Recounting Jewish life in a small town

Exhibit: A collection touring Maryland gives intimate perspective on families who settled here.

January 11, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

From foreign lands and America's teeming cities they came, these Jewish peddlers and traders, setting up shop in Maryland's small towns as the 19th century waned.

One Jewish merchant traveled from Russia by way of Alaska, ultimately starting a business in Frostburg, because that is where his horse died sometime around 1890. Another Jewish family opened a shop in Havre de Grace, after a Coney Island fortune teller told them to leave New York City and cross two rivers. They chose the Hudson and the Susquehanna.

Moses Berkowich settled his expansive family in Westminster. He farmed while his wife and daughters ran a small grocery attached to their home. A few blocks away, Solomon Kann opened on the city's Main Street a "mammoth establishment," a branch of his Baltimore drygoods store. Nearby, the owner of H. Rosenstock Clothier was so beloved his customers called him "Pop" and few knew his first name.

Those nostalgic details come from a traveling exhibit titled We Call This Place Home: Jewish Life in Maryland's Small Towns. Produced by the Jewish Museum of Maryland, the exhibit showcases antique photographs, heirlooms and first-person reminiscences. It opens today in Westminster with a formal reception at the Historical Society of Carroll County, the second stop of its statewide tour. While in Cumberland last fall, the exhibit drew several hundred visitors, organizers said.

Barbara Lilly, historical society director, said as soon as she saw the first pieces, she was enthralled by the exhibit. It fills the first floor of the Kimmey House, which is adjacent to society's offices on Main Street.

"I loved the `where the horse died' tale because it showed the limits of transportation more than 100 years ago," Lilly said. "It makes sense that so many of these merchants ended up in small settlements. Many of them started out as peddlers and finally could go no farther."

The exhibit features many photos of those peddlers with their horse-drawn wagons, one of whom also performed circumcisions for Jewish families. The museum has one "mohel's" circumcision 30-year record book that begins in 1830.

Morton Kaplon of Brunswick wrote an account of the difficulties his grandfather encountered trying to keep kosher while he sold his wares along the state's back roads.

"He ate crackers, drank water and slept in barns for years," Kaplon wrote in an account included in the exhibit.

According to the Jewish Museum of Maryland, "Jews were often viewed by the townspeople with curiosity and uneasiness. At the same time, they were welcomed for the goods that towns needed and wanted."

Karen Falk, director of the Baltimore-based museum, spent nearly three years amassing the collection and derived much of it from personal accounts.

"Oral history was really the primary avenue of research," Falk said. "People were extra generous with their time and memories. That was the fun of doing this, the many people I talked to. We think museums are all about objects, but the stories are such a part of any collection."

The research showed the place Jewish families held in commercial, social and political life of towns. They eventually built synagogues and Hebrew schools, held elected office and led the commercial life. In Cumberland, Jewish establishments so dominated the business district that "the whole town shut down for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur," according to an account by Leonard Schwab.

Joseph Hirsh was elected Cumberland's commissioner of streets and public works in 1912 and later served as acting mayor. Nearly 80 years later, Paul Gordon was elected mayor of Frederick. His photo in a bunny suit attending an Easter celebration in the city is part of the exhibit. The collages of town life also feature campaign literature from the 2002 campaign Kenneth Holniker ran for the House of Delegates in Carroll County.

"So that's where my bumper stickers ended up," said Holniker, an Eldersburg attorney, who will be a volunteer tour guide while the exhibit is in Carroll County.

Holniker, who helped found Beth Shalom, the county's first Jewish congregation, also lent a prayer shawl, a silver candelabra and other family heirlooms to be on display.

"I wanted my family things here," he said. "I was impressed with the factual displays and I am proud of Carroll County for promoting this. I think it shows that Jews have done well in preserving their heritage and contributing to their communities."

George Murphy of Sykesville called the exhibit "well thought-out, diverse and informative." He was particularly interested in an 1846 document signed by Moses Hutzler, whose family established a Baltimore department store chain that flourished through the 1980s. To become an American citizen, Hutzler had to officially renounce allegiance to the King of Prussia.

"This exhibit lets people know that Jews were as much a part of small town America as they were a part of the cities," Murphy said.

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