Growing up Jewish in Baltimore
How could such a homogenous microcosm exist in melting-pot America? The answer stems in large part from Baltimore’s unique history and geography.
It’s almost impossible to fathom nowadays, but until I was nine or 10 years old I firmly believed the whole world was Jewish – if I ever even thought about such a thing. After all, in my little universe in suburban northwest Baltimore during the postwar baby boom, the whole world really wasJewish. My neighbors, my classmates, my friends, my doctors and dentist, the restaurants and shops we went to – all were Jewish. Not necessarily Orthodox, mind you, but decidedly Jewish.
The fact that such a homogenous microcosm could exist in melting-pot America stems in large part from Baltimore’s particular history and geography – a relatively large (population now estimated at about 100,000) and extremely well-rooted Jewish community engaged in a perpetual common march toward the northwest. As a child, I didn’t know that this intense clustering resulted from both a push and a pull – the pull being the natural instinct to stick together around a shared culture and the push being Baltimore’s restrictive real estate covenants that barred “Jews, Negroes and others” from buying or renting homes in the city’s uber-posh northeastern neighborhoods. With Roland Park and Guilford off-limits, the upwardly mobile tribe found its way to more amenable surroundings, forming the cozy cocoon often dubbed the “golden ghetto.”
From the downtown tenements of East Baltimore where many Jews settled upon arrival (first the German Jews in the early 19th century and then the big wave of Eastern European Jews starting in the 1880s), the community gradually inched its way up the socioeconomic ladder. German-Jewish entrepreneurs who had started off as small shopkeepers went on to found three of Baltimore’s leading department stores – Hecht’s, Hochschild Kohn and Hutzler Brothers, a grand emporium where Grandma Rose used to take me to lunch after she finished wreaking havoc on the bargain tables on the lower floor. The Eastern Europeans scrambled out of the Jewish-owned garment sweatshops where they were initially employed to open small businesses or become medical, legal and other professionals. Propelled by prosperity, the Jews maintained their steady progress up the northwestern corridors of Park Heights Avenue and Reisterstown Road, colonizing various neighborhoods along the way with synagogues, kosher butchers, bagel shops, Jewish bookstores, delis and bakeries famous for their challot and rugelach.
Take my family, for instance. After their families arrived in the late 19th century from Eastern Europe, my maternal grandparents were born in downtown Baltimore (making me a third-generation American). By the time my mother was born, they had moved up to the leafier environs of Forest Park, where my father also grew up. When my parents married, they in turn moved farther northwest to a formerly restricted housing development called Colonial Village, an enclave of solid two-story Colonial-style houses with lawns that quickly filled up with young Jewish couples starting families after the war. Every December, the development’s central intersection featured a large Christmas tree decorated with colored lights and an equally impressive Hanukkah menorah, also sporting blue lights that were lit one by one as the holiday progressed.
I went to public school but never had to worry about missing classes on Jewish holidays – since Baltimore County schools were districted geographically, my elementary school was overwhelmingly Jewish and practically shut down on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Other than the teachers, almost no one came to school on those days.
And what days they were, with thousands of people crowding the splendid foyers of the huge new synagogues dotting upper Park Heights Avenue (all of which had equally huge parking lots that were full to overflowing on the holidays). At our Conservative congregation, Chizuk Amuno, the muffled din of meeting and mingling could be dimly heard even after services officially began in the soaring sanctuary.
While I understood the religious import of the High Holidays, it seemed to me at the time that much also depended on what you were wearing. Serious attention was devoted to assuring that one was properly attired for such occasions, and each major holiday meant a shopping expedition to hunt for the requisite new outfit. We got fall/winter clothing for the High Holidays and spring/summer clothing for Pesach, and wore these outfits whether they suited the weather or not. (My younger sister and I often had the misfortune of being dressed in identical dresses that were not always to our liking – and my poor sister had the even greater misfortune of having to wear my dress again as a hand-me-down four years later.)
As with so many things, I believed that the many rules for dressing in 1950s Baltimore were somehow Jewish in origin, like the ban on eating pork and seafood. Thus I thought it was only Jews who were not allowed to wear white shoes before Memorial Day or after Labor Day and had to wear white gloves to worship, no matter how hot it was outside.
My notion of a Jewish universe was punctured for good when my family made the inevitable big leap farther northwest into Baltimore County and my school district suddenly changed. I was among the busload of Jewish kids from my immediate neighborhood who were sent to a middle school much farther north, where we became a minuscule minority among the offspring of the county’s more rural population. This is where I learned that our suburban town of Pikesville was nicknamed “Kikesville” and that for some people, you could be the target of hatred just for being born Jewish.
Happily, these young bigots were themselves a minority, so I also learned that while most Americans actually were not Jewish, they were a tolerant lot and there was life in the diverse society outside the golden ghetto. I even managed to get elected as secretary of the school’s student council, which somehow seemed to have a preponderance of Jewish representatives, despite our small number.
After Pikesville High School opened in 1964, I returned to the cocoon that had once been so comforting but now seemed claustrophobic. By then, the liberating spirit of the Sixties was blowing in the wind, and everywhere the old rules and conventions were being challenged and changed.
After spending a few tumultuous years seeking a new direction, my own trajectory changed from northwest to due east – by 1973, I was living in Israel on a kibbutz near the Gaza Strip, where I was picking apples and studying in a Hebrew ulpan until the Yom Kippur War broke out later that year. But that’s another whole story…