On the Corner: Growing up Jewish in a Gentile Neighborhood Part 2
By Deborah Rudacille. Ms. Rudacille is Visiting Professor of the Practice at UMBC and the author of ROOTS OF STEEL: Boom & Bust in an American Mill Town, a workers history of the Sparrows Point steelworks in Baltimore County.
PART TWO – Continued from yesterday’s post, click here to read PART ONE.
The greatest difference between the corner kids and their neighbors was, of course, religious, but most seem to have had at least a casual acquaintance with the neighborhood church—and the faith it professed. “My parish was St. Ann’s on Greenmount and 22nd Street,” says Raynor, sounding just like an old-school Catholic. When his friends had business to take care of at the church, “I would sit in the back row and wait for them.” Debby Shostack Friedman recalls attending services at St. Benedict’s “maybe two or three times for some special occasion.” Even her sister Harriet, who spent much less time in the neighborhood, recalls a visit to the church with her own gentile friends. “I remember one time they took me to St. Benedict’s church. They had to do something there and I went with them.”
Christian feast days were a source of curiosity and, for some, pleasure. “At Christmas time, neighbors would always invite us to see their trees and we would go from house to house,” Morty Weiner recalls. Rhea Feikin, too, enjoyed witnessing neighborhood festivities. “We didn’t observe Christmas. We didn’t observe Easter. But I grew up enjoying those holidays,” she says, “seeing how people celebrated them.”
Living among gentiles posed some temptations. Feikin, the young bacon-eater, recalls the day she decided to infiltrate the famously restricted Meadowbrook pool. “I knew that I couldn’t go to Meadowbrook,” she recalls, “but I wanted to go because all my girlfriends went. I thought, ‘how will they know’ so one day I went. I came home triumphant, to the total horror of my father and mother.” Her father spanked her, she says, and said “you will never go where you are not wanted.”
She continued to test limits, though with a bit more anxiety. Shortly after the Meadowbrook incident, she accompanied her neighborhood friends to the annual Christmas party at the Keswick Road police station, where one of the officers dressed as Santa and handed out presents to each child. “All my friends went every year and I was just dying to go,” she recalls. “One day I decided that I would do it. But I remember going up and sitting in Santa’s lap and just blurting out, ‘I want to tell you, I’m Jewish.’” Santa merely shrugged, she says, and handed over her gift, a cardboard suitcase full of paints. “I thought, ‘this is a good stuff.’”
Feikin again told her parents and this time they were not upset, perhaps because rather than sneaking into the party, as she had the pool, she had claimed her identity—“but that was my one trip to the Christmas party,” she says. “I could have gone again, but I didn’t.” She finds it interesting that “I made that admission right away. I guess I was apprehensive about the whole thing, which is why I blurted it out.”
In the memories of those who grew up on the corner in the 1930s and 40s, antisemitism was rarer than one might expect, though the fear and suspicion of being targeted haunted some of their parents. Morty Weiner recalls the time he was coming out of a movie theater on Harford Road during the 1930s and a bunch of older boys standing around the adjacent pharmacy “grabbed me, took my pants, and left me in the park. My parents thought it was antisemitism but it turned out that it was just a joke. They were playing.” For his parents, both Russo-Polish immigrants, the incident may have recalled family stories of old disasters or seemed a frightening echo of events unfolding at the time in Germany.
The most unpleasant experiences seem to have occurred in school. Weiner, for example, recalls being harassed by an antisemitic fifth grade teacher at P.S. 50 on Gorsuch Avenue, a few blocks from his home, where he and another boy were the only Jewish students. “She gave me a hard time,” he said, without elaborating. “But with the exception of this one woman, we had no problems.” Harriet Pollack was hassled in elementary school too, though in her case the tormentors were fellow students. “I was on the heavy side and Jewish and the combination was not too good. I got called all kinds of names.” Boys harassed her, not girls, she says, but the teasing was so bad that she remembers walking home through the alleys “because I was crying. It hurt my feelings.”
Her sister, by contrast, remembers “a teacher giving a little speech about all children being equal” at Gwynns Falls Junior High where, she says, there were a handful of other Jewish kids in the 5th and 6th grades.
In the neighborhood, the fact that Jewish shopowners catered to the needs of their Christian neighbors seems to have insulated them from overt antisemitism. “During the Depression, my father was good to his customers. That’s why we got along so well with them,” says Morty Weiner. “I remember when bread went up to nineteen cents from seventeen cents, my father said, ‘how are people going to afford it?”
The willingness of some Jewish shop owners to look the other way when customers slipped an unpaid item into their bags may also have played a part. In his Clifton Park neighborhood, “there were a couple who did not like Jews,” Weiner says, including one woman whose husband worked for the post office. “He was a lovely man,” recalls Weiner. “But every time she came in the store she would sneak a can of tuna fish in her purse.” His father never confronted the woman about the thefts and instructed him to ignore it also. Similarly, Bernie Raynor recalls the time that a neighborhood woman who was doing housework for his mother took a few eggs. His mother told him not to say anything to her, “because she obviously needed food.”
Close economic and social ties co-existed with an unspoken prohibition that placed certain types of intimacy strictly out of bounds. “There was no contact with [gentile] girls,” says Bernie Raynor. “That was understood”—presumably by both Jewish and gentile teens. As soon as they hit adolescence, most of those profiled here began traveling to school outside their neighborhoods, many to School 49 on Cathedral Street, which had an accelerated curriculum, and then Forest Park High or City College.
Attending school outside the neighborhood was how “I first met some Jewish people and had Jewish friends my own age,” Rhea Feikin says. Harriet Pollack recalls, “I had to take three streetcars to get there but I loved Forest Park.” Bernie Raynor’s younger sisters also traveled across town to attend co-ed Forest Park, partly because “there they would have the opportunity to meet Jewish boys.” Raynor, like Morty Weiner, attended Baltimore City College, at that time an all-boys high school. Weiner’s sister went to all-girl Eastern. Desirable as academically elite schools, single sex City and Eastern may have also appealed to Jewish parents nervous about the possibility of interfaith dating.
Despite their childhood friendships with gentile children, none of those profiled here intermarried and all chose to raise their own families in Jewish neighborhoods—striking testimony to the strong sense of Jewish identity instilled by their parents. Perhaps too, those raised in communities where they were outsiders, even accepted outsiders, wanted something different for their own children, even as they acknowledge that their childhoods led them to appreciate diversity and to have friends from varied backgrounds.
Weiner and his wife Esther lived with his parents on Polk Street for five years after their marriage, but when it was time to buy their first home they moved to a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. There “we became involved with mostly Jewish people but we always had gentile friends,” he says. “Esther and I are very open to that.” Rhea Feikin too “ended up living in a Jewish neighborhood,” and raising her children there. Even so, she says, “I have always had many gentile friends and so did my children.”
Though they made different choices for their own families, none expressed regret at not having grown up in an all-Jewish neighborhood themselves. In fact, most seem thankful for the experience of having had daily interactions with a wide variety of people. “When I talk to my friends who grew up in West Baltimore, they grew up in a ghetto, totally surrounded by other Jewish people,” says Bernie Raynor. “When they went into the service, it was the first time they saw non-Jews. I was fortunate to live in an area where there were a lot of non-Jews.”
Growing up in a gentile neighborhood did not make the corner kids feel any less Jewish than their relatives in Park Heights or Forest Park. “I was expected to get good grades, give to charity, and all that,” says Feikin. Those things were part of being Jewish, as she understood it, and “my parents made me proud of being Jewish.” Friedman concurs, recalling her father saying, “if they call you a Jew, it isn’t a dirty word. It’s not a negative thing.” Though being Jewish clearly set them apart from their neighbors, the corner kids learned young that difference needn’t be a barrier to friendship or understanding—nor to proclaiming a strong and proud Jewish identity.