Seeking a Jewish way of life beyond Baltimore

Museum exhibition tells an engaging story of adventurous immigrants

October 13, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

Oh, there are Jews in Cumberland?"

Whether the question is applied to Cumberland or another small town, it often arises among those who primarily associate Maryland's Jewish community with Baltimore.

"There's that element of surprise; you just don't expect it," says Karen Falk, curator of We Call This Place Home: Jewish Life in Maryland's Small Towns, an exhibition that opens today at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

For the past two and a half years, Falk has traveled the state, from the Eastern Shore to Brunswick, from Lonaconing to Havre de Grace, in search of Jewish communities or, in many cases, the vestiges of such communities.

Not only did she comb through archives and search for old synagogues and other landmarks, Falk also conducted dozens of interviews with Jews who grew up in some of Maryland's most isolated outposts as well as places such as Annapolis and Frederick, which can no longer be considered small towns.

After preliminary discussions, Falk and the museum staff determined that the exhibit would focus on identity: What is the experience of those who are "different" when they settle in a provincial town?

"It's a fascinating story, a universal story, that any minority, or anybody in that situation, has to confront," says Falk, who has a master's degree in anthropology and museum studies from the University of Denver and has developed and installed nearly 90 exhibitions in Jewish museums around the country.

Newcomers, she says, no matter what their background, must grapple with the competing challenges of fitting in and sustaining their heritage when they settle in a small town.

Most of Maryland's Jewish immigrants, who, from about 1830 until 1880, came from German-speaking lands and then from Eastern Europe, remained in Baltimore. Yet, an "important minority" found economic opportunity in towns and crossroads across the state, where they established businesses and ingeniously preserved a Jewish way of life.

"You have to make that decision, of finding a way to remain [who you are] that will work in a surrounding community," Falk says. For example, while some small-town Jews gave up observing Jewish dietary laws, "to a surprising extent, others kept kosher under really difficult circumstances." In the days before the Bay Bridge, for example, it took one Eastern Shore family up to seven hours to drive to Baltimore for kosher meat.

In addition to her own research, Falk also relied on scholars Eric L. Goldstein, an Annapolis native and expert on the history of Jews in Maryland; and Lee Shai Weissbach, who provided a national context for the small-town and rural Jewish experience.

In an essay for the exhibit catalog, Goldstein tells of the newcomers who "pursued the promise of America not in the immigrant districts of Baltimore or New York, but in the mining towns, railroading centers, seaside villages, and marketing points across the state."

While Jews were present in Maryland during Colonial times, the "first signs of organized Jewish life outside of Baltimore" appeared in the 1850s and 1860s in the state's Western railroad towns, Goldstein writes.

Decades later, Hagerstown became a hub for peddlers of Eastern European descent, who "often covered between 80 and 100 miles per trip, carrying shoulder packs four feet in diameter into Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia before returning, usually subsisting on cheese and eggs and sleeping in barns."

Eastern Europeans also came to Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore as "the increased desire for ready-made goods created an opportunity for Jews to bring these items to isolated farmers and watermen who had not previously been able to obtain them," Goldstein writes.

In his essay, Goldstein cites a 1902 survey that "estimated that out of 26,500 Jews in the state, only 1,500 ... lived outside of Baltimore."

When a father or brother gained a foothold, he would bankroll his son or sibling, creating a pattern of "chain migration" that allowed the Jewish population to multiply and to expand its presence into neighboring towns.

Baltimore, as distant as it was from Maryland's far-flung Jewish communities, remained the center of Jewish religious, social and cultural life. In his essay, Goldstein tells the tale of Joseph Weiner of St. Inigoes in St. Mary's County. After studying Hebrew and the Torah with his uncle, he and his family traveled to Baltimore in 1929 for Weiner's bar mitzvah. It was the first time he had ever set foot in a synagogue.

Across the state to the west in prosperous Brunswick, though, businessman Victor Kaplon and others built a synagogue in 1919 that even included a mikvah, or ritual bath.

In small Jewish communities, rabbis and business leaders might wear many hats, serving as kosher butcher, Hebrew teacher and cantor in addition to their other responsibilities.

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