Fact detective knows all about Md. synagogues

December 02, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

If your parents worshiped at an old synagogue on Barclay Street in East Baltimore that you've lost track of, there's a new directory that keeps track of every Jewish congregation in Maryland.

"Synagogues, Temples and Congregations of Maryland 1830-1990" is the work of Earl Pruce, one of the most meticulous research librarians this city has ever produced.

Mr. Pruce is a fact detective who can track down any footnote of Baltimore history. If an event was ever recorded in a newspaper, book or pamphlet, or on a microfilm frame, he will unearth it.

Mr. Pruce's first published book took seven years of painstaking work. It was begun out of the retiree's personal frustration at not being able to put his finger on reference material about synagogues. He said he encountered a "lack of records, inaccurate lists and directories, often with misprints, conflicting dates and congregations with similar names." He set out to get the facts, fully indexed with a glossary, so anyone can unravel a piece of the history of Jewish worship in Maryland.

Mr. Pruce, who is 83, earned his research credentials during 43 years in the library of the News American newspaper. He joined the Baltimore American briefly in 1927 as the personal copy boy of the managing editor. He left to study piano and returned in 1931 and became chief reference librarian, presiding over a newspaper clipping and photo domain that numbered about 10 million pieces.

All the while he was building his own library and collection of Baltimore history. On his days off, he often went to the Enoch Pratt Free Library, where he also worked during World War II, and pored over microfilm.

"A lot of the information wasn't easy to find," he says. "And there were cases when I wrote letters to a congregation and did not get a reply. This was the most discouraging," Mr. Pruce said the other day, seated in the library in his Park Heights Avenue apartment.

While his highly annotated roster of Park Heights Avenue and Old Court Road synagogues are familiar landmarks today, not many people know there were once houses of worship on Barclay, Biddle, Poplar Grove, Poppleton and Stricker streets in Baltimore.

Often, a small number of families who operated neighborhood businesses founded synagogues that did not have the permanency of Baltimore Hebrew, Beth Israel, Beth Jacob, Beth Tfiloh, B'nai Israel, Chizuk Amuno, Har Sinai, Liberty Jewish Center, Shaarei Tfiloh, Shaarei Zion and Temple Oheb Shalom.

Some of the synagogues lasted for several generations, then merged or dissolved. Mr. Pruce's book records their Baltimore presence, often with graceful notes and charming anecdotes culled from far-flung sources.

He lists a small trailer in Wango, Wicomico County, where rabbis from Brooklyn, N.Y., held services and supervised operations at a nearby kosher chicken processing plant. He also tells about the congregations that rented the long forgotten Osceola Hall at 113 N. Gay St.

The author credits his wife, Betty Fox Pruce, for standing behind him during the long days he spent researching ancient documents. "She unselfishly allowed me the opportunity to preserve all the research and writing," he says.

His wife just smiles at her husband and recalls their 60 years of marriage.

"Earl is a modest man," Mrs. Pruce says. "He won't tell you he is also a wonderful piano player. When we were first married and living in Waverly, he'd sit down and play 'The Poet and Peasant Overture' or Sigmund Romberg's melodies from 'The Student Prince.' " She then breaks into one of her wide smiles and returnes to the kitchen to make one more batch of her excellent apple-cherry-coconut strudel.

The book has enabled Mr. Pruce to have his name on a work as author. In past years, he was the patient researcher for authors writing books on St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Wallis Warfield, the Duchess of Windsor.

Mr. Pruce's book is all text and indexes, save for two excellent photographs. One is a rare photo of the Lloyd Street Synagogue as it appeared in 1864. It was in the files of master Baltimore collector Ross J. Kelbaugh.

The other photo, by Jerry Esterson, is of the holy ark built in 1870 for Temple Oheb Shalom. The ark was later given to the Anshe Emunah Congregation at 513 S. Hanover St.

Mr. Pruce's 248-page, $15 book is a publication of the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland and was funded through the Zanvyl and Isabelle Krieger Fund.

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