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Jewish Baltimore

'Jewish Baltimore' cover image

Jewish Baltimore

A Family Album

A wide-ranging history of Baltimore's Jewish community from the 1850s to the present.

From East Baltimore to Forest Park to Park Heights, from Nates and Leon's deli to Hutzler's department store, Jewish Baltimore tells stories of neighborhoods, people, and landmarks that have been important to Baltimore's Jewish experience. Gilbert Sandler, whose popular columns have appeared in Baltimore's Jewish Times and the Baltimore Sun, offers a wide-ranging history of the region's Jewish community from the 1850s to the present, covering both German Jewish and Russian Jewish communities. Sandler's archival research uncovers new details about important people and events, but the heart of his book lies in its anecdotes and quotations—the reminiscences of those who recall the rich tapestry of days gone by. More than a hundred nostalgic photographs help to bring the memories to life.

Many of Sandler's essays invoke famous names in Baltimore history—names like Jack Pollack, the ex-boxer turned politician; Joseph Meyerhoff, who gave his city a symphony hall; Samuel Hecht, founder of the last surviving local department store chain. But just as often, these essays remind us of unsung heros: rabbis, merchants, teachers, and camp counselors. Sandler tells many inspirational stories, including how one young woman, escaping from Germany in 1939 on a ship headed to Bolivia, seized an opportunity when she learned the ship would stop in Baltimore. She sent a cable to her boyfriend in Richmond, Virginia, telling him to meet her at the dock, and the two were married onboard—which eventually allowed her to enter the United States. Sandler always uncovers the "human interest" in his stories. His account of the S.S. President Warfield—refitted as the Exodus to carry food, supplies, and 4,500 European refugees to Palestine in 1947—contains personal recollections from one of the local businessmen who played a key role in the secret operation, and even a statement from someone who, as a young workman, helped to load the ship.

Jewish Baltimore also highlights fondly remembered institutions. Hutzler's department store, for example, was a common meeting place for weekend shoppers; a notebook in Hutzler's balcony allowed friends to trade messages and track each other down in the large store. Hutzler's celebrated return policy stated that "anything could be returned within a reasonable amount of time"—with the word reasonable conveniently left to the customer's discretion. There was also Hendler's ice cream, whose advertisements featured a kewpie doll, proclaiming "Take home a brick!" When a competing chain bragged about producing twenty-eight flavors, Albert Hendler counted fifty flavors in his father's stock—including licorice, eggnog, and tomato aspic (the last flavor produced as a speciality for the Southern Hotel).

Focusing on religious education, Sandler tells of the Talmud Torahs, the area's first highly visible, community-wide system committed to providing a Jewish education—two hours of instruction daily, in addition to a Jewish student's other lessons. The Talmud Torahs, dating from 1889, laid the foundation for later Jewish schools, such as the Isaac Davidson Hebrew School. Sandler also visits P.S. 49, a public school remembered for its high concentration of Jewish students. For recreation, the Monument Street "Y" was a popular site, providing a health club, game rooms, six-lane swimming pool, soda fountain, and library. In his essays on summer vacations, Sandler discusses family visits to Eastern Shore beaches and describes the summer camps that were frequented by Jewish children. Sandler has a knack for getting the people he interviews to recall every detail, from the names of favorite teachers or rabbis down to the price of a movie at the Avalon theater and which streetcar line they used to get there.

Baltimore has a strong and historically important Jewish presence, and this book engagingly tells the story of that community.