Small-town Jewish life

Exhibit: A collection touring Maryland gives an intimate look at 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 fortuneteller told them to leave New York City and cross two rivers. They chose the Hudson and the Susquehanna.

Moses Berkowich settled his 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 reception at the Historical Society of Carroll County, the second stop of its state tour.

Barbara Lilly, historical society director, said as soon as she saw the first pieces, she was enthralled with 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.

The exhibit does not shy away from the adversities Jews endured. Several photographs show the "Gentiles Only" signs that marked many establishments through the first half of the 20th century.

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.

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 the Eldersburg attorney, who will be a volunteer tour guide.

Holniker lent a prayer shawl, a silver candelabra and other 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."

The exhibit runs through Feb. 29. Call 410-848-6494.

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