Baltimore's long thread of Jewry Author: Philip Kahn's family history illustrates the city's history of Jewish immigration.

November 12, 1997|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Family. A visitor cannot enter Philip Kahn Jr.'s apartment on North Charles Street and ignore what family and family history mean to him and Betsey, his wife of 50 years.

Portraits of Betsey Kahn's great-grandparents, Moses and namesake Betsey Wiesenfeld, hang in the living room. Exquisite, 19th-century needlepoints created by ancestors in school also grace the Kahn residence, as do images of two grown daughters and a beloved granddaughter.

And everywhere, photographs, school medals, religious items and commercial mementos, including an old lint brush, chronicle the Kahn and Wiesenfeld families, both of which helped to build Baltimore's once-flourishing garment industry.

The Kahns' family ties extend deeply to the city's dynamic Jewish community as well. In his self-published book, "Uncommon Threads: The Fabric of Baltimore Jewish Life" (Pecan Publishing, $19.95), Kahn has brought the same zest for family knowledge to his comprehensive history of Jewish life in Baltimore.

"There was an interesting part of Baltimore Jewish history not known by the present Jewish generation," says Kahn (pronounced "can"), a youthful 80. He felt a need to reconnect young Baltimore Jews to their past.

Like most families, Baltimore's Jewish community knows tension. As in other cities where many thousands of Jewish immigrants settled, first from Germany, then from Eastern Europe, Baltimore bore witness to the uneasy relationship that existed between the two communities.

German Jews tended to be more affluent and class conscious. Eastern European Jews were not well off. German Jews established the garment businesses where Eastern European Jews toiled as laborers. There were separate clubs, social gatherings, night schools.

The founding of Associated Jewish Charities in 1920 signified a newfound unity among Baltimore's Jews. By World War II's conclusion, as Eastern European Jews enjoyed financial success and made a distinctive intellectual and philanthropic impression upon the city, the boundaries had blurred even further.

Without naming names, Kahn offers an exhaustive, grounded and optimistic picture of the city's dynamic and ever-growing Jewish population against the backdrop of the two World Wars, Zionism, the founding of Israel in 1947 and other major milestones.

As a "member of the crowd," Kahn understands the circumstances and limitations his community has had to work with and the greater good both groups have striven for.

"When I started to write the book, I felt eminently qualified to do so," says Kahn, a descendant of German Jews who came to Baltimore from Bavaria in the early 19th century. "I knew so little about total Jewish life [in Baltimore] at that time that I could then be objective."

Reading the book, which captures two centuries of Baltimore Jewry, is not unlike visiting the Kahn apartment. Amid sweeping historic scope, there is mention of the South High Street Public Bath, Baltimore's Yiddish press, crowded East Baltimore rowhouses and other resonant touchstones.

The book also brims with familial references to the role Kahn's family played in Baltimore, including a delightful 1929 remembrance of great-grandmother Betsey: "Any hour of the daylight, you could see her walking briskly, her gray skirts billowing around her stout knees, the dark purple ribbons on her black lace cap flying straightly about her, upon her errands of mercy."

Even during his 40-year career as an executive at men's clothing manufacturer J. Schoeneman, Kahn's love for local history and its artifacts literally drove him around the city. "I would drive around and pick up things," Kahn says.

In 1979, a heart attack and subsequent bypass surgery sidelined Kahn for two years. He retired and mainly stayed at home. "I was afraid of myself," he says.

But his restless mind got the best of him. He joined the board of the Museum of Industry, and a short piece on the garment industry grew into his 1989 book, "A Stitch in Time: The Four Seasons of Baltimore's Needle Trade."

Soon, Kahn was working full throttle again, only now for himself.

He doesn't play golf, watch TV, own a boat, he says, as if he has to justify his avocations. But he has a pile of neatly organized projects in his home office, which is adorned with Kahn's own watercolors and photographs. He would love to tackle a biography of the charismatic Uriah Phillips Levy, first Jewish graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, survivor of six courts-martial and primary owner of the real estate that became Greenwich Village.

"He was a rather obnoxious guy," Kahn says.

Kahn also is busy lecturing and signing his book at gatherings around Baltimore. At one appearance at Bibelot, he sold 117 copies of "Uncommon Threads."

And with the perspective of 200 years, Kahn watches his community continue to evolve and regroup, as hundreds of Orthodox Jews and Russian Jews arrive, setting up a new dynamic rife with its own blessings and tensions.

Local author

What: Author Philip Kahn discussing "Uncommon Threads" at the Jewish Book Festival's Local Authors Day

When: Today at 1 p.m., Jewish Community Center at Owings Mills, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave. Admission is free.

Call: 410-356-5200

Pub Date: 11/12/97

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