Second Cousins, Card Parties, and Chickens in the Back Yard: Family Life and Jewish Community in Rural Maryland Part 5

Posted on January 22nd, 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 V: Summers in Baltimore
Miss the beginning? Start here.

 The young woman from Easton cited another influence that helped her maintain a Jewish identify: spending summers with relative sin Baltimore. In fact, kinship ties to the big city have played a major role in the lives of Jews in Maryland’s rural areas and small towns. The summer visit to Baltimore relatives has been a constant in small-town Jewish family life through the years, though the trip has become considerably shorter over time. Bar and bat mitzvah preparation, kosher food buying, securing a rabbi for weddings or other events – all have been made easier by the family connections that most small-town Jews have to Baltimore (or, as sometimes has been the case in western Maryland, to Pittsburgh). Perhaps above all, Baltimore has been a crucial source of “new blood” for the communities, since marriages among local families were limited by the fact that so many were related to each other. As Alvin Grollman succinctly put it, “We all went to Baltimore to find our wives. The big city was good for that.”[1]

Of course, Baltimore also acted as a powerful magnet pulling people away from small towns. For every young person who found a mate and returned home, there were more who stayed to enjoy the opportunities and benefits of city life. Many families moved to the city when their children reached their late teens, fearing that the dearth of eligible Jewish mates would lead to intermarriage. But there can be no question that having extended family in Baltimore helped sustain Jewish life in rural Maryland.

The Hirsches of Havre de Grace continue the tradition of extended family life among small-town Jews. JMM 2002.5.8.

The Hirsches of Havre de Grace continue the tradition of extended family life among small-town Jews. JMM 2002.5.8.

Ultimately, despite help from their big-city relatives, small-town Jews mostly had their own determination and their local extended families to thank for their ability to maintain a Jewish way of life. And despite (or perhaps, because of) the distinctly non-Jewish atmosphere of their towns, family life in rural areas could be seen as impressively Jewish, since almost all religious and social activities were carried out within a family setting.

Since the 1950s, the exodus from small town to big city has accelerated. But occasionally the move is in the opposite direction, and the reason often has something to do with family. When Joan Gelrud left New York City for Bethesda in the 1970s, even that thriving suburb seemed “small townish” to her. When she got to St. Mary’s County, “I thought it was out of a novel. But we had family here and my husband had a thriving business, and I got pregnant and my children’s grandparents were here and aunts and uncles, and it seemed like it could be a good thing for a starting family situation.” In recent years, she’s been president of the local congregation, and again, family has been a key motivation: “I think I do more because we’re here. Because it’s not so easy, you make more of an effort. I like that my kids see that.”[2]

~The End~

[1] Tomchin, “Looking Back with Pride”; Jacobs, “There Really ARE Jews on the Eastern Shore.”

[2] Joan Gerlund, interview with Karen Falk, Lexington Park, Md., 19 October 2000 (JMM OH 0384).

 

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Second Cousins, Card Parties, and Chickens in the Back Yard: Family Life and Jewish Community in Rural Maryland Part 4

Posted on January 17th, 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 IV: A Do-It-Yourself Attitude
Miss the beginning? Start here.

While life cycle events offer a good example of the porous boundary between family and community, day-to-day religious observance in rural areas tended, out of necessity, to be more family-based than in large cities. Of course, much of traditional Jewish practice takes place within the home, but families in more remote places had also to take upon themselves tasks that, in larger communities, are performed by religious functionaries. Often they did not have the services of a schochet,  but a surprising number manged to keep kosher using a “do-it-yourself” approach. Jews who grew up in rural Maryland in the first half of the century recall how their merchant-fathers made a special trip to Baltimore to become trained in the methods of ritual slaughtering so they could provide kosher meat for their own and neighboring families. In Salisbury, noted Bernice Dattelbaum, her father, prominent merchant I.L. Benjamin, “was one of a handful of men” who slaughtered chickens in the family back yard. In St. Mary’s county, Bea Shuman Sadowsky explained, “Max Weiner in Beechville was the first schochet. When he died, my father was selected … So he went to Baltimore and was trained.”[1]

The Kaplon family, Brunswick, c. 1895. JMM 2001.82.1.

The Kaplon family, Brunswick, c. 1895. JMM 2001.82.1.

The efforts of merchant-schochets were supplemented with imported goods. Families organized occasional trips to Baltimore to obtain kosher food, especially before holidays. Sometimes food was delivered via train, bus, or even steamboat. Sidney Schreter of Havre de Grace described a typical cobbling together of strategies: “We had meat sent in from Baltimore, we raised our own chickens in the yard, and of course the [family] business manager was the schochet. On the High Holidays he and I would always go to Baltimore.”[2]

A do-it-yourself attitude also prevailed when it came to religious instruction of the children. Before the advent of synagogues and Sunday schools, some families sent sons to Baltimore to be trained for their bar mitzvahs, but others were committed to educating their children at home. With fathers devoting most of their time to their businesses, this task often fell to the mothers. As Alvin Grollman explained, growing up on the upper Eastern Shore in the 1930s and 1940s, “I never had any trouble being a Jew. My mother was very learned and she taught us.” Lena Grollman must have devoted considerable time to this pursuit, since all four of her sons had bar mitzvahs. Families also enlisted their kin networks. Joseph Weiner of St. Inigoe’s received instruction from his Uncle Max in nearby Beechville. The schoolroom was his uncle’s general store, and lessons took place in between waiting on customers. When the boy appeared in a Baltimore shul on the morning of his bar mitzvah (after an all-night trip with his family), it was the first time he had ever seen the inside of a synagogue.[3]

In Pocomoke, even bringing in a paid teacher involved extended family resources and local family participation. Recalled Mary Miller Weinman, “We [told] my grandfather in Baltimore he should go [to the dock] when the ship comes in and to see a fella who’s educated in Yiddish and who wants to be teacher, he’d have a job right away and he’d send him to Pocomoke. And he stayed in our house and he’d have his room and board and $25 a month!”[4]

The Rosenbaum family of Cumberland, c. 1935. Courtesy of Louise Miller, Simon and Stuart Rosenbaum, Frederika Rosenbaum Krall, and Morris Rosenbaum, L2000.109.28.

The Rosenbaum family of Cumberland, c. 1935. Courtesy of Louise Miller, Simon and Stuart Rosenbaum, Frederika Rosenbaum Krall, and Morris Rosenbaum, L2000.109.28.

Intense parental involvement in their children’s Jewish upbringing remained an important facet of small-town family life even after the advent of synagogues and Sunday schools. As Judy Edlavitch Scher explained in a 1980s Baltimore Jewish Times article, “In a place like Baltimore you have to give your kids a Jewish education but you don’t have to worry about the cultural part, it’s all around you. Here, though, you have to teach the educational and the cultural part.” With the influence of Christianity much more pronounced than in large cities, parents did not have the luxury of simply dropping their children off for classes and celebrating holidays. “The Jewish community of the upper Eastern Shore has survived because of those parents who cared enough about their Judaism to actively instill it in their children in their own homes,” observed a 1970s Baltimore Jewish Times article, quoting a young Easton woman who emphasized that “the key to her Jewishness was her parents’ dedication to it. ‘The synagogue was there but still had to be reinforced by my parents in our home.’”[5]

Continue to Part V: Summers in Baltimore

[1] Anne Miller, “A Jewish Way of Life on the Shore,” Baltimore Sun, 10 May 1998; Sadowsky interview.

[2] Phil Jacobs, “There Really ARE Jews on the Eastern Shore,” Baltimore Jewish Times, 16 August 1985; Schreter interview.

[3] Jacobs, “There Really ARE Jews on the Eastern Shore”; Goldstein, “Beyond Lombard Street,” 37-38.

[4] Mary Miller Weinman, interview with Helen Sollins and Moses Auerbach, 14 May 1979 (JMM OH 0093).

[5] Jacobs, “There Really ARE Jews on the Eastern Shore”; Susan Tomchin, “Looking Back with Pride and Ahead with Doubt,” Baltimore Jewish Times, 24 September 1976.

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Second Cousins, Card Parties, and Chickens in the Back Yard: Family Life and Jewish Community in Rural Maryland Part 3

Posted on January 15th, 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 III: Social Visiting
Miss the beginning? Start here.

Through the years, economic imperatives and kinship ties combined with pressing communal needs to ensure that community and family life remained deeply intertwined. Not all extended families were close; geographic distance, the pressures of assimilation, the all-consuming drive for economic success, and family feuds were some of the forces that could cause small-town Jews to become isolated from one another. But a strong desire to maintain Jewish practice, identity, and community encouraged them to rely on each other in ways that gave a particular cast to Jewish family life, as immediate and extended families responded to the challenge of being Jewish in a very non-Jewish environment.

Social visiting among small-town Jews invariably involved extended family. In this 1907 photo, the extended Cohen family enjoys a sunny day on the upper Shore. Courtesy of Janice Rudo, L2002.27.1

Social visiting among small-town Jews invariably involved extended family. In this 1907 photo, the extended Cohen family enjoys a sunny day on the upper Shore. Courtesy of Janice Rudo, L2002.27.1

Lacking synagogues in the first half of the century, Jews on the Eastern Shore and in St. Mary’s County held communal activities in their homes, from gathering a minyan for services to holding weddings and bar mitzvahs. Life cycle events combined a homey, family-based feeling with the solemnity required to mark a community milestone. The 1913 St. Mary’s County wedding of Max Weiner and Sadie Schochet was held at the home of the bride’s cousins, Max and Lena Millison. Local Jewish families joined with gentile friends as well as a rabbi and relatives imported from Baltimore to witness a ceremony that “began in the parlor and was concluded under a canopy erected for the occasion under the porch,” reported a local newspaper. After the “strictly” Orthodox ceremony, “an elaborate and handsomely prepared supper … was served in true Hebrew fashion, which was enjoyed immensely by the 100 or more guests.” The preparations leading up to such home-centered extravaganza can only be imagined. Recalling his mid-1910s “five-day bar mitzvah” at his family’s home in Havre de Grace, Sidney Schreter marveled that “my mother did all the cooking. She must have cooked for weeks before!”[1]

Historian Eric Goldstein notes that an “elaborate pattern of ‘social visiting’” among interrelated small-town Jews constituted “perhaps [their] single most important social activity,” allowing them to “escape, at least temporarily, from the rigors of living in isolation from Jewish society.”  More formal communal events such as weddings and bar mitzvahs also took on a symbolic significance beyond their usual meaning. Goldstein suggests that small-town Jews “used elaborate wedding celebrations to underscore their ability to nurture Jewish family and social life.” Such major events demonstrated that “the community could stage a full-blown Jewish celebration, that it need not send its members to Baltimore to get married, and that Jewish continuity was possible in a small-town context.”[2]

Many of Maryland’s small-town Jewish congregations eventually built synagogues that became the focal point of communal activity. In 1920s and 1930s Cumberland, Elaine Jandorf recalled, “it was the center of their life, that little synagogue. And everybody was related, they were all friends, they played cards together …” For Miller and Heilig descendants on the lower Shore, major life cycle events occurred several times a year when Barry Spinak was a youngster. “It was a big family and we all went to everything,” he commented.[3]

Life cycle events marked not only important occasions in one's family life, but important milestones in communal survival. The bar mitzvah invitation of Hessel Kotzin, Annapolis, 1921. JMM 2001.113.21.

Life cycle events marked not only important occasions in one’s family life, but important milestones in communal survival. The bar mitzvah invitation of Hessel Kotzin, Annapolis, 1921. JMM 2001.113.21.

The bar mitzvah of Howard Feldstein, Cumberland, 1949. Courtesy of Howard and Ana Feldstein, L2002.83.1.

The bar mitzvah of Howard Feldstein, Cumberland, 1949. Courtesy of Howard and Ana Feldstein, L2002.83.1.

Continue to Part IV: A Do-It-Yourself Attitude

[1] St. Mary’s Enterprise, 29 November 1913; Sidney Schreter, interview with Gertrude Nitzberg, Baltimore, 18 March 1977 (JMM OH 0051).

[2] Eric L. Goldstein, “Beyond Lombard Street: Jewish Life in Maryland’s Small Towns,” in We Call This Place Home (Baltimore: Jewish Museum of  Maryland, 2002), 41, 48.

[3] Elaine Jandorf, interview with Jacqueline Donowitz, Baltimore, 15 November 2000 (OH 0392); Spinak 2001 interview.

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