Jewish community rediscovers its roots

Revival: After a 10-year hiatus, a festival celebrates the group's history in the city.

September 06, 2004|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

Bernard Bliden affixed the blue label to the downtown map, marking his old stomping grounds. It was just a piece of paper scrawled with his last name, but Bliden felt a sense of pride placing it there at the corner of Lombard and Spring streets - the heart of his old Jewish neighborhood.

"It was a phenomenal place," he said. "We always had friends in and out of the house. A family friend lived around the corner and would always make this big, huge apple cake. Things like that were so great."

Bliden, 82, who now lives in Florida, lapsed into childhood memory yesterday at the Jewish-American Festival, which returned to Hopkins Square after a 10-year hiatus. The festival continues through 7 p.m. today.

For festivalgoers like Bliden who have long moved out of the old neighborhood, the event was an opportunity to take in a celebration of Jewish culture and religion that the city hasn't seen for a decade.

The map of Baltimore's historic Jewish community was part of an information table for B'nai Israel, which calls itself the longest continuously operating traditional Orthodox synagogue in Maryland.

Constructed at its Lloyd Street location in 1876, the synagogue has remained, although many of the Jewish families of Bliden's era have moved north and west of the city's core. The map provided visitors an opportunity to reconnect the dots of the neighborhood's history.

"There were maybe 50 synagogues across downtown and East Baltimore before World War II," said Fred Shoken, B'nai Israel's historian. The area was a major hub for German and Eastern European immigrants, many of them Jewish.

Bliden's parents arrived here from Lithuania in 1914 and owned a meat market and a liquor store on Lombard Street. After he returned from the Coast Guard in 1945, Bliden moved his family northwest of the city, where homes were larger.

Before long, congregations such as B'nai Israel's diminished. "Even though the congregation was dwindling, there was a strength of its membership," said Shoken. "And people thought it was such a beautiful building. They didn't want to see it go."

Those senses of nostalgia and homecoming mingled throughout the festival, where vendors sold Judaic pottery and falafel and children munched on kosher jellybeans.

Festivalgoers and volunteers said the event was the perfect place to reconnect through "Jewish geography."

"As soon as we meet, we all say, `Where are you from? Where did you go to school?'" said Barbara Blumberg of Baltimore. As she spoke, she cradled her Shetland sheepdog Sophie, who wore a white handkerchief emblazoned with a blue Star of David.

"And believe it or not, you'll find someone who knows all the same places," said Blumberg, 61. "We all have a common culture. Judaism is as much a religion as it is a culture."

Tami Adelman, the festival's organizer, called it "a big family reunion."

"It's been 10 years, and some people haven't seen each other in so long," she said. "So many people come with the idea that they will reconnect with people they once knew."

Adelman said that although the festival has taken a break for a decade, the motivation behind it never died.

"The committee decided to take a couple years off, then before we knew it a few years turned into 10," she said. "A few months ago the chairman of the board called to ask me to help organize, and I immediately said, `Yes.'"

Adelman said she expected about 15,000 visitors over the two-day festival. Still, some who had attended past festivals said the crowd looked thinner yesterday than in previous years. They speculated that if the location had been moved to Northwest Baltimore, the turnout would have been greater.

But Adelman said the committee wanted to bring the festival back to its roots.

"This is where it all started," she said.

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