Jmore history columnist Dr. Deborah R. Weiner is the co-author of the new book “On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews in Baltimore” (Johns Hopkins University Press) with Dr. Eric L. Goldstein, a Jewish historian and associate professor at Emory University.
“On Middle Ground” is the first academic study of the history of Jewish Baltimore since Isaac M. Fein’s “The Making of an American Jewish Community: The History of Baltimore Jewry from 1773 to 1920,” which was published by the Jewish Publication Society of America in 1971.
A Chicago native, Weiner spoke on April 10 at a launch party for the book at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, 15 Lloyd St. Introducing the book and explaining its significance at the event — which drew approximately 100 people — was local Jewish historian and author Gilbert Sandler. Sandler is the author of “Jewish Baltimore: A Family Album” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), among other books.
Weiner served for years as the JMM’s research and family historian. She is currently researching a book about the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital in Northwest Baltimore.
Weiner is the author of the 2006 book “Coalfield Jews: An Appalachian History” (University of Illinois Press).
Jmore recently spoke with Weiner about “On Middle Ground,” which scholar and author Jonathan D. Sarna hails as “a truly excellent and substantive book that embeds the Jewish experience within general and economic history.”
Jmore: Origins of your book on Jewish Baltimore?
Weiner: The idea came from the JMM’s former director, Avi Decter [who attended the book launch]. He commissioned the project, recruited my co-author, Eric Goldstein, and me to write it, and the museum sponsored it.
Eric and I had both done quite a bit of research on Jewish history in the area already, so we sat down together and figured out the themes we wanted to emphasize.
In a lot of ways, the story of Jews in Baltimore is the same as Jews in other cities, but how people adjusted and reacted to various local influences are different in each city. So we wanted to explore, what was the Baltimore Jewish experience? Baltimore is a border city, as in between the North and the South of the U.S., and it’s really the only East Coast border city. That’s why the book is called “On Middle Ground.”
Where did the early Jewish immigrants come from?
The first Jews in Baltimore were mainly Dutch and German, around the same time as the American Revolution. Then in the mid-19th century, there was a wave of emigrants from the German states, Bavaria and Hesse. Baltimore then saw a large immigration wave from Eastern Europe, with the largest number coming from Lithuania. In the mid-20th century, the city took in refugees from Nazi Germany and Holocaust survivors. Most recently, there have been Jewish emigrants from Iran, Israel and the former Soviet Union.
The immigrants’ impact?
A lot of the Jews who came here were entrepreneurs and instrumental in building the garment industry in the 19th century. One immigrant we focus on, Jacob Epstein, came to Baltimore from Lithuania in 1880. He started out as a peddler and eventually opened a wholesale business that sold goods to retailers and other peddlers. Epstein sent peddlers out all over the South and had a big impact on Baltimore establishing trade relations with Southern cities. A lot of Baltimore’s economy in the 19th and early 20th century was based on trade with the South. …
Immigrants had to establish themselves and draw on their experiences from the Old Country to get ahead. You’ll find that same pattern in cities everywhere. People also had to acculturate to their surroundings, and you’ll find that in every other place as well. They would arrive into an ethnic neighborhood where people spoke Yiddish and everyone was Jewish, then branched out. And even though Jews mainly lived in Jewish neighborhoods, they assimilated to the U.S. over time and mixed into the American culture. But the experience was also unique to each place. The joke for Jews in Baltimore was that you can eat crabs here and still keep kosher, because crabs are so ingrained in the culture of the area.
Did Jews change the face of the city?
Jews started the big department stores. Though most no longer exist, they left a big mark on Baltimore. At the end of their time, in the 1970s and ‘80s, when many people were moving to the suburbs, a bunch of merchants got together and came up with what we now know as the Inner Harbor. Jews weren’t totally responsible, but they were one of two groups of businessmen that led the development of the harbor. Another example is the first birth control clinic in Baltimore, which later became a Planned Parenthood. It was started by a Jewish doctor named Bessie Moses in the 1920s.
Where did Jews tend to live?
At first, the Jewish community lived near downtown. The Eastern European immigrants established a large, Yiddish-speaking enclave in East Baltimore. In the period after World War I, Jews began settling in Northwest Baltimore. Over time, they moved farther and farther northwest, and remained there. Unlike other cities with multiple Jewish neighborhoods, Baltimore really just has one, and as a result the community is more tightly knit than in other places. That’s partly because Jews were discriminated against in other areas and partly because of Baltimore’s demographic makeup. It’s a relatively small city and it always had a large black population, so in the early 1920s, it was really the only city with both large black and Jewish populations. This made the local real estate establishment especially interested in “protecting” white gentile neighborhoods.
Relations between the blacks and Jews here?
Jews were, a lot of times, the merchants in black neighborhoods. A lot of African-Americans appreciated the fact that Jews had shops and were willing to let them buy things on credit. But others thought the Jewish merchants were exploiting them, and sometimes they were definitely right about that. Blacks suffered way more from segregation in Baltimore than Jews ever did, and they lived in these neighborhoods that were very crowded because they weren’t really allowed out. When they did successfully move out, it was often to Jewish neighborhoods because the Jews were the most receptive, or at least wouldn’t throw rocks through their windows — that kind of thing.
On the other hand, then you had the phenomenon of white flight especially in the 1950s and ‘60s, when blacks would move in and whites would move out. Jews were part of that flight to the suburbs.
Trends you’re seeing among Baltimore Jewry in recent years?
The resurgence of Orthodoxy in the Jewish community would be the biggest trend of the last 20 to 30 years. The city has the largest percentage of Orthodox Jews in the U.S. outside of New York. Another trend is Jews spreading out to other parts of Baltimore City.
Baltimore Jewry’s future?
I wouldn’t want to answer that. I’m a historian so I can cop out, but certainly I think the Orthodoxy will continue to be a very strong force in Baltimore.
“On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews in Baltimore” was named a Jewish Book Council finalist in the American Jewish Studies category on Jan. 9, 2019.
Mark Satter is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.
Read Jewish historian Gilbert Sandler’s introduction to the book here.
Read Deborah Weiner’s history columns here.