Neighborly Acceptance

July 04, 1995|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

Visit Northwest Baltimore on a Saturday morning to watch the parade of Orthodox Jews walking to synagogue on the Sabbath, and it's easy to see an otherworldly, homogeneous hamlet of fervent Judaism.

It only looks that way. Among the area's 20,000 Orthodox Jews -- amid more than two dozen synagogues, kosher restaurants, ritual baths, Orthodox used-car lots and Jewish schools -- are thousands of people living next door to a religious phenomenon.

Legion are the stories told by black people about walking along Park Heights Avenue on a Friday night or Saturday, only to be stopped by a Jew they have never met asking them to come to their houses for a small task that is forbidden on the Sabbath. About 30 percent of the households above the western end of Northern Parkway are African-American. The rest are split about evenly between the Orthodox and everyone else.

Overall, it is likely the most diverse part of town, with Jamaicans, Haitians, Nigerians and other varieties of gentiles, and the entire spectrum of Jewry: from atheists to believers as observant as any on Earth.

Despite scattered tales of hurt feelings over Orthodox aloofness perceived as arrogance, most everyone seems to get along.

"To me, that's all that counts," says Jasper Williams, a black truck driver who moved to Clarinth Road in 1975. "They have strict rules, and they go by their rules."

Often, it is the very rules of Orthodox behavior, baffling to so many of their neighbors, that bind people in relationships that don't exist anywhere else in Baltimore.

When Mr. Williams' son was growing up, he'd mow the lawn of an Orthodox woman across the street on Saturday, the Sabbath on which Jews are forbidden to handle money. The boy couldn't understand why he had to come back after sundown to get his pay.

"I told him just to go back like she said and not to worry about it," said Mr. Williams, who wasn't sure himself what was going on, but knew no one was trying to cheat his family.

And Rosalie Johnson, an outgoing, 65-year-old black Baptist who likes to bid her Fallstaff Road neighbors good day, was stunned when some of the Orthodox men would not return her greetings or look at her.

"I couldn't figure it out," she says. "I knew it couldn't possibly be race."

Rules of modesty

It was religion: rules of modesty governing relations between Jewish men and nearly all women outside their immediate family, rules interpreted so rigidly at times that some men will not ask friends how their wives are doing.

Agitated enough to press for an explanation, Mrs. Johnson was accepting of the modesty answer -- "I don't know if I'd ever agree with them, but I understand," she said -- and went on with the business of being a good neighbor.

Extending common courtesies has as much to do with personality as religion, with the usual mix of sweet and sour folks among the Orthodox as anyone else.

Every March, when Jews masquerade to celebrate the ancient victory of Queen Esther over Persian oppressors, Mrs. Johnson enjoys Purim confections delivered to her door. When asked to turn off a light or to turn down a stove on the Sabbath, it is as familiar to her as someone asking to borrow a cup of sugar.

"It's OK now," she says. "I've never had a cross word with anyone."

In a 3,500-year-old faith driven by 613 laws, it takes a lifetime of study for most Jews to know why every little thing is done just so. It's no wonder that their average next-door neighbor is often puzzled.

Cries for help

One rainy Friday night a few years ago in Cheswolde, a middle-aged Jewish doctor who hasn't practiced Judaism since his teens, was roused by cries of help. Fearing one of his elderly neighbors was having a heart attack, he raced across the street in his stocking feet, only to a find a dining room of Orthodox Jews helpless before a blaze.

A roast had somehow caught fire and because it was the Sabbath, on which it is forbidden to start or extinguish a flame, all were reluctant to put it out.

The doctor's house call consisted of grabbing an extinguisher and dousing a fire that already had blackened the ceiling.

The story was later recounted for elderly Holocaust survivors who said: "No Jews are like that."

Throughout Northwest Baltimore, where Upper Park Heights, Cheswolde, Mount Washington and Greenspring have combined for one of the premier Orthodox communities in the United States, many Jews are like this.

Although nearly every Jewish law may be broken when human life is in danger -- and many Orthodox would have snuffed the burning brisket long before the flames reached the ceiling -- the story symbolizes the devotion to the God of Israel in Northwest Baltimore.

It's a part of town with an older, suburban feel, with rowhouses and semidetached houses, several thousand apartment units, cottages from the '40s and '50s, brick ranchers, swathes of green, and stone homes that would not be out of place in Guilford.

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