and sketchy areas that yet seemed apropos considering my next stop, the Edgar Allen Poe House and Museum. This humble and high row house, where Poe first penned his short stories, conveyed his early life experiences in artifacts and carefully maintained decor. On its walls are tributes by Stephen King, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, D.H. Lawrence, Alfred Hitchcock, Charles Baudelaire and other literary luminaries. I ascended two flights of narrow and treacherous stairs to a writing area and a top-floor bedroom, purchased memorabilia and departed, changed forevermore.
Back in my hotel room, pumped up after a rocking time at Ottobar, I researched Cummings’ legacy and was surprised to learn about the Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel (ECYP), which had just celebrated its 20th anniversary in June.
The events honored the congressman, who had originally joined Jewish and African American leaders and the Baltimore Jewish Council (BJC) to create the nonprofit organization. At ECYP, teens aged 15 to 18 from Maryland’s 7th District learn to engage their peers in discussing poignant topics such as racism, antisemitism, social justice, African American and Jewish relations, and Holocaust remembrance.
In 2017, the BJC and ECYP added an eight-month fellowship in Israel, where, after their first year in the program, fellows stay at the Yemin Orde youth village in Haifa for a summer month. They join Israeli teens who, according to ECYP’s website, have ancestral roots from numerous countries including Brazil, Ethiopia, Germany and Russia. The American and Israeli teens jointly tour contemporary and ancient sites in Israel that include Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Nazareth, as well as the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.
Back in Baltimore, the teens mentor middle school students and speak at organizations that have included the DuBois Circle, the Congressional Black Caucus, 100 Black Men of America Inc., the Hispanic Youth Institute Diversity Day and the Jewish Teen Leadership Council, as well as at synagogues and churches.
.@RepCummings was a true community leader. He founded the Youth Leadership Program in @Israel, which bridges gaps b/w the Jewish & black communities. The program celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Our condolences to his family & the people of Baltimore.#RipElijah pic.twitter.com/rMzhTaaKQZ
— Elad Strohmayer (@EladStr) October 17, 2019
I found tributes to Cummings in The Jerusalem Post and other Jewish media, and on ECYP’s homepage. “Today we grieve the loss of our founder, great leader and friend Congressman Elijah Cummings,” ECYP posted in “Mourning the Loss of ECYP Founder Congressman Elijah Cummings,” on Oct. 17.
“…He was a champion of the city he loved and was a faithful leader for our state and nation. Through [ECYP], he touched the lives of many young people,” the statement continues. “The Congressman would regularly remind us that ‘our children are the living messages we send to a future we will never see.’ His work consistently reflected that belief.”
On my way back to Boston the following day, I walked to the famed Lexington Street Market. Typical for Baltimore, this block-long culinary institution, emblazoned with classic signage, stood amid a not un-Poe-esque hardscrabble, rundown scene where sympathetic characters roamed about. Again, I was only approached once, asked if I had a light. I left feeling both pity and remorse and, yet, impressed that a historically challenged city can nonetheless inspire both a global humanitarian mission for its young residents and epic literature revered by legions around the world. Thanks to their beneficiaries, their legacies, fittingly, continue in perpetuity.
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