A new generation embraces religious traditions neglected for a time.

Rediscovering Jewish heritage

September 24, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

When Mark Neumann was growing up in the 1970s, he spent hours sitting in the den of his great-grandfather's Park Heights Avenue apartment, drinking in stories about the family's history.

Using hand-drawn genealogy charts, the old man explained how his father, Henry Sonneborn Sr., came from Germany in the mid-1800s, worked as a peddler and built the well-known Baltimore clothier, Henry Sonneborn & Co.

Missing from this classic immigrant success story, though, was any sense of religious heritage. The Sonneborns, like many German Jews, had assimilated long ago.

When Neumann sits down for dinner tonight for a last meal before Yom Kippur, Judaism's solemn day of atonement and fasting, he will do so with a new generation steeped in Jewish tradition.

Neumann's three children all attend Jewish day school and keep kosher in the house. In recent years, they have occasionally educated their father about Jewish customs he never knew as a child.

"For a long time, there wasn't any emphasis on religion," said Neumann, speaking about his branch of the family. "I would say my children's generation changed the tide."

The story of how the Neumann family returned to its Jewish roots is a tiny but revealing part of the 350-year history of Jews in America.

Historians date the Jewish presence here to the late summer of 1654, when a group of about two dozen Jews arrived by boat from Recife, Brazil, in New Amsterdam - now New York.

Millions of immigrants

Over the centuries, millions would follow, from Germany during most of the 1800s and from Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many would wrestle with issues of assimilation and struggle with discrimination.

In the end, though, Jews would emerge as one of the most successful immigrant groups in American history, taking leadership roles in society as doctors, lawyers, philanthropists, corporate titans and Ivy League presidents.

Today, there are about 5.2 million Jews in America. That is down from 5.5 million a decade ago, according to a study released last year. Jewish leaders attribute the drop to low birth rates and assimilation through marriage.

The Neumann family's shift toward religious observance is an increasingly common tale as a younger generation embraces Jewish tradition. It also provides a bright spot amid concerns about population decline.

Different worlds

To understand how the Neumann children connected with their religious roots, one has to look at the history of their parents' families and the different worlds they came from.

In first half of the 19th century, the Germany where Henry Sonneborn Sr. lived was a relatively modern region where Jews led cosmopolitan lives. After Sonneborn arrived in the United States in 1849, he assimilated as he had in his native land, closing his factories on Christmas and celebrating the holiday by giving gifts.

`Be an American first'

"The feeling was not to stand out, to be an American first before anything else," said Neumann, leafing through a family history and a scrapbook filled with photos, interviews and letters.

Like his ancestors, Neumann has led a largely secular life, going to Oheb Shalom, a Reform synagogue, only on major holidays and attending the upscale Gilman School.

In fact, he said, his family was so assimilated on both sides that his mother had a Christmas tree - something that until now, his children never knew.

Eleven years ago, he married Robin Blitzstein, a Jewish girl from Randallstown. Her family and religious history is so different from his that Neumann refers to their union as a "mixed" marriage.

To Venezuela, U.S.

Robin Neumann's paternal grandparents left Russia and Poland in the 1930s for better opportunities in Venezuela.

Unlike their more cosmopolitan cousins from Germany, Russian and Eastern European Jews tended to stick closer to their communities and to remain more observant, said Deborah Weiner, a research historian at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

Robin Neumann's father, Sam, arrived in Baltimore in the early 1960s at age 18. He worked at Hutzler's department store and studied engineering at night at the Johns Hopkins University. He retained his religious traditions, raising his children in the Orthodox Winands Road Synagogue Center in Randallstown.

When the Neumanns began having children, Robin's religious traditions re-emerged. Today, all three children - Paul, 9, Andy, 7, and Chloe, 4 - attend day school at Beth Tfiloh, a modern Orthodox synagogue where the family regularly participates in services.

"I think we decided early on it's better to give them this education background, so at least as adults they can have a thorough understanding of their heritage," said Neumann, 41, a businessman who lives in Owings Mills.

So now the Neumann household is kosher and the holidays, not just the big ones, are celebrated with gusto.

Traditional observance

The family will observe Yom Kippur as many Jewish families do: eating dinner tonight, fasting tomorrow and breaking the fast with a traditional meal of bagels, lox, cream cheese and challah after sundown.

Yom Kippur marks the time when Jews seek forgiveness from God and each other, let go of grudges and ask to be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. It concludes the Jewish High Holy Days, which began 10 days earlier with Rosh Hashana.

Five days after Yom Kippur, the Neumanns will celebrate Sukkot, a holiday of thanksgiving with roots in biblical celebrations of the harvest.

According to tradition, the family will eat meals and perhaps even sleep in a sukkah, a temporary structure they will construct in the back yard, just off the screened porch.

Until he met Robin, Mark Neumann had never eaten in a sukkah.

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