Thanksgiving Eve Festivities in Baltimore, 1920s-30s

Posted on November 21st, 2018 by

A blog post by Director of Collections and Exhibits Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

Happy Thanksgiving Eve! It’s traditionally the busiest travel day of the year in the US (though the Sunday afterward has taken the top spot in recent years), and apparently it is now a big party night, too.  I feel like “Thanksgiving Eve” wasn’t really a thing when I was younger, but as our archives attest, many decades ago it was definitely an occasion for partying.

The large clipping is from the Baltimore Sun, Nov 30, 1922; the smaller one is likely from the Jewish Times. Gift of Adelaide Altman Habel. JMM 2013.27.10-.11

Miss Hilda Brager was presented at the 65th (!) annual Harmony Circle Thanksgiving Eve Ball on Wednesday, November 29th, 1922, at the Hotel Belvedere, Baltimore.  She saved two newspaper clippings about the event and, even better, her teeny-tiny, much-folded dance card, in which her partners for each dance were noted in pencil:

Not a lot of variety in the dances – simply the fox trot, one-step, waltz, and “combination,” no tango or lindy hop on offer here! But Miss Brager did not lack for partners. The unidentified “JHS” appears twice.  Dance card interior, gift of Adelaide Altman Habel. JMM 2013.27.11

The Harmony Circle was a German Jewish social club founded in 1860 (though if the Sun article headline is correct, they’d been holding the deb ball since 1857), largely for the purposes of introducing young ladies to society and, ideally, to a nice Jewish boy to marry.  (For what it’s worth, Hilda did not marry any of her dance partners from this evening; her eventual husband’s name was Nehemiah Altman.)

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The Harmony Circle was not the only game in town. On November 23, 1927, B’nai B’rith hosted the “event of the season” at the Southern Hotel (only two dollars a couple!) on Thanksgiving Eve.

Flyer for the B’nai B’rith ball, 1927. Anonymous gift. JMM 1990.108.3

Unfortunately, at the moment little else is known about this event, but I hope it was a good time.

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The Junior Assembly of Baltimore joined the festivities by the late 1930s, hosting their Thanksgiving Eve Ball at the Hotel Belvedere on November 22, 1939.

Program for the Junior Assembly ball, 1939. Gift of Isaac Hecht (who served as Treasure of the organization that year). JMM 1993.179.18

This event sounds quite fancy, with “the Beau Brummel of Dance America, Charles Barnet” and “the glamorous Judy Ellington” providing the music, and a breakfast served starting at 1:30 a.m. Please note, if you’re thinking of joining in, tickets are $1.50 per person, and “Full Evening Dress is Obligatory.” I must admit, if I had to choose one of these three parties to attend tonight, this would be it.

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So, however you choose to celebrate the night before Thanksgiving – be it on the road, quietly at home, or on the town – stay safe and have fun!

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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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A Club of Their Own: Suburban and Woodholme Through the Years, Part 1

Posted on September 25th, 2017 by

generations 2004Article by Dr. Deborah R. Weiner. 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: Uptown and Downtown – A Little Social Background

There are two things everyone seems to know about Baltimore’s Jewish country clubs. First, wealthy Jews of German ancestry founded the Suburban Club because they could not get into non-Jewish country clubs. Second, the “German” Jews would not let the “Russian” Jews in to their club, and so the Russians started their own, the Woodholme Country Club.

Both these things happen to be true. But is that all there is to be said about the city’s two oldest Jewish country clubs? Certainly not. Suburban and Woodholme span a hefty chunk of Baltimore Jewish history. They have changed with the times, in ways that have reflected not only the development of the Jewish community, but also trends in American society. More than simply playgrounds for the privileged or icons of status, they are dynamic institutions whose story helps to tell us who we are.

That story begins more than one hundred years ago. By 1900, Baltimore’s German Jewish community was over a half-century old. Its members, many far removed from their immigrant origins, had blended in to the business and civic life of the city. Socially, however, they moved in their own separate sphere. Although Jews mixed with gentiles in fraternal clubs such as the Masons and Odd Fellows, most of their organized social activities occurred in a separate, parallel universe to non-Jews.[1]

A number of Jewish clubs met the social and recreational needs of the community, with the wealthiest and oldest-established families creating their own institutions at the pinnacle of Jewish society. These included the in-town Phoenix Club for men (founded in 1886) and the Harmony Circle debutante balls (begun in the 1860s), where “daughters of the right families could meet sons of the right families,” in author Gil Sandler’s words. Jews constructed their own social hierarchy partly because they were not welcome in gentile high society. As social leader Marie Rothschild once explained, “not being eligible for the non-Jewish Junior Assembly,” wealthy Jews “decided to have a similar set-up.”[2] But internal factors as well circumscribed the social world of upper-crust German Jewry: business and family ties, a desire for their children to marry within the Jewish faith, and affinity with people of similar background.

This affinity did not extend to the Eastern European immigrants who began to make their presence felt in the late nineteenth century. Jewish Baltimore had become socially stratified well before they appeared, but class differences among German Jews began to seem less and less relevant in the face of the social chasm that existed between the established Jewish population and the tide of foreigners whose language, customs, appearance, poverty, and even religion bore little resemblance to the American Jewish lifestyle. Now there were two Jewish communities: the “uptown” German Jews and the “downtown” Russian Jews.

Continue to Part II: A Rural Retreat

Notes:

[1] Isaac M. Fein, The Making of an American Jewish Community: The History of Baltimore Jewry from 1773 to 1920 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1971).

[2] Gilbert Sandler, Jewish Baltimore: A Family Album (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 46-47.

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