A Jewish way of life on the shore Tiny communities forged years ago remain strong

May 10, 1998|By Anne Miller

In the town of Pocomoke (population 8,365) on the Eastern Shore, on a narrow street by the tiny downtown area, sits a small one-room building that is more than 50 years old. It's the Shore's first synagogue, and soon it was followed by others in nearby Salisbury and Easton.

Although several families were instrumental in starting Jewish communities on the Shore, their stories are almost identical. About 100 years ago, several patriarchs arrived from Baltimore and Philadelphia. Some worked as peddlers, others worked as kosher butchers or in similar trades. They settled down, opened businesses and brought their Jewish heritage to new communities.

First in Pocomoke, then in Salisbury and Easton, these Jewish men and their families, maybe 100 people in all, banded together form synagogues and to establish a Jewish way of life for themselves in the small towns. They formed communities that, while small, were strong. Strong enough that although many Jews have moved away, or intermarried, almost all the founding members of the Jewish communities on the Shore have descendants keeping the faith there, such as my family.

For the past few years, I have lived in Washington, and spent some time in Baltimore, New Jersey and Manhattan. But it wasn't until I went to Germany and Eastern Europe - to Munich, Budapest, Krakow, Prague, Moscow - that I found other Jewish students, and communities, most like my hometown. Their stories of growing up Jewish in formerly Communist Eastern Europe are more similar to mine than most other American Jews': places where Jews are a tiny minority in an predominantly Christian area, where few people outside the Jewish community know what Judaism is, where the existence of an active synagogue community often seems tenuous, and where those who are Jewish struggle to define themselves in terms of their religion, what it means to them, and how they want to practice it (or not).

No matter whom I talked to in Europe, however, from high school students to octogenarian rabbis, almost all said they accept their Jewish identity, and often welcome it, as Judaism is at the core of their identity - despite living where there is often pressure to assimilate because the Christian culture is so pervasive. Much like those of us from the Eastern Shore.

I grew up in Salisbury's Jewish community, part of a Jewis heritage in the state with roots that date back to some of the earliest Colonial settlers here. In 1627, Kent Island, in present-day Queen Anne's County, became home to the first English settlement in Maryland. Judaism was represented in the colony at least as early as 1658, the year Jacob Lumbrozo, a Portuguese Jew, was brought to trial under a provision of the 1649 Act Concerning Religion that affirmed freedom of religious practices to all those except "non-Trinitarians," or non-Christians. The case was neglected, however, and thrown out eight days later with the death of Oliver Cromwell, the tyrannical Puritan who was ruling England.

Over the years, the Eastern Shore's population grew and its culture reflected its Native American, European and African-American roots. Jewish culture did not take root until around the start of the 20th century, when Jewish families migrated there. The history of Jewish communities on the Shore is relatively new and it has been painstakingly recorded.

Around the turn of the century, Faivel Heilig and Samuel Feldman moved to Pocomoke and Salisbury, respectively, three years and 30 miles apart. They became leaders of their communities.

Heilig was a butcher and a liturgical singer, or cantor. His niece already lived in Pocomoke.

"She convinced him he was needed here, so he served as a leader and provided kosher meat," said Dr. Barry Spinak, 45, a family doctor who grew up in Pocomoke and now lives in Salisbury. Spinak maintains Pocomoke's small synagogue, and he has extensively researched his family tree, including Heilig, his great-grandfather.

Heilig opened a butcher shop and helped establish a congregation that met first in his house, then in others' on a rotating basis. Some 40 years later, the Jews in Pocomoke could finally afford a full-time rabbi.

In Easton and Pocomoke, one-room synagogues were built in 1947, and about eight years later they lost their rabbis as many synagogue members moved to growing, more prosperous Salisbury, or even to Baltimore.

Feldman left Pottstown, Pa., for Salisbury in 1904 to sell housewares door-to-door. Two years later, he opened a furniture store at the base of the downtown plaza that remained family-owned until my father, Feldman's grandson, David Miller, closed it last year. By the 1920s, half the little wood-andbrick three-story buildings lining the plaza were occupied by Jewish merchants and their wares, from groceries to clothing to pharmaceuticals. During holidays, the men prayed together in rooms above their stores.

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