Traveling collection offers intimate portrait of Judaism in small towns across Maryland

Exhibit shows bigger picture of Jewish life

March 10, 2006|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL | ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN REPORTER

In a state Senate building hallway rests an exhibit about people who were not digested.

They are Jews who built religious and ethnic Jewish communities in Maryland's small towns. They balanced fitting in with standing out, making a living with making a Jewish home life - in some three dozen towns.

"When I came to the Eastern Shore, I realized that the whale wasn't a big fish, it was a small town, and that Jonah wasn't the great prophet Jonah, but he was any Jew who found himself in a small town. That if he didn't watch himself very closely he would soon be digested by the whale. I knew I would have to watch myself very carefully lest I be digested," reads a panel quoting a Jewish man from Salisbury.

Across the bay, Annapolis was one of those towns, and its Jewish life is depicted in the Jewish Museum of Maryland's traveling exhibit, We Call This Place Home: Jewish Life in Maryland's Small Towns, on display at the Miller Senate Office Building.

This is the latest stop for an exhibit that left Baltimore in 2004 on a statewide tour that has included Cumberland, Westminster, Germantown, Bel Air, Salisbury and Frederick, and may yet reach St. Mary's County, which has a growing Jewish population.

For anyone who thinks the story of Jewish immigration is only an urban tale, this exhibit is an eye-opener, said curator Karen Falk.

"Jews had to create their own community," she said.

A worn joke has it that Jews ended up in small towns because that's where the horse drawing their wagons died. In truth, they came for everything from opportunities to seeing relatives.

Few came to Annapolis during Colonial times, though an early settler was Henry Hart, who arrived in 1746, perhaps as an indentured servant. He was the tailor to Dr. Charles Carroll of Annapolis, said Eric Goldstein, an Annapolis native who is now an assistant professor of history and Jewish studies at Emory University in Atlanta. A panel in the exhibit shows the newspaper advertisement for Annapolis merchant Isaac Navarro's chocolate a few years later.

Though more Jews arrived in Maryland after the American Revolution, Annapolis didn't have much of a Jewish community until the 1880s. Congregation Kneseth Israel was formed in 1896, and the synagogue was chartered in 1906, he said. In 1900, there were about 50 Jewish families. Such communities were so tight-knit, they were like extended families, a way of maintaining religion and identity.

A 1902 survey says that of an estimated 26,500 Jews in Maryland, just 1,500 lived away from Baltimore, the hub of Jewish life in the state.

This week, at an opening reception in Annapolis, members of the local Jewish community reminisced about Jewish life in the Annapolis area, as they viewed the exhibit that chronicles how Jews established communities within communities and have worked to maintain them.

Meandering through the exhibit, people pointed to familiar faces in the photos of a Jewish Little League team of the 1950s, KI's Hebrew School of that era, games at a Purim carnival.

A 1905 photo shows Lena Joffee and Louis Kotzin on their wedding day in Annapolis. The bride's ruffled gown is quite fashionable, the groom's suit typical of the time. Especially in small towns, where they formed a minority in a sea of Gentiles, Jews sought to be seen as entirely appropriate and American. Among immigrants, clothing has long marked American identity, Goldstein said.

Businessman Melvin Hyatt, 74, recalled just several dozen Jewish families in Annapolis during his childhood. The families made pilgrimages to Baltimore to buy kosher food and Jewish specialty goods.

"On Saturday, after Shabbos was over, we would get on the train and go to Lombard Street and shop for the week," he said.

The Kotzin family, which owned a grocery in Annapolis, took orders and brought food back from the city. When a kosher butcher opened up, the Hyatt and Lerner families sent the boys over to pick up their orders, Hyatt recalled.

He and Eugene Lerner, the retired Anne Arundel County judge, were those boys.

"We had a lot of rabbis pass through this town. It's a small town; they would stay a year or two," Hyatt said.

Thanksgiving Day held a special football event in the community.

"The Jewish boys would play the boys of St. Mary's. They would come dressed in full gear, and we would be dressed like schleppers," Lerner said. He said they regularly lost.

A distinguishing feature of the Jewish community in Annapolis was provided by the city itself - the home of the U.S. Naval Academy, a seat of government, a town steeped in Colonial history. That Jewish families "adopted" the Jewish midshipmen was symbolically more than a traditional extension of hospitality to other Jews.

Amid the exhibit's panels showing acceptance in business and civic life - which greatly increased after World War II - are reminders of rejection. Jews were banned from living in Cape St. John. Photographs in the exhibit starkly note that the Beverley Beach Club was restricted to "Gentiles Only."

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