Jazz Glastra

Spring 2011

 Submitted in partial fulfillment for the Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies with Honors

The Columbus Jewish Historical Society thanks the Knox County Jewish Cemetery Association, the Kenyon College Rural Life Center, and Dr. Howard Sacks for allowing us to provide this history to the public through our website.

Abstract

 

The Jewish community of Mount Vernon, Ohio reached its peak in the decade between approximately 1939 and 1950. This thesis incorporates both specific cases within the community and general trends and institutions that were common to all of the Jews in Mount Vernon at this time. Each chapter contributes in a different way to answer the essential question of the research: what did it mean to be Jewish in Mount Vernon between 1930 and 1960? The salient contextual fact of this study is that Jews in Mount Vernon lived in a small town, which is highly unusual for American Jewry.

In the first chapter after the introduction, I examine the life of one woman, Helen Zelkowitz, and discuss the way in which she used the concept of tzedaqa­—righteousness—to construct her Jewish identity and integrate successfully into the upper echelons of the community in Mount Vernon. Next, I present the story of the three siblings in the Erlanger family, who emigrated from a small town in Germany during the 20s and 30s. This chapter examines the experience of German Jewish immigrants and discusses how a Jewish identity that emphasized Judaism contributed to the family’s rapid Americanization. The last chapter before my conclusion discusses the importance of Jewish education and Jewish institutions—including a short-lived synagogue—for the maintenance of a common identity and community spirit among Jews in Mount Vernon. In my final chapter, the conclusion, I discuss the importance of community and religion to Jews in general and the unusual small-town context that made the Jewish community in Mount Vernon unique.

 

Acknowledgments

            While my name is the only one on the title page of this thesis, I am indebted to several people for their help and support during this process. First, I would like to thank Lois Hanson. Ms. Hanson has graciously allowed me to work in parallel with her as we both document the history of Jewish life in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Without her, I would not have known there was a Jewish community here to study at all, let alone a community with such a rich and dynamic history. Secondly, I would like to thank Professor Howard Sacks for helping guide my research, especially in the beginning stages, encouraging me, and offering advice along the way. I am additionally indebted to Hannah Sacks, without whom I would probably still think that Judaism is the same thing as Christianity, minus the New Testament. Many thanks also to my indispensable friend and editor, Dara Frank. You have helped me immensely to whip my writing into shape and to clarify points that I do not even realize I’ve made.

Thank you to those who I have interviewed or have allowed me access to interviews; your recollections are a crucial part of this research.

To the faculty of the Religious Studies Department at Kenyon College, I extend my deepest thanks for exposing me to religious traditions which are foreign to me and methodologies which have guided me, and for their enthusiastic and exceptional pedagogy. I tell every prospective student I meet that ours is the best department on campus.

Finally, and most importantly, I must recognize the crucial role that my advisor, Professor Miriam Dean-Otting has played in the research and writing of this thesis. You have guided me towards sources, clarified my research methods, and suggested new avenues to pursue. Thank you for your willingness to edit, reedit, and edit again, and thank you for being my most critical reader. I cannot overemphasize how much help you have given me during this project.

 

Making a Case: Introduction to Jewish Knox County, 1930-1960

Historians of American Jewry have almost exclusively chronicled the lives and trends of urban Jews, and with good reason. The vast majority of Jews in America continue to live in the nation’s urban centers—about 75 percent in 1990.[1] The story of American Jewry has been told so thoroughly in terms of urban environments that it is easy to miss the fact that Jews also moved to small towns, sometimes far removed from the nation’s major metropolises. This is a study of one such community. I have conducted my research on the history of Jews in Knox County from 1930-1960 guided by the premise that the lives of Jews in small-town, rural America need better scholarly attention. The literature on rural Jewry is sparse, though excellent case studies such as Ewa Morawska’s Insecure Prosperity and generalized histories such as Jewish Life in Small-Town America by Lee Shai Weissbach do exist. My intention is not to make broad generalizations about the nature of small-town Jews in America, but simply to provide a snapshot of what it was to be Jewish in a particular place at a particular time. It is easy to overstate the importance of one example, but this is a case study and should not be read as synecdoche; Knox County by no means represents all of rural American Jewry. I rely on secondary literature to assist me in the interpretation of my findings, but the stories of those who lived here during the three decades between 1930 and 1960 should be seen as particular to that context, not as necessarily representative of broader trends. On the other hand, the stories presented here cannot be read in a social vacuum. Historical, social, and religious context must be taken into account in order to fully understand the data I have collected. It is my hope to find a middle ground between the overly particular, which would render this research largely irrelevant, and the overly general, which is beyond the scope of my work.

This study is conducted from a religious studies point of view. From the beginning of my research, I have made what is arguably an artificial assumption about my subjects—that the fact of their being Jewish is a definitive characteristic. For the purposes of my research it is important, but each individual could just as easily identify as a shoe store owner or a Mount Vernon resident first, perhaps, and then as a Jew. This is admittedly an inherent weakness in this kind of research. However, I believe that I can make a legitimate case that Jews in Mount Vernon were indeed shaped by their religion and other social factors that came with being Jewish.

Several important themes have emerged during the course of my research, and I feel that it is more useful to divide the thesis into thematic chapters instead of going in chronological order (as in a historical account). Each chapter will focus on a different aspect of Jewish life in Knox County, though always within the context of history. I have also chosen to focus on two families in particular. Their stories serve as cases-within-a-case, and provide a contrast between the experiences of a native-born Ohioan and those of an immigrant family. This approach has allowed me to narrow my research focus while still representing some of the diversity that existed within the community. An in-depth analysis of every family or individual in the community is beyond the scope of this project, so I have chosen to focus on only two stories.

The second chapter actually tells the story of only one woman, Helen Zelkowitz, who was a prominent community leader and a fixture in the broader community here. I have chosen to focus specifically on Helen, and not her husband Charles, because she was a much more public figure and had deeper roots in Ohio, having grown up in Columbus. Zelkowitz’s story represents one way in which Jews could integrate successfully into the secular, small-town community while still maintaining a strong sense of Jewish identity. The third chapter, which focuses on the Erlanger and Frankel family, tells the story of German Jews who immigrated to the United States in order to escape Nazi oppression. This chapter examines the particular challenges of immigrant Jews and provides yet another example of how identity is constructed in the context of a small, rural and overwhelmingly Christian town. The fourth chapter examines the Jewish community as a whole in terms of religious life and practice, institutions of the Jewish community, and connections with other Jewish communities in the area. Finally, the concluding chapter draws together the themes of the other four in an attempt to answer two questions: what did it mean to be Jewish in Mount Vernon between 1930 and 1960, and what can we learn from this case study?

 

It is essential to keep in mind that Jews in America, or anywhere, can never be considered a monolithic bloc—politically, socially, religiously, or ethnically. While Jews and non-Jews alike have often argued that “Jewish” is an ethnicity, Diaspora Jews share more in common with the people around them than with Jews in disparate regions of the world. This begs the question, who is a Jew? The topic was tackled in some detail by Michael Selzer in his essay, “Who are the Jews? A Guide for the Perplexed Gentile—and Jew.” Despite the misleading title, Selzer proposes no one definition of who is a Jew. The problem arises because modernity has led to what Ewa Morawska calls the “decoupling of previously inter-fused ethnic and religious components of Jewish group life and self-identification.”[2] According to Orthodox religious law, a Jew is anyone whose mother is Jewish or has converted to Judaism.[3] This definition brings in both genetics and religion: it is possible to be “automatically” Jewish, depending on matrilineal heritage, but it is also possible to become a Jew through a formal, religious conversion process. However, as Orthodoxy has ceased to be the only—or even the most dominant—form of Jewish religious expression, this definition has come into conflict with those who may claim to be ethnically or culturally Jewish, even if they are atheists and/or completely disregard the tenets of Judaism. The question then becomes, who has the right to decide who is Jewish and who is not?

By the Orthodox definition, an entire family of people I have considered Jewish for the purposes of this study would be disqualified. Lothar Erlanger married a Protestant woman; should I then disregard their children in my study of Jews of Mount Vernon, even though they attended the Sabbath School here and identified as Jewish? In reality, none of the Jews of Mount Vernon were Orthodox, and none of them followed the halachoth (Jewish laws) as strictly as some of their city-dwelling brethren, in large part because it is impossible to do so in a small town with no synagogue, no kosher butcher, and little formal Jewish infrastructure. In one sentence, this is a study about how a variety of people lived out their lives as Jews in a context that made the practice of Judaism quite difficult in many ways. The question of identity, and therefore definition, is central to my research. How did the Jews who lived in Mount Vernon construct a Jewish identity? What did being Jewish mean to the people who lived here? For the purposes of this study, I have left it up to the individuals to define themselves. Therefore, the children of Lothar Erlanger are considered Jewish, as are those who did not regularly attend a synagogue or follow the laws. In addition, I have relied largely on the list of Jews provided by Fred Lorey in his history of Knox County.[4]

 

Methodologically, this study seeks to incorporate historical data primarily from archives, newspapers, and oral histories to present an accurate and rich picture of Jewish life in Mount Vernon. Wherever appropriate, I have tried to relate the specific themes of Jewish Mount Vernon to broader trends in American Judaism. In addition, religious studies theory has played an important role in shaping this study. These two approaches to the research—the first factual, the second, theoretical—provide answers to two separate questions: First, “what was Jewish life like during this time period?” In other words, who are the relevant people, what were their lives like, and how did Judaism fit into their lives? In order to answer these questions, I have spent many hours combing through microfilm of old newspapers, digging through archival records, and generally trying to track down anything related to Jewish life in Mount Vernon. Secondly, “what does all of this mean?” Without theory, this would not be a work of religious studies, but of history. I aim to incorporate theories of religion in general, and Judaism in particular, into my work in order to provide an interpretive framework.

It might seem curious to use a religious studies approach to study a group of people who did not adhere to religious laws very strictly. I would like to posit that religion, particularly Judaism, cannot be reduced to what happens at a place of worship, or to how conscientiously one adheres to religious laws. Religious practice among “folks” has always differed from that of the religious elites, yet who are scholars of religion to privilege one over the other? Wendy Doniger has taken this approach in her work, The Hindus: An Alternative History. Doniger argues that the religion of those on the margins is just as important as that of the elites—in this case, Brahmins.[5] It is my contention that we should not view the Jews of Knox County as irreligious, but simply as distinct and unorthodox. Like the casteless and low-caste Hindus that Doniger is concerned with, the Jews of Knox County may also be considered marginal: marginal as a demographic minority in Mount Vernon, and marginal as a small group of Jews separated from most of the structures of larger Jewish communities (in one scholar’s words, “a minority of minorities”).[6] Marginality is what actually makes the story of this small group of rural Jews valuable, from a religious studies perspective.

In Robert Orsi’s book, Between Heaven and Earth, the importance of distancing oneself emotionally from the subject at hand is addressed at length in the last chapter, “Snakes Alive.” Orsi argues that it is not the role of scholars to place normative interpretations on religion or religious people, but simply to observe and report faithfully.[7] At the same time, we should not distance ourselves existentially from our subjects, but recognize the common humanity of all. In Orsi’s words, this mode of scholarship

“is characterized by a disciplined suspension of the impulse to locate the other (with all her or his discrepant moralities, ways of knowing, and religious impulses) securely in relation to one’s own cosmos…it entails disciplining one’s mind and heart to stay in this in-between place, in a posture of disciplined attentiveness, especially to difference.[8]

 

Orsi’s words have issued a challenge for me: to interpret my subjects meaningfully while resisting the impulse to either praise or disparage them. It is common to hear talk in the media about “true” or “good” versus “bad” religion, as Orsi points out in his book.[9] The purpose of this work is not to define the Jews of Knox County in terms of “good” or “bad,” but simply to understand them in terms they themselves would recognize.

 

Before launching into the particulars of one community, it is important to understand the broader historical context in which the Jewish community of Knox County existed. The time frame of this study is from approximately 1930 to 1960, but the historical background could easily stretch back to the turn of the century. For the sake of brevity, I will begin with the year 1924, with the passage of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act. While the groundwork for restrictionist immigration policy had actually been laid in the teens and further tightened in the 1921, this act was the most restrictive to European Jewish immigration yet.[10] This legislation greatly reduced immigration from Eastern European countries as well as Asia, and was blatantly racist in motivation.[11] What was unclear was whether the bill was intended to restrict Jewish immigration in particular, or whether this effect was merely incidental.[12] Was the new national immigration law, which passed with veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress, motivated by anti-Semitism?

Whether or not most of those in favor of the bill were actually anti-Semitic, its passage had two major effects on the Jewish community of America. First, it slowed the immigration stream of Jews from Europe to a trickle. According to scholar Henry L. Feingold, “only 73,000 Jewish immigrants settled in the United States between 1924 and 1931, a small fraction of the 656,000 who had come between 1907 and 1914.”[13] By the 1930s there were more native-born than immigrant Jews living in America.[14] Beyond mere numbers, this had an important impact on Jewish culture in America. While the first major wave of Jewish immigration came from Germany, by this time Jewish immigrant culture in America was essentially a Yiddish immigrant culture characterized by the Yiddish press, Yiddish theater, immigrant rabbis, and a steady stream of immigrants to maintain it.[15] When immigration was severely curtailed, American Jews were forced to do some soul-searching. According to Arthur Hertzberg, “the immigrant culture was dying, and there was little sign in the 1930s of the rise of an American Jewish culture in English of comparable viability.”[16] How could American Jews form a new group identity in the face of assimilation pressures from the dominant culture?

The second major effect of the 1924 bill was that it appeared to confirm suspicions among the American Jews that they were not welcome in this New Israel: the nation’s governing body had just passed a law that was interpreted by most as anti-Semitic.[17] One prominent leader in the Jewish community commented that for the Jews of Eastern Europe, “‘if one is not admitted, he feels as if he were ejected from a Holy Temple.’”[18] Paradoxically, Jews were simultaneously in danger of cultural obliteration through assimilation and perpetual marginality due to racism and anti-Semitism in the surrounding culture. The Johnson-Reed Act came at the height of the Ku Klux Klan’s power—in the 1920s, the Klan boasted 4 million members nationwide.[19] While this extremist group represented a minority, its popularity is indicative of the prevalence of anti-Semitic and white supremacist ideology in American society at the time. In addition to the short term affects on Jewish immigration, these highly restrictive quotas virtually eliminated America as a “safety valve” that might have allowed far more Jews to escape when political anti-Semitism emerged as a major force in Europe several years later.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany and almost immediately began instituting oppressive measures targeting Jews. American Jews believed they had in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt a friend and protector because Roosevelt had surrounded himself with several Jewish advisors and cabinet members in prominent roles; yet the President failed to push for relaxed immigration measures which would have allowed Jews to escape from Nazi oppression.[20] Meanwhile, anti-Semitism at home was also on the rise, probably due largely to the economic burden of the Great Depression.[21] The upshot of this was that any attempts to persuade Congress to relax immigration laws backfired entirely.[22] The situation in Europe continued to deteriorate, but there was little that American Jews could do to protect their friends and family members back home. By 1943, the news of the systematic extermination of European Jewry broke, but Roosevelt still refused to take action against these atrocities. On October 6, 1943, 400 rabbis marched on the White House to demand action.[23] They came to “‘protest the silence of the world when an entire people is being murdered,”’ but their voices apparently fell on deaf ears. [24] Even in the face of this catastrophic genocide, most Americans still felt that admitting refugees during war-time was not in the best interest of the nation.[25]

Despite the government’s lack of action to save Jews in Europe, Jews at home nevertheless seized the opportunity to participate in a new brand of American patriotism that, at least in theory, accepted anyone who committed to the war effort.[26] Americans of all backgrounds, including the three major “outsider” groups in American society—Jews, Catholics, and Blacks—participated with patriotic fervor in the war effort.[27] As Hertzberg puts it, “very consciously, they were earning due bills on the American future.”[28] The catch, however, was that marginal groups would be expected to assimilate into the new American “religion” based on patriotism and the myth of America as the last bastion of Democracy.[29] As the war came to a close, American Jews were left with little choice but to ignore the inaction of the American government on behalf of European Jewry.[30] How could Jews feel that they were safe and accepted (or at least on their way to acceptance) in America if they felt their own country was complicit in the death of millions of their kin back in Europe? The challenge now, for American Jews, was to assimilate as quickly and fully as possible.
The dilemma of assimilation for any distinct group is how to balance minority identity and tradition with the quest for acceptance. In Laura Hobson’s 1947 novel Gentleman’s Agreement, a Gentile pretends to be a Jew and encounters difficulties merely because of the identity and stereotypes that have been ascribed to him by society.[31] Hobson’s point appeared to be that there was really no difference between Jews and Gentiles at all.[32] On the other hand, Jewish communities in America often sustained themselves on the premise that there was something distinct about being Jewish;[33] was it impossible to be fully American and fully Jewish at the same time? In Hertzberg’s words, “should [America] be hospitable to those who did not play the game of assimilation”?[34]

In 1945, two major figures in American popular culture led the way toward Jewish integration into the mainstream society. Four months to the day after victory was achieved in Europe, the first Jewish Miss America was crowned in Atlantic City.[35] Bess Myerson instantly became a cultural icon for Americans as a whole and a hero of American Jews.[36] Paradoxically, Myerson became the symbol and embodiment of the ideal American woman at a time when anti-Semitism and nativism were rampant in American society. [37] Similarly, Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers returned from four years of military service to lead his team to a World Series win over the Chicago Cubs, making him the hero of America’s favorite pastime (unless, of course, you were from Chicago).[38] According to historian Edward S. Shapiro, Hank Greenberg was transformed into “a Jewish demigod” over the next several years; he was “bigger than life.”[39]

The significance of these two figures in the minds of American Jews was summarized eloquently years later by a writer from the Village Voice, Andrew Kopkind. His sentiments from the Village Voice are quoted in Shapiro’s history of American Jewry since the end of the war:

‘[Myerson and Greenberg were] secular saints,…symbols of a sudden legitimacy which my family and friends seemed to sense in a nation under reconstruction…For the first time, the Jews had successfully crossed over from ethnic favorites to national heroes without being isolated or absorbed: they had arrived without being assimilated or stereotyped.’

 

Significantly, Kopkind points out that Myerson and Greenberg had not “assimilated;” unlike many Jewish movie stars of the time, they had not Anglicized their names, nor did they ever deny their origins—the Yiddish-speaking immigrant neighborhoods of the Bronx.[40] These two examples seemed to indicate that annihilation of minority identity was not required for Jews to “arrive”: to become—and be accepted as—fully American.

In the postwar period, American Jewish life can be largely summarized as a drive to achieve middle class status. The American Dream was part of the allure of the United States for every immigrant population, and once the war ended Jews wasted no time climbing the economic ladder. Between 1945 and 1965, fully a third of American Jews left the cities for the more comfortable, middle-class suburbs.[41] According to Hertzberg, the upward mobility of second-generation Jews during this time can be characterized as a “stampede toward wealth,” notable for the speed with which Jews lifted themselves out of “the poverty of their youth.”[42] This trend coincided with a synagogue building boom: over the two decades from 1937 to 1957, the nation added 263 Conservative congregations and 230 Reform congregations, [43] and in the 50s and 60s approximately one billion dollars were raised by Jewish communities to support this expansion.[44] Despite the prevalence of anti-Semitism, the new synagogues were seen as a bid for acceptance by the Protestant majority.[45] As part of the new nationalistic civil religion forged during the war years, it was expected that all Americans would be religious—regardless of which religion individuals happened to choose.[46] This was especially true because of Cold War tensions with the atheistic government of the Soviet Union.[47]

Along with the sharp rise in the number of synagogues, synagogue affiliation also grew markedly during the postwar years. By 1960, synagogue membership had risen to 60 percent of all Jews in America, three times what it had been only 30 years earlier.[48] Synagogue membership was closely linked with Jewish identity during this period as postwar revivalists encouraged the conflation of Judaism with Jewishness.[49] It was quite common at this time for synagogues to begin offering cultural and leisure activities alongside religious services. In this vein, the increasingly popular Jewish Community Center was nicknamed a “shul with a school and a pool.”[50] Increasingly, though, the school and pool aspects of Jewish communal life overshadowed religion as religious observance fell into a sustained decline.[51] Despite the increase in synagogue membership, attendance at services and observance of ritual requirements increasingly fell to the wayside.[52] Simultaneously, those who did observe Jewish traditions moved religion into the home and under the authority of women.[53] Religious observance, it seemed, did not fit the postwar generation’s primary purpose—namely, to fit in.

Shapiro astutely demonstrates the connection between religious observance and acculturation to American (Protestant) society through the case of Hanukkah observance. In terms of religion, Hanukkah is a minor holiday, yet it was transformed in the postwar era into a major celebration because of its similarity and nearness to Christmas, one of the most important cultural events of the year for most Americans.[54] Shapiro writes, “Hanukkah indicated that Jews respected religion as long as it did not interfere with their continuing acculturation and social mobility.”[55] In this case, Judaism provided the perfect opportunity to demonstrate simultaneously one’s Jewish identity through the celebration of the religious holiday, one’s social status through the purchasing of gifts, and one’s place in the civil religion of the nation through participation in the holiday spirit. Many decried these trends as the end of Judaism, yet families still celebrated Pesach, gave their children bar (and sometimes bat) “mitzvahs,” and at least paid dues to their local synagogues. Despite intellectuals’ declarations that “God is dead,” American Judaism continued to exist, though admittedly in a very different form from the Judaism that was brought by European immigrants a generation or two prior. This paradigm shift in what it means to be a Jew is a central theme for this study, as we shall see in later chapters.

 

The events outlined above provide an important historical backdrop for understanding the Jewish community of Mount Vernon during this time period. However, an understanding of the local context is equally necessary, for Jews in Mount Vernon were probably affected more by the particular structures and trends relevant in the local community than those affecting the national Jewish “community.”[56] Mount Vernon is the county seat of Knox County, and is located about an hour by car northeast of the capital, Columbus, which is home to a fairly large Jewish community. The Jewish community in Knox County has a long history, with the first Jewish residents arriving only 40 years after Mount Vernon was founded. One of the first Jews to settle in the area was Adolph Wolff, a clothier, who arrived in Mount Vernon in1846 and stayed until his death in 1884.[57] Since that time, several Jewish families have resided in the area at any given time. There were approximately fifteen Jewish families in the area circa 1930. For the purposes of this study, our story begins with the arrival of the Great Depression in Knox County.

According to Frederick N. Lorey’s history of Knox County, economic hard times hit the area much later than most of the rest of the nation. Even a full year after the infamous stock market crash on Black Friday in October, 1929, prices for commodities were still high locally—one indicator of a relatively healthy economy.[58] Two years after the crash, however, Mount Vernon and Knox County fell victim to the same price free-fall and job loss that characterized the economy in the rest of the nation during the Depression years.[59]  Despite large-scale public works projects designed to put Knox County’s unemployed back to work, the local economy still floundered under the burden of high unemployment and low public relief funds.[60]

The Cooper-Bessemer Corporation, which produced various types of engines, was one of the largest employers in the county prior to the Depression.[61] During the depths of the Depression, however, Cooper-Bessemer employed “only a handful of men.”[62] In an interview, Helen Zelkowitz recalled driving past the Cooper-Bessemer plant in 1934, shortly after she first moved to Mount Vernon: “[My husband] Charles drove me around and I looked at this—he drove me down to Cooper-Bessemer…Every window was broken, the plant was closed…Cooper stock, I asked my husband what their stock was selling for, and it was selling for one [dollar].”[63] Only three years earlier, Cooper’s (as the locals call it) stock was trading at $38 on the New York Stock Exchange.[64]

Things began to look up in 1934-35, however, with the arrival of a new industrial plant: the Shellmar Products Corporation.[65] This new development was a significant marker in the history of the Jewish community, for several new Jewish families arrived in the area along with the new corporation. The company was brought here after its Chicago plant burned down and officials began to search for a new location.[66] Seeing an opportunity to bring many new jobs to Mount Vernon and simultaneously find a tenant for the abandoned rubber plant on the Western edge of town, the Chamber of Commerce offered to purchase the plant for Shellmar and sign over the title to them “if its payroll reached $1,000,000 a year within five years.”[67] The funds needed to buy the old rubber plant were raised promptly, and Mount Vernon became the new home of Shellmar Products, a packaging company.[68] With the arrival of Shellmar, five new Jewish families were added to the community: The Sussmans, Zwicks, Gurwicks, Rabishaws, and Versons.[69]

In 1938, Mount Vernon became the new home of several German Jewish refugees. Lothar Erlanger, his sister Friedel Frankel, and Lothar’s wife and children arrived late in 1938 to join their brother Leo Erlanger, an engineer at Cooper-Bessemer.[70] With the arrival of the Erlanger/Frankel families as well as the Bernard Bronners and Dr. Richard Salomon, all European refugees, the Jewish community of Knox County discussed in this work was complete. These were some of the last Jews to move to Knox County during this period.

When the war broke out in Europe and Asia, the impact on Knox County was significant. With its industrial base, Mount Vernon became the site of important wartime production. Cooper’s was a major producer of diesel engines for the Navy, and Shellmar produced packaging materials for the war effort as well.[71] Both of these companies were employers of Jewish families in the area, as was Timken Roller Bearing—yet another company involved in producing war materials.[72] Clara Wallock[73]  recalled in an interview that her father, Lothar Erlanger, was often asked to work overtime at Timken producing bits for air hammers:[74] “when the war was going full blast, course they wanted the men to work over and over and my dad [did so] as much for additional income as patriotism. I mean he would’ve done anything for this country.”[75] During the peak of wartime production, Timken was producing approximately 40,000 bits every day.[76] The ubiquitous scrap drives of World War II also gained traction in Knox County. In Lorey’s History of Knox County, a picture of one such drive on the Public Square shows a massive heap of scrap metal piled up on the northeastern corner of the Square.[77] Participation in these scrap drives, much like the practice of working overtime, was one of the primary ways that German Jews attempted to “prove” themselves to native-born Americans: “When they realized we also helped with the scrap drives and brought our money in for the victory stamps…we definitely became Americanized as quick as we could.”[78]

Also during this time period, Jews in Knox County began to organize weekly synagogue services on the top level of a building near the Public Square. The building was home to Lester’s Men’s Wear on the first floor, owned by a Jewish man by the name of Lester Smilack.[79] The first services there were held in the fall of 1939 for the High Holy Days,[80] and services continued there throughout the 40s.[81] These years mark the peak of Jewish life in Mount Vernon, Ohio. In addition, a Jewish Sisterhood continued to hold meetings during these years, though this particular society significantly predated the synagogue. By the best estimates, there were approximately 25-30 Jewish families living in Mount Vernon at this time, comprised of both immigrant and American-born Jews.

In 1955, Mount Vernon celebrated the 150th anniversary of its founding with extensive celebrations.[82] While this event was not particularly significant for the city’s Jewish residents in particular, my informants have repeatedly stressed that there was no separation between Jews and Gentiles in the community. This event may be seen as symbolic of the community’s notable unity. With respect to the city’s Jewish residents, Helen Zelkowitz (a Jewish woman) was named chair of the publicity committee for the celebrations, indicating the high degree of respect she commanded in the community.[83] In addition, the funding, organization, and talent for the sesquicentennial were entirely locally sourced. According to Fred Lorey, the chairman of the project stipulated that, “No outside promoter was to be brought in. There should be no solicitation of funds from industries or businesses. The celebrations’ events must be staged entirely by local talent.”[84] The three mile long parade, historical reenactments, beauty contest, and even a beard contest (in honor of the city’s pioneer roots) were all planned and paid for by community members.[85] While it would be foolish to assume that Mount Vernon was the ideal American small town, the image of the community conveyed by accounts of the sesquicentennial do seem to reinforce the theme of unity that has continually come up during my research.

In the years since 1960, the Jewish community has largely disappeared. The only person left in Mount Vernon from those days is Clara Wallock, who arrived from Germany as a nine-year-old in 1938. Mrs. Wallock converted to Christianity after marrying.[86] In a recent interview Mrs. Wallock said that she had been here long enough to watch the Jewish community of Mount Vernon “come and disappear.”[87] The generation of children who grew up between the 30s and the 50s moved out of town, and their parents eventually passed away. While several Jewish families and individuals still reside in the county, they can hardly be characterized as a “community.” Most of them are faculty (or relatives of faculty) at Kenyon College, and it is debatable whether most faculty members can be considered true “Knox Countians” since they tend to be separated by a wide gulf in culture and class from their neighbors. Apart from Shabbat services held on campus at the Hillel and a small group currently working to create a Jewish cemetery locally, there are no longer any Jewish institutions in Mount Vernon or Knox County.

 

Finally, before I begin launch into the body of my paper, I want to acknowledge where the idea for this project came from. Lois Hanson, a Jewish woman and longtime Knox County resident, started researching Jews in Knox County well before I did. I was offered the opportunity to work on this project only after my professors heard of her work and asked if I could work alongside her. Ms. Hanson has graciously allowed me to work on her project and has often assisted me in gathering historical data. Ms. Hanson’s approach to this project has been much more historical than mine—she is interested in history for history’s sake, which is an important and worthwhile project unto itself. My project differs from hers primarily in its approach. For me, the history of the community is a means that informs conclusions about the religious aspects of these people’s lives, but it is not an end in itself. That being said, I maintain that it is impossible to separate religion from culture or from culture’s particular historical moment. With this in mind, I will embark upon three thematically organized chapters and draw conclusions about the role of religion in the life of Jews in Knox County from 1930-1960. First, I will discuss the life of Helen Zelkowitz and the ways in which she constructed a unique Jewish identity.

 

“An Outstanding Citizen”: Helen Zelkowitz in the Mount Vernon Jewish Community

On Election Day, November 7, 1911, Helen Weiner was born in Columbus, Ohio to Sarah and Samuel Weiner.[88] Although both were Orthodox Jews, Judaism was of particular importance to Helen’s mother, who could never come to grips with the fact that Sam kept his pawnshop open on Saturdays in order to keep the business running.[89] “If I stay closed on Saturday, I won’t have to bother opening up on Monday,” he would say to her, yet Mrs. Weiner never felt comfortable compromising on Jewish law (halacha), even though the business depended on it.[90] Sarah Weiner was a devout Jew who instilled in her eight children the importance of keeping Jewish law, despite the apparent tension she had with her husband. This tension was not at all uncommon in American Jewish households where men were expected to support the family, while women often found themselves the de facto defenders of tradition and Judaism in the family.[91] While Mr. Weiner kept his shop open on Saturday, the family always walked to the synagogue on Shabbos (in accordance with the prohibition against travel on the Sabbath) and kept a strict kosher diet.[92] For the Weiners’ youngest daughter Helen, however, the single most important aspect of her Jewish upbringing was tzedaqa.

Helen Zelkowitz

Helen Zelkowitz
Source: “Celebrating the Life of Helen Weiner Zelkowitz,” Snyder Funeral Home, http://www.snyderfuneralhomes.com /images/index.phtml?id=5485 (accessed April 11, 2011).

Tzedaqa is a Hebrew word that is often translated colloquially as charity, but the concept also includes notions of justice and righteousness. It is more nuanced than simple charity; tzedaqa is a duty for all Jews that includes promoting justice for the poor, the down-and-out, the orphan, or anyone else who is in need of help. While charity is optional, tzedaqa is not. Although Mrs. Weiner clearly valued prayer, kashrut, and other Jewish laws, tzedaqa was “the most important thing” for her.[93] “We were raised on the importance of charity,” Helen recalled, as a key part of the Jewish tradition.[94] To practice Judaism in the Weiner household was to perform tzedaqa above all else.

The concept of tzedaqa is central to the Jewish tradition, and injunctions to look out for the stranger or the orphan are found throughout the Torah. The commandment to perform tzedaqa comes very early in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Genesis, the first book of the Torah, the Abrahamic Covenant is established between God and Abraham in chapter 15, naming Abraham and his descendants as God’s chosen people. Three chapters later, the text reveals what Abraham and his children are chosen for:

…I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.[95]

 

This passage demonstrates that tzedaqa is more than just charity. According to the Covenant, Abraham and his descendants are chosen so that they will “keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice,” that is, tzedaqa. Significantly, the way of the Lord is equated with tzedaqa; therefore, tzedaqa is one of God’s most basic requirements.

The specifics of tzedaqa are described elsewhere in the Torah. For example, Leviticus 19 is full of commandments (mitzvoth) concerning tzedaqa. The chapter begins with a sort of preface to the commandments that follow: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”[96] The word holy—kadosh in Hebrew—actually implies separation as well as sacrality. This preface, then, reminds the reader that the laws must be followed because the “children of Abraham” are separate, chosen. Thus, the laws that concern tzedaqa in Leviticus 19 are tied back to Genesis and Abraham himself. Commandments that are considered acts of tzedaqa almost always have to do with helping the poor or other social outcasts. For example, Leviticus 19:9 states,

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.[97]

 

A similar passage in Deuteronomy emphasizes the importance of tzedaqa in maintaining God’s favor:

Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.[98]

 

This passage once again reiterates that tzedaqa is not a choice, it is a duty, but it also gives a good example of what tzedaqa is in practice. To perform an act of tzedaqa is to participate in social justice, not just an act of generosity.

The concept of tzedaqa also features prominently in rabbinic literature in the Mishnah, specifically in Pirke Avot—the Sayings of the Fathers. In Pirke Avot, the fact that tzedaqa is a mitzvah (commandment) is presupposed, so the text deals more with how, not if, one should give.[99] In Pirke Avot 5:13, four kinds of people who give to charity are enumerated. The fourth, “the one who believes that he should not give nor should others,” is called a sinner.[100] This is an example from halacha (Jewish law) that reinforces scriptural commandments; tzedaqa is not an option, and therefore it is a sin not to give to charity (or even to believe one should not give). Elsewhere, in his Mishneh Torah, the medieval rabbi and philosopher Maimonides outlines his “Eight Levels of Charity,” in which each level is more virtuous than the last. At the bottom rung is the person who “gives, but reluctantly.”[101] This mirrors Pirke Avot 5:13 above, which condemns anyone who gives but does not believe that one should. In both of these examples, the relative value of an act of tzedaqa is determined not by the act itself, but by the intention of the giver. These passages also both presuppose that performing tzedaqa is an obligation for all Jews. The injunction to be righteous is a function of chosenness. Abraham was chosen for righteousness; therefore his descendants must be righteous and perform tzedaqa. In a modern context, this means that tzedaqa is often fundamental to the formation of a Jewish identity.

The elevated moral code required by the mitzvoth leads Jews to participate widely in social service organizations. Beginning in the 1840s (in America), most substantial Jewish communities could claim some sort of Jewish charitable organization such as a hospital or an orphanage.[102] Tzedaqa, however, is not limited to acts within the Jewish community—on the contrary, Jews are commanded to serve the outsider as well as their own. This broad conception of tzedaqa seems to be the one that motivated Helen throughout her life.

Weiner Siblings

“Five members of the Weiner sibling clan: (clockwise from top left) Helen (Zelkowitz), Abe, Eleanore (Yenkin), Tillie (Ziskind); and Ruth (Kanter).”
Source: Ruth Portnoy. “Sisters’ Generosity, Love of Family (and Hats) Left a Mark.” The New Standard Online, December 27, 2006. http://www.thenewstandard.com /index.php? option=com_content& task=view&id=155&Itemid=5 (accessed December 9, 2010).

Helen’s mother raised her children according to a well-defined Jewish moral system that included tzedaqa as its centerpiece. Late in life, Helen recalled how her mother would donate generously to a variety of causes. Meschulachim, people who collected money for Jewish causes, knew exactly where Mrs. Weiner lived because her generosity was well-known in the community and she could almost always be counted upon to donate to their cause.[103] Mrs. Weiner also kept a collection of eight separate pushkes—charity boxes—to which she would contribute every week.[104] Each box represented a different group in need of assistance—“the aged, the orphans…the blind, the handicapped…” to name a few.[105] Mrs. Weiner often brought Helen along to deliver dinner to sick women’s families, instilling in her daughter the importance of these righteous acts.[106]  While it is clear that Sarah Weiner was a generous and kind-hearted woman, she saw these acts of charity as her duty, her responsibility as Jew. In turn, tzedaqa became an integral part Helen’s Jewish identity. She even admitted that part of the reason she moved to a small town like Mount Vernon was so that she could “make contributions.”[107] While her commitment to strict kashrut fell by the wayside later in life and she had to make some compromises in her observation of halacha after she moved to Mount Vernon, her commitment to leading a righteous lifestyle and performing acts of tzedaqa was unwavering.

 

Helen Weiner married her first cousin once removed, Charles Zelkowitz, on February 13, 1933.[108] Charles was the grandson of Helen’s uncle, but he grew up in West Orange, New Jersey, only moving to Columbus in 1929 after completing law school at Cornell University.[109] The marriage occurred without pomp or ceremony in Wheeling, West Virginia over a bridge table with no one present but the couple and the officiating rabbi.[110] Shortly thereafter, the newlywed couple moved to Mount Vernon, some 50 miles northeast of Columbus. Though Helen was raised in the city, Charles was used to a small-town environment. Following a tip from a friend that Mount Vernon was in need of a lawyer due to the judge’s recent death, Charles moved there in 1931.[111] Unfortunately, the judge’s practice was nonexistent, leaving little opening for Charles to start his own. During his first year, Charles earned exactly $0.25, this from another member of the Jewish community there, Sam Epstein.[112] Helen joined her husband in Mount Vernon after the start of the New Year in 1934, well into the Great Depression.[113] At the time, the couple rented an apartment in town for eighteen dollars per month, which Helen thought was “astronomical.”[114] The couple had to be supported by both sets of parents in order to pay the rent and make ends meet.[115] Over the years, however, Charles’s practice grew into one of the most successful and prominent law firms in Mount Vernon; the firm still bears his name—“Zelkowitz, Barry, and Cullers.”

Helen, for her part, began almost immediately to establish herself in the Mount Vernon community. In April of 1934, she joined the Mount Vernon Chapter of the Newark Jewish Sisterhood.[116] The Sisterhood, numbering ten women residing in Mount Vernon, carried out a wide range of activities; primary among these were charitable works. The Sisterhood met monthly from September through May every year at one of the members’ homes. At this time, there were no regular religious services; the Sisterhood was therefore the core of Jewish life in the community. It was the women who participated most actively in Jewish life during this time (up until 1939, with the formation of the Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation). Here again we see how women, not men, became the leaders of the religious and social life of the Jewish community.

Helen Zelkowitz became an active and outspoken member of the Jewish Sisterhood from her very first meeting. From 1934–1935, Mrs. Zelkowitz is mentioned in nearly every meeting recorded in the Sisterhood’s notebook (which ends with the year 1935). Her first time attending, she read an article about Passover to the group, but soon she was taking a more active role in the activities of the club itself.[117] Another member of the organization read an article about the need for Jewish Sunday Schools in small towns at Helen’s first meeting, and by November of the next year (1935) Helen was running a Sabbath School for the local children of Jewish households.[118] The school was so successful that the Sisterhood actually made their own funds available to Helen for supplies to support her work.[119] In December, 1935, Helen was elected vice-president of the Sisterhood, marking one of the first (if not the first) leadership positions she held in a charitable organization.[120] On numerous occasions, the minutes show that Helen urged her fellow members to give to various causes as they could. Helen herself must have been a woman of meager means at the time—1935 was only a few years after her husband started his law firm and one of the leanest years of the Great Depression. Still, Helen felt that charitable works were the duty of all Jews and pushed her comrades to give as each was able.

One of the causes that Helen supported throughout her adult life was Hadassah, an international Jewish women’s Zionist organization. In January, 1935, the Sisterhood received a letter from the Columbus chapter of Hadassah asking for a larger contribution than they had given previously.[121] The Sisterhood voted to defeat the measure, however, and Helen later recalled this incident as one of the reasons why she eventually left the Sisterhood.[122]

I dropped out of that all because of charity. Flo Shamansky was president, and we were talking about giving to Hadassah, which is an international thing, and we were talking about a linen shower, and when she said we weren’t going to give any linens, I said ‘well, you can count me out.’…Flo was as tight as paper on a wall when it came to giving to someone else.[123]

It is clear from her own words that Helen was a very opinionated and strong-willed person, particularly when it came to tzedaqa, which in her view was non-negotiable.

Although Helen eventually left the Jewish Sisterhood, she was always involved with charitable organizations. Many of them were based in the Jewish community, but many of them were also non-denominational or even Christian organizations. Her longtime friend, professor emeritus at Kenyon College, Dr. Franklin Miller, described her as “an outstanding citizen.”[124] Whenever there was a community event, “she would be present,” and when it came to the various community organizations, “she was involved with everything.”[125] Her involvement in the community went far beyond charity, but charity was always at the core of her life and her work. “To Helen, giving was a privilege.”[126]

Helen’s charitable work is difficult to summarize simply because she was “involved with everything.”[127] “I loved to go to meetings,” she recalled, “my husband claims I was only happy if I had a double header.” [128] Although Helen did leave the Jewish Sisterhood, she never found herself in want of meetings to attend. For example, Helen was president of the Mount Vernon chapter of the Psi Iota Xi sorority, which is a women’s charitable organization that focuses its efforts in the arts, literature, and speech and hearing.[129] In addition, she was the founding president of the Mount Vernon chapter of Soroptimist International, another women’s charity organization; this one consists specifically of professional women and community leaders.[130] Soroptimist is primarily involved with women’s issues.[131] The club was founded locally by Helen in 1956[132] after a representative from the club in Columbus personally came down to the radio station Helen owned and asked her to start a Mount Vernon chapter. At first, Helen was resistant and claimed that she was too busy, but she was eventually persuaded.[133] Both of these clubs still exist in Mount Vernon and continue to be active in the community.

Helen Zelkowitz was also a longtime supporter of the activities of the American Red Cross in Knox County. During World War II, her husband Charles was the chairman of the board at the Knox County Red Cross, and later Helen herself became the chairwoman.[134] Helen was a very strong believer in the work of this organization: “We have always been involved with Red Cross because of its service,” she explained. For a time, Helen was a “Gray Lady”—a Red Cross volunteer who assisted with nonmedical duties at the hospital[135]—in her words, she was a “Candy Striper.”[136] Helen’s commitment to the Red Cross went far beyond just serving on the board and donating her time and money. Helen actually donated her home of 60 years to the local Red Cross in her will, but even before her death she allowed the Red Cross to set up its office on the lower level of the house.[137] Before moving into Helen’s home on Mulberry Street, the Red Cross operated out of two closets in the Memorial Building in downtown Mount Vernon.[138] This less-than-optimal situation prompted Helen to donate her own home to the Red Cross, thereby making charity and service literally a part of daily life. Helen’s list of achievements goes on, but this example may demonstrate most effectively how committed she was to serving others in her community.

Helen’s other charitable involvements read like the resumé of a high-powered executive (which she was). She founded the Kidney Foundation in Mount Vernon after a representative from the Columbus Kidney Foundation asked her to do so.[139] She was also involved with the “Food for the Hungry” food drive in Knox County from its inception in the early 80s; this drive became an annual event that today has a fundraising goal of $110,000.[140] Helen served as chair of the capital campaign for the Knox County Community Hospital,[141] was a trustee of the Community Trust,[142] was the first woman to serve as the campaign chairman for the United Way of Knox County, was active with the local YMCA, and was an avid supporter of the Mount Vernon Developmental Center.[143] Perhaps a better way to describe Helen’s involvement with the community is to say that it is difficult to find a charitable cause in the Mount Vernon area with which Helen was not connected in some way. Significantly, Helen regularly found herself in positions of leadership within these organizations, often at the behest of others. In her obituary, a list of some of the organizations to which Helen devoted time and money was published. While this list was not exhaustive, it included twenty organizations in Knox County and Columbus as among those she supported, adding that she also contributed to “many charities in Israel.”[144] Even after her death, Helen and her husband continue to contribute to various charitable causes in the area through several endowed funds which they established for both Jewish and secular causes.[145]

Helen herself stated that tzedaqa was the most important thing for her when it came to her Jewish identity.[146] The scriptures and the rabbinic literature require Jews to give of themselves for the sake of others, especially for those who are in some way vulnerable; the influence of these ideas quite clearly manifested itself in Helen’s work in the community. One example from rabbinic literature can be found in the widely-known and well loved work by Maimonides, the Mishneh Torah. Maimonides’ comments on tzedaqa, particularly his eight levels of charity, are especially well-known. In the Mishneh Torah, he concludes that

we are in duty bound to be more careful with the fulfillment of the commandment relating to alms than all the other commandments, for almsgiving is the characteristic of the righteous man of the seed of Abraham, our father.[147]

Even if she never read Maimonides, Helen would nevertheless have been exposed to similar ideas; his philosophy has been integrated into modern Jewish thought. According to Maimonides, the scriptures require Jews to “console the poor man and support him to the extent of sufficiency.”[148] Helen’s work with organizations like the Red Cross and the United Way, which help provide the basic necessities of life, can be interpreted as the fulfillment of scriptural and rabbinic requirements. By participating in these associations, Helen was fulfilling the mitzvoth and constructing her Jewish identity.

Among the eight levels of charity, some might place Helen’s activities on the top rungs. The seventh level (the eighth is considered the highest) is “one [who] gives in such a way that neither the donor nor the recipient knows the identity of the other.”[149] By getting involved with service organizations like the Red Cross and the United Way, those who benefitted from Helen’s work were always affected indirectly. It is unlikely that she knew exactly who in the community benefitted from her fundraising efforts since the organizational structure of the various charities interceded between donors and recipients. Likewise, the anonymity provided by these organizations prevented recipients of her aid from knowing her identity, and they therefore could not feel indebted to any one person. Maimonides explains the advantage of anonymous giving in his Mishneh Torah, arguing that an anonymous donation is preferable because it is “the performance of a commandment from disinterested motives.”[150] In other words, the mitzvah is fulfilled for its own sake, not for the sake of honor or gratitude.[151] Helen’s activities with community organizations also fulfill the sixth level of charity, which is “the donation of money to the charitable fund of the Community, to which no contribution should be made without the donors feeling confident that the administration is honest…”[152] The organizations Helen committed herself to were by definition funds of the community (though not always of the Jewish community), which she clearly believed in and trusted to distribute her funds responsibly.

Maimonides eighth and highest level of charity is to give assistance to a co-religionist who has fallen on evil times by presenting him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or procuring him work, thereby helping him to become self-supporting.[153]

Helen fulfilled even this highest level of charity through her work with organizations like Jewish Family Services in Columbus, which (among other things) helps local Jews find work.[154] In addition, Helen set up a scholarship fund for Mount Vernon High School students to help advance their education and work towards their eventual financial independence. [155] The scholarship is awarded to students with an excellent community service record. Both of these are examples of Maimonides’ eighth level of charity.

In 1951, Helen Zelkowitz founded WMVO, an FM radio station in Mount Vernon. According to an interview she gave, a community meeting was called to discuss the need for a local radio station. Helen was asked to attend as the representative of Psi Iota Xi.[156] At that time, Helen had been searching for a farm for her family’s three horses and had just found one she liked that happened to be located at the highest point in Knox County, 1,100 feet above sea level.[157] Helen suggested this location for the proposed radio station, since a point of high elevation was needed for the transmitter.[158] Initially, the Zelkowitzes started WMVO as a joint venture with another man, a professor from Baldwin-Wallace College, but after the station began to lose money the professor changed his mind and left Helen alone to manage WMVO.[159] In the beginning, the station was broadcast on an FM frequency because it was much less expensive, but very few listeners had FM radios in those days and the station almost failed.[160] Eventually, however, Helen was able to gather the $25,000 necessary to begin broadcasting on an AM frequency as well.[161]

WMVO gained popularity quickly, which Helen’s friend and employee at WMVO Franklin Miller attributes to the fact that it was the only way to listen to Cleveland Indians games live—a very popular form of entertainment with Mount Vernon residents in those days.[162] In addition to musical programming and other entertainment, WMVO served as a clearing house for any and all news from the community. Helen had her own show, “Over the Coffee Cup,” which was a morning talk show featuring local politicians, community members, or anyone else who had something to say (and whom Helen could convince to submit to an interview).[163] The station also employed a news man “who would go out and gather the news,” Miller recalls.[164] “Every morning at 9 o’clock he’d be out, he’d go to the police department, he’d get all of the police records, and all of the business records, and cover the meetings and so forth.”[165] Helen’s radio station was local not only in the sense that it had a limited range, but also local in content and focus. One amusing anecdote that Dr. Miller related in an interview concerned a short segment that Helen did at noon in which she covered the local news on births, deaths, and marriages. “She was not perceptive enough to realize how bad it was, ‘cause she introduced this as ‘Hatches, Matches, and Dispatches.’ And some people thought that was pretty bad—especially the Dispatches.”[166] Despite the apparent lapse in taste, this example clearly shows that Helen wanted her radio station to support the community and to disperse information about local goings-on. While the radio station was indeed a business, Helen ran it more or less as a hobby and as another form of service. “She had the concept it would be serving the community. It wasn’t to make money.”[167]

Through her broad involvement in charity and on the radio at WMVO, Helen Zelkowitz established herself as a very well-known figure in Knox County. She was outgoing, outspoken, and active in the community as much as possible, socially as well as through her charitable activities.[168] A large part of this may be due to her individual personality; however, these tendencies were typical of Jews in America in general at the time. According to historians Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, most Jews felt that the “pursuit of equality and social justice rather than religion or Israel” were the most important Jewish values in post-war America.[169] This mirrors Maimonides’ statement in his Mishneh Torah, which emphasizes tzedaqa over all the other mitzvoth. Not surprisingly, then, Jews often integrated and assimilated into American society by participating in it through community service. Arthur Hertzberg argues that Jews were forced to accept Protestant culture in order to successfully make a home for themselves in post-war America,[170] but Lipset and Raab counter this argument by pointing out that bourgeois Protestant culture preached a “social gospel” which correlated strongly with Jewish concepts of tzedaqa and social responsibility. In the end, Hertzberg gets it right when he writes, “most Jews tried to have it both ways: to become part of the majority society while keeping some kind of Jewish communal life alive.”[171] By assuming prominent leadership roles in both the Jewish and secular communities, Helen maintained her Jewish identity while making a place for herself among the traditional local elites of Knox County.

According to a 1950s survey of Jewish participation in the community life of middle-sized and small towns in America, Jewish participation in community activities was high.[172] The study claims that high levels of involvement in community service activities, especially in non-sectarian agencies (such as the Red Cross), were significant because they allowed Jews to enter the ranks of the social elites:

This participation is important, since such agencies stem from the ‘Lady

Bountiful’ tradition in which socially elite women extend help to families in trouble. In most communities, these boards still have representatives from the social elite; board membership is frequently looked upon as a mark of high social status.[173]

There is little indication that Helen’s community service was motivated by a desire to climb the social ladder. Nevertheless, she was quite influential and well-known in the community yet still never felt the need to hide the fact that she was Jewish.[174] This could indicate that Dean’s argument is correct. Helen was able to gain acceptance into the ranks of the elite through participation in charitable activities, though no doubt her popularity also stemmed from her ownership of WMVO, which by its very nature made her into a public figure.

It is important to note that many Jews during this period interpreted the obligation to perform tzedaqa in light of social justice movements, choosing to participate in social activism over philanthropy. Social activism addressed the underlying structural causes of injustice—poverty, war, racism—while philanthropy addressed its symptoms. In his essay “From Jewish Rights to Human Rights,” Milton R. Konvitz traces the transformation of Jewish interest groups in America from international relief organizations to protectors of civil rights.[175] While organizations like the American Jewish Committee (AJC) always remained concerned with Jewish rights, “these are seen as encompassing the fundamental rights of all human beings, just as the Halakhah extended the moral duty of hesed (kindness) from Jew to stranger to all humanity.”[176] As Hertzberg argues in The Jews in America, “the American Jewish community had decided, with little deliberation and very much as a matter of course, that its inmost Jewish content was activism.”[177] Gradually, organizations like the AJC and the Anti-Defamation League adopted the principle that fighting against any kind of discrimination was in the interest of humanity in general and thus the Jews in particular.[178]

Outside of specifically Jewish associations, many individual Jews also found themselves at the forefront of social activist movements. One of the most famous of these was Abraham Joshua Heschel, who saw the fight for social justice as integral to his Jewish identity—just as Helen saw philanthropy as part of hers. In his landmark work, The Prophets, Heschel writes that the prophetic scriptures “maintained that the primary way of serving God is through love, justice, and righteousness.”[179]  For Heschel, righteousness is “God’s part of human life…Perhaps it is because the suffering of man is a blot upon God’s conscience.”[180] Heschel saw the world through the prophets’ eyes and was concerned both with particular instances of injustice as well as the existence of injustice everywhere. This led him to become an important leader in the Civil Rights Movement, particularly after his speech at the National Conference on Religion and Race in 1963, where he met Martin Luther King, Jr.[181] This landmark speech demonstrated both his commitment to social justice and his underlying religious motivations. Just as Helen felt that tzedaqa—in her world, philanthropy—was a non-negotiable part of daily life, Heschel stated that “Daily we should take into account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation?[182]

Heschel interpreted the religious duty of tzedaqa macroscopically to include political action and other very public manifestations of righteousness and justice. This interpretation diverges from the more traditional and conservative manifestations of tzedaqa, as exemplified by Helen’s work in her community. Neither form of tzedaqa is necessarily higher or more righteous than the other, even though figures like Heschel are often glorified as prophets in their own right. Both should be considered legitimate forms of expressing the religious duty to perform tzedaqa.

One way to account for the divergence with Heschel is Helen’s upbringing. While Jewish social activists attacked injustice at the structural, macroscopic level, the Weiners were raised putting coins into pushkes and taking care of the ill in the community. For the Weiners, tzedaqa was expressed through charity on a very local scale. Gender may also play a role in this difference, though there were female Jewish activists at this time as well. Perhaps Helen did not feel comfortable speaking out against the status quo as a woman at a time when women were still largely expected to stay out of the public sphere. Another explanation is that performing tzedaqa seems to be one of the primary means by which Helen integrated herself into the community. She became widely known for her good deeds, but did not stir up political or social unrest in her adopted community. As part of a tiny minority in Mount Vernon, it seems plausible that a more activist, radical stance on social justice would have hindered her ability to find acceptance and security as a visible outsider in a relatively homogenous community. While Heschel lived in New York City where the Jewish population was well-established, Helen lived in a small, rural town where the Jewish community was much more precarious. Thus, participating in local, non-political, charitable organizations allowed her to simultaneously perform tzedaqa and gain favor in the eyes of her Gentile neighbors. This explanation seems to be the most plausible, and may also help account for the lack of anti-Semitism that Mount Vernon experienced during the postwar years, despite the fact that anti-Semitism was generally on the rise in America during this time.[183]

Participation in organizations of all types was very high among Jews during this period. According to Dean, about half of all Jews in middle-sized towns were involved in four or more “mixed” organizations (those having both Jewish and Gentile membership), compared to only 9 percent of Gentiles.[184] Although no explanation is offered for this in the study, one reasonable hypothesis is that community participation stems from two major motivators: first, Jewish social values and adherence to the requirements of the mitzvoth, and second, the desire to find acceptance as a member of the minority in an overwhelmingly gentile community. According to Hertzberg, Jews during this time were terrified by the specter of anti-Semitism, and wanted to find acceptance as individuals, not as Jews.[185] One of the main avenues towards acceptance and integration in the community for Jews was active participation in it, as exemplified by Helen Zelkowitz.

Anti-Semitism during the post-World War II period was a concern for all Jews. The fear of anti-Semitism was particularly acute in the wake of the horrific destruction of European Jewry during the war years. While anti-Semitism was a widespread phenomenon in the United States, all accounts claim that Mount Vernon was a hospitable place for Jews. Dr. Miller stated that “Mount Vernon was remarkably free of any anti-Semitism,”[186] and Helen herself agreed in an interview that the relationship between Jews and Protestants (the majority) in the community was always “very good and healthy.”[187] Another member of the community at that time, Clara Wallock, stated that the Protestant families “were very gracious to our family” when they first arrived from Germany in 1938.[188] The Jewish community in Mount Vernon was small, yet Knox County was not a hostile place for Jews to live.

Significantly, Helen did not shy away from making her Jewish heritage publicly known. It was well known in the community that Helen was Jewish; in fact, “she made a point of it,” says Dr. Miller.[189] The lack of anti-Semitism in Mount Vernon is not terribly surprising in light of objective data on Jews in small towns collected during the postwar years. Joseph Greenbaum and Marshall Sklare conducted a survey of Jews in small towns during the 1950s on a variety of factors concerning quality of life. Their findings suggest that anti-Semitism was “not a serious problem” in small towns.[190] Furthermore, the authors found that Jews felt more accepted in communities with proportionally smaller Jewish populations.[191] Their explanation of this phenomenon was that “visibility may have dysfunctional consequences for the minority group.”[192] This assertion does not explain the lack of anti-Semitism in Mount Vernon, however, since members of the community (particularly Helen) were well-known and did not try to make themselves invisible.

The former home of Helen Zelkowitz in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Photos by author.

The former home of Helen Zelkowitz in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Photos by author.

Dr. Miller speculates that perhaps one reason for the lack of anti-Semitism in Mount Vernon was Helen’s excellent reputation, or “her example,” in his words. “She was such an outstanding citizen…She got several awards for, like, outstanding citizen, or citizen of the month, or whatever it would be.”[193] While Helen did not attribute the remarkably good Jewish-Gentile relations to her own doing, she did cite the good works that Jews did in the community. Helen believed that the community was so receptive to its Jewish inhabitants primarily because the Jewish people here in Mount Vernon have been very philanthropic. I was raised seeing my mother give charity all the time to different organizations…I don’t think that the Christian community has ever learned how to give to the [same] extent, except the Nazarene Church.[194]

 

Comments like this are in tension with Maimonides’ injunction to give anonymously. While acts of charity in the Jewish community may not have been motivated primarily by a desire to integrate, this is one clear indication that there was also something “in it for them”: acceptance. For Helen, Judaism was not something that divided her from the community at large, despite her frustrations with Christian neighbors who “were not raised on that basis.”[195] Tzedaqa, one of the most basic principles of Judaism, was the means by which Helen and other Jewish members of the community gained acceptance from their Protestant neighbors.

Helen chose tzedaqa as one of the primary expressions of her faith and Jewish identity in the context of small-town USA. As it turns out, this was quite common for small-town Jews who were largely cut off from most of the regular institutions of Jewish life: synagogues, the rabbinate, shochetim,[196] and so on. Under these circumstances, Jews found it very difficult if not impossible to follow all of the halacha. Simultaneously, Jews in America in general were fighting a battle to gain acceptance in the mainstream, which often meant abandoning Jewish ideals and practices in the service of assimilation.[197] Hertzberg succinctly summarizes this tension between Jewish practice and assimilation: “What they did as Jews—and, more revealing, what they chose not to do—had to fit their dominant purpose: to ‘arrive.’”[198] In Johnstown, Pennsylvania (a relatively small town), sociologist Ewa Morawska writes that “tsdoke [tzedaqa] seemed to have the most explicit…religious reference” of all domestic Jewish rituals.[199] This link to religion was couched in terms of Jewish identity: performing tzedaqa was viewed as “an obligation inherent in being part of Klal Yisroel, the Jewish people.”[200] Morawska argues that the importance of tzedaqa is due to the fact that “among Jewish precepts, [it is] the easiest to transfer outside group boundaries…”[201] When Morawska uses the phrase “group boundaries,” she is referring to social boundaries that divide Jews from other Americans. The concept of tzedaqa is easily universalized to include philanthropy and activism beyond the scope of the Jewish community. Beyond the social boundaries Morawska refers to, physical boundaries of Jewish communities are also important here. Outside of the boundaries of a well-established Jewish community, the institutions that allow for traditional Jewish practice (Jewish neighborhoods within walking distance of synagogues, kosher butchers) simply do not exist. On the other hand, tzedaqa is completely portable and can be done independently of any Jewish communal organizations. This may be one of the reasons that tzedaqa became so important in Helen’s life, in addition to the strong influence of her mother. Tzedaqa was an attainable means of expressing her Jewish identity and commitment to Judaism in an overwhelmingly gentile world.

 

While tzedaqa was undeniably the most important Jewish value for Helen, she was also one of the more religiously conservative members of the Jewish community in Mount Vernon in other aspects.[202] Helen’s religious roots were in Columbus, where her grandfather was the first spiritual leader of the Agudas Achim Synagogue.[203] She was raised by orthodox parents, and in her adult life she celebrated Shabbat every week. Dr. Miller stated that religion was very important to Helen, and that “she wouldn’t give up the Sabbath for anything…She observed the Sabbath very strictly. She tried to.”[204] On Friday evenings, the Zelkowitzes either had Shabbat dinner in their home or went to Columbus for services at Agudas Achim and to have dinner with family.[205] This violated the prohibition of traveling on the Sabbath, but allowed her access to services led by a rabbi and time with her family. Living in Mount Vernon, which was far away from a large Jewish community with a shochet (ritual slaughterer), meant that keeping kosher was very difficult, especially in the days before pre-frozen and packaged kosher foods were widely available. When she first moved to Knox County, Helen tried to keep kosher “until they sent me a dead duck.”[206] Apparently, Helen had been sending for live animals to slaughter for herself (or have slaughtered), but gave up on this once she received a worthless (dead) animal. Nevertheless, Helen clearly had a strong attachment to her religion, even beyond the ethical considerations of tzedaqa. During Jewish holidays, especially the High Holy Days, Helen made it a point to travel to Columbus for formal services at Agudas Achim.[207] She made sure that her son, Stephen, had a bar mitzvah and thus at least a rudimentary knowledge of Torah. (Curiously, he had his bar mitzvah at the Broad Street Temple, not at Agudas Achim.)[208] For a time, she even taught a Sabbath School in Mount Vernon for the local Jewish children, which further demonstrates her commitment to passing her religion and tradition on to the next generation.[209]

Helen’s commitment to her religion was also manifested in her involvement with Jewish organizations. As mentioned above, she was a life member of the Columbus chapter of Hadassah,[210] and remained active in the Agudas Achim Sisterhood even while living in Mount Vernon. On several occasions, she was called on by Hadassah and the Sisterhood to present book reviews as the evening’s entertainment during officer installations or similar events.[211] This speaks to her continued involvement as well as the respect she commanded in those groups. Despite the fact that she lived an hour or more away by car, Helen remained a fixture in the Columbus Jewish community through these organizations and through groups such as Jewish Family Services, the Columbus Torah Academy, the Jewish Community Center, OSU Hillel, and several other charities that support Jewish causes in Columbus.[212] Helen was even one of the founders of the Columbus Jewish Foundation, which testifies to her deep commitment to the Jewish community there.[213] In Knox County, Helen was a generous supporter of Kenyon College Hillel[214] and a one-time member of the Jewish Sisterhood as well as a member of the Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation.[215]

Helen Zelkowitz was most passionate about her charity work (both sectarian and secular), but that did not mean that she neglected other aspects of her religion. Her lifelong involvement in religious activities, both in Columbus and in Knox County, demonstrates that Helen Zelkowitz was a devout Jew. Although she did have to make compromises to live in Mount Vernon (with regard to kashrut, for example), Helen always identified herself as a Jew and made it a point to honor her Jewish upbringing as she was able. In sum, despite her emphasis on Jewish ethics, Helen’s particular “brand” of Judaism was not devoid of what is typically thought of as “official religion”—ritual, observance of the halachot, and regular attendance at a synagogue.

Epilogue

Helen died on December 15th, 2006 in a car accident which killed both her and her older sister, Eleanore Yenkin.[216] The two were riding back to Columbus after a holiday party in Mount Vernon.[217] Helen was 95 years old. After Helen’s death, her obituary asked mourners to make donations to Agudas Achim, the Red Cross of Knox County, or to Kenyon College Hillel in lieu of sending flowers to her family.[218] This seems a fitting tribute for a woman who devoted her life to the service of others and in doing so became an ambassador for the Jewish community of Mount Vernon. Today, her former home remains the office of the American Red Cross in Knox County and her charitable work continues through several endowed philanthropic funds which she established before her death (see Illustration C). WMVO is still a thriving radio station in Mount Vernon, though it has been under different ownership since the mid-1990s and its character has changed significantly.[219] Helen Zelkowitz was intimately connected with her Jewish heritage and was unafraid to be publicly Jewish. In addition, the connection between religion and philanthropy was not incidental for Helen: on more than one occasion, she enumerated tzedaqa as the single most important aspect of Judaism. In light of this and Helen’s exceptional list of charitable activities, it is easy to see that Helen was a deeply pious Jew for whom Judaism was not a tangential concern, but the center of her daily life.

We have just discussed how one woman, Helen Zelkowitz, constructed her own Jewish identity and made Judaism a central concern in her life. Next, we will explore similar themes in the case of an immigrant German family that lived in Mount Vernon—the Erlangers and Frankels.

“Absolutely, Totally, Thoroughly American”: One German Family’s Immigration and Integration into Small-Town Life

In the 1930s, November 11th was known not as Veteran’s Day, but as Armistice Day—the day commemorating the end of the First World War and Germany’s surrender to the Allied Powers.  On Armistice Day, 1938, the youngest of the three children of Samuel and Minna Erlanger arrived in America to join his siblings after a voyage across the Atlantic from Hamburg, Germany.[220] Lothar Erlanger, his wife Minna, and their three children caught a train to Newark, Ohio from New York [221] just days after the Kristallnacht pogrom, which occurred November 9th and 10th in Germany.[222] On Kristallnacht, the Erlanger siblings’ mother was bound in the basement of her shop while she listened to Nazi rioters ransack and take whatever they pleased upstairs, but none of her children were left in Germany to comfort her.[223]  Lothar and his family arrived in Newark on a Friday, where they were met by Lothar’s brother, Leo, and a family friend. The family was driven back to Mount Vernon, where they initially lived with Leo Erlanger.[224] By Monday, the three children were in school,[225] beginning the process of assimilation and integration for the new arrivals. In the span of only a couple of weeks, the Erlanger children went from being German Jewish refugees to travelers onboard the steamship New York, New York to pupils at the East School in Mount Vernon, Ohio;[226] from Guntersblum, Germany where the Erlanger children were afraid to walk down the streets, to Mount Vernon, where the children felt they had landed “in seventh heaven.”[227]

Friedel Frankel with several children at the Erlangers’ dry goods store in Guntersblum. Daughter of Lothar Erlanger is second from the right. Circa 1936. Source: “Children Try on Shoes in the Jewish Owned Erlanger Shoe and Dry Goods Store in Guntersblum, Germany,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum http://resources.ushmm.org/inquery/uia_doc.php/query/8?uf=uia_zzvIdh (accessed January 1, 2011).

Friedel Frankel with several children at the Erlangers’ dry goods store in Guntersblum. Daughter of Lothar Erlanger is second from the right. Circa 1936.
Source: “Children Try on Shoes in the Jewish Owned Erlanger Shoe and Dry Goods Store in Guntersblum, Germany,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum http://resources.ushmm.org/
inquery/uia_doc.php/query/8?uf=uia_zzvIdh (accessed January 1, 2011).

This brief summary of the Erlanger family’s experience integrating into the Mount Vernon community is merely a broad overview. There were challenges along the way, and the community probably was not always as open and accepting as the Erlangers remembered it. However, the Erlangers—as well as other Jewish families in the area—did integrate themselves remarkably successfully into the community, while still maintaining a Jewish identity. Even though the Erlangers and Frankels faced two “strikes” against them from the beginning—as German immigrants and as Jews—the goal of integration was achieved to the degree that little to no distinction could be drawn between their family and the community of Mount Vernon.[228] And yet, the Erlangers did not lose sight of their Jewish roots. The dual processes of integration and formation of an American Jewish identity are central to understanding the experience of this German Jewish immigrant family. In this chapter, I will discuss German Jewish culture in pre-War Germany, and then I will examine how the Erlangers assimilated into American society while still maintaining elements of their Jewish and German identities. First, it is necessary to understand the Erlangers’ story: how and why did the Erlangers and Frankels immigrate to the United States?

Members of a manual workers’ union including Lothar Erlanger (glasses, front row), Leo and Friedel Frankel (third row, fourth and fifth from the left). 1932, Germany. Source: “Members of a Manual Workers Union in Gartenblum, Germany,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, http://digitalassets.ushmm.org/photoarchives/detail.aspx?id=1121077&search=fraenkel&index=2 (accessed January 7, 2011).

Members of a manual workers’ union including Lothar Erlanger (glasses, front row), Leo and Friedel Frankel (third row, fourth and fifth from the left). 1932, Germany.
Source: “Members of a Manual Workers Union in Gartenblum, Germany,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, http://digitalassets.ushmm.org/photoarchives/detail.
aspx?id=1121077&search=fraenkel&index=2
(accessed January 7, 2011).

The Erlanger family originally resided in Guntersblum, Germany, a small town in the wine-producing region of the Southwest, not far from Mannheim.[229] Samuel and Minna Erlanger had three children: Friedel, Leo, and Lothar.[230] As an adult, Friedel married a man named Leo Frankel and changed her surname to Frankel as well. Samuel Erlanger was a traveling wine salesman, while Minna owned a dry goods store, which Friedel and Lothar helped her maintain (see Illustrations D, E, and F).[231] Their brother Leo earned a master’s degree in engineering from the nearby Darmstadt University of Technology.[232] Unable to find work in Germany, Leo immigrated to the United States in approximately 1922.[233] A friend and fraternity brother of Leo’s convinced him to come to America,[234] where Leo initially found a job working at General Electric in Cincinnati, Ohio; later Leo joined his friend in Grove City, Pennsylvania where they both worked for the Cooper-Bessemer Corporation.[235] Sometime between 1934, when Leo’s first son Richard was born, and 1938, with the birth of his second son Ervin, the family moved to Mount Vernon, Ohio.[236] The first record of Leo’s residence in the Mount Vernon city directory appears in 1938, so it is likely that he was transferred by Cooper-Bessemer to the Mount Vernon plant in ’37 or ’38, where he worked as a mechanical engineer.[237] At this time, Friedel and Lothar both still lived in Germany.

After Hitler rose to power in 1933, the situation for Jews in Germany declined steadily; the Erlangers’ hometown of Guntersblum was no exception. Lothar Erlanger and his family lived in a house adjacent to the synagogue.[238] When Nazi restrictions tightened and Jews were no longer permitted to hold services, the Erlangers allowed local congregants to walk through their home, into the backyard, and through the back door of the synagogue so that services could still be observed for the most important holidays, possibly including the High Holy Days.[239] According to Clara Wallock, a close family member, this was extremely risky: “we could’ve even lost our lives…over it.”[240] Former friends turned against them due to the simple fact that they were Jewish, and longtime vendors refused to continue doing business with the Erlangers for fear of potential repercussions.[241] For the Erlanger family, it became clear early on that something was going to have to be done and that the situation in Germany was no longer safe. As Edgar Ross,[242] another close relative, put it: “they looked at the crystal ball, they saw what is happening, and so [Leo Erlanger] did everything to get everybody out.”[243] Ms. Wallock echoed this sentiment:

I mean, there was an underground network in I’m sure the bigger cities, and I know there was one in our small community, and I think only one or two people in the town had a radio at the time, but they would meet again in private to listen to this underground. And they knew their life were gonna be in danger within a few years.[244]

Obtaining enough immigration visas for the entire family, however, was a struggle. Leo Erlanger was able to emigrate before the 1924 immigration law in America reduced foreign immigration to a mere trickle.[245] Lothar and his family began the process of applying for visas as early as 1933, but could not get enough for the five of them until it was almost too late. In 1938, the year that Lothar Erlanger, his family, and his sister Friedel emigrated, only 27,000 Germans were permitted visas under the immigration quota system.[246] During this same year, 125,000 Germans,[247] the majority of them Jewish, applied for immigration visas—over four and a half times the number of spots available.

Securing immigration visas for the United States was an extraordinarily difficult and complicated task at this time. The US Department of State required that each prospective immigrant submit a formidable mass of paperwork in order to screen out potential criminals or other undesirable elements of society. According to the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, each applicant had to submit “two copies of his police dossier, prison record, and military record, two certified copies of his birth certificate, and two copies of other available government records concerning him by the government to which he owed allegiance.”[248] Besides these documents, applicants also had to show that they would not become an economic burden on their prospective host country. This process was politically charged due to the economic stress of the Great Depression and fears that new immigrants would compete unfairly with Americans for jobs.[249]

Visa applicants were regularly denied entry on this basis because they were deemed “likely to become a public charge,” a phrase that was commonly known as the LPC clause.[250] One way for applicants to get around the LPC barrier was to have a relative vouch that they could provide financial support for the new immigrant.[251] In the Erlangers’ and Frankels’ case, this person was Leo Erlanger. American residents who wished to sponsor relatives had to sign an affidavit agreeing to financially support them if necessary and demonstrate that they were capable of doing so.[252] According to Breitman and Kraut in American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933-1945, there was ample evidence in the 1930s that American consuls (who had the power to accept or deny visa applications) applied the LPC clause far too strictly.[253] While obtaining the necessary paperwork was no doubt a logistical nightmare for applicants, Breitman and Kraut argue that “the basic obstacle to the admission of German Jewish refugees to the United Sates in 1933-1935 remained the State Department’s interpretation of the LPC clause, which was inconsistent and quite possibly illegal.”[254] These factors, in combination with widespread public support for restrictionist policies, resulted in unfilled quotas year after year despite the large numbers of applicants.[255]

The Erlangers were among the lucky few who were able to make it out. The extreme complexity and difficulty of the visa application process was probably one of the reasons why it took Lothar’s family five years to obtain enough passports to leave Germany as a family.[256] In the end, the fact that Leo Erlanger already resided in the United States and had a good job at Cooper’s probably enabled the rest of the family to obtain visas while thousands of other applications were denied.

Leo Frankel with Hannelore, Fritz, and Margo Erlanger (children of Lothar Erlanger) at the Erlanger dry goods store. Circa 1936.
Source: “Leo Frankel Poses with his Nieces and Nephew in the Erlanger Shoe and Dry Goods Store in Guntersblum, Germany,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, http://resources.ushmm.org
/inquery/uia_doc.
php />/
query/7?uf=uia_zzvIdh
(accessed January 7, 2011).

According to friends Joan and Richard Stallard, Leo’s first wife, Erna, died due to complications from childbirth owing to the fact that the doctor who attended to her was drunk.[257] Ervin was born on April 29th, 1938 and Erna died on May 5th, leaving Leo alone in a new town with a four-year-old, a newborn, and a new job.[258] Back in Germany, Friedel and her husband Leo Frankel were in the process of making plans to head to Brazil, where Leo Frankel had a brother who had built a successful business as a toymaker.[259] After Erna’s death, Leo contacted Friedel to ask for help and Friedel immediately began preparations to come to Mount Vernon instead in order to care for her brother’s children.[260] It is remarkable that Friedel was able to gather all the necessary paperwork for the American consulate fast enough to leave for the States only five months later. Due to strict immigration quotas, Leo Frankel—who was not a German citizen—could not join her at that time.[261] In the fall of 1938, Friedel arrived in Mount Vernon to live with her brother,[262] and about 10 days later the last sibling, Lothar, arrived with his family to begin a new life in America.[263] Samuel and Minna did not join their children until approximately 1940,[264] and it is not known how they escaped Germany.[265] After Friedel emigrated, Leo Frankel was arrested by the Nazis and incarcerated.[266] Using skills he learned as a prisoner-of-war in Russia during WWI, Leo Frankel escaped and made his way to Great Britain, whence he eventually immigrated to the United States to join his wife, Friedel.[267] Incredibly, all three of Samuel and Minna Erlanger’s children escaped less than a year before the German invasion of Poland, marking the beginning of World War II.

The question of identity is one that is central to this paper, and therefore the term must first be defined. For the purposes of this paper, “identity” refers primarily to the way that individuals construct a sense of self in relationship to their cultural and social milieu. More specifically, identity in this work will refer to how individuals define who they are and what that means to them. For example, in this study “Jewish” will be treated as an identity, but what does it mean to be Jewish? Does it mean attending a synagogue regularly? Does it mean following a particular doctrine? Does it mean having three or four Jewish grandparents? As stated in the introduction, all of the subjects of this study have identified themselves, at one time or another, as Jewish. In the remainder of this chapter, I will address construction of identity, salience of Jewish identity, and the relationship between identity and integration. I will begin by discussing identity in the context of Weimar and Nazi Germany, and then in the context of America and Mount Vernon, Ohio.

European Jews struggled for centuries to find their place among often-hostile gentile populations. While separation into ghettos and shtetls may have been partially voluntary, the fact of the matter is that Jews did not achieve widespread assimilation and integration until after the Haskalah—the Jewish Enlightenment and campaign for emancipation. The Haskalah brought the question of Jewish identity into sharp relief. How important were traditional modes of Jewish culture and religion? Should tradition be subjugated to modernity and assimilation? According to Amos Elon in The Pity of it All, “accepted or rejected [by society], German Jews continued to potter with their identity, inventing, suppressing, rediscovering, or professing it.”[268] Here, Elon indicates the difficulty for German Jews of maintaining their Jewish identity while also assimilating into society. Although the influence of the Haskalah was controversial even within German Jewry, eventually most German Jews succeeded “in their effort to merge German and Jewish identity.”[269]

While it is difficult in retrospect to imagine that German Jews had successfully integrated prior to the Nazis’ rise to power, Elon argues that this was indeed the case. The era of the Weimar Republic marked the “high point” of Jewish integration into society, even though Jews often felt their acceptance was tentative.[270] During this period, German Jews made exceptional contributions to German art, politics, science, and philosophy.[271] German Jews saw themselves as fully German, but most also emphasized their Jewishness and took pride in the accomplishments of their coreligionists, many of whom could be counted among the pantheon of German cultural elites.[272] Elon summarizes the problematic position of the pre-War German Jew perfectly: “Their true home, we now know, was not ‘Germany,’ but German culture and language.”[273] Although the nation-state of Germany eventually rejected its Jewish minority, most German Jews never quite surrendered their adherence to German culture. Born into the post-Haskalah world, German Jews of the Weimar Republic saw no contradiction between their Jewish and German identities. Although Elon’s study focuses on the German Jewish intelligentsia, the Erlangers and Frankels were middle-class Jews who were well integrated and had many social connections and business contacts with non-Jewish families.[274] The rise of Hitler’s Third Reich changed all of this.

Samuel (left) and Leo Erlanger in uniform. Source: “Leo Erlanger,” http://reocities.com/Eureka/Meeting/5068/fam00194.html (accessed January 7, 2011).

Samuel (left) and Leo Erlanger in uniform. Source: “Leo Erlanger,” http://reocities.com/Eureka
/Meeting
/5068/fam00194.html (accessed January 7, 2011).

In Nazi Germany, the label “Jewish” did not just mean that one practiced Judaism; it was also a race and an identity. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 defined Jews and separated them from Germans, despite the fact that most German Jews considered themselves to be fully German. Many Jews also fought faithfully for Germany during World War I, including Leo Frankel, Leo Erlanger, and Samuel Erlanger (see Illustrations).[275] The Nuremberg Laws, however, drew a legal line of separation between Jews and Germans.[276] Regardless of military service, religious belief, or personal self-identification, anyone with at least three Jewish grandparents was now considered a Jew, and therefore, no longer a German.[277] The laws also prohibited marriage between Jews and non-Jews.[278] Since Lothar Erlanger was married to a non-Jewish woman, the couple became a clear target for Nazi discrimination.[279] Even if the Erlangers saw themselves as both Jewish and German, the Third Reich legally expelled them from the German “race,” beginning, in large part, with the Nuremberg Laws.

The Nazi regime’s hegemony over construction of identity had a vast impact on the individual’s ability to assimilate into the greater society. This was due to the Nazis’ particular form of radical nationalism, which emphasized racial purity. Thus, construction of racial boundaries became a state interest for both political and ideological reasons. Not only did the Nuremberg Laws define Jews based on empirical facts (genealogy), but they also constructed a universal stereotype that defined what it meant to be Jewish. In anti-Semitic Nazi ideology, Jews were constructed as liars and usurers, disgusting people who had no place in Hitler’s new racially “pure” Aryan society.[280] The consequences of this ideology resulted infamously in “the final solution” to the Jewish “problem”: the mass murder of millions upon millions of Jews in what is now known as the Holocaust. Despite the contributions German Jews had made to German culture, the Nazis made it impossible for Jews to be both German and Jewish. “Jewish” became a racial identity, not a religious one, and Jews themselves had no choice in the matter.

Since the construction of identity was now off limits to individuals, the ability to use identity as a means of integration also disappeared in Hitler’s Germany. We shall see later how Judaism and Jewish identity allowed the Erlangers and Frankels to integrate successfully into their adopted community; but under the Third Reich, propaganda and anti-Semitic legislation such as the Nuremberg Laws effectively eliminated individual agency in defining oneself in relation to society. Despite the immense progress achieved by Jewish reformers during and after the Haskalah, Jewish integration was effectively reversed under Hitler’s regime. Families like the Erlangers, which had long held friendships—even marriages—with non-Jews, suddenly found themselves isolated—outcasts and pariahs in a society which now defined them as outsiders, the Other.

Upon arriving in Mount Vernon, Ohio, the Erlangers and Frankels immediately set out to recreate themselves and form new identities, as Jews and as Americans. Lothar Erlanger’s children were put into school promptly upon arriving in Ohio, and the children quickly worked to learn English and become Americans: “…actually as children [we] all wanted to forget Germany and we didn’t even want people to know we came from Germany, because we wanted to be liked and accepted…we [spoke] English at home.”[281] Even though Lothar and his family had spoken German their entire lives, in their private residence the family switched to English in order to practice and so that Minna, who did not work outside the home, could learn. It is clear that from the very beginning, assimilation into the community was a top priority at least for Lothar’s immediate family: “At first [they] wanted, and I’m speaking about the children, [they] wanted to become Americanized and accepted. [They] didn’t really wanna hear about Germany, and [Lothar and Minna] didn’t wanna talk about Germany.”[282] The process of integration into the Mount Vernon community inevitably went along with the formation of a new American identity, but what effect did integration have on the Erlangers’ and Frankels’ Jewish identities?

One common theme in the secondary literature on American Jewish history is that assimilation often went hand in hand with the erosion of a strong Jewish identity. To some extent, this trend did play itself out in the Erlanger families, but to a much greater degree their case seems to prove the opposite. The explanation for this most likely stems from the unique small-town environment in which the Erlangers and Frankels lived. To understand how the Erlangers’ Jewish identity affected and was affected by the process of integration, we must first describe what being Jewish meant to small-town American Jews in general, and to the Erlangers/Frankels in particular.

It is impossible to speak of an American Jewish identity; instead, we must deal with a plurality of identities. That being said, there are some general trends over the past century and a half that should be recognized. One of the most important changes in American Jewry has been what Ewa Morawska calls,

the decoupling of previously interfused ethnic and religious components in Jewish group life and self-identification. Yidishkeyt—as a folk or a people with a common history—became separable from Judaism, and this ‘secularization of Jewishness’ was reflected in the de-synagogization of American Jews…[283]

With the separation of the religious and ethnic aspects of Jewish identity, a new word had to be created. “Jewishness” came to mean the quality of being a Jew without respect to the practice of Judaism. In general, American Jews in the ‘20s and ‘30s attended synagogues less and less frequently, and maintaining a Jewish identity had more to do with ethnic, cultural, and interpersonal ties to the community than it did with ritual observance or attendance at the shul.[284] Although the postwar period saw a boom in synagogue building plans, attendance rates remained low in most American cities.[285] According to historian Arthur Herzberg, “the new, large synagogues of the Jews were an assertion not of their faith in Judaism but of their Jewishness.”[286] Thus, the strength of Jewish identity was actually on the rise among Jews, while observance of institutional Judaism was in decline. Although the focus of Jewish identity shifted from God to coreligionists, “Jewishness” remained a salient aspect of identity for most Jews.

Paradoxically, the opposite seems to have happened in small-town America. While city-dwelling Jews increasingly emphasized the ethnic, cultural, and secular content of Jewishness, small-town Jews remained relatively committed to religion. In Ewa Morawska’s study of Johnstown, Pennsylvania’s Jewish community, she explains that Jews in this particular small town kept up a notably high rate of synagogue affiliation—approximately 75 percent—at a time when only 23 percent of New York City Jews reported synagogue affiliation.[287] While part of the explanation for this phenomenon may come from the fact that the synagogue was the center of Jewish social as well as religious life in this particular town,[288] it stands to reason that Jews in Johnstown could have formed secular Jewish groups, considering their numbers supported not one but three synagogues. In Eugen Schoenfeld’s dissertation, “Small-Town Jews,” survey data reveal that the vast majority of Jewish residents in small towns had a strong commitment to Judaism.[289] These two scholars agree that the secularization of Jews in America was not as widespread among Jews living in small towns.

The Erlanger families, for their part, placed significant emphasis on religion and seemed to de-emphasize any national or ethnic Jewish identity. For the Erlangers, to be Jewish was to participate in the institutions and traditions of Judaism. This appears to be a paradox; as discussed in the previous chapter there are several facts of life in small towns that made it difficult or impossible to adhere to some of the ritual requirements of Judaism—namely, the nonexistence of the rabbinate, the tenuous existence of the local synagogue, and the lack of a local source for kosher food. Yet the Erlangers placed a special emphasis on religion in their lives, an adapted form of religion that—significantly—was not dissimilar from the way most of their Gentile neighbors practiced Protestant Christianity.

According to Edgar Ross, a close relative of the Erlangers and Frankels, the most religious members of the family were Friedel and Leo Frankel: “Friedel and Leo were the driving force in trying to keep as much Jewish [practice] in the family as possible.”[290] Every Friday, the entire family would gather at Friedel and Leo’s home for Shabbat dinner. Leo would recite the appropriate blessings in Hebrew, and always wore his kippa.[291] Friedel, for her part, faithfully prepared the “regular traditional [Shabbat] meal.”[292] When it was time for Leo Erlanger’s sons to become b’nai mitzvah, Leo Frankel was the one who translated the haftarah for the boys to study.[293] Edgar Ross remembered being coached by Leo as preparation for his own bar mitzvah: “my dear…Leo Frankel, he translated the part of [the Torah], and I memorized everything in the Hebrew. You know I faked it when they had the Torah out…But I memorized the whole damn thing. He was my mentor, my professor you know.”[294] Leo Frankel also led some of the services at the synagogue in Mount Vernon during its years of operation.[295] (The synagogue and the Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation will be discussed in detail in the next chapter.) It is uncertain whether Leo Frankel had any formal Jewish education, but he was at least learned enough to be able to conduct services in lieu of the presence of a rabbi. The Frankels were, of course, also regular members of the Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation.

The Frankels’ religious practices were limited by the fact that they lived in a small town with a tiny Jewish community. When the Mount Vernon synagogue eventually shut down, the Frankels occasionally attended services in Mansfield, but since neither of them could drive this was probably only on special holidays.[296]  A close friend of Friedel’s, Joan Stallard, attributed the Frankels’ uneven attendance at a synagogue to their rural context: “she wasn’t able to do much in terms [of going]…to the synagogue…[as] she might have done had they stayed in Germany. Or lived in a bigger place.”[297] Keeping kosher was another problem that the Frankels faced in Mount Vernon. Although it was not possible to keep completely kosher in Mount Vernon due to the lack of a kosher food source, Friedel kept the spirit of kashrut at the center of her life. Stallard recalled in an interview how Friedel reinterpreted kosher laws: “in all of her travels she had to give up a lot of things; she said…‘kosher for me is clean.’”[298] While cleanliness is an important German value, she may have also taken her cue from Biblical language which declares various foods and materials to be clean or unclean. Whether her propensity toward cleanliness stems from Jewish or German culture, Friedel kept an immaculate house as a way of maintaining the spirit of a traditionally kosher home.[299]

Friedel’s two brothers, Lothar and Leo, may not have been quite as religious as she, but they nonetheless made religion a point in their lives and the lives of their families. In Lothar’s family, Judaism coexisted alongside Christianity in the home because his wife Minna was Protestant. However, while Lothar and his children regularly attended the synagogues in Mount Vernon and Mansfield, they never attended a church.[300] Lothar’s sons all became b’nai mitzvah; the preparatory studying and ceremonies all took place at the synagogue in Mansfield.[301] Lothar was himself one of the founding members of the Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation in 1939.[302] On the other hand, Clara Wallock did not recall whether he was present at Friedel and Leo’s for Shabbat dinner, but she did say that Leo Erlanger was always there.[303] The family also celebrated both Christmas and Chanukah, apparently seeing no contradiction between the two.[304] Although the children received some Christian instruction at school, they also attended a Jewish Sunday school in Mount Vernon as well as classes at the synagogue in Mansfield.[305]

Leo Erlanger also made a point of bringing up his children in a Jewish environment.[306] After the synagogue closed in Mount Vernon, Leo would pile his family into his 1940 Ford for the trip up to the Mansfield synagogue every weekend.[307] Although Leo did not take time off from work, he did fast for Yom Kippur, as did the Frankels.[308] It is not known whether Lothar’s household fasted. Leo’s children also had the benefit of celebrating Chanukah, with a little bit of Christmas thrown in for good measure: “I remember celebrating Christmas [with a Christmas tree], which [Leo] affectionately termed the Chanukah Bush.”[309] In Mount Vernon, Leo Erlanger was also a founding member of the Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation[310] and became part of its Board of Directors in 1940.[311] According to Edgar Ross, Leo Erlanger’s brand of Judaism was moderate, which he saw as a contrast to his relatives’ way of practicing Judaism in Detroit. He told the story of one woman who nearly died because she refused to use the telephone on Shabbat.[312] “When I found that out,” he recalled, “I mean I remember, how stupid can that be?…That, to me, took extremes way too far.”[313] These comments demonstrate the attitude that the Erlangers had toward religion; Judaism was important, but it did not take precedence over the demands of daily life.

At first glance, it would appear that religion was not of particular importance to the Erlangers and Frankels. Many of the mitzvoth were not obeyed, especially those concerning kashrut. However, relative to the ethnic and cultural dimensions of traditional Jewish identity, religion seems to have been much more important. Edgar Ross put it succinctly in his interview: “Now there’s people who will argue that Judaism is a religion as well as a nationality…To me, it’s a religion.”[314] This opinion is probably a product of Ross’s upbringing, and can therefore be seen as indicative of the Erlangers’ and Frankels’ views as well. Clara Wallock stated in an interview that her Jewish identity was important to her when she was young, even though she ended up marrying a Christian and converting.[315] Abandoning her religion was not easy for her, however:

when you compare it with say citizenship from one country to another, I guess I had a little more problem with the religion rather than accepting ‘yes this is the country I will live in and will support.’ And you know [I] worked on getting my official citizenship papers as soon as I was eligible. But it took a few more years with the religion, and as I said earlier to this day even I feel more comfortable when our church and Sunday school is discussing the Old Testament…[316]

While she did not have any trouble acculturating and adopting America as her home, abandoning her religion—and therefore, her Jewish identity—was another matter. If ethnicity was an important consideration for her, then it is unlikely that exogamy ever would have been an option in the first place.

Why was Judaism more salient for the Erlangers than “Jewishness” as they constructed their identities in the context of small-town Middle America? One explanation could be that the Erlangers were reacting against pseudo-scientific racial ideology which defined Jews by their “blood,” not by their beliefs. In addition, it is crucial to note that the Erlanger families were quite well integrated into German culture and society prior to 1933, as was the case with most German Jews at the time. Just as the Erlangers and Frankels did not abandon their Judaism upon emigrating, they likewise remained attached to certain aspects of German culture. This was true to varying degrees between the three siblings. Even though the Leo Erlangers and Frankels integrated into American society, German language and culture were still parts of their lives. Leo Erlanger and Friedel Frankel often spoke German among other German-speakers,[317] and the Frankels owned books by popular German authors from the heyday of German Jewish culture, including Heinrich Heine.[318] Friedel became close friends with a Kenyon Professor, Dr. Eugen Kullman, and the two would often sit on her porch for hours speaking Palatinate German—a dialect unique to their shared home region in Germany (see Illustration I).[319] In contrast, Lothar Erlanger and his family were primarily focused on forgetting Germany, as indicated above by Clara Wallock.[320]

Regardless of the siblings’ various cultural identities once they arrived in America, it is certain that the Erlangers’ and Frankels’ cultural inheritance was German Jewish culture, which encouraged connections with German gentiles as well as Jews. Thus, the siblings’ identification with Judaism, not Jewish ethnicity, may have been established in Guntersblum and not an entirely new construction. In addition, attempting to separate secular Jewish culture from Judaism is nearly impossible, just as it is often difficult to separate “Jewish” from “German” in German Jewish culture. Even so, I believe that the evidence from interviews with relatives suggests that the Erlangers’ and Frankels’ Jewish identities were essentially predicated on Judaism, not on German Jewish culture. As a final proof, it is important to note that Leo and Lothar did not pass on their German culture and language to their children—even those born in Germany—but did make certain that the children were brought up in Jewish households.[321] (Friedel did not have children.)

Eugen Kullman, former Kenyon College faculty member, with Friedel Frankel in the early 1970s. The two friends would often sit together and speak in the dialect of German which they shared as their first language. Robert Schine, “Frau Frankel,” Eugen Kullman Archives, https://segue.middlebury.edu/view/html/site/kullmann-archives/node/799422 (accessed January 7, 2011).

Eugen Kullman, former Kenyon College faculty member, with Friedel Frankel in the early 1970s. The two friends would often sit together and speak in the dialect of German which they shared as their first language.
Robert Schine, “Frau Frankel,” Eugen Kullman Archives, https://segue.middlebury.edu/view/html/site
/kullmann-archives/node/799422 (accessed January 7, 2011).

Eugen Schoenfeld’s dissertation, “Small Town Jews,” also deals with similar questions about the relative importance of religion, culture, and ethnicity. His study dichotomizes Judaism and Jewishness, and shows that small-town Jews who construct their identity based on Judaism are more integrated into and satisfied with their communities than those oriented toward Jewishness—that is, the cultural and ethnic content of Jewish identity.[322] According to Schoenfeld, this is no coincidence. While Schoenfeld does not satisfactorily prove a causal explanation using his limited data, he does put forth several convincing explanations for this phenomenon. The root of the trend, he argues, stems from the necessity of the small-town Jew to assimilate, as opposed to city dwelling Jews who often lived in more self-contained communities, and in extreme cases, Jewish ghettos.[323] He writes, “The small-town Jew, in his concern with being like the general population, will stress the religious aspect of his identity, the aspect which allows him to be Jewish and at the same time to integrate into the community.”[324] Schoenfeld also proposes a persuasive argument explaining why a Jewish identity is important at all to small-town Jews: “…When they live in the ghetto or in areas having a high Jewish population, Jews are not self-conscious about being Jewish; there they are like everyone else, and identity does not become a problem.”[325] In short, small-town Jews are aware of their Jewish identity because they define themselves in relationship to the Christian majority, and they will therefore construct their Jewish identity in terms that do not stress cultural disparities between Jews and Protestants.

While Schoenfeld’s argument is cohesive and logical, I submit that it overly simplifies the distinction between Judaism and Jewishness. Schoenfeld defines Jewishness as ethnicity and Jewish culture, where as Judaism is a strictly “religious” phenomenon. This is a somewhat false distinction. A tripartite division of Jewish identity into Judaism, Jewish culture, and Jewish ethnicity would be much more useful. In the case of the Erlangers and Frankels, Judaism was the most important aspect of Jewish identity, followed by Jewish/German Jewish culture, and finally ethnicity (if this was a consideration at all). Religion and culture are closely linked, especially in the Judaic tradition, and even my three-way division of Jewish identity is somewhat contrived. For the purposes of this chapter, I will primarily deal with the dichotomy between Judaism and Jewish ethnicity, while the links between culture, the community, and Judaism will be discussed further in the final chapter.

When Judaism is the defining factor in Jewish group life and identity, Jews become just another religious group in America’s pluralistic society. Instead of driving a wedge between Jews and Gentiles, Jewish identity predicated on Judaism allows Jews to be just like everyone else. Thus, religion may become a tool of integration in many cases. Anti-Semitism is based on assumptions about Jews as a race, but if Jews are defined by their religion rather than their heritage, anti-Semitism should theoretically disappear.  Hertzberg supports this assertion by explaining that the synagogue building boom was actually a “bid for acceptance” from the Gentile population.[326] “The formula was an old one,” he writes; “American society might be prejudiced against Jews, but it respected religion.”[327] In the 1950s, Dwight D. Eisenhower also advanced the cause of Jewish integration by proclaiming religion to be one of the foundations of American democracy.[328] President Eisenhower believed that “Our government makes no sense, unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is.”[329]

Eisenhower’s message was clear: “good” religion was no longer constrained to just mainline Protestantism, but also grew to encompass Catholicism and Judaism.[330] In his seminal work on American religion, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Will Herberg argues that the process of assimilation for any immigrant group has never included forsaking one’s religion.[331] Even though the immigrant has always been expected to abandon language, culture, nationality, and all other vestiges of the homeland, “not only was he expected to retain his old religion…but such was the shape of America that it was largely in and through his religion that he, or rather his children and grandchildren, found an identifiable place in American life.”[332] As ethnic cleavages tended to disappear due to the pressures of assimilation, religion became the primary means of “self-identification and social location.”[333] Herberg’s description of America in 1955 highlights the arrival of Catholicism and Judaism as forms of religious expression equal in legitimacy to Protestantism.[334] The crux of Herberg’s argument, which was expressed by popular figures such as Eisenhower so plainly, is that

Americanness today entails religious identification as Protestant, Catholic, or Jew in a way and to a degree quite unprecedented in our history. To be a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew are today the alternative ways of being an American.”[335]

 

Suddenly, not only was it acceptable to be a religious Jew, but it was virtually required for those who wished to assimilate or integrate.

According to Schoenberg, the pressures of assimilation were particularly strong in small towns. Jews in larger communities often found themselves in immigrant enclaves, or at least in Jewish neighborhoods which were insulated from broader American culture. In small towns like Mount Vernon, however, Jews lived in and amongst Americans who expected Jews to assimilate into the American Melting Pot. Schoenfeld argues that assimilation was required for small-town residents, in his words, that “opposition to cultural pluralism is a dominant American value.”[336] When Jews lived intermingled with Gentiles, as in Mount Vernon, assimilation would have been nearly unavoidable according to Schoenfeld’s theory.

Once again, it is important to hold Schoenfeld’s theory up against the realities of this case study. Assimilation implies total cultural dissolution, and this did not occur among the Erlanger siblings, with the possible exception of Lothar (or more accurately, his family). Certainly, the pressure to “fit in” in a small town would be much greater in a town like Mount Vernon than on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. However, I believe we must distinguish between integration and assimilation in order to apply Schoenfeld’s ideas successfully to the Erlanger and Frankel families. I define integration, then, as acceptance of and by the immigrant’s adopted community, while assimilation is the loss of any and all cultural or national distinctions between the immigrant and the surrounding population. As Herberg indicates, assimilation usually occurs in the immigrant’s “children and grandchildren,” not the immigrant.[337] This model applies quite well to the Erlanger and Frankel families; the second generation, including the children born in Germany, assimilated into society, while the first generation—particularly Friedel, and to some extent, Leo Erlanger—only integrated. With this distinction in mind, we can apply Schoenfeld’s and Herberg’s theories about religion as a means of Americanization to the Erlanger siblings and their families.

To varying extents, the Erlangers and Frankels embraced the process of Americanization. As discussed above, Lothar Erlanger’s family wanted to become assimilated as quickly as possible, and it is likely that the Frankels and Leo Erlangers shared this sentiment at least to some extent. Leo and Lothar’s integration was probably accelerated by having children, who essentially grew up as Americans. Another important aspect of the integration process involved embracing Judaism, but this was not the conservative or perhaps even Orthodox Judaism[338] that they had practiced back in Guntersblum, Germany. While Schoenfeld argues that small-town Jews will be oriented toward Judaism rather than Jewishness, he does not emphasize what kind of Judaism allowed Jews to assimilate or integrate into American society most successfully. Herberg states that religious faith is necessary in order to be fully American, but few would probably argue that, for example, the ultra-Orthodox Chasidim of Williamsburg are well assimilated, though they are certainly quite religious. Judaism was practiced by the Erlangers and Frankels to the extent that it was viable in the local context and allowed assimilation. In order to fulfill the expectation of being religious, Jews were expected to maintain separate religious institutions and participate in them faithfully. In Schoenfeld’s study, many of the small town Jewish residents actually cited “respectability” and “keeping up appearances” for the Gentiles as primary reasons that having a synagogue was important; at the very least, it was “a means by which Jews in small towns may achieve equality with non-Jews.”[339] Thus, it is no surprise that regular attendance at a synagogue—whether in Mount Vernon or in Mansfield—was a fixture of every weekend in the Erlanger and Frankel households. By no means should the Erlangers’ and Frankels’ attendance at services be seen as an insincere ploy to gain respect, however. It is likely that attendance at a synagogue was both a means of integration and a way of expressing sincere religious beliefs.

Another Judaic value that adapts very well to a Gentile-dominated environment is education. Schoenfeld argues that “Aside from the love of God, the greatest emphasis in the Torah is on learning.”[340] The Shema, one of the most important prayers in Judaism, states that “You shall teach them [the commandments] diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you are sitting at home and when you go on a journey, when you lie down and when you rise up.”[341] In light of this, it is not surprising that the Erlanger boys all learned how to at least “fake” their way through a bar mitzvah, or that they attended the Sabbath school taught by Mr. Gurwick, another Jewish man in town.[342] In later years, one of Lothar’s children actually taught some of the classes for the younger children.[343] In addition, Lothar’s children were also exposed to Christian teachings in school.[344] Since Judaism puts a significant emphasis on questioning and examining the teachings of the tradition, it is not surprising that exposure to Christian education was not seen as a problem by Lothar.[345] As Clara Wallock put it, Lothar and Minna “felt there was no harm in [his children] being informed adults, and basically let [them] as adults make [their] own choices.”[346] Jewish education, or religious education in general, was demonstrably important for the Erlangers when it came to the children. While the Erlangers did not follow all 613 mitzvoth, they certainly took seriously the commandment to “teach your children.” Religious instruction did not interfere with their ability to assimilate and participate in American culture. Historically, education has been viewed as crucial to the foundation of the American republic; in a society that also placed so much stock in religion, what could be more American than religious education?

Friedel Frankel lights the menorah at her friend’s Chanukah office party. Photo by Joan Stallard.

Friedel Frankel lights the menorah at her friend’s Chanukah office party. Photo by Joan Stallard.

Perhaps the best example of how Judaism was adapted to fit into the small town context can be seen in the celebration of Chanukah. Chanukah was actively celebrated in all three of the Erlanger households. One year, Friedel actually celebrated Chanukah with her Gentile friends as part of an office party (see Illustration J).[347] Chanukah quickly became one of the most popular and widely celebrated holidays among American Jews because of its proximity to Christmas on the calendar, the custom of gift-giving, and the relatively small time commitment that was involved.[348] Thus, it is no surprise that Chanukah was the only Jewish holiday that Friedel ever shared with Joan Stallard, a close (Gentile) friend of hers for nearly a decade.[349] While Chanukah is a minor holiday in the Jewish religious calendar, it took on new importance in America as a means of expressing one’s identity as a Jew.[350] Chanukah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over Antiochus, and is akin to secular nationalistic holidays like the Fourth of July or Armistice Day. Paradoxically, “this most nationalistic of all Jewish holidays enabled Jews to adapt more comfortably to American culture.”[351] The increased celebration of Chanukah, which the Erlanger families participated in, is indicative of a broader issue: Religion was emphasized and used to construct Jewish identity, as already discussed, but only insofar as it did not impede the process of acculturation. Edward Shapiro, one historian of American Judaism, goes so far as to call this trend “the Protestantization of American Judaism.”[352]

The religious customs and commandments that the Erlangers and Frankels did not observe are just as indicative of their Americanization and assimilation as the ones they emphasized. As noted previously, it was impossible to observe Judaism to the letter of the law in a town like Mount Vernon. Lee Shai Weissbach notes in his history of small-town Jews that the very observant simply did not live in small towns because extensive Jewish infrastructure did not exist in communities with only a few Jewish families.[353] The Erlangers also socialized largely with non-Jews, and keeping fully kosher would have precluded their ability to dine out or even eat at a Gentile friend’s home.[354] The Erlangers did not take time off for religious holidays, either, even during the High Holy Days.[355] Doing so would have gone against the norm of behavior in town. On Shabbat, the traditional prohibition against driving had to be violated every weekend in order to get to the synagogue in Mansfield.[356] The Erlangers also used electricity on the Sabbath, in contrast to the “extreme” behavior of Edgar Ross’s relatives living in Detroit, as mentioned above.[357] It seems a contradiction in terms that religion was the foundation of the Erlangers’ Jewish identity, yet everyday life and efforts to integrate took precedence over strict religious observance. While in the end the drive to “arrive” (Hertzberg’s term that encompasses both assimilation and upward mobility) did not result in a weakened Jewish identity, it is easily shown that this impulse sometimes interfered with the traditional practice of Judaism.

While it would be nearly impossible to prove a direct causal link between the Erlangers’ and Frankels’ particular brand of Judaism and their integration into the community, we can observe a very strong correlation between the two. It is also difficult to say which way the causal arrow would point—did integration lead to the construction of an identity based on Judaism? Or did construction of such an identity lead to swift integration into the community? There is no foolproof way of settling this dispute, but what is for certain is that the Erlangers and Frankels were entirely integrated into the Mount Vernon community, though not necessarily assimilated.

Friedel Frankel on her porch. Photos property of Miriam Dean-Otting.

Friedel Frankel on her porch. Photos property of Miriam Dean-Otting.

Friedel Frankel on her porch. Photos property of Miriam Dean-Otting.

Friedel Frankel on her porch. Photos property of Miriam Dean-Otting.

The Jewish residents of Mount Vernon during this time and the people who knew them have all stressed the fact that there was no distinction between the Jewish community and the Mount Vernon community—they were one and the same. Edgar Ross was unwavering in his interview on the issue of integration, arguing that his family and the Mount Vernon community were one and the same.[358] While the Erlangers were, to varying degrees, intent on Americanizing quickly, they also happened to have landed in a receptive locale. According to all accounts, Mount Vernon was “remarkably free of any Anti-Semitism.”[359] Beyond that, however, Clara Wallock felt that even though her family was from Germany, they were welcomed, not excluded.[360] “The Jewish families that were here then, plus Protestants, really were very gracious to our family…and so, for a short while, we were in seventh heaven here because we felt everybody really loved us for what we were.”[361] When the United States went to war with Germany the situation changed to some extent, but this had to do with the Erlangers’ German nationality, not their religion. Edgar Ross, who is several years younger than Clara, stressed repeatedly in the interview that discrimination against Jews was nearly nonexistent—in fact, he could only recall two instances of anti-Semitism in his entire time in Mount Vernon.[362] In one of these cases, Leo Erlanger was also present when an anti-Semitic, “ill-advised remark” was made: “[Leo]…was a pacifist, ok? And I looked at him, and he looked at me, and before I could say anything he got up. And he gave a tirade that Stephen Douglas would be happy with…[Leo] actually put him to tears.”[363] Not only does this example reveal a little bit about Leo Erlanger’s personality, but it also demonstrates that he was not afraid to stand up and defend Jews in Mount Vernon. Edgar also said that growing up Jewish in Mount Vernon was probably easier than the experience would have been in a big city, like New York. “You know, everybody assimilated with everybody else, regardless of religion…They did not have a Jewish clique.”[364]

Although Leo, Lothar, and Friedel have all passed away, Joan and Richard Stallard were close friends with both Leo and Friedel and shared a wealth of memories about both of them in an interview.[365] The Stallards emphasized that Friedel and Leo were completely assimilated. “Friedel Frankel, as well as her brother Leo, were not our Jewish friends; they were our friends…And then they were Jewish.”[366] While religion was important to Friedel, she was also a very social woman.[367] Religion was no barrier to her when it came to getting involved in the community; she actually joined the local Christian Women’s Club for social reasons and was a regular member for several years.[368] Similarly, Leo Erlanger was very involved in the community. Edgar Ross recalled that Leo was very “civic-minded”—he was involved with various community clubs and initiatives, including the Toastmasters, Easter Seals,[369] and the Mental Health Initiative.[370] Lothar Erlanger also devoted himself to his new community and country, voting regularly in elections and working overtime for the war effort out of a sense of “gratitude” for his new country.[371] Although the Erlanger siblings all grew up and lived in Guntersblum, Germany well into their adult years, Mount Vernon became their home. Richard Stallard recalled that although Friedel returned to Germany to visit, America was where she belonged: “She loved her home there [in Germany], she loved her village, but she was absolutely, totally, thoroughly American as it would be possible to get.”[372] This could probably have been said of any of the Erlangers.

Although they faced the challenge of integrating on two fronts—as Jews and as Germans—Mount Vernon quickly became the Erlangers’ hometown. For them, there was no tension between a strong Jewish identity and a strong sense of local identity—that is, a feeling of belonging in Mount Vernon. In fact, the opposite was true. The Erlangers and Frankels ended up in a community that was accepting to outsiders and, as we shall see in the next chapter, was already home to a well-established Jewish community. While some of their ties to German culture faded over the years, Judaism was one of the strongest links that the Erlangers had to their former lives in Guntersblum. Still, the Erlanger siblings did not forsake their German cultural heritage altogether. Just as there was no contradiction for them between being Jews and being Americans, the Erlanger siblings also wove aspects of German culture into their new lives as Americans. The Erlanger families were in many ways the embodiment of multiculturalism.

 

Epilogue

2

Friedel and Leo Frankel lived happily together in Mount Vernon until Leo’s death in 1972.[373] Although the couple was never able to have children, Friedel worked for many years in the maternity ward of Mercy Hospital in Mount Vernon.[374] Leo worked for another member of the Jewish community, Lester Smilack, at his store in downtown Mount Vernon—Lester’s Men’s Wear.[375] Friedel was beloved by many dear friends and relatives who all gathered to help her celebrate her 90th birthday on November 14th, 1987. She died June 24, 1989 at the age of 91, and was buried with “her” Leo in a local cemetery.[376] Upon her death, an editorial ran in the Mount Vernon News commemorating her life—“Loving ‘Mother’ Cared for Many.”[377] The title of the editorial speaks to her reputation in the community as a beloved surrogate “mother” for generations of children delivered in Mercy Hospital. Friedel could often be found in the nursery rocking babies to sleep, and on at least one occasion she saved a newborn’s life when she noticed the child had a cleft palate.[378] On Friedel’s gravestone, there is an inscription in German which reads: ES IST BESTIMMT IN GOTTES RAT/ DASS MAN VOM LIEBSTEN, WAS MAN HAT/MUSS SCHEIDEN. These lines are taken from an 1825 German poem by Ernst von Feuchtersleben,[379] and translate approximately to: “It is certain in the counsel of God/ That one must be separated from that which one loves most.”[380] This refers to separation by death from loved ones, as in Friedel’s separation from Leo after his death. However, the quote is also a poignant reminder of the forced separation between the Erlangers and their homeland in Germany. In their interview, the Stallards explained that they always place a stone on Friedel’s grave when they visit in accordance with Jewish custom, but that they always find that somebody else has visited and left a stone at her grave before them (see Illustration M).[381]

3

Leo Erlanger lived in Mount Vernon for the rest of his life. He outlived three wives, and seemed to be a “grumpy old man” at first glance when the Stallards first moved in across the street from him in the early 70s, yet they soon broke through his crusty exterior and became fast friends.[382] Leo worked for Cooper-Bessemer for the remainder of his career. He is buried in Mount Vernon alongside his second and third wives; his first wife is buried with her family in Detroit, Michigan.[383] His surviving son resides near Columbus, Ohio, and still identifies himself as Jewish.[384]

4

Lothar and Minna Erlanger had five children, two of whom were born in the United States. Clara Wallock commented that Lothar was particularly proud of his “100 percent American citizen” children when they were born.[385] Lothar worked in several jobs over the course of his career, and was proud to serve the American war effort by working overtime on the assembly lines in his manufacturing job.[386] He is buried with his wife at the Mound View Cemetery in Mount Vernon alongside his siblings (see Illustration L). Only one of his children still resides in Mount Vernon, and only one of his children married another Jew.[387] The couple later converted to Unitarianism.[388]

The Jewish community of Guntersblum, Germany was decimated by the Holocaust. On a trip back to visit the town several years ago, Clara Wallock described her horror at discovering that the synagogue she remembered from childhood had been converted into a brewery.[389] Many of the Erlangers’ Jewish relatives who remained in Germany did not survive; a total of 65 members of that family perished in the Nazi death camps.[390] As of ten years ago, the Jewish cemetery in Guntersblum was under the meticulous stewardship of a local Protestant minister. This gentleman also took it upon himself to record and document the history of the Jewish community.[391] It is unknown whether anyone is still taking care of the cemetery or whether anyone still visits to place pebbles on the gravestones.

The Nazis sought to annihilate the Jews, their culture, and their religion, and to expel them from German culture. In the end, only a small percentage of German Jews escaped the Nazis’ violent ideological campaigns. The Erlangers were among those lucky enough to find a safe haven in America, but were different from most of their fellow refugees who settled in large cities. In their adopted community, the Erlangers and Frankels were free to construct Jewish and American identities however they pleased. Perhaps in reaction to Nazi racial ideology, or perhaps as a means of integration, the Erlangers emphasized the religious aspects of their identity over ethnicity. Soon, the Erlangers and Frankels took their places as members of the community in Mount Vernon and as American Jews, not just as Jewish-Americans.

The Frankel gravestone with pebbles left by visitors to the gravesite. Photo by author.

The Frankel gravestone with pebbles left by visitors to the gravesite. Photo by author.

As survivors of Nazi Germany, the Frankels and Erlangers were living monuments to the German Jewish culture that existed before Hitler’s rise to power. Their stories constitute one facet of local Jewish history, but they are also a means of comprehending the legacy of Nazi oppression and the Holocaust. At Friedel’s 90th birthday party, Joan Stallard made a comment about Friedel that applies to all those who defied the Nazis by surviving or escaping the Holocaust. “Friedel had the best of all revenge,” Stallard said. “She lived.”[392]

Having examined the means by which individuals in Mount Vernon constructed a Jewish identity and assimilated into the Mount Vernon community, I will now discuss the community as a whole with respect to Jewish religious institutions and communal life in order to portray a fuller picture of the Jewish community of Mount Vernon, Ohio.

 

 

Teach Your Children: The Role of Jewish Institutions and Education

 

Sabbath Evening Service Prayer book in Hebrew and English. Photos by author

Sabbath Evening Service Prayer book in Hebrew and English.
Photos by author

Detail of "Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation" sticker. Property of Miriam Dean-Outing. Photos by author.

Detail of “Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation” sticker. Property of Miriam Dean-Outing.
Photos by author.

In 1930, there were approximately fifteen Jewish families living in Mount Vernon and the only Jewish institution in town was the Mount Vernon Branch of the Newark Jewish Sisterhood. Within a decade, that number would approximately double to 25-30 families, a synagogue would be formed, and the community’s children would begin attending lessons at a local Sunday School. Around 1950, the synagogue dissolved, lessons ended in Mount Vernon, and the children of the synagogue’s founders gradually moved out of town. Today, only one person who attended that synagogue remains a Mount Vernon resident. This chapter will chronicle the rise and fall of the Jewish community of Mount Vernon through the institutions that held it together—the Sisterhood, synagogue, and Sunday school. Instead of focusing on an individual or a family, this chapter will attempt to tell the story of the whole community by tracing the founding and disappearance of its formal organizations.

The first known institution of the Jewish community in Mount Vernon was the Sisterhood. Usually, synagogue sisterhoods are—as the name implies—attached to synagogues.[393] In the case of Mount Vernon, which did not have a synagogue prior to 1939, the Sisterhood was technically a branch of the Newark Sisterhood, which was attached to the Ohev Israel Temple.[394] In practice, however, the Mount Vernon Branch operated independently of the Newark parent-organization, except for yearly joint meetings usually held in Mount Vernon.[395]

The cover of the "Secretary's Report of the Mount Vernon Branch of the Newark Sisterhood" Property of Miriam Dean-Otting. Photo by author.

The cover of the “Secretary’s Report of the Mount Vernon Branch of the Newark Sisterhood”
Property of Miriam Dean-Otting. Photo by author.

Originally, synagogue sisterhoods were formed so that women could participate in the life of the synagogue, which was a highly male-dominated institution.[396] Although the Mount Vernon Sisterhood was not directly connected with a particular local synagogue institution, its activities were fairly similar to those described by Jenna Weissman Joselit in her article on synagogue sisterhoods from 1890-1940. According to Joselit, synagogue sisterhoods began primarily as philanthropic organizations:

…An increasing number of Jewish women began at this time to apply their compassion and sensitivity to the ordering of society, extending the boundaries of their Jewish homes to embrace those of society at large or, more commonly, those of Jewish immigrant society. In the days before professional social workers, middle-class women volunteers attended personally to the distressed and the needy.[397]

As implied in this quote, Joselit emphasizes the gendered nature of sisterhood activities, and sees them as an extension of the ideal Jewish woman’s sphere as the housekeeper and mother.[398] Women were expected to bring order to society, just as they brought order to their own households. In later years, however, untrained volunteers were increasingly replaced by professionals and the focus of synagogue sisterhoods shifted to religion.[399] The new task of sisterhood women was to promote the cause of Judaism in every way, particularly through activities like “festooning” the altar, the Sukkah, and wedding canopies.[400] Sisterhoods served the Jewish community, but they also served to reinforce the ideal of Jewish womanhood. The ideal Jewish woman in the late 19th and early 20th century was a homemaker and a mother, but not a religious leader.[401] Sisterhoods generally did not challenge the status quo; they gave Jewish women a means of expressing both their Jewishness and their womanhood outside of the home, but within the bounds of patriarchal society. As Joselit puts it, “Ultimately, the American Jewish sisterhood provided a viable and fulfilling outlet for thousands of middle-class American Jewish women, one that was contained, delimited, and within the acceptable bounds of the community.”[402]

Inside cover sheet of the Report. Property of Miriam Dean-Otting. Photos by author.

Inside cover sheet of the Report. Property of Miriam Dean-Otting.
Photos by author.

Sample page of the Report. Property of Miriam Dean-Otting. Photos by author.

Sample page of the Report. Property of Miriam Dean-Otting.
Photos by author.

The Secretary’s Report of the Mount Vernon Branch of the Newark Sisterhood, 1928-1935, contains the minutes of each meeting and describes the official business of the society (see Illustration O). Stella Hantman, the Sisterhood’s secretary, generally recorded the goings-on of the club in a detached, professional tone, except for the occasional “delightful” or “lovely,” which usually served as adjectives in conjunction with words like “luncheon” or “evening.”[403] Apart from those few editorial remarks, it is sometimes difficult to imagine what the meetings were actually like from Hantman’s brief and business-like reports. Still, the document does provide a rich source of information about what the Sisterhood was actually doing. The Report is also a good bellwether for tracing trends in the community as a whole. According to the attendance ledger in The Secretary’s Report, the Mount Vernon Branch had six regular members in 1928.[404] By 1935, there were thirteen.[405] Although members came and went and there were several Jewish women in the community at any given time who were not members of the Sisterhood, it is easy to discern the general upward trend in membership, which correlated with the increasing Jewish population in Mount Vernon during this period.

In Mount Vernon, the Sisterhood closely followed the patterns that Joselit outlines in her chapter on American Jewish sisterhoods, except that the group did not replace philanthropic campaigns with religious activities. The Sisterhood was simultaneously a philanthropic organization and a kind of religious booster club, but philanthropy seems to have been the most explicit focus of the Sisterhood. The Sisterhood’s favorite project appears to have been the Ohio State Sanatorium, or more specifically, the Jewish patients there. The Ohio State Sanatorium was built in Mount Vernon in 1909 as a statewide treatment facility for tuberculosis.[406] Patients there were largely isolated from all contact with the outside, except for visitors.[407] The Sisterhood therefore took it upon itself to regularly visit the Jewish patients. Each month, the Sanatorium report was given at the Sisterhood’s regular meeting, and each month at least one of the members volunteered to visit the patients or bring them gifts. One typical entry, this one from 1931, reads: “Mrs. Hyman reported that 2 young ladies—and 1 gentleman were at the Sanatorium and doing nicely. Mrs. Friedman volunteered to call on Sanatorium patients before the next meeting.”[408] Occasionally, the sisterhood ladies even brought gifts for the holidays or “Passover delicacies” to the sanatorium residents.[409] Even Jews with tuberculosis needed matzoh for Passover.

Another of the Sisterhood’s important charitable contributions was the annual Charity Ball, put together by the Mount Vernon City Federation (of which the Sisterhood was a member).[410] There is little detail in the Report about the specifics of the Sisterhood’s involvement, but they apparently played a somewhat significant role in this community event. One reference to the Ball from 1931 reads: “Mrs. Shamansky reported that 100 couples enjoyed the dancing at the Charity Ball and the Federation extended thanks to the Sisterhood for their part in making it such a success.”[411] Some of the ladies’ other favorite charities included Hadassah, the National Jewish Hospital in Denver, Colorado,[412] the Children’s Welfare Society,[413] the Red Cross,[414] and an assortment of other worthy causes. Except in the case of the Sanatorium and the Ball, though, the charity work of the Sisterhood came primarily in the form of its checking account: donations were often made, but there are relatively few examples of direct action.

The Mount Vernon Branch of the Newark Sisterhood also promoted religion among members and their families as one of its core objectives. Nearly every meeting began with the recitation of the Shema, and many of them also include a recitation of “the creed”[415] and the Ten Commandments.[416] This may seem like a small tribute to religion—the mere recitation of a prayer or two—but it marked the Sisterhood as a peculiarly Jewish institution at the outset of every single meeting. As such, the Sisterhood can be considered a Jewish organization, not just an organization of Jews.

Since the Sisterhood only met monthly from October through June, there was always some major holiday on the horizon which required preparations—the High Holy Days in the fall, Chanukah in early winter, Purim in early spring, and Passover shortly thereafter. The minutes of the Mount Vernon Sisterhood are peppered with plans for Purim or Chanukah parties, especially. What is particularly significant about these parties is that they seemed to focus on the children, yet didn’t include the husbands of the Sisterhood members (at least the men are never mentioned). For example, in February 1933, “the children’s Purim party was asked for by Mrs. Ross, held on March 12. Sandwiches and cocoa to be served.”[417] Or in 1931, “Mrs. Shamansky offered her home for the children’s Chanukah party.”[418] One explanation is that these holidays were seen as children’s events, but this does not seem to be a plausible explanation in the case of Purim, since it typically involves liberal amounts of alcohol consumption.

In light of Joselit’s assertion that women’s roles in sisterhoods (and religion) were extensions of their roles within the family, perhaps these women saw raising Jewish children as one of their primary religious duties. Still, it is somewhat surprising that men were not mentioned at all, or may have even been left out entirely from these events. Does this indicate that the Jewish women of Mount Vernon were more religious than their husbands, brothers, and fathers? Perhaps the best hypothesis was that women felt children needed to be exposed to religion in order to instill a strong Jewish identity, whereas adult males presumably would have already formed a sense of Jewish identity and a sufficient body of religious knowledge. It could also be that these parties were held during the weekday when men could not attend. While children are not always mentioned in conjunction with Purim and Chanukah parties in the Secretary’s Report, “children’s” parties do show up frequently enough to indicate that these events were intended both as festive, fun gatherings and as teachable moments. One can imagine conversations between mother and child in which the Sisterhood women inculcated a sense of Jewish identity and slipped in an easy religious lesson while doling out cupcakes or, for Purim, “Hamans.”[419] In one instance, the women actually decided to get special cards printed for their kids as Purim gifts.[420] These cards would have “the Shamah [sic], creed, and commandments” on them, presumably for the children to carry around with them.[421] This indicates that there was probably a strong religious and educational component to holiday celebrations.

The focus on the children’s religious education went beyond the occasional holiday celebration. At least as early as 1930, the Sisterhood began to discuss the possibility of organizing a “Sabbath School,” or Sunday School—since classes were generally not held on the Sabbath. [422]  This entry appeared in the spring of 1930: “Letter from Chairman of Ohio Federation of Temple Sisterhoods read offering assistance in Sabbath School work.”[423] As time went on, the idea continued to gain traction in the Mount Vernon Sisterhood. In January, 1931, another entry reads, “A discussion was held concerning the hiring of a young woman from O.S.U. to teach Sunday School.”[424] Not only were the women interested in arranging formal Jewish education for their children, but they were even willing to pay for it. The topic did not come up again, at least not in the Secretary’s Report, until 1934 when the wife of Julius Shamansky read an article on “the need of Sunday Schools in small towns.”[425] Later in that year, Helen Zelkowitz—one of the members—began teaching a Sunday School for the children and the Sisterhood actually voted to allow her to draw from the treasury for her supplies, “within a reasonable limit.”[426] In the same meeting, it was mentioned that Rabbi Gup of Columbus had sent an open invitation to the children of Mount Vernon to his Sunday School.[427]

Apart from the recitation of the Shema and the occasional prayer during the meeting, the religious activities of the Sisterhood were almost all focused on providing a proper Jewish education for the next generation. Just as women were expected to raise the children at home, these women took it upon themselves to see that their children were raised to be good Jews through the activities of the Sisterhood. Traditionally, cultural and religious aspects of Judaism have been nearly impossible to separate. The religious-cultural events and initiatives that the Sisterhood put together are an excellent example of this. Jewish culture at the time required women to be excellent mothers and homemakers. According to sacred texts and the rabbinical tradition (religion), parents are also required to teach their children how to keep the Covenant. Deuteronomy 11 explicitly commands parents to teach the commandments to their children, a verse which is also part of the Shema.[428] Genesis 18 also underscores the importance of teaching religion to children: “For I have chosen him [Abraham], so that he will teach his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”[429] This verse not only emphasizes parental duties, but ties this particular mitzvah all the way back to the original father of the Jews: Abraham. To teach one’s children about Judaism was to fulfill a commandment outlined in the Torah, but it was also a way of conforming to predominant Jewish cultural values. Likewise, when the women of the Sisterhood threw Purim parties for their children, they were not only fulfilling religious commandments, but they were also participating in a tradition and a culture that is thousands of years old.

The commandment to teach is closely connected with the commandment to learn—in particular, to learn from a rabbi. Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, states in the very first chapter: “‘Get yourself a teacher, find someone to study with, and judge everyone favorably.’” [430]  The Sisterhood in Mount Vernon was intent on raising children with a Jewish education, but they were also aware of the adult community’s educational needs. In April, 1935 the Report contains a brief reference to the possibility of “get[ting] in touch with the Hebrew Union College asking for information regarding a Rabbi coming to Mt. Vernon for the Holy Days.”[431] Perhaps it was in this meeting that we see the early stages of what would become a formal synagogue four years later. This marks a significant moment for the history of the Sisterhood’s religious activities, but also for the Jewish community in Mount Vernon as a whole.

The Mount Vernon Sisterhood was, in appearances, a primarily philanthropic and religious society. Its main activities fall into one of those two categories. However, to reduce the Sisterhood to a religious and charitable club would be to miss what may have been its most important function for these women: socialization. According to Joselit, women of all backgrounds (and religions) were joining clubs and charitable societies in droves during this time as labor-saving devices and affluence freed up more time for leisure activities.[432] Joselit writes that early Sisterhoods were often “little more than glorified kaffeeklatsches where women honed their verbal skills and cultivated their aesthetic senses amidst ‘the aroma of fragrant coffee and fresh cake.’”[433] With a little reading between the lines, it is easy to see that the Mount Vernon Sisterhood provided a major venue for these women to socialize with each other outside of the home. While their husbands probably had plenty of social connections through work, women were mostly charged with keeping the house and kids in order. Even though the Sisterhood meetings were only held once a month, 8 months out of the year, there were several other parties and events in between which afforded the Sisterhood women other opportunities to gather. Thus, merely being a member of the Sisterhood meant that one was guaranteed a network of support and friendship. Although the Secretary’s Report is quite business-like for the most part, it does also document social events associated with the club. These include parties, picnics, luncheons, and the Charity Ball. What shows up in the minutes as a “joint meeting” in reality was probably more like an invitation for friends from Newark to join them in Mount Vernon for lunch at a nice restaurant.[434] This is not to portray the official business of the Sisterhood as a ruse for a ladies’ social hour, but the social aspects of the Sisterhood should not be underestimated.

One of the most common forms of socialization was the holiday parties—primarily for Purim and Chanukah. As discussed earlier, these were primarily for the kids, but they were also a valuable venue for adults to socialize with one another. Plans for the 1929 Purim party are scribbled in the back of the Secretary’s Report including probable attendees, the menu, and a list of who was to bring what.[435] By the Secretary’s count, about thirty people were expected to attend, and only eight of them were children, indicating that these “children’s parties” may have actually been events for the whole family.[436] The menu sounds like a typical Fourth of July barbeque—six quarts of potato salad, brats, pickles, baked beans, cookies, coffee, the works.[437] Purim is indeed a religious festival, but it also involves getting inebriated and generally having a good time. These types of parties were venues in which Jews in Mount Vernon could get together and bond as a community—both as Jews and as friends. The same goes for the Chanukah parties. These were religious celebrations, expressions of Jewish identity, and a means of teaching the next generation; however, it would be missing the point not to see that they were probably a lot of fun.

The Sisterhood meetings most likely served a similar purpose. Meetings were held in the homes of the members, and these could also turn into social events when the women adjourned for “refreshments.” This was not uncommon, Joselit argues: “Making congregational affairs ‘more sociable’ took on all the earmarks of a religious crusade as sisterhood women promoted a dizzying round of social and communal activities.”[438] Among these social activities were “teas, bridge games, classes, and meetings.”[439] Joselit sounds as if she had observed the Mount Vernon Sisterhood directly. For example, in June, 1933, the Mount Vernon ladies hosted the Newark Branch of the Sisterhood at the Shemanskys’ home for a “bridge tea.”[440] The secretary pasted what appears to be a short blurb from the social section of the Mount Vernon News commemorating the occasion: “Four tables of bridge were filled and after several progressions score trophies were presented…Following the games, the guests were invited to the dining room…Appointments for the tea were carried out in yellow and white.”[441] The peculiarly precise details of this event presented in the local newspaper reveal that the entire function of this occasion was to play bridge and drink tea. Furthermore, this purely social event was certainly not the only one of its kind that the Sisterhood hosted.

The Secretary’s Report also reveals another important social function of the Mount Vernon Sisterhood. The Sisterhood meetings were a venue for the women to discuss issues that were important to them as Jews and to hear news about current events among Jews in the community. Many of the meetings, particularly in the later years of the Secretary’s Report, included article readings or presentations on topics of interest to Jews. Many of these articles were explicitly religious in content, such as “Meaning of Shabbat,” read by Stella Hantman at the May, 1931 meeting.[442] Other articles had more to do with important Jewish figures, such as “a list of the 30 American Jews in Who’s Who published by the American Hebrew,”[443] or “article read from the Chicago Herald relating to the election of the Jewish governor of Illinois.”[444] Similarly, the women pooled together their resources to subscribe to the periodical Young Israel, a copy of which would be passed on from member to member so that all could stay abreast of current events in Jewish life.[445] The fact that the articles read at the Sisterhood meetings were always related to Jewish issues is quite significant. These women came together to socialize and discuss topics of significance as Jews, not as Mount Vernon residents, women, or in terms of some other identifying factor.

While Jewish issues outside of the community were important to the Sisterhood ladies, they also made it a point to focus on Jews within their own social circle. An excerpt from the October, 1934 meeting notes reads: “Discussion for the programs for the year were held and it was decided to have roll call with current events concerning Jewish happenings.”[446] From then on, each meeting consisted of a round of “current events” by each of the members present. This was a way of keeping tabs on what others in the Jewish community were doing—a formal version of gossip. Not only were the members kept informed of each other’s lives, but this served to reinforce a sense of community-within-the-community.

Activities like this, which do not seem significant at first glance, may well have laid the groundwork for the synagogue’s founding by cultivating a sense of interconnectedness, interdependence, and community among the Jewish residents of Mount Vernon. Without a sense of mutual trust and familiarity, it is unlikely that the synagogue ever could have formed. The Sisterhood record does not tell us much about the interpersonal relations among men in the community, but it does show that several women felt strongly enough about their religion and their Jewish identity to make a point of joining the Sisterhood, attending meetings, and keeping tabs on the Jewish community through current events roll calls. As the only formal Jewish institution at this time in Mount Vernon, it is quite possible that the connections fostered over Sisterhood bridge games led directly or indirectly to the formation of the Jewish community’s most important and public expression: the synagogue. We know from the minutes that the Sisterhood was instrumental in the formation of a local Sunday School, so it stands to reason that these ladies also played a pivotal role in the early days of the synagogue, despite the fact that they were not elected as officers or listed as founding members in the newspapers.

Former synagogue building of Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation at the corner of Vine and S Main in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Photos by author.

Former synagogue building of Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation at the corner of Vine and S Main in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Photos by author.

Beyond these hypotheses about its founding, nothing is known about how the synagogue was formed prior to its opening for the High Holy Days in 1939. On September 13, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish community of Knox County held its first service at the newly organized synagogue in downtown Mount Vernon (see Illustration P).[447] The “synagogue,” under the organizational title of the Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation, was located at the corner of Vine and South Main Street, only a block south of the Public Square.[448] This location is in the heart of the city. The services were held on the second floor of a building that also housed a Jewish business, Lester’s Men’s Wear, owned and operated by Lester Smilack. A week later, an announcement about the brand new synagogue appeared in the Ohio Jewish Chronicle, but not in the Mount Vernon News.[449] The announcement outlined all the important particulars of the nascent synagogue. “The services are all conducted on conservative lines with several modern innovations,” the article read.[450] The article also lists the newly elected officers of the synagogue and mentions that “a Ladies Auxiliary has also been organized with an elaborate program of activities, further details about which will appear in forthcoming issues of the Ohio Jewish Chronicle.”[451] Most likely, this Ladies Auxiliary was actually the Sisterhood, perhaps revamped as a separate entity from the Newark Sisterhood now that Mount Vernon had its own synagogue. With the formation of the synagogue in Mount Vernon, the Jewish community which had existed for nearly a century finally became a distinct, autonomous entity.

According to Lee Shai Weissbach in his historical survey of small-town Jewish communities, the “tipping point” before Jews in small towns typically organized a synagogue was about 100 residents.[452] However, having a triple-digit Jewish population was often merely the starting point; in Lakewood, Ohio, Jewish residents began discussing the formation of a local synagogue fully ten years before one was eventually organized.[453] This seems to be have been the pattern followed locally. There were rumblings in Mount Vernon concerning formal organization early on, including one mention in the Sisterhood record from 1933: “Letter from Union of American Hebrew Congregations read hoping to send committee to organize a Jewish community.”[454] This organization, also known as the Union for Reform Judaism,[455] was presumably referring to the organization of a synagogue in Mount Vernon. Whatever the case, little is known about the actual process that led up to the formation of the synagogue in 1939. According to Weissbach, however, it was common for “fledgling” Jewish congregations to meet in rented spaces in local halls or above storefronts, as in the case of the Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation.[456]

While most synagogues in small towns were Reform, the Ohio Jewish Chronicle article states that the Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation was basically Conservative.[457] The first services there were not actually led by a rabbi, however, but by Aaron M. Neustadt, editor emeritus of the Ohio Jewish Chronicle.[458] The topic of Neustadt’s first two speeches were “The Future of the Jews in America,” and “The Cry of the Modern Jew.”[459] Not only is it fitting that the first services held in the synagogue were for Rosh Hashanah—the New Year—but the topics of his sermons were also very future-oriented. While it is difficult to guess the content from mere titles, it is striking that religious aspects of this particular holiday were not apparently emphasized. One can imagine that the Rosh Hashanah services were both a celebration of the New Year and of the brand new synagogue organization. The topics focused on Jews, not on Judaism. According to Weissbach, synagogue buildings were the prime physical manifestations of a Jewish presence in small towns all over America. These structures provided both tangible evidence of a firmly established Jewish community and the physical facilities that local Jews needed in order to conduct their activities.[460]

In other words, the synagogue was a physical marker of the Jewish community as a strong, cohesive entity. Similarly, Neustadt seems to have tapped into this sense of self-awareness within the Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation in his first two sermons by highlighting the condition of “the Modern Jew.”

In the first few months of the synagogue’s existence, Neustadt delivered several addresses at the services of the Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation, including on Yom Kippur[461] and Simchas Torah.[462] However, the Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation did not have a rabbi, nor did Mr. Neustadt continue to lead services on a regular basis. On at least two occasions in the early years of the synagogue, Rabbi Samuel Gup of the Bryden Road Temple in Columbus led services in Mount Vernon.[463] At other times, prominent Jews from neighboring communities spoke,[464] however more often than not community members led services for themselves. Even at the first Simchas Torah celebration, in October of 1939, Irving Gurwick (a Mount Vernon resident) delivered an address alongside Aaron M. Neustadt. Gurwick was also in charge of the Sunday School for awhile, and led services on his own from time to time. Clara Wallock and Helen Zelkowitz recalled that Leo Frankel also regularly led services at the synagogue.[465] “We couldn’t afford a rabbi,” Helen said.[466] Clara added that “there were some Jewish gentlemen that were very well informed” who led the services.[467] A rabbi is not necessary for services to be conducted, so this was not altogether out of the ordinary.

Even though the Jewish community was small and could not afford to hire a rabbi, they did have a Torah,[468] which was crucial to the services.[469] The congregation also had multiple sets of prayer books. In addition to a set for Sabbath evening services (see Illustration N),[470] a Yom Kippur prayer book that belonged to the Congregation turned up at a garage sale and is now in the possession of Lois Hanson. It bears the same imprint plate on the inside cover reading “Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation” that the Sabbath evening books had. The stickers were professionally printed, which suggests that at one time the Congregation had many prayer books—perhaps even several sets for different occasions. In an Ohio Jewish Chronicle article announcing Rosh Hashanah services in 1940, the author mentions that “the services here are being conducted on modern conservative lines with alternate English and Hebrew prayers.”[471] This bilingual service was aided by prayer books printed in both Hebrew and English; the Sabbath evening and Day of Atonement books contain both versions.

The existence of prayer books demonstrates that the Jewish community of Mount Vernon had enough congregants to raise some funds, but it also shows that the community took pride in its synagogue. As the “physical manifestation[s] of a Jewish presence,”[472] it is no surprise that the Jewish community took care to make the synagogue space its own; the state of the synagogue was symbolic of the state of the community itself. In the first year, the community also raised enough money to renovate and remodel the synagogue space for its own purposes.[473] This demonstrates that the community felt a sense of ownership for its synagogue, which is significant. The community would not have put name plates on their books if they thought the synagogue would not last, nor would they have bothered to remodel. At one point, some of the members even drew up plans to construct a synagogue building, but this plan never came to fruition.[474] Members of the Jewish community at that time had every reason to believe that they would pass on their synagogue, Torah, and prayer books to the next generation, but this was not the case. By approximately 1950, the synagogue was no longer in existence and Jews from Mount Vernon were once again forced to travel to Mansfield or elsewhere for services.[475]

In 1939, there were 25-30 Jewish families[476]  living in Mount Vernon, most with school-aged children. [477] One reason that the synagogue probably formed at that particular time was that the community had recently seen a significant increase in population with the arrival of the Shellmar Products Corporation in 1934.[478] When Shellmar moved from Chicago into the abandoned rubber plant in Mount Vernon, it brought five new Jewish families with it.[479] Only a couple of years later, the community also added several new German refugee families, including the Erlangers and Frankels. Not only did the population increase, but it is also possible that the influence of the immigrant families, who may have been more observant, prompted the community to finally organize themselves into a Congregation. Lee Shai Weissbach writes that “Orthodox refugees from Europe arriving just before World War II…reinforced the religiously observant populations of at least some large and midsize cities, but they did not settle in small towns.”[480] The Erlangers did, however, settle in a small town and may indeed have helped prompt their new neighbors to form the Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation.

In her study of Upstate New York Jewish communities, Rhonda F. Levine discusses the fact that German Jewish refugees who settled in the small towns often instigated the formation of new synagogues. “Being religiously observant,” she writes, “the newly arrived German Jews immediately sought out the fundamental Jewish institution, the synagogue.”[481] In one instance, the situation in Upstate New York closely mirrored the story of the Mount Vernon synagogue: “They [German refugees] were instrumental in starting a new synagogue that included the few ‘American’ Jews…At first the services were held in a rented apartment upstairs from a radio station.”[482] While it is not certain whether the Erlanger family instigated the formation of the synagogue, the circumstances described by Levine were very similar to those that the Erlangers encountered in Knox County so we can at least consider this a reasonable hypothesis.

 

As stated above, the synagogue fell out of use by approximately 1950. The only explanation for this is that there simply were not enough people to support it anymore. Clara Wallock conjectured that “it got to the point they probably couldn’t meet the rent anymore, and they had to give it up.”[483] As the children of the synagogue’s founders grew up, most of them moved away to find jobs.[484] Even if they had wanted to, there were not many opportunities for young people to move back to Mount Vernon, and as a result only one remaining resident from those days, Clara Wallock, stayed long enough to see the Jewish community “come and disappear.”[485]Once the synagogue closed in Mount Vernon, there were still several religious Jews left in Mount Vernon who wanted to attend services or wanted their children to receive Jewish education. The most common solution to this problem was to make the trip up to Mansfield to attend services at one of the synagogues there—most likely the Conservative B’nai Jacob.[486]

According to Arthur Hertzberg, “the suburban synagogue was thus defined as both a temple of Jewish togetherness and a bid for acceptance by the Gentiles.”[487] If this was the case, then what did the synagogue’s closure mean for the state of Mount Vernon’s Jewish community? As discussed in the previous chapter, membership in a synagogue was often seen as a way of proving one’s Americanness. This contributed to particularly high synagogue membership rates in the smallest cities, where Jews often felt they needed to “prove” themselves.[488] Newspaper articles regarding the Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation also indicate that the membership rate among Jews who lived in Mount Vernon at the time was very high; one article even claimed that “every Jewish family in the vicinity participated” in services there.[489] While attending the synagogue in Mansfield enabled Jews to continue practicing their religion, it also meant that the Jewish community of Mount Vernon had ceased to be a distinct entity, but was now an extension of Mansfield’s congregation.

Several families routinely ventured to Mansfield or Columbus for services.[490] Clara Wallock recalled that Sam Epstein, owner of the People’s Shoe Store in town, would regularly pile any of the youngsters who were interested into his car for the trip up to Mansfield on Sundays for Hebrew and religious instruction.[491] “I don’t know how he got us all in there, come to think of it,” she mused in an interview.[492] Leo Erlanger also took his own children to Mansfield for services and Sunday School,[493] and some of the other Jewish men also occasionally helped make the forty-minute drive.[494] The fact that Mount Vernon residents continued to make synagogue attendance a priority, even though the nearest synagogue was dozens of miles away, demonstrates that many in the community were deeply committed to their religion. It is also important to note, however, that children’s religious education was deemed especially important—Sam Epstein made a point of ferrying the kids back and forth to Mansfield, not the adults.

Religious education for Mount Vernon’s young Jews had been a priority in the community since the early thirties, beginning with the first incarnation of the Sabbath School.[495] When Helen first moved to Mount Vernon, she began holding lessons for the Jewish children in her apartment.[496] After this, it is difficult to trace where the Sabbath School was held for the next decade or so, but it is certain that the school went through several stages before the community finally gave up and students had to make the trek to Mansfield. The content of the Sabbath School was a mixture of Hebrew, cultural, and religious education.[497] While the school was referred to variously as the Sabbath School and the Sunday School, it was actually held on Sundays in accordance with Sabbath restrictions. When the synagogue was in its early years of operation, the School had enough children to put on a cultural performance. “A number of children of the Jewish Sabbath-school will appear in a Hebrew recital,” one article read,[498] and at least once the celebrations for Purim included a Purim play at the synagogue, in which Clara Wallock played Queen Esther.[499] Wallock and Zelkowitz also recalled that Irving Gurwick, one of the Shellmar employees from Chicago, ran the Sabbath School for quite awhile out of his home.[500] During the synagogue years, lessons and other activities were regularly held there, often under the supervision of Leo Frankel.[501] At one time, Clara Wallock even taught some of the lessons herself.[502] However, around the same time that the synagogue closed, Sunday School lessons ceased in Mount Vernon and the caravans and carpools up to Mansfield commenced.[503]

The fact that the Jewish community in Mount Vernon managed to sustain a Sabbath School at all, and for such a long period of time, is a testament to the adults’ commitment to bringing at least a semblance of Jewish education to their children. In most small, triple-digit sized communities at this time, there were no Jewish educational institutions at all.[504] In many small towns, parents even resorted to sending their kids to Christian Sunday Schools so they would at least learn about the Bible; this may have been one of the reasons that Lothar Erlanger allowed his children to participate in Christian Bible study in school.[505] In addition, Lothar probably did not want his children to sit out of these lessons at school; doing so might have marked them as different and made them targets for bullying. In general, though, most small-town Jews simply had to send their children out of town for lessons, as Mount Vernon parents did in the post-synagogue years.

In general, Weissbach argues that most small-town Jewish educational institutions were fairly low-quality. This was in part due to the fact that most small-town Jews were second or third generation Americans, and therefore were more assimilated and had not grown up attending a European cheder (or other rigorous Jewish institution). This may be where Mount Vernon had a slight advantage over other small towns like it: many of its residents were either city-dwellers originally, such as the Shellmar employees, or had actually been raised in the more traditional synagogues, such as Leo Frankel. These settings probably afforded good opportunities for Jewish education, which they could in turn pass on to the next generation.

The three gentlemen most involved in the education of the Jewish youth were all three products of this kind of background: Irving Gurwick was from Chicago, Leo Frankel was originally from Poland,[506] and Sam Epstein was actually a Lithuanian immigrant.[507] This is not to say that Jewish children in Mount Vernon received top-of-the-line instruction in Hebrew or religion, but it was certainly better than nothing and remained a relatively stable option for many years. As noted above, Clara Wallock commented that even though she converted to Christianity, “I do find when we’re studying the Old Testament I feel more comfortable, and I think it’s because I feel more familiar with it.”[508] It is difficult to determine from a simple statement like this how in-depth her Jewish education was, and yet it is notable that her exposure to religion in Sunday School as a young woman “stuck” well enough to make an impression six decades later.[509] On the other hand, by the time Edgar Ross was old enough to have a bar mitzvah, he had not had enough Hebrew instruction to be able to read the haftarah. He was one of the younger students in his cohort, though, so perhaps he missed the heyday of religious education in Mount Vernon. Still, having access to any regular Jewish education at all was rare for a community of Mount Vernon’s size, and this speaks to the high value that adults placed on teaching the children what it meant to be Jewish.

 

The Sabbath school was not the only institution which emphasized the Jewish education of the children. As discussed previously, the Sisterhood focused many of its activities—particularly the holiday parties—on the children. Children are the future of any community, but educating and initiating children into group life is particularly important for minorities, who face cultural dissolution through assimilation. In order to remain Jews, the residents of Mount Vernon had to actively pursue their Jewishness and Judaism—it was not taken for granted, as in the ghettos and Jewish neighborhoods of New York and Philadelphia. Likewise, as parents they had to consciously raise their children to be Jews in an overwhelmingly gentile milieu. To be Jewish in Mount Vernon, regardless of how accepting the community might have been, was to go against the grain. This may explain why Jews in Mount Vernon formed a Sisterhood without a synagogue, and then organized a synagogue without a rabbi. Jewish institutions not only lent an air of legitimacy to the community and its activities, but also provided a crucial venue for passing on traditional and religious knowledge to the next generation. Without these institutions, it would be difficult to see the Jewish community of Mount Vernon as a community at all rather than a collection of families.

Although Jews were a small minority in Mount Vernon during this time, they constituted a fairly cohesive group and even had dreams of building a synagogue of their own at one point. It is significant that there were no “secular” Jewish institutions in Mount Vernon such as B’nai B’rith or Hadassah, though this may have been due to the small size of the Jewish population. Religion was not incidental to Jewish identity in Mount Vernon, but was the focus of every communal activity. For a brief period of time culminating in the synagogue years of 1939 to circa 1950, Judaism fulfilled locally its role as a major American religion alongside Protestantism and Catholicism.

 

Epilogue

 

Despite the fact that many, many children grew up Jewish in Mount Vernon, the community virtually disappeared over the years. Most of those children grew up and got out, finding jobs and spouses elsewhere.[510] Many of their parents moved away in later years, though some remained in Mount Vernon until their deaths. Today, Clara Wallock is the only person living in Mount Vernon who remembers the Sisterhood, synagogue, and Sabbath School. She converted to Christianity in order to marry, and no longer identifies as Jewish.[511] She still visits her family’s graves when possible, and on a recent visit she did not reject her Jewish roots; she brought stones to place on the graves in accordance with tradition and followed along as the mourner’s kaddish was recited.[512]

That most of the young Jewish people moved away from home in 1950s probably has much more to do with the changing economy and the decline of rural communities than the fact that they were Jewish. With the decline of the manufacturing sector in town, there were not as many opportunities for young people to stay around. Once the Jewish community in Mount Vernon had lost its “critical mass,” the synagogue—and the community itself, eventually—aged out of existence. The failure of the synagogue was a sign of things to come. From a once thriving, close-knit congregation to a few old-timers who still live in the area, the Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation has gradually faded from existence. Even the Sisterhood eventually stopped meeting, though it is not known when. Today, when I mention that I am researching Jews in Knox County, I am usually met with a blank stare and the question, “there are Jews in Knox County?” While several Jewish families, newer arrivals, reside in the area, there is little sense of community between them and no formal Jewish institutions exist here aside from the Hillel at Kenyon College and a new Jewish burial society.

In order to explore various ways of constructing Jewish identity in this particular context, I have examined the Jewish community of Mount Vernon, Ohio with respect to an individual, a family, and the institutions of Jewish life. I will now draw broad conclusions about the nature of Jewish identity in Mount Vernon, Ohio between 1930 and 1960.

 

Seeing the Trees for the Forest: Conclusions

 

Recently, a friend of mine told me that someone asked what her Jewish identity meant to her. It took her half an hour to respond. The answer to that question—what does it mean to be Jewish?—is extraordinarily complicated even for an individual, so it seems almost pompous to tackle this question on behalf of an entire community of people I have never met. Nevertheless, the essential question of this work, in every chapter, is what it meant to be Jewish in Mount Vernon, Ohio between 1930 and 1960.

Each chapter of this study deals with a different answer or approach to that question. In the second chapter, I examine the life of one of the most prominent members of the Mount Vernon Jewish community, Helen Zelkowitz. For Helen, tzedaqa was the central component of her Judaism and Jewish identity. It was both the most important aspect of religion, and a means by which she integrated herself into the community. The third chapter tells the story of the Erlanger and Frankel families, immigrants from Germany who made Judaism a central component of their American identities. To be Jewish, for the Erlangers, was simultaneously a way of maintaining tradition and a means of integrating themselves into American, small-town life. Finally, in the fourth chapter I trace the institutions of the Jewish community between 1930 and approximately 1950 when the synagogue closed. This chapter focuses on the communal aspects of being Jewish. Within the context of community institutions, Jews in Mount Vernon cemented their interdependence and taught their children Jewish customs and religion.

While each of these three studies of Jewish life is a separate chapter and contains a distinct set of ideas, there were many connections between Zelkowitz, the Erlangers/Frankels, and Jewish institutions in Mount Vernon. The histories of all three were intertwined. For example, all of the families I discuss in the second and third chapters were members of the synagogue. Helen was a member of the sisterhood, as was Minna Erlanger, Lothar’s wife.[513] While Helen focused much of her life on giving tzedaqa, the Erlangers were also involved with charity initiatives in the county, perhaps also due to religious motivations. In short, these three approaches to the problem of constructing Jewish identity are most certainly not mutually exclusive, nor are they the only ways of being Jewish in a small town like Mount Vernon, Ohio. One of the primary limitations of this study is that I focus disproportionately on two different cases—Helen Zelkowitz and the Erlanger/Frankel family—while treating the community as a whole only in my fourth chapter. My intention in choosing these two cases was to provide an in-depth look at two contrasting stories—one of a local woman and one of an immigrant family. While the Zelkowitz and Erlanger stories are fascinating and valuable, there are presumably two dozen other equally rich family histories that would also be relevant for this study. The challenge in this chapter, then, is to bring together what I have discussed in all three chapters to present a cohesive picture of Jewish life in Mount Vernon between 1930 and 1960.

 

In the beginning of this project, I struggled to understand how Judaism in America was different from Judaism in Europe. Put a different way, how did European Jews and Judaism become uniquely American? As I got further into my research, I realized that the salient contextual fact was not that the Jews of Mount Vernon lived in America, but that they lived in an American small town. The challenges and peculiarities of being a Jew in a small town came up over and over again in my research.

One of the primary reasons that being Jewish in a small town is difficult is that there are usually very few other Jews—an uncomfortable situation simply because being an extreme minority can be quite isolating. More important for this study is the problem of “critical mass,” or the minimum Jewish population that constitutes a true community. Without a significant Jewish presence in a given location, the institutions that make traditional religious observance possible simply cannot exist. One of the most obvious examples of this is the synagogue. In the case of Mount Vernon, it was not until 1939—at the height of the Jewish population in Mount Vernon—that a synagogue was organized. As the community’s numbers waned, the synagogue also failed and the Jewish community of Mount Vernon effectively became a satellite of the Mansfield community, where most of those who were willing to leave town attended services. This in and of itself presents a dilemma for observant Jews: is it better to drive on the Sabbath in order to get to services (which violates the traditional Shabbat prohibition on travel), or is it better to stay home and observe Shabbat privately? This question became largely irrelevant to several community members, including the Frankels, who could not drive and therefore did not even have the option to attend a synagogue without assistance.

Another important concern for Jews living in small towns is access to kosher food products. Small towns with small Jewish communities cannot feasibly support a kosher butcher, and therefore kosher meat must be shipped in. Before the modern food system as we know it today took shape, frozen and pre-packaged kosher foods simply were not available. As noted in the second chapter, keeping a kosher household under these circumstances could be quite a challenge. Helen Zelkowitz gave up on kashrut when she received a dead duck in the mail, rendering it useless—not to mention off-putting.[514] Likewise, Friedel Frankel could not keep a traditionally kosher home, but substituted cleanliness.[515] Jews in Eastern Europe lived in small towns too, but at that time there were usually several enclaves of Jewish settlement in a given area.[516] This was enough to support a travelling shochet who would go from town to town performing ritual slaughter for local families on-site.[517] This mode of obtaining kosher meat was not unheard of in rural America, but apparently was not available in Mount Vernon.

There are several other elements of Jewish infrastructure that are usually absent in small towns. To some extent, Mount Vernon’s proximity to a large metropolitan area probably retarded the organization of Jewish institutions simply because they were, at least in theory, accessible. One of the criteria that Lois Hanson uses in her historical research to determine whether someone was Jewish is their burial site; Mount Vernon did not have a burial society or Jewish cemetery.  If the person was not buried locally, this could indicate that the person was Jewish and wanted to be interred in a Jewish cemetery in accordance with tradition. It is somewhat surprising that Mount Vernon did not have a Jewish cemetery considering that in most cases the burial society was the first Jewish institution to arise in a new community due to pure necessity.[518] Since Mount Vernon was quite nearby to Columbus, which has several Jewish cemeteries, perhaps Jewish residents of Mount Vernon did not feel it was necessary to start their own.[519] Jews in Mount Vernon may also have lacked the resources to purchase enough land for a Jewish cemetery. The lack of a Jewish day school, or even a Sunday school with a well-qualified teacher, was also an issue in Mount Vernon and small towns like it. Larger Jewish communities often had multiple options for Jewish education, depending on whether one was Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. The lack of dependable educational resources placed a stronger burden on the parents to inculcate Jewish knowledge and identity in their children. A final example of the difficulties of observing halacha in small towns is the lack of a mikvah—the ritual bath that is required primarily for women after menstruation (although men also use it). According to Weissbach, it was actually not uncommon for Orthodox communities in small towns to install a mikvah in their synagogue, even if the synagogue building was only temporary.[520] The Jewish community in Mount Vernon was not Orthodox, however, and there was not enough demand for the community to have a mikvah.

Without a significant Jewish community in town, it was quite impossible to observe all of the mitzvoth. This is why, according to Lee Shai Weissbach, very observant Jews did not live in small towns.[521] However, in my opinion, it is not necessarily true that very observant Jews only lived in cities, but it is possible that many formerly observant Jews had to make sacrifices in their religious behavior in order to live in small communities. For many families, economics or family ties were the driving motivations behind the decision to settle in small towns. In the case of Helen Zelkowitz, Mount Vernon became her home because her husband Charles wanted to start his own business, and Mount Vernon was in need of a lawyer. In general, it was common for Jews to be self-employed; in the thirties and forties, Jews were twice as likely to own a business as their Gentile neighbors.[522]  According to Weissbach, “the quest for economic well-being that motivated most Jewish men who took up residence in small towns meant, more than anything else, a search for a place where they could go into business for themselves.”[523] In the case of families like the Erlangers, family ties were the primary motivator behind settling in a small town. While Leo Erlanger initially arrived in Mount Vernon because of his job at Cooper-Bessemer, his siblings and parents came as refugees in order to live together as a family. Living in Mount Vernon did not necessarily mean that the Erlangers or Zelkowitzes were not observant. Helen grew up in a traditional, observant home, and attempted to remain quite conservative in Mount Vernon despite the challenges that small-town life presented. The Erlangers also had deep religious roots. Particularly in the Frankel household, Judaism was not taken lightly. Nevertheless, living in a small town made observing all of the mitzvoth practically impossible, no matter how committed the individual (or family) may have been to halachic requirements.

 

A close friend of mine said once, “I don’t think Judaism is about God, it’s about community.” This statement does not quite ring true for the Jews of Mount Vernon, many of whom were quite pious, but her emphasis on community certainly is an important perspective from which to view my research. Judaism is an inherently social and collectivist religion, in contrast to Protestant Christianity which emphasizes an individual relationship between humans and God.[524] Thus, it is not surprising that a significant part of this paper deals with the search for and creation of a community of Jews in Mount Vernon.

Judaism is largely based on the existence of a Jewish community. One of the most important scriptural references to the importance of community can be found in Psalm 82:1, which is often translated as “God stands in the congregation of the Almighty,” which has been interpreted in the Talmud as evidence for the importance of the synagogue—that is, the congregation or community of Jews.[525] While this verse can be translated in a way that de-emphasizes the congregation, rabbinic literature emphasizes the inseparability of God from his people, collectively.

As already discussed, many of the institutions necessary for traditional observation of the halachoth require a Jewish community simply to exist, mostly because of economic limitations. If the Jewish population is insignificant, how will the synagogue pay the rent, and how will the shochet make a living? Beyond these practical concerns, however, Judaism requires Jews to work together at a very basic level to carry out some of its central rituals. Cohen, Hall, Koenig and Meador highlight several of the social requirements of Judaism in their article, “Social Versus Individual Motivation: Implications for Normative Definitions of Religious Orientation.”[526] In particular, the authors point out that many rituals require a minyan to perform—that is, the presence of at least ten Jewish adults (traditionally males).[527] They write,

One example is the requirement that one may recite the kaddish yatom, or mourner’s prayer, only in the presence of a minyan. A consequence of this requirement is that the bereaved cannot isolate themselves from the community at a time when they might feel an urge to seclude themselves following the death of a loved one.[528]

 

A minyan is also required even to say some prayers and for Torah services.[529] The minyan is one excellent example of how important the community is in Judaism. The authors also point to the wording of prayers in the first person plural (“we,” not “I”) and biblical commandments to look out for others in the community as further proof.[530]

“There is a great emphasis in Jewish law and culture on community involvement,” Cohen et al. argue.[531] It is significant that the authors underscore both law and culture, recognizing the close link between religion and culture. Perhaps Jewish identity is so important among Jews because Judaism is such a community-oriented religion. Cohen and Hill quote Rabbi Neil Gilman in another article, entitled “Religion as Culture: Religious Individualism and Collectivism Among American Catholics, Jews, and Protestants”:

‘That’s how they [rituals] create communities, for who we are depends in large measure on where we belong. [Rituals] garb the social experiences of everyday life in the distinctive values of a particular group.’[532]

 

In other words, the fact that the rituals of Judaism are generally collective rituals builds a sense that to be Jewish is to be a part of a Jewish community. This contrasts with Protestantism, which the authors see as much more individualistic: while Protestant Christianity emphasizes individual intention, Judaism generally values actions over beliefs.[533]

Another crucial aspect of this discussion is that Judaism is, in the mind of many Jews, a heritable trait (so to speak), though conversion is also possible. According to Orthodox religious law, those born of a Jewish mother are Jewish; today liberal forms of Judaism generally consider the child Jewish if either parent is Jewish.[534] Thus, it is possible to be born into the Jewish community just as it is possible to be born an American, a German, or a Mount Vernon-ite. The Jewish community can therefore be defined by both religious and cultural traits, and adherence to one implies adherence to the other, as well.

The importance of the Jewish community is a crucial theme that emerges in my research. The most obvious examples of this are in the fourth chapter, in which I trace the organization of the institutions of Jewish life in Mount Vernon. The Sisterhood is a particularly good example of the interconnections between religion and the community. While most of the Sisterhood’s activities were based in religion, the Sisterhood also functioned as a locus of community-building. Socialization among individuals reinforces the bonds of community that are required for religion, and in turn these bonds make the fulfillment of religion possible. Without a sense of community, it would be impossible to organize a synagogue, a Sunday School, or even a Purim party.

Since membership in the community is a crucial aspect in the formation of a Jewish identity, the search for community is also a major consideration in the second and third chapters. In the case of the Erlangers, the experience of being uprooted from the community of their birth and making a new life in small-town America could easily have resulted in a sense of rootlessness and anomie. This was not the case. According to Clara Wallock, the Jewish community in Mount Vernon was not only welcoming and receptive, but actively reached out to the Erlanger families in order to ease the adjustment.[535] The Erlangers began contributing to the community almost immediately by taking an active part in the synagogue and the Sunday School. Participation in the community was a means of participating in religion as well as constructing a new American Jewish identity. In truth, the distinction between participating in religion and constructing identity is artificial; in the Judaic tradition, it would be difficult to do one without the other. Although Judaism was increasingly privatized during this era, [536] the fact still remains that Judaism places significant emphasis on communal religion. As Arthur Hertzberg puts it, “the sense of being one people, one family, as the seed of Abraham, had always been central in Jewish consciousness.”[537]

Community was also an important consideration for Helen Zelkowitz, but in a slightly different way. Her life’s work was devoted to the cause of bettering the community in general, not just the Jewish community. While she was an active member of the Mount Vernon Jewish Community through the synagogue, the Sunday School, and the Sisterhood for a short time, she was much more attached to the Jewish community in Columbus, particularly the Agudas Achim synagogue in which she grew up. Nevertheless, Helen Zelkowitz was a remarkably active member of the community in Mount Vernon. Like the Erlangers, she became a part of the community—both the Jewish community and the secular Mount Vernon community—by participating in it.

In the context of a small town, the search for community is especially salient. In the Jewish neighborhoods of big cities, Jewish culture and community are automatic. As Eugen Schoenfeld repeatedly emphasizes in “Small-Town Jews,” Jewish identity is taken for granted in majority-Jewish neighborhoods.[538] In small towns like Mount Vernon, Jewish identity and community must be actively sought and created. It is a testament to the strength of the Judaic tradition that small-town Jews in diverse locations tend to bind together for their mutual benefit and for the sake of religion and culture.

 

This brings us to the last and most pervasive theme of this paper: Jewish identity in Mount Vernon. The guiding question of this research has led me time and again to consider what it meant to be Jewish in Mount Vernon between 1930 and 1960. There is no simple answer to this question because identity, for Jews, is constructed both by the individual and by the community. In both cases, identity depends on subjective meaning. However, I believe it is still possible to draw some general conclusions about the nature of being Jewish in Mount Vernon.

To be a Jew in Mount Vernon was to be an active participant in the synagogue, during its years of operation. Affiliation with the synagogue serves as a kind of litmus test for measuring both religiosity and commitment to the future of the community. As we have seen, these two aspects of Jewish identity are closely interrelated. Participation in the life of the community was an essential element of Jewish identity in this context because it marked Jews as separate from their Gentile neighbors. A synagogue is a house of worship, but it is also a public statement about the Jewish community; the presence of a synagogue in town legitimizes the community as a cohesive entity. Thus, to affiliate oneself with the synagogue is tantamount to a declaration of loyalty to Judaism, Jewish culture, and the Jewish community.

When the synagogue was not in operation, being Jewish in Knox County entailed some form of religious practice. Religion was practiced both in the home and in public. Privately, religion was expressed by observing Shabbat or holidays like Passover and Rosh Hashanah. Publicly, religion could take the form of giving tzedaqa or celebrating holidays communally. In both cases, religion was an important aspect of Jewish identity in Knox County. In the context of Mount Vernon, a town with dozens of churches, being religious was probably a community expectation—even if the religion one practiced was not Protestant Christianity.

Although Judaism certainly had to be adapted to the small town environment, Jews in Mount Vernon displayed commitment to observing at least a baseline of traditional religious requirements. Being Jewish in Mount Vernon was not reduced to merely an ethnicity or an immutable fact of one’s genetics, but was consciously acted out in daily life. A sentiment that was expressed repeatedly in interviews is that Jews in Mount Vernon did their best when it came to religion, and for them, that was enough. The answer to the essential question of this research is much more complex than the two factors I have just enumerated—religiosity and community involvement—but these are, in the broadest terms, the characteristics that united members of the Jewish community.

 

The struggle to define Jewish identity, not to mention the problem of deciding who is a Jew, is something that has fascinated me since I first began studying Jews and Judaism four years ago. One of my first friends at Kenyon shocked me into curiosity about this religion when she told me she was Jewish, but did not believe in God. Having been raised in a Protestant household and congregation, I was under the impression that religion is about what you believe. For a Lutheran, definitions are not much of an issue. The fact that my friend identified as both secular and religious befuddled me, and I have been attempting to answer the question of what it means to be Jewish ever since.

Another question that is at stake in the context of this study is what does it mean, in Judaism, to be religious? Is religion about what you believe? Is it about fulfilling all 613 mitzvoth? By whose definition should we judge insiders and outsiders in the Jewish tradition? The conclusion I have tentatively come to is that we must leave the question of definition up to the individual. I have Jewish friends who do not believe in God and rarely attend services, if ever. I also have a Jewish friend who is quite observant, though far from Orthodox, yet is considering official conversion to Judaism because her mother is not Jewish. Though she was raised Jewish, had a bat mitzvah, and has been practicing Judaism her entire life, she does not feel that she will be a part of the community until she formally converts. These few examples demonstrate that even for Jews, the question of identity is extraordinarily complex. In today’s pluralistic society, Judaism runs the gamut from non-practicing, secular Jews who are Jewish by virtue of their birth to the ultra-Orthodox who, as my friend is fond of saying, “are always in a hurry because they have so many mitzvoth to fulfill.”  While my secular friends identify much more strongly with Jewish culture and ethnicity—that is, the community, others value ritual and halacha. Who is to say which is more religious?

In the Jewish community of Mount Vernon, Jews tended to follow a middle path between the two extremes of Jewish identity. Observance of Jewish law was a consideration, but not an obsession. At the same time, religious observance was not the only means of being Jewish. Being an active part of the community is a Jewish value, and this manifested itself consistently in the formation of Jewish institutions beginning well before 1939, with the formation of the Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation. Identification as a Jew in Mount Vernon was a conscious choice, not simply an accident of birth. While on the surface, it would appear that the Jews of Mount Vernon were less religious than their city-dwelling coreligionists who kept kosher, walked to services on Shabbat, and went to a formal Hebrew school growing up, Jews in Mount Vernon had to work hard to live up to their Jewish identity. Living in a small community meant that Judaism and Jewish identity were not defaults, but had to be actively constructed on a daily basis. The institutions of the community were not taken for granted by Jews in Mount Vernon because they themselves created this Jewish “infrastructure” from scratch. Jews in Mount Vernon had to rely on each other in order to bring the synagogue, the Sisterhood, and the Sabbath School to fruition. Although many of the mitzvoth went unfulfilled, might the community’s commitment to doing the best that they could indicate a high level of religiosity?

 

Deciding what it means to be “religious” is another problem I have struggled with repeatedly during my time as a student of Religious Studies. The trouble with sorting out who is “religious” and who is not leads one to essentialize the entire tradition in order to have a standard by which to compare all else. While the tendency within Judaism seems to be to judge all religious expressions against Orthodoxy, the strictest and most traditional form, this by definition subjugates Reform and Conservative Jews as somehow “less religious,” or even just plain wrong.

In the introduction, I discuss Robert Orsi’s approach to religion, which emphasizes emotionally distancing oneself from one’s subjects. In Between Heaven and Earth, Orsi also discusses the dangers of essentializing religion, that is, ascribing certain aspects of religion and actions of religious people as truly representative and others as corruptions of the tradition. Orsi gives the powerful example of post-September 11th perspectives on Islam: “People want to be reassured that the men who flew their planes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, were not representatives of ‘real’ or ‘good’ Islam…”[539] He goes on to say that “I am not here to argue for relativism…nor am I suggesting that ‘Islam,’ ‘evangelical Christianity,’ or ‘Catholicism’ are each respectively one unified coherent entity.” In other words, we cannot reduce the study of religion to archetypes of religions. There is no one “true” form of Islam or Catholicism; likewise, there is no one form of Judaism.

The majority of Orsi’s book is about how regular people, including his own family members, practice their religion. While it would be easier to reduce what Catholics believe to what the Pope says,[540] Orsi shows that Catholicism is far more complex and nuanced among the people who practice it.  Likewise, Judaism cannot be reduced to that which happens in a synagogue, or to what Orthodox Jews do. Even Orthodox Judaism encompasses quite a range of religious practices. While the institutions of Judaism are important, as I have argued, there are other ways to express one’s adherence to the tradition.  Thus, it is fair to argue that Jews in Mount Vernon were not irreligious simply because they did not fulfill all of the mitzvoth. Instead, I believe that different groups have different means of expressing their commitment to religion—their religiosity—even if these expressions are quite literally unorthodox.

 

While I have attempted in this paper to show both specific cases and portray a general picture of Jewish life in Mount Vernon, there are still many questions that I cannot answer. For instance, how did other families and individuals in the community construct their Jewish identity during this period? I have only presented two cases in depth, yet there were two dozen other families living in Mount Vernon at the same time. How did all of these people initially end up in Mount Vernon in the first place? How did they adapt their religion to the context of Mount Vernon, Ohio?

A broader question that is raised by this study is how has Jewish identity in Mount Vernon, and other small towns like it, changed in the era of mass society? Does Jewish identity still depend largely on context, as it did in my study? Or have geographic mobility, mass culture, the internet, the industrial food system, and the ubiquity of cars effectively done away with the distinctions between small-town, suburban, and city-dwelling Jews? I am also curious how common it is for Jews to live in small towns now relative to the time period I have studied. There does not appear to be a strong sense of community among Jews in Knox County now, but is this the case across small-town America?

Since the Jewish community of Mount Vernon placed so much emphasis on education for young people during this era, it would also be valuable to know how many of these people remained Jewish in their adult lives. This could serve as a proxy to measure assimilation: without Jewish education and practice, there would be little to distinguish Jewish families living in Mount Vernon from their Gentile neighbors besides, often, their last names. In short, did their parents succeed in raising their children to be Jews, or did most of them abandon the religion of their youth?

I have dealt at length with the particulars of Jewish life in Knox County from the perspective of Jews, but I also wonder how the community viewed the Jewish minority here. According to several interviews I have used, overt anti-Semitism was very rare in Mount Vernon during this time period. Does this indicate that Knox County was an especially accepting place? How accurate were these perceptions? The Ku Klux Klan did have a presence in Knox County,[541] but members of this hate group were of course a minority. Even so, their presence here brings up the question: to what extent might anti-Semitism have been clandestine rather than overt? The common stereotype of contemporary Mount Vernon is that it is parochial, even racist and anti-Semitic. To what extent are current perceptions accurate? What has changed in Knox County to make it this way? Could the loss of minority communities actually have contributed to Mount Vernon’s insularity?[542]

 

To conclude, I would like to add something about what this project contributes to my understanding of religion in general. This study demonstrates that religious practice, at least in Judaism, is dependent upon context. My guiding question, “what does it mean to be Jewish in Mount Vernon,” implicitly recognizes that being a Jew in a small town is not the same thing as being a Jew in a city, and that being Jewish in Mount Vernon is not necessarily the same as being Jewish in other towns like it. The construction of Jewish identity and practice of Judaism are very much dependent on the peculiarities of place and time. In my own experience, I have also seen how the practice of religion is dependent upon environment. The way people practice and talk about Christianity in my small hometown is very, very different from the way people practice and talk about it at Kenyon College. This is why I have included historical details and secondary sources throughout my thesis. I see much greater value in a diachronic analysis of religion than a synchronic analysis; without history and context, we cannot fully understand people and the religions they practice. Time period is only one aspect of context; other factors include local culture, economy, and values. Thus it is necessary to understand the particulars of life in Mount Vernon during the thirty years between 1930 and 1960 in order to draw conclusions about the Jewish community that occupied that time and place.

Just as we should not essentialize characteristics of Judaism today, nor should we assume perfect continuity within traditions in different historical moments and geographical locations. I now see that it is crucial to learn about religion at both a theoretical, macroscopic level as well as on a more human scale. Religious Studies on a human scale recognizes the diversity within traditions, just as a field biologist measures biodiversity within a forest. In the study of religion, we must recognize that just as there can be no forest without the trees, likewise there can be no such thing as religion without the people who practice it.

 

 

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__________________________________________________

 

[1]Jan Harold Brunvand, ed., “Jewish Americans” in American Folklore: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1996), 409.

[2] Ewa Morawska, Insecure Prosperity: Small-Town Jews in Industrial America, 1890-1940, (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996), 135.

[3] Michael Selzer, “Who are the Jews? A Guide for the Perplexed Gentile—and Jew”, Phylon 29, no. 3 (1968), http://www.jstor.org/stable/273488 (accessed February 3, 2011).

[4] Frederick N. Lorey, ed., History of Knox County, Ohio 1876-1976, (Mount Vernon: Knox County Historical Society, 1976), 114.

[5] Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, (New York: Penguin Press, 2009).

[6] Eugen Schoenfeld, “Small-Town Jews” (PhD diss., Southern Illinois University, 1967), 6.

[7] Robert Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005), 187.

[8] Ibid., 198.

[9] Ibid., 188.

[10] Henry L. Feingold, A Time for Searching: Entering the Mainstream (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992), 29.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 27.

[13] Ibid., 29.

[14] Arthur Hertzberg, The Jews in America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), 280.

[15] Ibid., 279-280.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Feingold, A Time for Searching, 25.

[18] Ibid., 31.

[19] “Ku Klux Klan,” History.com, http://www.history.com/topics/ku-klux-klan (accessed April 5, 2011).

[20] Hertzberg, The Jews in America, 287.

[21] Ibid., 286.

[22] Ibid., 288.

[23] Ibid., 299.

[24] Ibid., 299.

[25] Feingold, A Time for Searching, 250.

[26] Hertzberg, The Jews in America, 302.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Feingold, A Time for Searching, 265.

[31] Hertzberg, The Jews in America, 303.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Edward S. Shapiro, A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992), 9.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Shapiro, A Time for Healing, 11.

[39] Ibid

[40] Ibid., 7-15.

[41] Hertzberg, The Jews in America, 321.

[42] Ibid., 330-331.

[43] Shapiro, A Time for Healing, 159.

[44] Hertzberg, The Jews in America,321.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Hertzberg, The Jews in America, 322.

[47] Shapiro, A Time for Healing, 159.

[48] Hertzberg, The Jews in America, 323.

[49] Shapiro, A Time for Healing, 161.

[50] Feingold, A Time for Searching, 116.

[51] Shapiro, A Time for Healing, 163.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Morawska, Insecure Prosperity, 154.

[54] Shapiro, A Time for Healing, 166.

[55] Ibid., 167.

[56] Here I use “community” in quotes to denote the fact that American Jewry was far too diverse geographically, theologically, and ideologically to be considered a true community.

[57] “Death of Adolph Wolff,” The Mount Vernon Democratic Banner, August 14, 1884.

[58] Lorey, History of Knox County, 494.

[59] Ibid., 495.

[60] Ibid., 498.

[61] Ibid., 157.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Helen Zelkowitz, Helen Zelkowitz and Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Christina LeStage and Darlene Feldman, Mount Vernon, Ohio, October 8, 1998, Transcript.

[64] Lorey, History of Knox County, 495.

[65] Ibid., 499.

[66] Ibid., 163.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Ibid., 114.

[70] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Christina LeStage and Darlene Feldman.

[71] Lorey, History of Knox County, 134.

[72] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson, Mount Vernon, Ohio, March 1, 2011, Transcript.

[73] Clara Wallock is a pseudonym; the interviewee’s name has been changed at her request.

[74] Lorey, History of Knox County, 173.

[75] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[76] Lorey, History of Knox County, 173.

[77] Ibid., 134.

[78] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Christina LeStage and Darlene Feldman.

[79] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author, Mount Vernon, Ohio, March 1, 2011, Transcript. Name changed at the request of Mr. Ross.

[80] “Jews of Mt. Vernon, O. Organize Synagogue,” The Ohio Jewish Chronicle, September 22, 1939.

[81] Ross, Unpublished interview by author.

[82] Lorey, History of Knox County, 272-275.

[83] Ibid., 273.

[84] Ibid.

[85] Ibid., 275.

[86] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Charlotte Nugent, Mount Vernon, Ohio, 2007, Transcript.

[87] Wallock, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[88] Helen Zelkowitz, “Helen Zelkowitz,” Unpublished interview by Naomi Schottenstein, Columbus Jewish Historical Society, November 18, 2003. http://www.columbusjewishhistoricalsociety.org/oral_histories/Interviews/HTML/zelkowitz_helen.htm (accessed August 4, 2010).

[89] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Naomi Schottenstein.

[90] Ibid.

[91] Arthur Hertzberg, The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), 198.

[92] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Naomi Schottenstein.

[93] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Naomi Schottenstein.

[94] Ibid.

[95] Genesis 18:19

[96] Leviticus 19:2

[97] Leviticus 19: 9-10

[98] Deuteronomy 14:28-29

[99] Leonard Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky, eds., Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics (New York: UAHC Press, 1993), 83.

[100] Ibid., 82.

[101] Ibid., 30.

[102] Hertzberg, 141.

[103] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Naomi Schottenstein.

[104] Ibid.                                 

[105] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Naomi Schottenstein.

[106] Ibid.

[107] Ibid.

[108] “Weiner-Zelkowitz,” Ohio Jewish Chronicle, October 27, 1933, 3.

[109] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Naomi Schottenstein.

[110] Ibid.

[111] Helen Zelkowitz, Helen Zelkowitz and Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Christina LeStage and Darlene Feldman, Mount Vernon, Ohio, October 8, 1998, Transcript.

[112] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Naomi Schottenstein.

[113] “Weiner-Zelkowitz,” The Ohio Jewish Chronicle.

[114] Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Christina LeStage and Darlene Feldman.

[115] Ibid.

[116] Stella Hantman, The Secretary’s Report of the Mt. Vernon Branch of the Newark Sisterhood (Mount Vernon: 1928-1935), Unpublished, 121.

[117] Hantman, The Secretary’s Report of the Mt. Vernon Branch of the Newark Sisterhood, 121.

[118] Ibid., 140.

[119] Ibid.

[120] Ibid., 141.

[121] Ibid., 143.

[122] Ibid.

[123] Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Christina LeStage and Darlene Feldman.

[124] Franklin Miller, Unpublished interview by author. Transcript. October 22, 2010.

[125] Ibid.

[126] Ruth Portnoy. “Sisters’ Generosity, Love of Family (and Hats) Left a Mark,” The New Standard Online, December 27, 2006. http://www.thenewstandard.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=155&Itemid=35 (accessed December 9, 2010).

[127] Franklin Miller, Unpublished interview by author.

[128] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Naomi Schottenstein.

[129] “History,” Psi Iota Xi, http://psiiotaxi.org/Site/History.html (accessed December 8, 2010).

[130] “Who We Are,” Soroptimist International, http://www.soroptimist.org/whoweare/whoweare.html (accessed December 8, 2010).

[131] Ibid.

[132] “SI-Mount Vernon/Knox County.” Soroptimist International, http://www.simwr.org/id96.html (accessed December 8, 2010).

[133] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Naomi Schottenstein

[134] Ibid..

[135] “The American Red Cross Gray Lady Service,” American Red Cross, http://www.redcross.org/museum/history/grayladies.asp (accessed December 9, 2010).

[136] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Naomi Schottenstein.

[137] Ibid.

[138] Ibid.

[139] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Naomi Schottenstein.

[140] “Food for the Hungry History,” Food for the Hungry, http://www.foodforthehungrycares.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2&Itemid=10 (accessed December 8, 2010).

[141] Portnoy, “Sisters’ Generosity, Love of Family (and Hats) Left a Mark.”

[142] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished Interview by Christina LeStage and Darlene Feldman.

[143] “Funeral Services for Helen Weiner Zelkowitz,” Snyder Funeral Home. http://www.snyderfuneralhomes.com/obituaries/obit_view.phtml?id=5485 (accessed December 9, 2010).

[144] Ibid.

[145] Portnoy, “Sisters’ Generosity, Love of Family (and Hats) Left a Mark.”

[146] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Naomi Schottenstein

[147]A. Cohen, The Teachings of Maimonides, (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1968), 286.

[148] Ibid.

[149] Kravitz and Olitzky, Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics, 30.

[150] Cohen, The Teachings of Maimonides, 288.

[151] While there is no indication that Helen specifically sought attention for her good deeds, it is also true that she was well known in the community for her extensive philanthropic work. In a sense, her role as a public do-gooder undermines her anonymity, though individual acts of giving were still anonymous. She may have also seen charity as a means of integration, which would negate Maimonides’ emphasis on fulfilling a mitzvah for its own sake.

[152] Cohen, The Teachings of Maimonides, 288.

[153] Ibid.

[154] “About Us,” Jewish Family Services http://www.jfscolumbus.org/AboutUs.asp (accessed December 9, 2010).

[155] “Community Foundation of Mount Vernon and Knox County 2010 Scholarships Available,” Mount Vernon and Knox County Community Foundation, http://www.mvkcfoundation.org/Grant/2010%20Scholarships%20Available.pdf (accessed December 11, 2010).

[156] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Christina LeStage and Darlene Feldman.

[157] Ibid.

[158] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Naomi Schottenstein.

[159] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Christina LeStage and Darlene Feldman.

[160] Ibid.

[161] Ibid.

[162] Franklin Miller, Unpublished interview by author.

[163] Ibid.

[164] Ibid.

[165] Ibid.

[166] Ibid.

[167] Ibid.

[168] Ibid.

[169] Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, Jews and the New American Scene (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995), 54.

[170] Hertzberg, The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter, 303.

[171] Ibid., 315.

[172] John P. Dean, “Jewish Participation in Middle-Sized Communities,” The Jewish Community, edited by Marshall Sklare, 304-320 (New York: Free Press, 1958), 308.

[173] Ibid.

[174] Franklin Miller, Unpublished interview by author.

[175] Milton R. Konvitz, “From Jewish Rights to Human Rights,” Judaism and the American Idea (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978), 161.

[176] Ibid.

[177] Hertzberg, The Jews in America, 333.

[178] Konvitz, “From Jewish Rights to Human Rights,” 178.

[179] Abraham J. Heschel,  The Prophets (New York: Harper Colophon, 1962), 195.

[180] Ibid., 198.

[181] “National Conference on Religion and Race,” Martin Luther King Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle, http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_national_conference_on_religion_and_race/ (accessed April 15, 2011).

[182] Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel, “The Religious Basis of Equality of Opportunity—The Segregation of God,” in Race: Challenge to Religion, ed. Mathew Ahmann (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1963), 69.

[183] Hertzberg, The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter, 280.

[184] Dean, “Jewish Participation in Middle-Sized Communities,” 310.

[185] Hertzberg, The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter, 304-305.

[186] Franklin Miller, Unpublished interview by author.

[187] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Christina LeStage and Darlene Feldman.

[188] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Christina LeStage and Darlene Feldman.

[189] Franklin Miller, Unpublished interview by author.

[190] Joseph Greenbaum and Marshall Sklare, “The Attitude of the Small-Town Jew Toward His Community,” The Jewish Community, edited by  Marshall Sklare, 288-303 (New York: Free Press, 1958), 290.

[191] Ibid., 295.

[192] Ibid.

[193] Franklin Miller, Unpublished interview by author.

[194] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Christina LeStage and Darlene Feldman.

[195] Ibid.

[196] Shochetim is the plural form of shochet, or ritual slaughterer.

[197] Hertzberg, The Jews in America, 316.

[198] Ibid.

[199] Ewa Morawska, Insecure Prosperity: Small-town Jews in Industrial America, 1890-1940, (New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1996), 165.

[200] Ibid.

[201] Ibid.

[202] Wallock, Unpublished interview by Christina LeStage and Darlene Feldman.

[203] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Naomi Schottenstein.

[204] Franklin Miller, Unpublished interview by author.

[205] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Christina LeStage and Darlene Feldman.

[206] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Naomi Schottenstein.

[207] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Christina LeStage and Darlene Feldman.

[208] “Bar Mitzvah,” The Ohio Jewish Chronicle, June 17, 1949, 3.

[209] Hantman, The Secretary’s Report of the Mt. Vernon Branch of the Newark Sisterhood, 140.

[210] The Columbus Chapter of Hadassah Bulletin, May, 1967. Hadassah Collection, The Columbus Jewish Historical Society Archives.

[211] “A.A. Sisterhood Annual Installation Next Tuesday,” The Ohio Jewish Chronicle, June 3, 1949, 7.

[212] “Funeral Services for Helen Weiner Zelkowitz,” Snyder Funeral Home.

[213] Columbus Jewish Foundation, Finding Phil: The Columbus Jewish Foundation 2006-2007 Annual Report, Columbus: The Columbus Jewish Foundation, 2007, www.jewishdatabank.org/Archive/C-OH-Columbus-1969-Main_Report.pdf (accessed December 9, 2010), 38.

[214] Ibid.

[215] “Jews of Mt. Vernon, O. Organize Synagogue,” The Ohio Jewish Chronicle, September 22, 1939, 5.

[216] Portnoy, “Sisters’ Generosity, Love of Family (and Hats) Left a Mark.”

[217] Ibid.

[218] “Funeral Services for Helen Weiner Zelkowitz,” Snyder Funeral Home.

[219] Franklin Miller, Unpublished interview by author.

[220] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson, Mount Vernon, Ohio, March 1, 2011, Transcript.

[221] Clara Wallock, Helen Zelkowitz and Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Christina LeStage and Darlene Feldman, Mount Vernon, Ohio, October 8, 1998, Transcript.

[222]Kristallnacht,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005201 (accessed March 19, 2011).

[223] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[224] Ibid.

[225] Ibid.

[226] Ibid.

[227] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Darlene Feldman and Christina LeStage.

[228] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author, Mount Vernon, Ohio, March 1, 2011, Transcript.

[229] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[230] Ibid.

[231] Ibid.

[232] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author.

[233] Ibid. There is some uncertainty regarding when Leo Erlanger first arrived in the United States, but this date was given as an approximation.

[234] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[235] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author.

[236] Ibid.

[237] C.V. Gibbens Realty and Insurance Agency, Walsh’s 1938 Mt. Vernon Ohio Directory, 135.

[238] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[239] Ibid.

[240] Clara Wallock, Unpublished Interview by Lois Hanson.

[241] Ibid.

[242] Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the individual.

[243] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author.

[244] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Charlotte Nugent, Mount Vernon, Ohio, 2007, Transcript.

[245] Henry L. Feingold, A Time for Searching: Entering the Mainstream (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992), 27.

[246] “Refugees,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005139 (accessed March 19, 2011).

[247] Ibid.

[248] Richard Breitman and Alan M. Kraut, American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933-1945 (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987), 17.

[249] “Immigration,” The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, http://www.tenement.org/encyclopedia/immigration_administration.htm (accessed April 10, 2011).

[250]Breitman and Kraut, American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933-1945, 13.

[251] Ibid., 17

[252] Ibid.

[253] Ibid., 21.

[254] Public opposition to immigration was also fueled in part by anti-Semitism and racism. Ibid., 27.

[255] Ibid., 23.

[256] Additionally, dealing with German governmental bureaucracy probably delayed the visa application process.

[257] Richard Stallard, Joan and Richard Stallard, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson, Mount Vernon, Ohio, March 31, 2010, Transcript.

[258] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author.

[259] Ibid.

[260] Ibid.

[261] Joan Stallard, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[262] Friends Joan and Richard Stallard recalled a story that Friedel had told them of her immigration to the United States. At the time, she could carry babies in arms and begged two of her cousins to send their newborns with her to the US, where they would be safe. Both mothers declined, and all of them perished in the Holocaust. (Unpublished interview with Lois Hanson).

[263] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Darlene Feldman and Christina LeStage.

[264] C.V. Gibbens Realty and Insurance Agency, Walsh’s 1940 Mt. Vernon Ohio Directory, 153.

[265] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[266] Joan Stallard, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[267] Ibid.

[268] Amos Elon, The Pity of it All (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002), 8.

[269] Ibid.

[270] Ibid., 6-7.

[271] Ibid., 6.

[272] Ibid., 9.

[273] Ibid.

[274] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview with Lois Hanson.

[275] Joan and Richard Stallard, Unpublished Interview by Lois Hanson.

[276] “The Nuremberg Race Laws,” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, http://www.ushmm.org/outreach/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007695 (accessed March 19, 2011).

[277] Ibid.

[278] Ibid.

[279] Clara Wallock, Unpublished Interview by Lois Hanson.

[280]Sander L. Gilman, “Jewish Writers in Contemporary Germany: The Dead Author Speaks,” in Anti-Semitism in Times of Crisis, eds. Sander L. Gilman and Steven T. Katz (New York: New York University, 1991), 315.

[281] Clara Wallock, Unpublished Interview by Lois Hanson.

[282] Ibid.

[283] Ewa Morawska, Insecure Prosperity: Small-Town Jews in Industrial America, 1890-1940 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996), 135.

[284] Ibid.

[285] Arthur Hertzberg, The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989), 329.

[286] Ibid.

[287] Morawska, Insecure Prosperity, 136.

[288] Ibid., 137.

[289] Eugen Schoenfeld, “Small-Town Jews,” (PhD diss., Southern Illinois University, 1967), 187.

[290] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author.

[291] Ibid.

[292] Ibid.

[293] Ibid.

[294] Ibid.

[295] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Darlene Feldman and Christina LeStage.

[296] Joan Stallard, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[297] Joan Stallard, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[298] Ibid.

[299] Ibid.

[300] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Charlotte Nugent, Mount Vernon, Ohio, 2007, Transcript.

[301] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Darlene Feldman and Christina LeStage.

[302] “Jews of  Mt. Vernon, O. Organize Synagogue,” The Ohio Jewish Chronicle, September 22, 1939.

[303] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[304] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Charlotte Nugent.

[305] Ibid.

[306] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author.

[307] Ibid.

[308] Ibid.

[309] Ibid.

[310] “Jews of Mt. Vernon, O. Organize Synagogue,” The Ohio Jewish Chronicle.

[311] “Shemansky Succeeds Dubinsky as Head of Mt. Vernon Temple,” The Ohio Jewish Chronicle, October 6, 1939.

[312] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author.

[313] Ibid.

[314] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author.

[315] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Charlotte Nugent.

[316] Ibid.

[317] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author.

[318] Personal collection, Miriam Dean-Otting. Book bears signature stamp that reads “Leo Frankel.”

[319] Miriam Dean-Otting, Conversation with author, April 13, 2011.

[320] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Charlotte Nugent.

[321] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Charlotte Nugent.

[322] Schoenfeld, “Small Town Jews,” 163-164.

[323] Ibid.,164.

[324] Ibid.

[325] Ibid., 79.

[326] Hertzberg, The Jews in America, 321.

[327] Ibid.

[328] Ibid., 322.

[329] Ibid., 323.

[330] Ibid., 321.

[331] Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew (New York: Anchor Books, 1960), 27-28

[332] Ibid.

[333] Ibid., 34.

[334] Ibid., 235.

[335] Ibid., 258.

[336] Schoenfeld, “Small Town Jews,” 80.

[337] Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, 28.

[338] Wallock stated in an interview that the synagogue in Guntersblum separated women from men, indicating that it may have been an Orthodox synagogue. On the other hand, even if the synagogue was Orthodox, the Erlangers and Frankels may not have practiced strict Orthodoxy. According to Marion A. Kaplan, only 10 percent of German Jews remained Orthodox after the Haskalah. Marion A. Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair (New York: Oxford UP, 1998), 12.

[339] Schoenfeld, “Small Town Jews,” 132.

[340] Ibid., 127.

[341] Ibid.

[342] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[343] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Charlotte Nugent.

[344] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[345] Ibid.

[346] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Charlotte Nugent.

[347] Joan Stallard, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[348] Edward S. Shapiro, A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992), 166.

[349] Joan Stallard, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[350] Shapiro, A Time for Healing, 166.

[351] Ibid.

[352] Shapiro, A Time for Healing, 167.

[353] Lee Shai Weissbach, Jewish Life in Small-Town America (New Haven: Yale UP, 2005).

[354] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author.

[355] Ibid.

[356] Ibid.

[357] Ibid.

[358] Ibid.

[359] Franklin Miller, Unpublished interview by author, Transcript, October 22, 2010.

[360] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Darlene Feldman and Christina LeStage.

[361] Ibid.

[362] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author.

[363] Ibid.

[364] Ibid.

[365] The Stallards never met Lothar Erlanger.

[366] Richard Stallard, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[367] Joan Stallard, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[368] Ibid.

[369] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author.

[370] Franklin Miller, Unpublished interview by author.

[371] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Charlotte Nugent.

[372] Richard Stallard, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[373] Ibid.

[374] Joan and Richard Stallard, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[375] C.V. Gibbens Realty and Insurance Agency, Walsh’s 1950 Mt. Vernon Ohio Directory, 147.

[376] The Stallards recalled that Friedel always referred to her husband as “my Leo.”

[377] “Loving ‘Mother’ Cared for Many,” Mount Vernon News, June 28, 1989.

[378] Miriam Dean-Otting, Conversation with author, April 12, 2011.

[379] “Auf Wiederseh—Gottes Rat und Scheiden,” http://ingeb.org/Lieder/esistbes.html (accessed March 22, 2011).

[380] Translation by Miriam Dean-Otting.

[381] Joan and Richard Stallard, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[382] Ibid.

[383] Ibid.

[384] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author..

[385] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Darlene Feldman and Christina LeStage.

[386] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[387] Ibid.

[388] Ibid.

[389] Clara Wallock, Unpublished Interview with Lois Hanson.

[390] Clara Wallock, Unpublished Interview by Charlotte Nugent.

[391] Ibid.

[392] Joan Stallard, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[393] Jenna Weissman Joselit, “The Special Sphere of the Middle-Class American Jewish Woman: The Synagogue Sisterhood, 1890-1940,” in The American Synagogue, ed. Jack Wertheimer (New York: Cambridge UP, 1987), 206.

[394] “An Inventory to the Newark, Ohio—Ohev Israel Temple Records,” in the American Jewish Archives Online, http://americanjewisharchives.org/aja/FindingAids/newark_ohev_israel.html (accessed March 28, 2011), 206.

[395] Stella Hantman, The Secretary’s Report of the Mount Vernon Branch of the Newark Sisterhood, 68.

[396] Joselit, “The Special Sphere of the Middle-Class American Jewish Woman,” 206.

[397] Ibid., 208-209.

[398] Ibid.,” 208.

[399] Ibid.,” 210.

[400] Ibid.,” 212.

[401] Ibid., 208.

[402] Joselit, “The Special Sphere of the Middle-Class American Jewish Woman,” 224.

[403] Stella Hantman, The Secretary’s Report of the Mount Vernon Branch of the Newark Sisterhood, 86.

[404] Ibid., 3.

[405] Ibid., 131.

[406] “Ohio State Sanatorium for Tuberculosis Dedication Brochure,” in Ohio Memory Collection, http://www.ohiomemory.org/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/p267401coll36&CISOPTR=16001&REC=1 (accessed March 28, 2011).

[407] Ibid.

[408] Stella Hantman, The Secretary’s Report of the Mount Vernon Branch of the Newark Sisterhood, 78.

[409] Ibid., 19.

[410] Ibid., 86.

[411] Ibid.

[412] Ibid., 101.

[413] Stella Hantman, The Secretary’s Report of the Mount Vernon Branch of the Newark Sisterhood, 79.

[414] Ibid., 60.

[415] Judaism is not a creedal religion, so it is unclear what “the creed” refers to in this document. It is possible that the Sisterhood had its own creed, or that the “creed” refers to Maimonides’ “Thirteen Principles.”

[416] Stella Hantman, The Secretary’s Report of the Mount Vernon Branch of the Newark Sisterhood, 119.

[417] Ibid., 108.

[418] Ibid., 53.

[419] Stella Hantman, The Secretary’s Report of the Mount Vernon Branch of the Newark Sisterhood, 180.

[420] Ibid., 119.

[421] Ibid.

[422] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Darlene Feldman and Christina LeStage.

[423] Stella Hantman, The Secretary’s Report of the Mount Vernon Branch of the Newark Sisterhood, 45.

[424] Ibid., 58.

[425] Ibid., 122.

[426] Ibid., 140.

[427] Ibid.

[428] Deuteronomy 11:19.

[429] Genesis 18: 19

[430] Leonard Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky, eds., Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics (New York: UAHC Press, 1993), 5.

[431] Stella Hantman, The Secretary’s Report of the Mount Vernon Branch of the Newark Sisterhood, 151.

[432] Joselit, “The Special Sphere of the Middle-Class American Jewish Woman,” 208.

[433] Ibid.

[434] Stella Hantman, The Secretary’s Report of the Mount Vernon Branch of the Newark Sisterhood, 68.

[435] Ibid., 180.

[436] While there is no reference in the Report to men attending the party, at least in this particular case men were definitely invited. Ibid.

[437] Ibid.

[438] Joselit, “The Special Sphere of the Middle-Class American Jewish Woman,” 216.

[439] Ibid.

[440] Stella Hantman, The Secretary’s Report of the Mount Vernon Branch of the Newark Sisterhood, 111.

[441] Ibid.

[442] Ibid., 45.

[443] Ibid., 57.

[444] Ibid., 104.

[445] Stella Hantman, The Secretary’s Report of the Mount Vernon Branch of the Newark Sisterhood, 138-39.

[446] Ibid., 135.

[447] “Jews of Mt. Vernon, O. Organize Synagogue,” Ohio Jewish Chronicle, September 22, 1939.

[448] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author, Mount Vernon, Ohio, March 1, 2011, Transcript.

[449] “Jews of Mt. Vernon O. Organize Synagogue, Ohio Jewish Chronicle.

[450] Ibid.

[451] Ibid.

[452] Lee Shai Weissbach, Jewish Life in Small-Town America (New Haven: Yale UP, 2005), 158.

[453] Ibid.

[454] Stella Hantman, The Secretary’s Report of the Mount Vernon Branch of the Newark Sisterhood, 101.

[455] Union for Reform Judaism, http://urj.org//index.cfm? (accessed March 29, 2011).

[456] Weissbach, Jewish Life in Small-Town America, 179.

[457] Ibid., 159.

[458] “Torah Celebration Thursday Night at New Synagogue Here,” Mount Vernon News, October 4, 1939.

[459] “Jews of Mount Vernon, O. Organize Synagogue,” Ohio Jewish Chronicle.

[460] Weissbach, Jewish Life in Small-Town America, 178.

[461] “Jews of Mt. Vernon, O. Organize Synagogue,” Ohio Jewish Chronicle.

[462] “Torah Celebration Thursday Night at New Synagogue Here,” Mount Vernon News, October 4, 1939.

[463] “Shamansky Succeeds Dubinsky as Head of Mt. Vernon Temple,” Ohio Jewish Chronicle, October 6, 1939.

[464] Ibid.

[465] Helen Zelkowitz, Helen Zelkowitz and Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Christina LeStage and Darlene Feldman, Mount Vernon, Ohio, October 8, 1998, Transcript.

[466] Ibid.

[467] Ibid.

[468] Ibid.

[469] Weissbach, Jewish Life in Small-Town America, 179.

[470] Professor Miriam Dean-Otting owns a book that previously belonged to Leo Frankel with the Mount Vernon Hebrew Congregation nameplate on its inside cover.

[471] “A.M. Neustadt to Conduct Services In Mt. Vernon, O.,” Ohio Jewish Chronicle, September 27, 1940.

[472] Weissbach, Jewish Life in Small-Town America,178.

[473] “A.M. Neustadt to Conduct Services In Mt. Vernon, O.,” Ohio Jewish Chronicle.

[474] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson, Mount Vernon, Ohio, March 1, 2011, Transcript.

[475] Ibid.

[476] Based on my best estimates and information pieced together from a variety of sources, particularly the Mount Vernon City Directory. C.V. Gibbens Realty and Insurance Agency, Walsh’s 1939 Mt. Vernon Ohio Directory.

[477] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Charlotte Nugent, Mount Vernon, Ohio, 2007, Transcript.

[478] Frederick N. Lorey, ed., History of Knox County, Ohio 1876-1976, (Mount Vernon: Knox County Historical Society, 1976), 495.

[479] Lorey, History of Knox County, Ohio 1876-1976, 499.

[480] Weissbach, Jewish Life in Small-Town America, 197.

[481] Rhonda F. Levine, Class, Networks, and Identity: Replanting Jewish Lives from Nazi Germany to Rural New York (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 118.

[482] Levine, Class, Networks, and Identity, 121.

[483] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview with Lois Hanson.

[484] Ibid.

[485] Ibid.

[486] “History of Emanuel Jacob Congregation,” Emanuel Jacob Congregation, http://www.emanueljacob.org/ (accessed March 29, 2011).

[487] Arthur Hertzberg, The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989), 327.

[488] Hertzberg, The Jews in America, 323.

[489] “Big Attendance Marks New Year Services at Mt. Vernon, O.,” Ohio Jewish Chronicle. October 4, 1940.

[490] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author.

[491] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview with Darlene Feldman and Christina LeStage.

[492] Ibid.

[493] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author.

[494] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Charlotte Nugent.

[495] Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Darlene Feldman and Christina LeStage.

[496] Ibid.

[497] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Charlotte Nugent.

[498] “Torah Celebration Thursday Night at new Synagogue Here,” Mount Vernon News.

[499] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[500] Clara Wallock and Helen Zelkowitz, Unpublished interview by Darlene Feldman and Christina LeStage.

[501] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author.

[502] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Charlotte Nugent.

[503] Ibid.

[504] Weissbach, Jewish Life in Small-Town America, 284.

[505] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[506] Ibid.

[507] Lorey, History of Knox County, Ohio 1876-1976, 114.

[508] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Charlotte Nugent.

[509] Edgar Ross, Unpublished interview by author.

[510] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[511] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Christina LeStage and Darlene Feldman.

[512] Miriam Dean-Otting, Conversation with author, April 7, 2011.

[513] Minna Erlanger was actually a Protestant, so it is unusual that she joined the Jewish Sisterhood. Perhaps this is an indication that Judaism was more dominant than Christianity within that family, or that Minna connected socially with the immigrant and Jewish communities through her brothers- and sisters-in-law.  Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

[514] Helen Zelkowitz, Helen Zelkowitz and Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Christina LeStage and Darlene Feldman, Mount Vernon, Ohio, October 8, 1998, Transcript.

[515] Joan Stallard, Joan and Richard Stallard, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson, Mount Vernon, Ohio, March 31, 2010, Transcript.

[516] Weissbach, Jewish Life in Small-Town America, 251.

[517] Ibid.

[518] Lee Shai Weissbach, Jewish Life in Small-Town America (New Haven: Yale UP, 2005), 40.

[519] Leona L. Gustafson, Franklin County, Ohio Gravestone Photos &c., http://www.genealogybug.net/Franklin_Cemeteries/ (accessed April 3, 2011).

[520] Weissbach, Jewish Life in Small-Town America, 251.

[521] Ibid., 91.

[522] Henry L. Feingold, A Time for Searching: Entering the Mainstream (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992), 127.

[523] Weissbach, Jewish Life in Small-Town America, 95.

[524] Adam B. Cohen, Daniel E. Hall, Harold G. Koenig and Keith G. Meador, “Social Versus Individual Motivation: Implications for Normative Definitions of Religious Orientation,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 9, no. 1 (2005), http://psr.sagepub.com/content/9/1/48 (accessed April 3, 2011), 52.

[525] “Psalm 82: The Holiness of the Synagogue,” Rav Kook Torah, http://www.ravkooktorah.org/PSALM_82.htm (accessed April 10, 2011).

[526] Cohen, Hall, Koenig, and Meador, “Social Versus Individual Motivation: Implications for Normative Definitions of Religious Orientation,” 52.

[527] Ibid.

[528] Ibid.

[529] Encyclopedia Judaica, s.v. “Minyan,” http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?&id=GALE%7CCX2587513967&v=2.1&u=imcpl1111&it=r&p=GVRL&sw=w (accessed April 7, 2011).  

[530] Cohen, Hall, Koenig, and Meador, “Social Versus Individual Motivation: Implications for Normative Definitions of Religious Orientation,” 52.

[531] Ibid.

[532] Adam B. Cohen and Peter C. Hill, “Religion as Culture: Religious Individualism and Collectivism Among American Catholics, Jews, and Protestants,” Journal of Personality 75, no. 4 (2007), http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2007.00454.x/full#b9 (accessed April 3, 2011), 713.

[533] Ibid.

[534] Ibid.

[535] Clara Wallock, Unpublished interview by Darlene Feldman and Christina LeStage.

[536] Ewa Morawska, Insecure Prosperity: Small-Town Jews in Industrial America, 1890-1940 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996), 154.

[537] Arthur Hertzberg, The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter (New York: Simon &Schuster, 1989), 329.

[538] Eugen Schoenfeld, “Small-Town Jews,” (PhD diss., Southern Illinois University, 1967), 164.

[539] Robert Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005), 179.

[540] Professor Schubel often uses this example in class, and I cannot claim credit for it.

[541] “History of the Fair,” Knox County Fairgrounds, http://www.knoxcountyfair.org/history.htm (accessed April 4, 2011).

[542] Lois Hanson stated in the interview she conducted with Clara Wallock that she felt Mount Vernon had become more insular since she first moved there in 1973. Lois Hanson, Unpublished interview by Lois Hanson.

 

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