The Dancing Schools of Baltimore’s Jewish Society Part 3

Posted on February 19th, 2018 by

generations 2004 copyArticle by Gil Sandler. Originally published in Generations – 2004: Recreation, Sports & Leisure. This particular issue of Generations proved wildly popular and is no longer available for purchase.

Sidebar: Learning to Dance
Missed the beginning? Start here.

In his eighties, Baltimore’s Lester Levy reminisced about his life and times. The following excerpts describe his first efforts at dancing school.

I doubt if any of you ever went to a mixed dancing school. [My sister] Selma and I did, where the general form of instruction was grounded in so-called “ball-room dancing.” Our first class was on the second floor of a building in the vicinity of Maryland Avenue and Biddle Street. It was known as Heptasoph’s Hall and run by a Mr. Ball.

The class – the average age of whom was seven or eight – met once a week in the afternoons. I remember one detail and Selma reminds me of another: (1) the clumsiest child at school was a fat little boy named Reuben Oppenheimer [who married Selma in 1922]; and (2) I was elected to dance a “sailor’s hornpipe” before the pupils and their parents…

It was during the winter [of 1911-12] that we became part of Mr. Tuttle’s dancing class. Among other things, we had a dancing class to which some two- or three-dozen boys and girls belonged, and we would go out with different girls or boys each week to the class. There was no such thing as keeping steady company. At fifteen, I was beginning to feel that I was growing up…boys were more important to me than girls, for that was my shyest period, and even at dancing school I hardly wanted to hold a girl’s hand.”

Lester clearly got over his shyness. After securing a spot on Eleanor’s dance card, they went on to a happy and long marriage. JMM 2002.79.352


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The Dancing Schools of Baltimore’s Jewish Society Part 2

Posted on February 12th, 2018 by

generations 2004 copyArticle by Gil Sandler. Originally published in Generations – 2004: Recreation, Sports & Leisure. This particular issue of Generations proved wildly popular and is no longer available for purchase.

Part II: Not Always Genteel
Missed the beginning? Start here.

But the dancing school experience was not always a genteel one: Francois Roos (“Frenchy”) Snyder remembers her dancing school classes at Mrs. Finley Burns’s school at the Stafford Hotel, Charles at Madison Streets, later at the Phoenix Club on Eutaw Place, in the 1930s. “It could be nerve wracking,” she says. “The class worked on the ‘dance card’ system. Each girl had a dance card, with room on it for ten partners to sign up to dance with you. I was always so worried that my dance card would not be filled.” Albert Berney was one of those who wrote on “Frenchy” Snyder’s dance card. He recalls: “I danced with her, and I thought she was a pretty good dance.”

Teens pose for a photo at the Aleph Zadik Aleph fraternity Sweetheart Dance in 1948. Gift of Charlotte Stein, JMM 1998.79.1.

Teens pose for a photo at the Aleph Zadik Aleph fraternity Sweetheart Dance in 1948. Gift of Charlotte Stein, JMM 1998.79.1.

Mrs. Snyder recalls: “In my class were Moses Morris, Norman Cohen, Julian Katzenberg, Gene Blum, Herman Frank, Alice Rosenbush, Mary Louise Fleishman, Louis SInsheimer, Etta Scherlis, Dick Hutzler, Sarahh Westheimer, Ellen Berney, and Julian Stein.”

“It was all very formal. Boys were taught how to ask a girl for a dance and the girls, how to accept. The boy might approach the girl and say, ‘May I please have this dance? And then she might say, ‘I would love to.’ Manners were a part of what you were supposed to learn in dancing class.”

In 1938, 13-year-old Morton Marcus attended Bea Goodhart’s and Aileen Straus’s dancing school. In his class were Stanley Greenebaum, Richard Hess, Virginia Watner Gordon, Louise Gutman Goldberg, Dick Chessler, Malcolm Rudolph, Myra Levenson Askin, William Kahn, Alice Berney Hoffberger, Peggy Mayer, and Carol Neuberger Dupkin. Morton recalls, “If there was such a thing as flunking out of dancing school, they would have flunked me. I couldn’t learn to dance, and in all the classes I went to, only one girl asked me to dance – Nina Bernheimer. She always work a fleecy white sweater, and I always wore my dark blue Bar Mitzvah suit, and when we danced all of those long, white hairs off of her sweater would shed all over my dark suit. I didn’t like that at all.” His wife of 50 years, Marilyn, says, “For a guy who says he didn’t like dancing class, he still talks about dancing with Nina Bernheimer. It’s been fifty years.”

Margie Katzenstein Greenebaum went to the Straus-Goodhart’s in the late 1930s. “The dance usually started with the girls lined up on one side, and the boys on the other. And on the signal, the lines broke and the boys sought out partners. The arrangement made me nervous. Suppose no boy asked me to dance?”

“Of course, you learned ballroom dancing. And manners. How to be polite. But really, what the dancing school was all about was our parents’ desire to have us meet what they considered to be the ‘proper’ people.

“In my class were Joan Bette, Seff Offit, and Barbara Blaustein Hirschhorn. Looking back, it was a good experience. To this day I meet people and we recognize each other from dancing class. We all made social contacts that we kept the rest of our lives.”

Jerome (“Jerry”) Trout attended Mesdames Straus and Goodhart’s dancing classes in 1942. His memories of the experience square with some of the others who shared in it: dancing classes of that crowd were not so much about the students as they were about the parents. “Not all of us were in Park School and in the Suburban Club,” he recalls. “Some of us were on the fringe of all of that. I went to Poly, and somehow lived without being in the Suburban Club. But when I was sixteen my parents, who appreciated the way the world worked even if I didn’t, and not being able to afford membership in the Club themselves, bought a ‘junior’ membership for me. They didn’t know that most of the time I was attending dancing classes I was figuring a way to get out of them.”

Louis Newman went to Mesdames Straus and Goodhart’s school, but insists he can’t remember anything about it. He says, “That’s because I hated it so. All the guys hated it. The whole thing was our parents’ idea. They just wanted us to meet the right people, to stay in their crowd. So every Saturday afternoon I had to get into my Isaac Hamburger dark suit and my Hess black shoes, and drive from Temple Gardens where we lived around the corner to Brooks Lane to pick up Babs Feustman. I didn’t mind picking her up – but I had to bring her flowers!”

Ellen Levi Zamoiski confirms the parental mandate with regard to attending dancing school: “It didn’t matter whether we wanted to go or not. Our parents wanted us to go and that was that.” In retrospect, the students may not have taken the dancing classes very seriously. But the parents certainly did.

Following WWII the winds of change whipped through Baltimore Jewish Society with hurricane force, sweeping away the pillars that supported what was known as “Jewish Society.” That “in-crowd” was about “old money,” but in post-war Jewish Baltimore, there was, suddenly, all this new money around, and much of it in the hands of many who had never heard of a Baltimore “in-crowd.” The firewall around Baltimore’s old-money, in-crowd came tumbling down. By the 1990s there were few traces of Jewish society’s creaky continuum. You didn’t need dancing school to get into the “in-crowd” because there was no “in-crowd” left to get into.

The Jewish dancing schools that once seemed so terribly important to Baltimore’s socially-aspiring Jewish families, for a hundred years up through the 1950s, are no more. The twelve, thirteen, and fourteen-year-old boys and girls who were so dutifully and seriously shepherded through this rite of passage are now grandparents in their seventies. What’s left are the stories: about this coming of age in a sugarplum world where manners and dance were thought to be the currency that bought into a lifestyle. That world, long ago and gossamer, has quietly faded with time, like a leftover dance card from Aileen Straus and Bea Goodhart’s dancing school, circa 1942.

Continue to Sidebar: Learning to Dance

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The Dancing Schools of Baltimore’s Jewish Society Part 1

Posted on February 5th, 2018 by

generations 2004 copyArticle by Gil Sandler. Originally published in Generations – 2004: Recreation, Sports & Leisure. This particular issue of Generations proved wildly popular and is no longer available for purchase.

 Part I: Learning the Foxtrot

“Boys and girls, we will now learn the foxtrot. Put your left foot out … take your right foot and put it alongside your left …”

It is Saturday afternoon in 1942; we are on the second floor of 6 West Eager Street, north side, just west of Charles Street. The site is now a parking lot – directly across from what today is the Hippo Club. About 20 well-scrubbed and well-dressed young people are standing in a circle gathered around the speaker, and listening in rapt attention; a record is playing Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade.” The speaker, who is in fact the instructor, is Aileen Straus, and together with her partner Bea Goodhart, they are teaching social dancing to the children of the families who make up Baltimore’s Jewish patrician class and those that aspire to belong to it. In this pre-fifties era, some mastery of social dancing is thought to be a requirement for those young people who expect to take their place in the Jewish social circle prescribed for them by their parents.

Bennard Perlman, at age 13 in 1942, is one of the boys in the circle, and he is trying his very best to follow Ms. Straus’s instructions – without too much success. “I had to think a lot about what I was doing,” he recalls. “Here I was, an accelerated honor student in School #49, and I am having trouble learning how to put one foot in front of the other in time to ‘Moonlight Serenade.’ I attended dance class from the time I was 12 until I was 14 – when I was a freshman at City College. We first learned the fox trot, then the waltz, and so help me, jitterbugging. As we progressed, we moved from Saturday afternoon to Friday night, then, for those of us who had hung in, Saturday night – the big night!”

“In order to get all of the guys and all of the girls involved – so that nobody would be a wallflower – our teachers created the ‘shoe dance.” Each of the girls was asked to take off one shoe and place it in the center of the floor. The guys were then asked to pick up one of the shoes and then go find its mate – on one of the girls. When you found your shoe’s mate, you found your next dance!”

“In my class were, among others, Jill ROten Myers, Liz Kohn Moser, Ellen Levi Zamoiski, Jane White Markle, Dona Coplin, Midge Kaufman, David Blum and Margie Blum Jaffe, Eugene Schreiber, Bobby Rappaport, Disney Offit, Richard Millhaiser, and Babs Grinsfelder.”

Walter Sondheim’s may be the oldest memory of Baltimore’s Jewish dancing classes. “It was called ‘Mr. Tuttle’s,” he recalls. “And in the years I went there, from about 1918 to 1920, it was located on the south side of North Avenue, just east of Charles Street, on the second floor. All of the kids in the class were from Park School. What I remember most is that we were taught the proper way to bow to the girls, on being introduced. I seem to remember a rhythm – one, two, three, four, slide…something like that. I think we all were sent to dancing school because our parents in that social circle thought it was the right thing to do. Given their aspirations for us, I guess it was.”

“Dancing school” for the teen children of Jewish Baltimore’s patrician class, and those aspiring to becoming members of it, traces its origins to Baltimore’s German Jewish community of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, when that population unapologetically embraced the structure of the across-town Protestant society. Barred from joining it, they simply imitated.

Detail from an 1866 color lithograoh depicting “The Masquerade Ball of the Harmony Circle.” Gift of Mrs. Albert N. Bacharach, JMM 1990.44.1.

Detail from an 1866 color lithograoh depicting “The Masquerade Ball of the Harmony Circle.” Gift of Mrs. Albert N. Bacharach, JMM 1990.44.1.

The first dancing school for the children of Baltimore’s wealthy German Jews was founded in 1860. In October of that year, the school held its first dance for the children and their parents in Old Oak Hall on East Baltimore, and a tradition was born. Beginning with this first ball, the group adopted the name “Harmony Circle.” The ball, which became an annual event and the highlight of Jewish society’s social season, was an attempt to borrow from the cachet of the “Harmonie Club” in New York, which, beginning in the 1850s and at least for another century, was the most prestigious of the Herman Jewish New York social clubs.

Baltimore’s Harmony Circle would become not only a showcase for the dancing school students, but also for its debutante ball, where the daughters of the member families would “come out” and be introduced to the sons of the members. The founding officers of Baltimore’s Harmony Circle were Louis Hecht, Charles Brownold, Nathan Hirshberg, Charles G. Hutzler, and Bernard Behrens.

A grand dame of the patrician Jewish world, Mrs. Stanford (Marie) Rothschild, writing in a 1969 memoir, explained why she thought the German Jews of that time started their own dancing school and debutante balls: “When the old Baltimore German Jewish families had gained status, they thought it time to have formal status socially. Not being eligible for the Protestants’ Junior Assembly, they decided to have a similar set for what they thought were important Jewish families.” Although the Jewish debutante “coming out” parties were abandoned in the late 1930s as the German Jewish community refocused its attentions on the developing tragedy of German Jewry, the descendants of that founding generation stayed together, holding on to their inherited status as the “in crowd,” and perpetuating the customs and the ethos by which they wished to be defined.

These descendants of the founders became, loosely, a country within a country; its neighborhoods were Mr. Washington, Upper Park Heights, Eutaw Place, and Lake Drive; the doyennes ruled from the Esplanade and Emersonian apartments; its clubs, the Suburban and the Phoenix; its school, the Park School; its summer camps included Tapawingo and Trippe Lake for girls, Wigwam and Kennebec for boys; its fraternity, Pi Tau PI; its sorority, Sigma Omega Pi. The 13-year-old children, raised within the insular society and now being gently shepherded into the dancing schools, were well-choreographed to move gracefully along a velvet continuum – from cradle to a marriage to “one of us.”

Continue to Part II: Not Always Genteel

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