Woodlawn's vanished Jewish farm colony

WAY BACK WHEN

Immigrants' effort to live `their own way' left almost no traces

Backstory

March 30, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun Reporter

When Ida Katz died earlier this month, a few days shy of her 100th birthday, her son, Dr. Morton I. Katz, a retired Pikesville orthodontist, said his mother had spent her early years living with her family at Yaazor, the Hebrew Colonial Society of Maryland's 351-acre commune that was on the border of Baltimore and Howard counties.

Her death stills yet another voice from what has to be a dwindling band of survivors who can recall what daily life was like at Yaazor, because no trace of the community now exists.

The lost colony of Yaazor, which in Hebrew means "He will help," was established about 1903 by Russian-Jewish immigrants who spoke only Russian and Yiddish.

Where houses, farms and a one-room school once stood along Johnnycake Road and the Patapsco River, trucks and cars now whiz by on the Beltway and Interstate 70.

Beneath the concrete highways, houses and Security Square Mall, which occupy the site today, lies the fertile earth once tilled by its 200 residents.

In a 1975 reminiscence for the Jewish Historical Society, Benjamin Szold Levin described the commune as "a kind of Fiddler on the Roof shtetl [village] in America."

"The Baltimore County recorded plat of Yaazor shows that all the individual lots were long and narrow and were also bent, like boomerangs, to give everybody a road frontage and river frontage," John W. McGrain Jr., retired Baltimore County historian and author, said the other day.

McGrain said that in the 1950s when he was hiking in the area with a friend, they discovered a mailbox with a Jewish family name marked on it. A local resident told him that a Jewish town had once been there, he recalled.

In a 1906 article in The Sun, a reporter wrote, "Within half an hour's ride of the city is a settlement wherein not a word of English is spoken and all the habits and customs of the people are completely foreign to their surroundings."

Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a Jewish activist, millionaire and philanthropist, bankrolled a fund that bore his name in order to establish Jewish agricultural colonies for immigrants in America and other countries.

Yaazor, which was also known as Yiddishe Kolonye, came into being when several individuals and their leader, Rabbi Toblas Goodman, borrowed money from the Hebrew Colonial Society of Maryland, which Hirsch had endowed in order to purchase the site.

"The colony is the outgrowth of the desire of some Russian immigrants to find a spot where they may live a secluded life in their own peculiar way, free from the rush and bustle of the world and with a freedom of speech which was impossible in Russia," reported The Sun.

"Their leader is Rabbi Toblas Goodman, who had preceded his flock by several years. It was his idea to found such a settlement and it was he who brought the Russians here from New York. He is treated with veneration and his word is law in the colony."

According to The Sun, there are at "present 20 families in the colony and each is assessed $1 a week to aid in paying a mortgage of $15,000 on the place."

The newspaper explained that the "principal occupation at present is the pursuit of agriculture and stock-raising" and the "spirit of freedom, cleanliness and industry pervade the whole community. There are no idlers. Everyone is busy in the fields or homes. Only the young children seem to have time to play."

Yaazor represented a way of life that freed residents from the bone-breaking hours toiling in Baltimore's sweatshops and living in crowded tenements.

The commune's residents were largely tailors, silversmiths and carpenters, not skilled farmers, which ultimately caused its demise.

Adding to its woes was the fact that a promised clothing factory was never built on the site.

"Salvation was not to be found from the land. For most immigrants, daily bread was to come from a sewing machine," wrote Dr. Isaac M. Fein, in his book The Making of an American Jewish Community: The History of Baltimore Jewry from 1773 to 1920.

Eventually, many of the commune's residents tired of the humid summers, long cold winters and the difficulties of the agrarian way of life and began returning to the city.

By the early 1930s, Yaazor was well on its way to becoming a memory.

"Christians purchased some of the land and houses after the Jewish farmers returned to Baltimore. Other acreage was sold to the state for the Patapsco State Park," wrote Philip Kahn Jr. in his book, Uncommon Threads: Threads that Wove the Fabric of Baltimore Jewish Life.

"Russian Jews never became suited for farm work. With the exception of a highly successful Polish community in Vineland, N.J., no amount of money could successfully change Jewish small shopkeepers and artisans from the shtetls of Russia into farmers," Kahn wrote.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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