On the Corner: Growing up Jewish in a Gentile Neighborhood

Posted on April 11th, 2013 by

Rudacille photoBy 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.

 

Hampden, Waverly, and even (G-d forbid) Pigtown—these were not Jewish neighborhoods. Yet in the first half of the twentieth century they and other working-class Baltimore neighborhoods were home to numerous Jewish families who lived mostly “on the corner,” above or beside their groceries, confectionery stores, and other shops. The experiences of Jewish children, now senior citizens, who grew up in those gentile neighborhoods reveal an alternate history lived parallel to the more familiar narrative of ghettoization. Their stories summon up a vanished era before the city’s Jewish population migrated nearly en masse to the northwest suburbs—and offer a glimpse of what might have been had Baltimore’s Jewish residents instead dispersed in the manner of other ethnic groups seeking assimilation.

“We were the only Jewish family in our neighborhood,” says Rhea Feikin, who grew up in Hampden in the 1940s. Her father’s eponymous store, Ben’s, was located at 1506 W. 36th Street and she attended Hampden’s Robert S. Poole Elementary where she was the only Jewish student in the school. “It was not unpleasant,” she says today. “I did feel like an outsider but I learned how to be a good outsider, how to get along and fit in without losing my own identity.”

Though many believe that the formation of a strong Jewish identity hinges on growing up surrounded by other Jewish people, Feikin’s perspective is echoed by other Jewish children raised on the corners. “For many years, my best friends were non-Jews because we lived very far from a Jewish area,” says Morty Weiner, who lived on Polk Street near Clifton Park in northeast Baltimore from 1924 till 1943. At the same time, “I never questioned that I was Jewish.”

J.M. Food Store, owned by Morty Weiner’s father Joseph, located on Polk Street near Harford Road in Northeast Baltimore, circa 1940. The Weiner family lived in the house next door. CP 5.2013.2

J.M. Food Store, owned by Morty Weiner’s father Joseph, located on Polk Street near Harford Road in Northeast Baltimore, circa 1940. The Weiner family lived in the house next door. CP 5.2013.2

 

Other than his immediate family, there were no other Jewish people in the community where his father operated first a confectionery store and then a grocery. However, Weiner’s parents maintained close ties with a large extended family spread throughout the city. “On weekends and whenever the store was closed we would visit relatives, my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and they would come to us,” he says. Many of those relatives also operated groceries in gentile neighborhoods, he recalls. “My father and his relatives called themselves Weiner Bros and they had five stores between them. My grandmother and her daughters also ran grocery stores in non-Jewish neighborhoods.”

The presence of Jewish families in working-class gentile neighborhoods was motivated by purely economic factors, say those who grew up on the corners in the pre and immediate post-war eras. “The only reason Jews lived in a non-Jewish area was economic, to have a business there,” says Bernie Raynor, whose father operated first a confectionery store, then a grocery, and then a package goods store on Barclay Street in Waverly. Raynor’s father operated a business at that address from 1938 until his death in 1959, though Raynor himself left the neighborhood in 1949.

Like other corner merchants, his parents were first generation Americans who had immigrated to the U.S. with their own parents as young children. “My parents came here at age two or three and they spoke English. We never spoke Yiddish at home,” says Raynor. Until he was about seven years old, the family lived on Chester Street in East Baltimore. “We lived in a tenement,” he says, “multi-story, multi-family.” Even there, however, he had a mixed group of neighbors. “The people who lived downstairs were Polish Catholics. I picked up a lot of Polish words from them.”

His family moved to Pimlico—completely Jewish at that time—for a year, but when his father lost a job as a newspaper carrier in 1937, economic stress led to them to Waverly. “One way of making a living back then was the mom and pop store,” he explains. “There were no supermarkets and every corner had its dry goods store or confectionery, tailor or grocery.” Running a grocery in those days was hard work, he recalls. “We were open from six a.m. to midnight and we all worked in the store.”

A strong sense of Jewish identity without a strict adherence to Jewish practice is a common thread running through the reminiscences of Baltimore Jews raised on the corners. That may be due to the long hours worked by their parents, as well as the fact that most did not have a neighborhood synagogue. Morty Weiner says that though his parents did not regularly attend shul, they kept a kosher home and attended services on the High Holy Days. That seems to have been a common pattern. “We were not very observant though my mother and father kept kosher,” says Rhea Feikin. “I would run around the neighborhood eating bacon but my parents didn’t care.”

Bernie Raynor’s parents similarly observed the spirit, if not always the letter, of dietary laws. “My mother and father had certain things where they would turn their heads,” as when on Saturday afternoons when his mother would take him and his sisters downtown to the Hippodrome to see a show and afterwards for Chinese food. “That was not kosher,” he laughs.

Debby Shostack Friedman’s parents—who owned a grocery store on Dulaney Street in Southwest Baltimore near Pigtown in the 1940s—kept kosher “though they would always complain about how expensive it was to get kosher meat,” she recalls. “They would say that they were going to stop but they never did.” Her family traveled to Lombard Street to stock up on kosher perishables, as did Raynor’s family. Like others profiled here, the Shostacks’ store “was closed only two days a year,” Friedman says. “On the first day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We would pack a suitcase and go to my grandmother’s house,” on Cottage Avenue in Park Heights.

The Shostack store on Dulaney Street in Southwest Baltimore, circa 1937. Back row: Harry and Mary Shostack, Mary’s father Wolf Kotzen, and store employee Carl Warfield. Front row: Debby and Harriet Shostack.

The Shostack store on Dulaney Street in Southwest Baltimore, circa 1937. Back row: Harry and Mary Shostack, Mary’s father Wolf Kotzen, and store employee Carl Warfield. Front row: Debby and Harriet Shostack.

Author Gilbert Sandler points out that unlike Jewish shopowners who lived in rural areas where they were often the only Jews for hundreds of miles around, “if you lived in the city you were a streetcar away from other Jewish people.” Jewish children living in gentile neighborhoods attended the Beth Tfiloh youth program and Jewish summer camps, visited family members in Northwest Baltimore and were drawn like moths to the historic epicenter of Jewish Baltimore to shop and to kibbitz. “They flocked to Lombard Street from all points of the compass,” says Sandler, “like it was a watering hole in the jungle—not for the pickles but to say this is who we are, to identify themselves as Jews.”

Fourteen-year-old Morty Weiner and his sister Ruth, 19, visiting their aunt in the Jewish neighborhood near Druid Hill Park, May 1935. CP 5.2013.1

Fourteen-year-old Morty Weiner and his sister Ruth, 19, visiting their aunt in the Jewish neighborhood near Druid Hill Park, May 1935. CP 5.2013.1

Unlike other predominantly gentile neighborhoods, Waverly, where Bernie Raynor lived, had a neighborhood synagogue. Ahavath Israel at 2342 Barclay Street operated a Hebrew school that drew boys from North Avenue, 33rd and Greenmount Avenue—where there were many Jewish shopowners—up to Towson. “We went every day but Friday—just boys, no girls,” says Raynor. “It cost fifty cents a week.”

Approximately forty boys from kindergarten through bar mitzvah age attended the school, he says, with the teacher working with two or three at a time and the others playing ping pong or step ball until called to work. Even so, “we had to go out of our way to find Jewish boys or girls to be friendly with,” he points out. “Just because you attended Hebrew school with a group of boys didn’t mean you would be friends with them.”

As children of busy shopkeepers, the corner kids were generally left to their own devices when they weren’t working themselves. “We were much more independent than kids today,” says Raynor. “At eight, nine years old, I went on the streetcar by myself.” Friedman recalls a similarly liberated childhood, running the streets of Southwest Baltimore with the neighborhood children. “I was outside with those kids all day long,” she says. “Even at seventeen,” when her parents closed the store and moved to a Jewish neighborhood, “I could have stayed.”

Her elder sister, Harriet Pollack, has more mixed memories of the community, where the smell of animals being butchered in nearby stockyards in summer would send the family fleeing to their car in search of fresh air. “They were not my kind of people,” Pollack says of her former neighbors. “I knew I wasn’t one of them.” The difference in the two sisters’ attitude may be due to the fact that Harriet, six years older than Debby, remembered living among other Jewish people, whereas her sister knew only Pigtown. Born on Lawrence Street in West Baltimore, where her parents operated a shoe store, Pollack says “I must’ve been six or seven when we moved because I went to kindergarten and first grade in that area. There was a street of Jewish shopowners, who all lived with their stores and were all friendly with each other. We lived between the chicken and egg store and the butcher.”

After the move to Dulaney Street, her contact with other Jewish people was limited, even though “about six blocks away down Wilkens Ave was a Jewish area,” she recalls. “I never really got friendly with the children there because they went to a different school.” Instead, she spent every weekend at her grandmother’s house on Cottage Avenue in Park Heights. “It was a long street with many girls my age,” she recalls, “and I had lots of friends there.”

Meanwhile, her sister Debby—a self-described “tomboy”—chose to remain in Southwest Baltimore on weekends. Though she attended Hebrew school and went to Jewish day camp for a couple of summers, her closest friendships were with the children who lived on the blocks near her parent’s store. “It was a rough neighborhood,” Friedman admits, but she was “more aggressive with the other kids” than her older sister, and so felt more comfortable taking part in their games and activities. “The children I played with were wonderful,” she says, even though “I wasn’t allowed to go into a couple of the homes because they were drinking houses.”

Like other Jewish children growing up among gentiles, the Shostack girls became junior cultural anthropologists at a young age—intrigued by the strange habits and lifestyles of their neighbors. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw crepe on a door when someone had passed away,” Pollack says. “In those days they laid people out at home. That was different. I never went in though, because I was scared to death.”

Then too, her bedroom window overlooked a bar and she was amazed to see the working men of the neighborhood “lining up for a pitcher of beer at 6 a.m. It was breakfast food for them.” Those men may have been queuing up for a drink after working the night shift, not drinking their breakfast, but that would have been a distinction lost on a child whose father was not a factory worker.

Bernie Raynor, who delivered beer for his father in Waverly, was similarly struck by the gregarious, alcohol-fueled socializing of his community. “They would call us at two in the afternoon and you’d go over with the beer and they’d be playing cards, smoking and drinking,” he recalls. Obviously, not all the neighbors fit this working-class stereotype but the fact that even today the Shostack sisters and Raynor recall without prompting memories of daytime drinking in their old neighborhoods indicates how odd this behavior must have seemed to them as children.

~END OF PART ONE~

CHECK BACK ON FRIDAY FOR PART TWO!

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Elaine, Meet Stanley

Posted on April 3rd, 2013 by

debA blog post by Historian Deb Weiner.

We recently started to create a new genealogy resource: a database of Jewish babies born in Baltimore, as revealed by Jewish Times birth notices. So far, we’ve compiled around 700 names of babies born between 1928 and 1932. We’re also recording the names of the parents and the hospitals where the births occurred.

Sinai Hospital on East Monument Street, 1940. 2010.20.13.

Sinai Hospital on East Monument Street, 1940. 2010.20.13.

So the list can tell us some interesting things. Like, where were Jewish babies born during that time period? If you guess the obvious, Sinai Hospital, you’d be right—half the time. Around 48 percent of the babies listed in the JT were born at Sinai, then located on East Monument Street. In second place was Mercy Hospital, with 15 percent. Some 9 percent were born at the Women’s Hospital in Bolton Hill. (It later merged with another hospital to form GBMC.) In fourth place was Church Home Hospital in East Baltimore, with 8 percent. This hospital, by the way, is where Edgar Allan Poe died in 1849 after he was found, delirious, on Lombard Street between High and Exeter (later, the heart of Jewish East Baltimore). And how many were born at Johns Hopkins Hospital? One! A girl named Helen Udell. Why this particular distribution? I have no clue.

OK now to even more interesting stuff. What do you think was the most popular name for Baltimore’s Jewish baby girls from 1928 to 1932? Hint: look at the headline. Of the 367 girls whose names were listed, there were sixteen Elaines, topping the baby girl pool. In second place was Beverly, with fifteen names. I found that one hard to believe. There were eleven babies named Betty, nine named Phyllis, eight Myras, seven named Frances, Marilyn, Ruth, and Sonia. There were six Aileens, Charlottes, Harriets, Joans, Natalies, Rhodas, and Shirleys.

Around sixteen years later: Teens prepare to go onstage at the JEA. Left to right: Joan Levinson, Judy Brodsky, Betty Levy, Rhoda Wagner, Phyllis Erlich. 95.98.119

Around sixteen years later: Teens prepare to go onstage at the JEA. Left to right: Joan Levinson, Judy Brodsky, Betty Levy, Rhoda Wagner, Phyllis Erlich. 95.98.119

I was surprised there were more babies named Natalie than Barbara (four) or Hannah (three) or Bessie (two) or Susan (zero). And there were three girls named Leatrice, which I found odd, since I’ve never met one person with that name. I wasn’t surprised by the popularity of Phyllis—the name belonged to my mom (b. 1935), my dad’s sister, one of his cousins, and two of their close friends. I actually thought it would score higher.

Baby boys: Stanley led the way with thirteen out of 341 boys. Next was Howard with eleven. There were ten baby boys named Allen (or Allan), Marvin, and Richard. Nine were named David and Harold (or Harry). There were eight Bernards, Jeromes, and Roberts. Seven were named Alvin, Herbert, and Norman while six were named Arnold, Joseph, Leonard, Martin, and Samuel. There were only two Aarons, one Abraham (plus one Abram), two Benjamins, two Jacobs, one Israel, and no Isaacs. I guess the Bible had fallen out of favor during this period. Why name someone Israel or Isaac when you can name him Irving? (There were three of those, plus four Irwins, an Irvin, an Ira, and an Isadore.)

Around sixteen years later: Rambam Chapter of the AZA, northwest Baltimore. Even in this Zionist group, all but two of the identified boys had popular Americanized names. Back row: second from left, Irv Bowers, right end, Marvin Glass. Middle row: second from left, Al Blaker, center, Bernie Raynor. Bottom row: left end, Avrum Miller, right end, Hanan Sibel. 2008.117.1

Around sixteen years later: Rambam Chapter of the AZA, northwest Baltimore. Even in this Zionist group, all but two of the identified boys had popular Americanized names. Back row: second from left, Irv Bowers, right end, Marvin Glass. Middle row: second from left, Al Blaker, center, Bernie Raynor. Bottom row: left end, Avrum Miller, right end, Hanan Sibel. 2008.117.1

Lest you think there were more girls than boys born to Baltimore Jewish families, I should point out that birth notices for around 160 boys did not include names, while only 90 girls were unnamed. All told, there were around 500 boys and around 450 girls listed . . . I don’t know if that means that fewer girls were born, or that parents were more likely to send in birth notices for sons than for daughters.

In fact, this is not what you’d call a scientific poll—because I have no idea what percentage of the Jewish babies born during the period were listed in JT birth notices, or if a “certain kind” of family was more likely to have a birth notice than some “other kind” of family, which could skew the sample. But the results are suggestive nonetheless. By the late 1920s, the Baltimore Jewish population had become mostly Americanized, especially the young parents who were having these babies. They were the adult children of immigrants, American-raised if not born, and I think that tells you something about their choices.

We continue to work on the list—it should be interesting to see how the popular names change over time.  And here’s where I need to recognize the volunteers who are doing such a great job constructing this database. Thanks to Stefan Freed, Martin Buckman, Vera Kestenberg, and Harvey Karch! (And by the way, there were six Martins, two Harveys, one Stephan, and no Veras on the list.)

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Good News for the Hebrew Orphan Asylum!

Posted on February 13th, 2013 by

debA blog post by Research Historian Dr. Deb Weiner.

Recently there was good news in the fight to save the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, the endangered building that is Baltimore’s second most important Jewish historic site according to one expert (namely, me).

The Hebrew Orphan Asylum, early 1920s. JMM 1985.90.17

The Hebrew Orphan Asylum, early 1920s. JMM 1985.90.17

Our friends at Baltimore Heritage, Inc., the city’s leading advocate for historic preservation, report the following:

“With the Coppin Heights Community Development Corporation taking the lead, we have made great strides towards the preservation and reuse of this important West Baltimore landmark.

  • Maryland’s Department of Housing and Community Development has granted the Coppin Heights CDC $100,000 to stabilize the building. Not only does stabilization address the building’s severely compromised roof but it also allows architects and engineers to work safely inside to assess conditions and complete redevelopment plans.
  • Coppin Heights CDC has now secured $10 million in state and federal funding with support from the Maryland Sustainable Communities Tax Credit program, the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credit program, and the New Markets Tax Credit program. This is great progress towards securing the resources necessary to restore the building and bring it back as an asset to the neighborhoods of Greater Rosemont.
  • Finally, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown announced that West Baltimore, including the area around the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, is one of five new Health Enterprise Zones across the state – a program that opens up new incentives for providing medical care to residents in under-served neighborhoods like West Baltimore. The announcement comes as welcome news, as the Hebrew Orphan Asylum is slated to be transformed into the Center for Health Care and Healthy Living to help address the same health disparities that the new Health Enterprise Zone is designed to reduce.”
The Hebrew Orphan Asylum, 2010.

The Hebrew Orphan Asylum, 2010.

Congratulations and thanks to the Coppin Heights CDC, Coppin State University (the building’s owner), and Baltimore Heritage, Inc., for their tremendous efforts in trying to save this building and turn it into a valuable asset for West Baltimore.

The fight isn’t over – there is plenty that still needs to get done and the tax credit financing is contingent on finding some private financing as well. (Could the Jewish community possibly help with this??) But as Baltimore Heritage Inc.’s Eli Pousson says, “We’ll get there!”

For more on the story, see Jacques Kelly’s recent Sun article.

And for more on the building, see the Baltimore Heritage website.

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