A stroll into Jewish history Tour: Through the words and strides of an actress, a Baltimore neighborhood returns to its past as the home of immigrants.

November 16, 1998|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

For a brief time yesterday afternoon, a gritty area east of the Inner Harbor was transformed back to what it was around the turn of the century -- a bustling Jewish community where thousands of immigrants started life anew in America.

The agent of the transformation was Baltimore actress Carol Cohen, who asked participants on a "living history walking tour" to see the neighborhood through the eyes of Bessie Tomashefsky, a great Yiddish actress who lived there at the time.

The hourlong tours, presented by the Jewish Museum of Maryland and sponsored by the Kolker-Saxon-Hallock Family Foundation, have been a big hit. Yesterday was supposed to be the last day for them, but museum officials said the tours may be revived in April or May.

Dressed in period garb, Cohen, as Tomashefsky, talked about life as it was in 1915 in the vibrant Jewish community that existed along East Baltimore and East Lombard streets between Central Avenue and President Street.

The tours started next door to the museum, at the Lloyd Street Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Maryland and third-oldest in the country. There, Cohen, speaking in the Yiddish accent of Tomashefsky, described the struggles of her family after emigrating as "greenhorns" from Russia in 1883.

She talked about life before she became an actress at age 15, selling bananas from baskets at City Hall, stripping tobacco and eventually sewing stockings and later corset buttons at garment factories in the area.

"We came here for the fresh air of liberty, but often the air was anything but fresh. And liberty? Liberty meant the ability to work hard," Cohen said.

As Cohen led a tour group outside to the corner of Lloyd and Lombard streets, she advised participants to watch where they stepped because of the horses. Breathing deeply, she said, "I'm smelling the rye bread and the pickles. My mouth waters just thinking of the pickles."

At Front and Lombard streets, she pointed out the Carroll Mansion, where she had sewn stockings as a young girl. It was one of many sweatshops in the area where people worked from before dawn until after dusk.

Most of the buildings Cohen, as Tomashefsky, pointed out along Baltimore Street were shuttered and empty but she described them as they existed in 1915 -- the Brit Shalom Hall of Baltimore, with its crystal chandeliers and marble floors, and the Hendler Creamery Co's. sparkling new ice cream factory, built in 1912.

Cohen's performance, working from a script written by Sharie Valerio and researched by Dean Krimmel, delighted the people on the two tours yesterday. Each group had about 25 to 30 people.

"She is tremendous," said Casper Sigelman, 82, of Pikesville. He pointed out sites he remembered from his youth, including the building at Exeter and Lombard streets where he got his first haircut.

Sigelman said he grew up nearby on Baltimore Street but moved uptown with his family at age 18 to the Druid Hill area. He said his father was a "merchant tailor" who made suits in the community from about 1905.

"Years ago, we had so much fun as youngsters, without any money," Sigelman said, recalling the Jewish Educational Alliance clubs that competed in basketball, softball and other contests.

People formed lifelong bonds in the clubs, he said.

Linda R. Skolnik, the museum's program director, said the tours started Oct. 25 and were conducted each Sunday through yesterday. The tours have drawn more people than expected, she said, and a second tour was added each of the past two Sundays.

"It's been incredible," Skolnik said. "We're thinking of offering it FTC again in the spring."

Pub Date: 11/16/98

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