This interview with Betty Davis for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society was recorded October 23, 1996 as part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society Oral History Project. It is being recorded by Naomi Schottenstein at the home of Myrtle Huhn, 516 Summit Street, Marion, Ohio.
Interviewer: Betty is a native of Marion and she is going to fill us in a little about
the background of Marion, Ohio. First, Betty, tell us when you were born and were you born in Marion? Also, give us a little background of the beginning of your life.
Davis: I was born in 1928 in Marion at the hospital that later became the jail and is
now an office building.
Interviewer: You were born in Marion so naturally, you’re a native. Do you have
any sisters and brothers?
Davis: Yes, I have a brother who was also born in Marion and he’s now living in
Albany, New York.
Interviewer: What about children?
Davis: I have two children. Our daughter is single and living in New Jersey and our son
was killed when he was eighteen in a plane crash.
Interviewer: What about your parents? How long did they live in Marion?
Davis: My father came here in 1915 from Garpon, Latvia. He was one of thirteen children
and he had a brother who lived in Canton, Ohio and another brother who lived in Oklahoma. He left Latvia because he didn’t want to serve in the Czar’s army. He said that
he had taken his brother to the border and he went through a procedure to leave but when
he returned home, he started thinking that he was the youngest child in the family and he
should leave, too. He also had a brother in South Africa so when he got to the border and
paid his money to get through, he couldn’t decide whether to go to South Africa or
the United States. Someone, however, told him that things weren’t too good in South
Africa and he would be better off to go to the United States. He also had a sister living
in New York so he came to the United States and lived with his sister in New York for
awhile. Then my father decided he would visit his brother in Canton. He couldn’t
speak English very well, so when he asked for a ticket to Canton, he ended up with a
ticket to Kenton. So he arrived in Kenton and realized he was in the wrong place. My
father asked how to take the train to Canton and was told he would have to take the train to Marion. He went to Marion and was walking around when he saw a sign in a window, “Watchmaker Wanted.” His family had been in the jewelry business in Europe so he went in and said he was interested. When the owner said, fine, he was hired, my father told him that he hade to go to visit his brother in Canton and he had family in West Virginia. Before he came this way, he had done some peddling, selling scrap on a cart, in West Virginia. So he went to see his brother and his family, then came back to Marion and took this job. When World War I came along, my father enlisted and that was how he became an American citizen. My father tells a story about some of the other men from Marion being enlisted with him. When the Jewish holidays came along, they would stand out with him because they didn’t want to work either. When he came back to Marion, he bought his boss out.
Interviewer: How did he do that?
Davis: Well, he served down in Camp Sherman and he always did like to eat and the best
food was at the hospital. So he worked there and I guess shot craps. When he came back to Marion, I guess he had enough money to buy this man out. The man’s daughter taught
him English but he never lost his accent even though he came here when he was only
seventeen. My father had a nephew who lived in Peoria, Illinois. His nephew was married and he went there to visit his nephew and met my mother who was originally born in Decatur, Illinois. Her family was originally from somewhere in Russia. I never knew my grandfather but did know my grandmother. My parents met there and were married in Chicago on January 3, 1924. My mother said they were married in a hurry. It was over New Year’s and they were celebrating and then got married. She stayed behind to accumulate a trousseau of some kind and she talks about coming to Marion, getting off the train and thinking, “What am I doing here?” They lived in Marion all their married lives until they retired and moved to Florida. Of course, they’re gone now.
I asked my father how the Torah came to be in Marion. He said he didn’t know because it was here when he came. We also talked about some of the original families: Max
Berenbaum, Meyer Hess, the Kleinmeiers, the Oppenheimers, the Strelitz’s and the
Rosenbergs were the early families.
My father tells a story about being in business here. He had a great deal of association with President Harding who was the publisher of the Marion Star. So when Harding was elected president, he told my father, “Come and see me sometime.” My father and some of his buddies (this was before he was married) piled into a car one day and drove down to Washington, called Harding and said, “Well, here I am.” I think he was part of this Kitchen Cabinet.
Interviewer: I’ve heard about that Kitchen Cabinet.
Davis: There weren’t too many Jewish families in Marion, but they must have had
some services since they had a Torah. I think the original place they met might have been
in Henry Strelitz’s home which wold have been Hill Street. I imagine that was where
they kept the Torah.
Interviewer: Is there still just one Torah?
Davis: We have two. When our son was Bar Mitzvah, we gave one to the Temple in his
honor. As Myrtle told you, originally, most of the Jews in Marion were merchants. There
was a dentist and a doctor who came to town in the early 30s. When I was growing up, we
had religious school, thanks to Pauline Kleinmeier. She was our teacher. There were three
boys in my brother’s class and I think four or five of us in my class. We met around
her dining room table and the other boys would meet in the living room. Her son was in my
brother’s class. My brother went to Columbus every week to study for his Bar Mitzvah.
He was Bar Mitzvah in Columbus – I’m not sure what Temple it was. I was confirmed
with my class of five and a Rabbi from Mansfield came over and confirmed us. Pearl Shuck was our instructor for our confirmation.
You asked earlier about the Depression. We moved from our original home on Edgewood
Drive when I was one year old to our home on Burn Heights Boulevard, and the Crash came right after my father had bought that home. He had a mortgage but national City Bank was very nice to him and told him, “If you can’t pay, just try to pay the interest.” He was in the jewelry business – he had a watchmaker, office personnel, and himself. He paid each person something like $3.00 a week and kept $6.00 for himself. I can’t imagine how people lived in those days. My brother says he remembers the soup / food lines then but I don’t remember.
There is also a funny story. People didn’t use many lights in order to keep the electricity bills down and one night, my father and mother were driving by downtown and they noticed someone standing in their store. Of course, they were pretty frightened but when they went in, it turned out the man was waiting for someone to help him. My father had forgotten to lock the door.
Interviewer: I don’t think you could do that today.
Davis: Not hardly. You had asked about the war years. Marion was never a boom or a bust town, which, looking back, was probably good. We had an ordinance plant and engineering depot but we were opened during the war not only on Friday nights but on Saturday nights. When our Rabbis first came here, we shared them with Mansfield. We had our services on Saturday nights. When I went to visit my husband’s parents and told them services were held on Saturday night, they thought it was terrible not having services on Friday night or Saturday morning. I said, “Some service is better than none at all.” That went on for many years.
The economy was good during World War II. Like I mentioned, the Berenbaum family was
the only Jewish family that lost a son during the war – Milton. At that time, because the
father was grief stricken that we had no Jewish cemetery in Marion, he left the Congregation and joined an Orthodox or Conservative Congregation in Columbus. Sam Berenbaum, the oldest son, never married, he’s in good health, and is still living in
Interviewer: Is he in business here?
Davis: No. He originally worked for Marion Metal Products for many years and then
worked for L & K Motels. I think he’s still working for them part-time. His father came to Marion and was just passing through when he met my father who asked him what he was going to do. He told him he was going to be a window washer and my father said, “Well, we need a window washer in Marion,” and he settled down and that’s what he did his whole life.
My father tells another story. Schiffs had their shoe store next door to my father’s jewelry store. One day, Robert’s father asked my father to invest some money in his shoe store but my father said, “I don’t know. I don’t think the shoe business is a very good idea.”
Interviewer: He missed the boat on that one. But he did all right – and so did Mr.
Davis: Another family in Marion was the Borosky family. They were in the scrap
business. I’m not sure where they originally came from but I think Newman Borosky was
born in Bucyrus. That’s where his folks lived. They were also living in Marion when
my father came here. My father’s nephew married his sister-in-law. So we’re kind
of inter-tangled. There is one daughter still living in Bucyrus. Her name is Edith
Interviewer: Did I get the background on your husband?
Davis: I haven’t talked about him but let me tell you how we acquired the Temple
because they’re sort of inter-twined. Then we’ll catch up with how my husband
and I met.
Originally, the first place the Congregation met might have been Henry Strelitz’s
home. That was before my time. The earliest I remember, was meeting in a room at the
Masonic Lodge. Then we moved to another room downtown in back of which was originally the Midway Restaurant. It might have been an Eagles or an Elks Room but I remember going there for Sunday School and for parties. Then we moved to a room that was above the Kresge Building downtown. The women had a kitchen up there and they really worked hard – Mildred Smally, Sophie Weinbaum, Anne Rosenberg, Irene Huhn. They made meals and dragged them, etc. Then we got a home on East Center Street and one day my mother was in Alberts, a downtown grocery store, and she said, “I think you people need more room for parking.” And when they asked her where they could go, she said, “Why don’t you buy our Temple and you’ll have that whole corner to use for your grocery store?” So I guess the manager wrote to the company and told them the property was available and that’s how they got their seed money to buy the Temple.
Then my father and Al Loeb and some other people in Marion worked hard to raise funds.
My father said, when the board only wanted to buy one lot, he told them to buy two lots
and if they didn’t, he would. So they decided to buy it and had additional parking,
which we certainly need most of the year. My father was president the year the Temple was built, which was in 1953. Myrtle Huhn was his secretary. Lou Teitlebaum worked on it, too. His son lived in town but he is deceased. That was the year the Temple was built. My husband, Jerry and I were to be married in the Temple but we didn’t have the chairs in so we didn’t get married there. We were married at the Harding Hotel on August 6, 1953. The Temple was ready for high holidays services in August 1953. Leo Yassenoff was the architect.
My husband and I met in Wausaw, Wisconsin, where his first cousin married my first
cousin. Our mothers introduced us. I saw him for awhile then he disappeared out of my
life. About three years later, while I was going to Western Reserve, studying for my
Masters in social work, and living in Cleveland, I got a letter from him and I said to my
roommate, “I don’t even know who this man is.” She said, “What do you have to lose? Have him come up.” He was from Sharon, Pennsylvania, and he was stationed at Indiantown Gap PA. I hadn’t heard from him because he had gone into service. He was close enough so he could come home sometimes and we started dating. We
dated most of that year in Cleveland when he would come home on leave. Then he shipped out in July 1952 for Korea. He was there for a whole year. We corresponded and since he was an only child, I frequently went to visit his folks. His mother was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania and his father, who was from Connecticut, eventually went to Cleveland. His father was born in Russia but came to the United States as an infant.
When Jerry came back from Korea, we were married in Marion. He was still in service so
we went down to Alexandria, Virginia, which is right outside of Washington. He was at Fort
Balbor. When we got there, the Master Sergeant said, “Why are you here? You could
have gotten out since you had enough time in action.” When Jerry said he didn’t
know about it because he was on leave on his honeymoon, the Sergeant told him it was too late to do anything about it so Jerry bought him a box of cigars and hoped he would try to get his papers through. The cost of living there was just as high or higher than when
Myrtle was there during World War II. We were there two months when the papers came
through. At that time, Jerry’s family had sold their business and since he didn’t really have anything to do, we came back to Marion and my father said Jerry could go into the business with him while he decided what he wanted to do. We’ve been here 43 years. Guess he decided he liked it.
Interviewer: Is he still in the jewelry business?
Interviewer: What’s the name of your store?
Davis: It was May’s Jewelry Store. My father said he couldn’t name it
Kay’s because there was already a Kay’s Jewelry. We closed up the big business
now and we have an office downtown called Davis Diamond Design. But Jerry’s still in
business and has really enjoyed it all these years.
My brother, who was born here, married an only child, too. Her father became ill and it
was necessary for them to go to Albany, New York, to take care of her father’s
business, which was ladies’ ready-to-wear. He left Marion after their first three
children were born here – Mark, David, and Ross. The fourth and youngest, a girl, was born in Albany, New York.
Interviewer: I have the impression that your husband is active in the synagogue.
Davis: Yes, you could say that. He was president on two different occasions. He trained
twelve students for Bar Mitzvah. He took Hebrew in Sharon, as a child but they had a new
Rabbi every year and started over each year. He always said, if his mother saw him reading Hebrew, she would “turn over in her grave” because he hated Hebrew school. They had a Hebrew school in Sharon and a great deal more Jews living there. Even now, Sharon is the same size as Marion but they have about 200 Jewish families.
Speaking of that, Marion’s population hasn’t changed much. I think we have
about 35,000-40,000 in city and 65,000 in the county. The Jewish population also
hasn’t changed much. People have come and gone. We do have about thirty-five in our
Sunday School, which is a real strength for us.
My husband has been on the Temple board many times and has been president twice and was very responsible for the Heritage Fund. He’s been concerned over the years, as our
population has dwindled, particularly the older population that had an opportunity to give
to the Temple. We don’t have that anymore. We don’t have merchants, we have one
doctor, and most of our attorneys are struggling young men. We don’t have the economy
we once had in Marion among the Jewish people. Jerry is very concerned that someday we won’t have a Temple. Most of the young people say, “Well, don’t worry about
it.” But he is. We never had a building fund so he was instrumental in starting this
Heritage Fund where everyone who joins contributes to it. We also have a Memorial Fund
from which we can use the interest (not the principal) for operating expenses. Our budget
is one which our expenses are always more than our income.
Interviewer: Not too unusual, is it?
Davis: No. It’s sad that we have to wait for someone to die so we can make it
through the year. But we’re still “perking” along and we have a lot of hard
workers at our Temple. I’ve also always been impressed at the percentage of
attendance at services – I would say it’s close to 80% and I don’t think
there’s a Congregation in the country that can say that.
Interviewer: I’m curious. You said there was no building fund when you started
your Temple. That’s a little unusual. Where did the funds come from?
Davis: Well, these men went out and they collected from everybody. They went up and
down the street. We also had a cigar box, which was the ‘schnorer’s’ fund.
They also took a mortgage out and I suppose they eventually paid it off from dues.
It’s been at least fifteen years.
Interviewer: The largest industry in Marion is Whirlpool. We had another question. If
the Jewish merchants were open Friday night and Saturday, how did it work in terms of the services for the Sabbath?
Davis: During the war, we didn’t have services except during the holidays. After
the war, I think they had services on Friday night. If there were merchants who stayed
open, then we had services on Saturday night at 8:00 o’clock. Generally, on Saturday,
after the war, the merchants closed around 6:00 o’clock.
Interviewer: I think I’m going to pull this interview together, Betty. Having this
opportunity to interview you after getting a lot of information from Myrtle, really has
enhanced this whole afternoon for us. It’s been a real treat to talk with you, too. I
can see why Marion is still ‘perking.’ You have some really good, strong and
committed families. I really appreciate this opportunity and wish that Marion continues to
grow and it keeps its strength. Remember your Judaism – I think you’ve done that.
Thank you very much.
This concludes the oral history interview with Betty Davis, for the Columbus Jewish