I grew up on stories about the glory days of Jewish Baltimore, when, in my father's telling, Jews were really Jews. He told stories about walking to shul, or synagogue, with his father and uncles, seeing men and women in their Shabbat finery promenading after services, and sitting in awe as the great Viennese-trained cantor, Abba Yosef Weisgal, cried out to the heavens under the soaring ceiling of Congregation Chizuk Amuno in Reservoir Hill, the Baltimore neighborhood that my forebears called home.
But by the time my siblings and I came along in the late '50s and early '60s, all that was gone. The elegant "in town" neighborhood of my father's childhood memories had long since decayed, and attending High Holy Days services at Chizuk Amuno was an exercise in watching an urban congregation on life support as the Jewish community relocated to the suburbs.
Happily, Jewish Baltimore is on the rebound, and not just in the suburbs. On a cold day in February when I went in search of the settings of my father's stories, I landed in a place where perseverance, preservation and memory have conspired to keep that vanished world available.
Turns out that I'm hardly alone. The Jewish Museum of Maryland welcomes some 7,000 schoolchildren yearly, not to mention thousands of curious adults. Situated between the historic Lloyd Street Synagogue and its slightly more junior former rival, B'nai Israel, the entire complex is a tribute to what once was. The surrounding East Baltimore neighborhood itself was not only the first stopping-off place for German Jewish immigrants, but was also, from as early as the 1830s to about 1920, a teeming immigrant enclave, known to its own citizens as Jewtown. What Orchard Street was to the Lower East Side, Lombard Street was to Jewish East Baltimore: blocks so crowded with people hawking everything from dry goods to produce to poultry that merely navigating them required a dollop of chutzpah. The street was lined with storefront cheders (Jewish elementary schools, usually for boys), Talmud Torahs (religious schools), overcrowded tenements, outhouses and gutters running with the blood of recently slaughtered animals for the kosher market. The place was home not only to Jewish immigrants, but also to Italians and African Americans. Washing was a luxury, Yiddish was the language of haggling and a stretch of Lombard Street was known as Corned Beef Row.
Corned Beef Row has dwindled to a mere two delis, Weiss and Attman's. Attman's, which opened in 1915, is still owned by the Attman family, and still serves enormous old-fashioned corned beef sandwiches with Russian dressing and a side of slaw, as well as everything else fattening, salty and delicious. Though the place is no longer kosher, the walls themselves proclaim its kosher yesteryears, with framed photographs of generations of Baltimore's Jewish machers (big shots). Well past lunchtime, it was packed.
The real story, however, isn't in the matzo ball soup, but in the museum, which, in recreated rooms, taped conversations, street scenes, pushcart displays and photographs, tells the story of a century of life in the neighborhood that was originally called Jonestown after the nearby Jones Falls, and is still, in some quarters, referred to as Jewtown. Particularly stirring for me were the re-creations and photos of garment makers, first in sweatshops, and later in factories, because it was in just such places that my great-great-grandparents, whose portraits now hang in my dining room, got their start -- eventually moving out of the immigrant neighborhood, ending up in far more luxurious Eutaw Place in north Baltimore, "designed after the Champs-Élysées," according to one description. It was their generation of upwardly mobile German-Jewish community members who eventually founded the Jewish Educational Alliance, night schools that helped primarily Russian immigrants assimilate, and the Young Men's Hebrew Association, "the Y." Their stories are recounted here, as well as the stories of succeeding waves of immigrants.
If it's bricks and mortar you're after, the place to go is next-door, to the Lloyd Street Synagogue, designed by Robert Carey Long Jr., and built in 1845 with a handsome but inconspicuous Greek Revival facade. The third-oldest standing synagogue in America, according to the Jewish museum, Lloyd Street functions today primarily as a section of the museum, with exhibits in the basement, as well as two archaeological mini-digs: the first revealing the original ovens that would ensure that the matzos eaten at Passover would conform to strict kosher standards; the second, of one of the oldest mikvahs (ritual baths) in the country, also dating to the mid-1840s. It was here that its first rabbi, Abraham Rice, sermonized in German from the bimah (raised platform) set in the middle, rather than at the end of the room, in accordance with European synagogue design.
But in the 1870s a rift grew between the synagogue's founding, German-speaking Orthodox members (including my forebears) and newer upstarts who pushed to modernize worship services in accordance with the liberal ideas coming out of Germany. The founding members took their business elsewhere, building a new Orthodox synagogue, the Chizuk Amuno, at the end of the block. It is this building -- the original Moorish Revival one that opened its doors in 1876, with one of the first American-born ordained rabbis, Rabbi Dr. Henry Schneeberger, at its helm -- that continues to operate as a full-time modern-Orthodox synagogue, now B'nai Israel.
Entering on the first floor, the visitor is greeted by a warm room filled with books and plaques, but it is upstairs, in the sanctuary, that glory reigns: two tiers of seating (with a gallery for women), a raised center bimah, the original gas lamps (converted to electric) and a gorgeous, carved oren kodesh (ark) in the Moorish style, with palm fronds and gilded accents, and the Hebrew Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, in tabletlike form at the apex, as if to proclaim: we're here, and we're not going away.
There were dozens of other synagogues in East Baltimore as well, of course, and some of them still stand, including the long-abandoned, brick-faced Adath Israel on East Baltimore Street, and Adath B'nei Israel, a red-brick building that could easily be mistaken for a row house, also on East Baltimore Street and currently used as a church.
The good news is that, in a small but real reverse exodus, Jews are returning to the city. According to Rabbi Etan Mintz of B'nai Israel, some 5,000 have returned over the last few years alone, so much so that his own synagogue is busy year-round, and a new, if limited branch of the Jewish Community Center recently opened -- downtown.
The old center (now an apartment building) is in central Baltimore, between the old neighborhood and the newer German-Jewish enclave just to the south of Druid Hill Park that my own ancestors moved to in the 1890s. Though long since cut up into separate apartments, my great-greats' home, at 1826 Eutaw Place, looks exactly as it does in old photographs. As do most of the stately, elegant buildings in this "uptown" neighborhood that was the center of Baltimore Jewish life until around the 1930s. Here too is what my father calls "the family shul," the same Chizuk Amuno building (now the reinvigorated Beth Am) that I'd been dragged to as a girl, with its original austere beauty and pale pink-and-blue glass-paneled windows intact. So too the Eutaw Place Synagogue (1892), with its soaring domes reminiscent of the Great Synagogue of Florence, maintained today by the Masons. A few blocks away, on Liberty Heights Avenue, stands the stunning Shaarei Tfiloh, famous for its stained-glass windows and large copper dome.
I had started out on a journey into my ancestors' world. I ended up in the Baltimore Hebrew Cemetery to pay my respects to their lives. It was late winter, and the great old looming trees were bare, the grass was brown and sparse, and the traffic sounds coming from the other side of the cemetery's stone walls seemed out of time. After placing small stones on the gravestones of my forebears as the traditional mark of my visit, I wandered into what appeared to be the cemetery's oldest part, in the southeast corner. Here the gravestones slant into one another as if for comfort, their Hebrew inscriptions all but worn away. What lives were these? What hardships? What dreams?
IF YOU GO
Jewish Museum of Maryland, 15 Lloyd Street; jhsm.org. Nonmember admission $8.
B'nai Israel Congregation, 27 Lloyd Street; bnaiisraelcongregation.org.
Beth Am, 2501 Eutaw Place; bethambaltimore.org.
Eutaw Place Synagogue, 1307 Eutaw Place.
Shaarei Tfiloh Synagogue, 2001 Liberty Heights Avenue.
Baltimore Hebrew Cemetery, 2100 Belair Road.
Attman's Deli, 1019 East Lombard Street; attmansdeli.com.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.