Everybody called it “Jewtown.” Everybody but the Jews.
Virtually all local gentiles old enough to remember chicken houses and barrels of herring in the 900, 1000 and 1100 blocks of E. Lombard St. — people like my mother who worked as a teenage counter girl at Stone’s Famous Bakery — knew the long-ago epicenter of Jewish life in Baltimore as “Jewtown.”
And few of the many thousands of Jews who lived, worked and worshipped in the area seem to have been offended, according to Jewish Baltimoreans old enough to collect Social Security. In 2007, the late Jerry Fineblum — who grew up above his father’s wholesale liquor, candy and tobacco store around the corner from Lombard Street — said Polish people “lovingly” called the area “Jewtown.” Imagine that: Poles, Jews and love all in the same sentence.
“We never used [the term] ourselves, but we heard it all the time. No one got upset,” said Marc Attman, son of the beloved Seymour Attman and grandson of Harry, who came from Russia and founded the family delicatessen in 1915. Attman’s is now overseen by Marc, an optician. It remains where it’s been since 1933 — 1019 E. Lombard St., a pickle’s throw from the Lloyd Street Synagogue — though few businesses that once surrounded it have survived.
Not Stone’s — where my Polish-Catholic mother made 50 cents an hour in the early 1950s and had strict orders to stay away from the kosher food — and not Saler’s, the kosher dairy where she went for an extra 25 cents an hour.
The former Gloria Potter Jones (Patterson Park High School Class of ’51), Mom no longer uses the old name for the neighborhood, sensing it’s offensive though not sure exactly why. The notion that “Greektown” is acceptable but “Jewtown” is verboten is too nuanced an argument for an 83-year-old who has worked hard not to absorb strong prejudices held by her parents.
And she doesn’t call the area “Corned Beef Row,” that concoction of 1970s boosterism conceived by Mayor William Donald Schaefer to bring back business after the 1968 riots when Smelkinson’s Dairy alongside of Attman’s was burned to the ground. It’s just “Lombard Street,” the way Fells Point was always “Broadway.”
Mom says she was once belittled by a female boss — probably after some stupid but honest mistake — to “go in the back, kneel down and say your rosary.” It angered her — “Who says the rosary in the middle of a bunch of cheese?” she said the other day — but was too caught up in her 10th-grade world to pay much attention to the way people of different faiths treated one another. “I was just happy to get a job,” she said. “Before that, I was shaving ice for the lady who sold snowballs on our street [in Canton] and scrubbing steps.”
A big problem for Mom in the post-war Lombard Street shtetl was not understanding everything her immigrant bosses told her to do. Like the story of the Jewish boy and the taxi and the crate of cheese, a madcap right out of a Marx Brothers film.
One day, a Saler’s matriarch with a thick accent told Mom to walk up to Baltimore Street with a crate of cheese and put the kez (cheese) in a taxi. She was to give the cabbie an address, pay the fare and come back. A boy from the store — perhaps a Saler’s family member — went with Mom to carry the cheese.
“I got up there and did what she said and watched the cab drive away,” said Mom. Pleased with a job well done, she walked back to the store only to be met by the hopping mad woman who’d given her the chore.
“She kept yelling, ‘Vers the boy? Vers the boy?’” laughed Mom. “I told her I put him in the cab with the cheese.” The rest of the day, said Mom, “I got a lot of dirty looks.”
My mother’s adventures on Lombard Street ended when she began dating my father, both of them about 16, stealing kisses to Nat King Cole’s smash hit, “Too Young.” She was able to remember it was Saler’s dairy and not Smelkinson’s because the former was at the corner where she waited for my father to pick her up for a meatball sandwich date around the corner at Chiapparelli’s. “Your father didn’t want me to work,” she said.
“She wasn’t getting any free cheese anyway,” said Dad.
Rafael Alvarez hosts monthly “Readings with Ralphie” at the Bird in Hand restaurant in Charles Village. He can be reached via email@example.com.
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