Yaazor's children recall vanished colony Russian Jews' shtetl was experiment

December 01, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

A Maryland section article yesterday incorrectly described the writer of a reminiscence about the old Baltimore County community called Yaazor as the "late Benjamin Szold Levin." Mr. Levin still lives in Baltimore.

) The Sun regrets the error

Marian and Rachmiel Tobesman looked stunned as they watched the mechanical shovel digging a hole where their family home once stood.

"It's all gone; it's all built over. There's nothing left now," Mr. Tobesman, 33, said recently as he studied the ranks of new houses and the raw earth of construction.


"We used to walk across there to synagogue. It was all fields, where the woods are now," said his mother, 52, pointing past the construction to a distant tree lined with autumn colors bright against the cold blue sky.

The visit, their first in several years, was a near-benediction for Yaazor, Baltimore County's lost Jewish colony, a place that at its inception could have been the setting for "Fiddler on the Roof," according to one account.

No English was spoken, and Old World habits and customs prevailed, said a 1906 article in The Sun. Russian and Yiddish were the primary languages, according to the 1910 census, which counted 200 residents.

Russian-Jewish immigrants established the agricultural colony about 1903 on a 351-acre tract bought by the Hebrew Colonial Society between Johnnycake Road and the Patapsco River. Three decades later, the experiment was all but over.

Now the last physical traces have been erased as well.

"I'm going to have to get to those people real quick, before they all die, too," Mr. Tobesman said, referring to the list he has collected of people who lived in Yaazor, like his mother, or had family there. He hopes to compile an oral history from their recollections.

Baltimore has been a popular haven for immigrant Jews fleeing Soviet Communist oppression. Jewish Family Services has resettled more than 2,000 people in the last three years and has urged them to assimilate into American life.

It was different 90 years ago for the Jews who fled the pogroms and economic oppression of czarist Russia.

Yaazor and similar communities in Charles County; Vineland, N.J.; Buenos Aires, Argentina, and elsewhere in the United States and abroad were established to disperse the immigrants from the cities into the suburbs and encourage them to pursue new livelihoods.

Even though they weren't farmers, the newcomers to Baltimore County set up an agricultural community and called it Yaazor, Hebrew for "He will help."

The late Benjamin Szold Levin, in a 1975 reminiscence for the Jewish Historical Society, described Yaazor as "a kind of Fiddler-on-the-Roof shtetl [village] in America." It was divided into about 25 narrow parallel plots shaped like boomerangs."

The Sun called the colony "an outgrowth of the desire of some Russian immigrants to find a spot where they may live a secluded life in their own peculiar way, free from the rush and bustle of the world and with a freedom of speech which was impossible in Russia."

According to The Sun article, "the spirit of freedom, cleanliness and industry pervades the whole community. There are no idlers. Everyone is busy in the fields or in the homes. Only the younger children seem to have time to play."

But the late Benjamin C. Rodbell, who grew up in Yaazor and remembered it for the historical society, said the immigrants were unsuited to the farm work, and that the experiment was virtually over by 1931.

Gentiles bought most of the farms and the large farmhouses. The Jews returned to the city, where many of them had been commuting to work.

Today the fields along Johnnycake Road are overgrown or under development for housing. Patapsco State Park took some land, and the Interstate 70 right of way sliced off the southern boundary. The tiny wooden synagogue was reduced to a pile of lumber many years ago and has vanished.

Mr. Rodbell wondered why the settlers went there in the first place. The people worked in the fields and raised stock but, with no agricultural training, "were quite unprepared for that kind of life," he said.

Mr. Tobesman, a rabbi and folklorist, said that Jews were forced into urban trades such as tailoring, peddling and money-lending because they were not allowed to own land in Russia and so had no agricultural experience.

When Yaazor's population had increased, rumors abounded of a clothing factory to come into the neighborhood to take advantage of the immigrants' sewing skills.

Dr. Isaac M. Fein, in his book "The Making of an American Jewish Community: The History of Baltimore Jewry from 1773 to 1920," said that no factory was ever built and, although the immigrants worked hard, "this attempt, like previous ones, was doomed."

"Salvation was not to be found on the land. For most of the immigrants, daily bread was to come from a sewing machine," said the late Dr. Fein, himself a Russian immigrant.

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