Building a Jewish Identity

Posted on February 18, 2019 by

Part 5 of “Strangers No More: Jewish Life in Maryland’s Small Towns. Missed the beginning? Head there now! Written by Karen Falk, former JMM curator. Originally published in Generations – Winter 2001. If you would like to purchase a hard copy of this issue, please contact our shop, Esther’s Place, at 443-873-5179 or email

In recent years, improvements in transportation have minimized somewhat the barrier of distance, but before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built in 1952, for example, the Eastern Shore seemed very far from Baltimore and required an all-day trip by car or bus and ferry. Likewise, driving from Baltimore to Hagerstown or Cumberland, through the mountains of Western Maryland, was an all-day ordeal requiring motorists to “put in fuel and water at the top of each mountain,” according to Elaine Hirsh Jandorf. In those days, many of the basics of Jewish life must have seemed at far remove and maintaining a Jewish identity was a daunting challenge. Many people abandoned the effort, assimilating into the larger community and giving up their Jewishness. Others, however, resolved to persist, finding ways to keep Jewish homes, observe the Sabbath and festivals, and mark their lives with custom and ritual.

Jewish responded to the logistical and personal challenges to Jewish identity with a variety of strategies, sometimes reaching out to bring in the needed resources, or traveling to the nearest city to meet other needs. Some decided that certain observances could be discarded, while others found Jewish life in the small town untenable and moved permanently back to the city.

Finding kosher foods was often particularly challenging. Some families made arrangements to have kosher foods brought to the town. Betty Golumbek remembers that “in Frederick there was a Jewish man who was a non-kosher butcher, but his wife kept kosher; when he would buy for his wife, he would buy for the other few women in Frederick who kept kosher. And so my mother would call him on a Monday and she would say, ‘Well what do we have today?’ and that’s what we bought.” Some people went to even greater lengths. Phyllis Gordon of Easton describes an especially daunting odyssey:

One year my sister over in Federalsburg heard about this plant in lower Delaware where they would sell us live chickens. She had this big, galumpy car that we drove downstate and we loaded the trunk up with about four crates of live chickens. We drove the chickens up to Wilmington, to the shochet, and he killed the chickens for us. All the way up there the chickens were cackling, and people were looking at us! We only did that once.

Not everyone, however, opted to make the considerable effort to maintain that level of Jewish observance. In the words of one resident from southern Maryland, “[In the early 1950s] it was a 2 ½ hour shlep to Baltimore to buy kosher food, a 2 ½ hour shlep back, and we have two babies. I was working 70, 80 hours in the business, so we decided to give up keeping kosher.”

Gilda Brodsky’s third grade class in Odenton, Maryland, 1938. Gilda is in the first row of standing girls, second from the left. Gift of Gilda Resnick, JMM 2001.73.4.

Jewish children attending public schools in small towns faced special challenges. Surrounded by non-Jewish schoolmates and teachers, steeped in American life, they were keenly aware of being different from those around them. Reports from several residents of small towns indicate the Jewish children were singled out by teachers for comments on their heritage. They were sometimes ignored and left out of social activities: “So many of the things to do after school were at the church. I was always out of things,” reflects one woman from Harford County. They were even taunted and physically attached. As a Brunswick man remembers, “When I first went to elementary school, when I’d pass the firehouse, I’d be taunted with expressions like “Jew-baby, Jew-baby sittin’ on a fence, trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents.”

Leo Weinberg’s composition book from his high school English class in 1902 includes an essay on the origin and meaning of Christmas, an assignment which may have posed special difficulties for a Jewish boy. His teacher appears to have recognized but not sympathized with these difficulties, commenting, “A very well written paper, but too little of Leo in it!” This kind of assignment, which was not atypical of the American education system, was a reminder to a Jewish student that he was different from his classmates, while at the same time teaching him to become more like the Gentile majority. Jewish children sang in Christmas pageants, careful to just mouth the works when they came to Jesus’ name. Even acceptance sometimes had its ironies: in 1995 the children of B’er Chayim’s basketball team were awarded the Christian Spirit award for their good sportsmanship.

Jews accepted this state of affairs and worked to fit in. Most people interviewed about their experiences growing up Jewish in Maryland’s small towns denied that there was any friction between the Jews and their neighbors. Most found – and still find – the atmosphere of the small town warm and welcoming. To them, it felt natural to blend Jewish traditions with the customs of the town. As an interviewee in Cumberland put it, “My kids don’t have any idea what prejudice is. They don’t have any reason to think that being Jewish is different, because it isn’t.”

Others, however, were aware of deeper conflicts between their American and their Jewish identities. They spoke of being “always very aware that we were Jewish…you had to be better than everyone else because you were Jewish,” and “you’re representing the Jewish community…[and] you want to put your best foot forward for your family name and for your folks.” These people never ceased feeling like strangers in their hometowns.

The late Philip Liebman, of Salisbury, poetically summed up the conflict facing Jews in small towns. Comparing Jewish life in Salisbury to the miracle of Jonah’s survival inside the whale he declared, “when I came to the Eastern Shore I realized that the whale wasn’t a big fish, it was a small town; and that Jonah…was any Jew that found himself in a small town. That if he didn’t watch himself very closely, he would soon be digested by the whale. So that I would have to watch myself very carefully lest I be digested.”


Continue to Sidebar 1: How to Build a Synagogue, 1917-1923


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