Second Cousins, Card Parties, and Chickens in the Back Yard: Family Life and Jewish Community in Rural Maryland Part 1

Posted on January 8, 2018 by

generations-2002-385x500Article written by Deborah R. Weiner, former JMM research historian and family history coordinator. Originally published in Generations  – Winter 2002: Jewish Family History. Information on how to purchase your own copy here. Many thanks to JMM collections manager Joanna Church for re-typing this article.

Part I: All In The Family

Growing up in the 1920s and 1930s in the tiny St. Mary’s County hamlet of Scotland, Bea Shuman didn’t lack for a social life. “Every Sunday we visited cousins,” she recalled.  “There was the Weiner family in Beechville, which was closer, and the Snyder family in Ridge, which was only six miles up the road. There were more Weiners in St. Inigoe’s, which was also pretty close by, and Shumans near Ridge.”[1]

Her story typifies the experience of Jews who settled in Maryland’s smaller towns and rural areas – family life, for many, was extended family life.  And extended families remain a hallmark of small-town Jewish communities to this day. “It’s a standing joke among our mutual friends that every Jew in Salisbury is related either to David Miller or me,” Barry Spinak recently observed.  That’s a slight exaggeration – a recent influx of “outsiders” has helped make Salisbury the hub of Jewish life on the Eastern Shore – yet many families there, like Spinak’s, can trace their lineage to the handful of settlers who came to the lower Shore some one hundred years ago.  Spinak remarked that growing up in nearby Pocomoke City in the 1950s and 1960s, he had so many cousins that he didn’t need to worry about making friends.  Like the Weiner-Shuman clan, the cousins’ families were close, with constant visiting back and forth.[2]

The Heilig clan of Pokomoke city, c. 1912. JMM 2002.22.1

The Heilig clan of Pokomoke city, c. 1912. JMM 2002.22.1

Jewish families have always had a reputation for closeness, and many people today can attest to their ongoing strong attachments to immediate and extended kin. Yet given the tremendous geographic mobility that marks modern society, contact with relatives often must rely on the miracles of modern communication (such as e-mail) or the concerted efforts of family members who organize reunions and other structured activities. Most of us no longer experience the intense, daily interaction with extended family that characterized previous generations. And because of their relative isolation from larger Jewish society, small-town Jewish communities of an earlier era relied on the extended family even more than other Jews.

Networks of interrelated, tight-knit families sustained Jewish life in Maryland’s hinterlands for two reasons. First, the infrastructure was there.  The very process of settlement involved pioneering Jews (often peddlers) arriving in a new locale, settling down, and then encouraging relatives to join them. Decidedly kin-based Jewish communities emerged from this practice of “chain migration.”  Second was a deeply-felt need. Lacking the communal institutions, cultural opportunities, and sheer numbers of co-religionists found in the big city, Jews in smaller towns and villages had to make a special effort to construct a Jewish life for themselves and their children. Quite naturally, they drew on resources both within the immediate family and the larger circle of relations clustered around them.

Israel (Jake) and Sarah Millison and their sons, Harry (left) and Hiram, St. Mary's County, c. 1906. What the photo doesn't show is the kin network that connected this small nuclear family to other families in the county through the decades, including Weiners, Snyders, Shumans, and other Millisons. Courtesy of Rachelle Millison, L2001.54.22.

Israel (Jake) and Sarah Millison and their sons, Harry (left) and Hiram, St. Mary’s County, c. 1906. What the photo doesn’t show is the kin network that connected this small nuclear family to other families in the county through the decades, including Weiners, Snyders, Shumans, and other Millisons. Courtesy of Rachelle Millison, L2001.54.22.

Small-town Jewish life, therefore, revolved around the family – with chain migration setting the tone right from the start. Back at the turn of the twentieth century, the nascent Jewish community in and around Pocomoke City consisted of several households, members of the interrelated Miller and Klaff families or their landsleit from the Shavli district of Lithuania. As in most new Jewish outposts, the resources needed for religious observance were generally absent. What happened next shows how a family migration chain could respond directly to communal needs. A local woman, Rebecca Finkelstein, convinced an uncle of hers, a rabbi and schochet (ritual slaughterer), to settle in Pocomoke to provide religious leadership and enable the town’s Jews to keep kosher. Faivel Heilig’s arrival in 1901 from Durham, North Carolina, his first home in America, ensured the viability of Pocomoke’s Jewish community while reinforcing its familial nature. Not only did he serve as a strong leader, his many children, including seven daughters, married into other local families and also attracted new members to the community (apparently Pocomoke became a popular spot for young Jewish peddlers to stay overnight).  Not surprisingly, both David Miller and Barry Spinak claim Heilig as a great-grandfather, making them second cousins.[3]

Continue to Part II: The Family Business

[1] Bea Shuman Sadowsky, interview with Karen Falk, Havre de Grace, Md., 16 April 2002 (JMM OH 0529.)

[2] Barry Spinak, interview with Karen Falk, Salisbury, Md., 23 January 2001 (JMM OH 0442); e-mail correspondence with Karen Falk, 12 September 2000.

[3] Rita Krakower Margolis, “Mispacha Klaff,” 1991 (unpublished manuscript, Jewish Museum of Maryland Genealogy Collection); Barry Spinak, interview with Karen Falk, Salisbury, Md., 6 June 2000 (JMM OH 0344); Spinak e-mail.

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