The Jewish Traveler: Melville’s Waters
For more than a century, one of America’s most storied seaside regions has been attracting Jews—and inspiring literary heavyweights—with its salty charm.
The mystery of the whale—mighty creature, source of the oil that once lit the world, maker of fortunes, Herman Melville’sMoby-Dick—brings visitors to New Bedford, Massachusetts, once the whaling capital of the world, and to the neighboring islands, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.
In New Bedford they can see the port from which Melville set sail aboard a whaling ship in 1841. They can walk the wharves and cobble-stone streets once teeming with sailors who often bought provisions from Jewish merchants, and they can enter the Seamen’s Bethel, the whalers’ chapel where Melville’s narrator Ishmael heard a rousing sermon on Jonah and the whale.
Thirteen whaling captains turned out for the New Bedford wedding of Morris Sederholm and Molly Horvitz in 1921. The special guests were the last living captains of the city’s once-mighty whaling industry. Sederholm knew them because they used to sit around a potbelly stove in the shoe store of his father-in-law, Samuel Horvitz, swapping sea stories and tall tales.
Horvitz’s store, where Sederholm worked, also stocked the gear sailors needed for whaling—a dirty and risky endeavor that few undertook gladly, or even willingly. Sederholm sold them oilskins, waterproof boots and canvas bags, and he also rounded up the crewmen and made sure they got onboard—at gunpoint, if necessary.
Horvitz invested in eight whaling voyages, each of which took months, even years. The crew was paid only after the whale oil was sold.
Jews were involved in the whaling industry in the region, though in a minor way, from the second half of the 18th century. Aaron Lopez was one of a small number of secret Jews who arrived in southeastern New England around 1740 with a wave of Portuguese immigrants. Some of the Jews, like Lopez, settled in Newport, Rhode Island; others settled in New Bedford, 50 miles south of Boston. Lopez had ties with the Rotch family of Nantucket, buying spermaceti and whale oil and manufacturing candles for export. He also built and owned whaling ships.
In the early 19th century, New Bedford became the leading whaling port, and whale ships continued to sail from there until 1925. Around the middle of the 19th century, Jewish immigrants, most of them peddlers, arrived from Germany. By 1857, the Jewish community was large enough to buy land for a burial ground that was in use until 1899.
Around 1877, Jews from Eastern Europe started arriving. They opened shops and lived in the South End, forming their own minyan that met in a private house. Today’s Jewish community is descended mainly from them. The first synagogue, Ahavath Achim, was dedicated in 1899 and afterschool Hebrew classes were offered for children.
Nantucket, however, despite its close ties to New Bedford, was closed to Jews until the end of the 19th century. One woman who settled there early, Lottie Hebrew, may have arrived in 1900 with a wave of immigrants to New England from Cape Verde, a Portuguese colony 380 miles off the western coast of Africa. The Cape Verdean immigrants included descendants of Jews who had been exiled from Portugal and Spain. By the 1930s, Nantucket had several Jewish-owned businesses, including the Green Coffee Pot Bar and Restaurant (today the Atlantic Café). And despite overt anti-Semitism in the 1930s and a more genteel version in the 1950s that expressed itself in a refusal to sell property to Jews, today hundreds of Jews are part of the year-round population, and the island has a synagogue, Congregation Shirat Ha Yam.
Families with Sefardic surnames, such as Ben David, Cardoza and Pereira, also settled in Martha’s Vineyard around the turn of the 20th century. They were among the immigrants from the Azores and other Portuguese islands. But the first definitively identified Jew was Minsk-born Sam Cronig, who arrived as a teenager in 1905 and was taken under the wing of the Daggett family. Cronig later brought over his siblings and future wife. With two of his brothers, he opened a meat and grocery store on Main Street. In 1913, the Brickman family arrived from Lithuania and went into the shoe business. Together with tailor Israel Issakson, these Yiddish-speaking families formed the core of the island’s Jewish community. Until there was a minyan, they worshiped on the High Holidays in New Bedford or in Onset, on Cape Cod. They also prayed in the Cronigs’ living room and celebrated Passover Seders there. Boys were sent to New Bedford to prepare for their bar mitzvas. When the island had 10 Jewish households, in 1937, they established the Martha’s Vineyard Jewish Center, buying a house for it in 1940. They held lecture series, concerts and slide shows. A cemetery was established in 1949.
Though Jews were not allowed to buy property in some areas, and though Jews and non-Jews rarely socialized, there were instances of mutual help. Cronig’s brother Henry, who went into real estate, was active in the Lions and the Masons and held important public and business positions.
New Bedford has 3,000 Jews—out of a general population of 100,000—many of whom were once active in the city’s now-defunct textile industry. According to Olga Yorish, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Bedford (www.jewishnewbedford.org), the community has shrunk as retirees have moved to Florida. Younger Jews include academics, small-business owners, teachers and workers in technology and health care, some of whom commute to Providence or Boston. About 130 children attend the religious schools of egalitarian Conservative Tifereth Israel Congregation (508-997-3171;www.tinewbedford.org), and Orthodox Ahavath Achim Synagogue (508-994-1760; www.members.aol.com/rabbibarry); a few attend day schools in Providence.
Of Nantucket’s year-round population of 10,000—which rises to 56,000 in the summer—200 families are members of the pluralistic Shirat Ha Yam (508-228-6588; www.shirathayamnantucket.org). Many are retirees, but some are artisans and lawyers.
From Memorial Day until the High Holy Days, the congregation holds weekly Friday night services at 7:30, followed by an Oneg Shabbat. Shirat Ha Yam offers ticket-free High Holy Day services and year-round, tuition-free religious education through bar and bat mitzva. The summer speakers’ program features well-known journalists, writers and others, such as CNN newsman Wolf Blitzer.Tashlikh is at the Brant Point Lighthouse, and the community has a cemetery.
Martha’s Vineyard has a year-round Jewish population of 150 families, augmented by another 100 in the summer. Some 20 children attend religious school at the Reconstructionist Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center (508-693-0745; www.mvhc.us). Its summer scholar series, which has included such luminaries as Dennis Prager, Hank Greenberg and Daniel Libeskind, was described in a local newspaper as the highlight of the island’s summer scholarship.
In and around the 13-block New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park on the waterfront, visitors can find reminders of the Jewish role in whaling as well as of Jewish life here over the past century. Begin at Rodman Candleworks, 72 North Water Street, which was actually a processing plant for a variety of whale products and one of the first to produce the prized, smoke-free spermaceti candles (today the refurbished building houses a bank).
Shops in the neighboring streets supplied all the needs of whaling ships. Jewish-owned stores selling everything from furniture to jewelry lined Water Street, especially south of Union Street. The Horvitz store was nearby, on the southwestern corner of Second Street and Union, where the YMCA block stands today.
Continue up Union, turn left at Sixth Street and follow it to the corner of Madison Street. The red-brick Byzantine-style building with a large dome on a square base, on the southeast corner (42 South Sixth), was consecrated as a synagogue in 1924 and still bears a Star of David and the name Tiferes Israel on its façade. In 1966, the congregation moved to a new home in the West End, and the old building became the New Jerusalem Church of God.
Continue west on Madison to County Street. At the corner is the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum, a whaling mansion open to the public (www.rjdmuseum.org). The handsome Greek-revival whaling mansion next door (388 County), the William Rotch Rodman mansion, was the home of the first mayor of New Bedford and housed the Jewish Community Center between 1947 and 1992.
Continue south for one block on County to the intersection with Hawthorn Street. This is Segall Square, where a plaque commemorates Ensign Joseph Irving Segall, the first American Jewish soldier killed in World War II. The plaque is on the grounds of Ahavath Achim (385 County), located at this site since 1941. Inside, six electric candles form a small Holocaust memorial.
Continue south on County for nine blocks and at the corner of Fair Street turn right and continue to the intersection with Bolton Street. This is Kaplan Square, in memory of PFC Irving Kaplan, who also fell during World War II. The square was once in the heart of a Jewish neighborhood, but is now a Portuguese area.
Return on County to Union. A semicircular granite memorial with six pillars, erected in Buttonwood Park in 1962 near the corner of Rockdale Avenue and Hawthorn, commemorates fallen Jewish servicemen, including 45 in World War I and 24 in World War II. A Holocaust memorial stands about 100 yards north on Rockdale. Erected in 1998, it features a hand reaching up between two granite plaques inscribed in Hebrew and English. The memorial was the dream of New Bedford resident Abraham Landau, who survived 13 concentration and labor camps. The number 141282 sculpted into the arm is the same number tattooed on Landau’s arm.
Return to the corner of Rockdale and Hawthorn and continue west on Hawthorn. Soon after you pass William Saltzman Way, named for the late Jewish city councilor, you will reach Tifereth Israel Congregation (145 Brownell Street). A sculpted Tree of Life adorns the entrance.
Judy Farrar and Cynthia Yoken of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, have compiled a guide to the Jewish sites (www.lib.umassd.edu/archives/jewishtour/introduction.html).
The New Bedford Whaling Museum claims to be the world’s largest whaling museum (18 Johnny Cake Hill; www.whalingmuseum.org). Visitors can see the skeleton of a 45-ton sperm whale and a half-scale replica of a square-rigged whaling ship. Every January 3-4, the museum holds a marathon 25-hour reading of Moby-Dick.
The brightest object visitors see as the ferry approaches Nantucket is the gold-domed steeple of the Unitarian Church. Shirat Ha Yam holds services in the church’s ground-level Hendrix Hall (11 Orange Street).
A paper-cut mizrah and a plaque resembling a life preserver adorn the sanctuary. A 16th-century Torah scroll in a glass case is open to Shirat Hayam, the song of Moses and the Children of Israel following their miraculous escape from the Egyptian army (Exodus 15:1-18).
Available from Shirat Ha Yam are two kinds of Judaica unique to Nantucket: kippot made of Nantucket Red (brick-red sailcloth) embroidered with navy blue whales and mezuzot made of scrimshaw—engraved images on whale teeth, bone and walrus tusks—with a variety of designs, including a lighthouse.
Near the ferry depot stands the Whaling Museum, housed in a former candle works (13 Broad Street; 508-228-1894; www.nha.org). Nantucket was America’s largest producer of whale oil and spermaceti candles. Exhibited are the original two-story beam press for manufacturing spermaceti, whaling implements, navigational tools, scrimshaw, baleen (keratin plates similar to whale bone) used for corset stays and skirt hoops, the skeleton of a sperm whale and the lightship baskets made of tightly woven rattan that are a local specialty. About one-third of the volunteer interpreters are Jewish.
Two blocks west of the museum, at the corner of Broad and Centre Streets, is Nina Hellman’s antique shop, featuring scrimshaw, whaling implements, paintings, books and other Americana (48 Centre; 508-228-4677). Hellman, an expert on scrimshaw, is the coauthor of A Mariner’s Fancy: The Whaleman’s Art of Scrimshaw(Balsam Press). Her husband, Robert, has a large collection of whaling implements and is a lecturer and interpreter at the whaling museum.
Maria Mitchell, born in 1818 to a Quaker family, was America’s first professional woman astronomer and a tireless promoter of higher education for women. The Maria Mitchell Association (www.mmo.org ) includes Mitchell House, Natural Science Museum, Maria Mitchell Science Library, Vestal Street Observatory, Loines Observatory and Maria Mitchell Aquarium.
Walk straight up Union Street from the ferry landing in Vineyard Haven and you will see Cronig’s Real Estate, established 1917. The office is in a modern complex that stretches from the corner of Union and Main Streets to the corner of Center Street and Main, where Sam Cronig’s grocery store once stood.
A few stores south, at 58 Main, is In the Bag, an accessories shop owned by a granddaughter of the Brickman family; until recently, the Brickmans had a women’s clothing shop that doubled as a community center on the premises. At 8 Main, an ornate black-and-white sign announces Brickman’s clothing shop, “since 1913,” which formerly catered only to men (www.brickmans.com ).
The nearby Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center at 130 Center has a light-filled sanctuary that seats 350, and a stained-glass window showing Noah’s Ark and Jonah’s whale graces the wall above the Ark. The gabled building is faced in weathered shingles, with a Star of David in a porthole-like window over the entrance. Adult classes meet across the street in the big white Victorian house that was the Cronig family home and is now the home of Sam Cronig’s daughter Ruth Cronig Stiller, a pillar of the community.
Irwin Jacobs, philanthropist and founder of the cellphone company Qualcomm, grew up in New Bedford.
High-profile defense attorney, law professor and author Alan Dershowitz has a summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. Other summer regulars have included cartoonist Jules Feiffer, sociologist Daniel Bell and the late humor columnist Art Buchwald.
“The Scrimshaw Violin,” a chamber opera by Jonathan Levi and Bruce Saylor, tells the fictional story of rabbi and forensic pathologist Sandy Lincoln, who finds mystery and perhaps his soul on Nantucket.
In brilliant, evocative prose, Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (Penguin Books) describes the wreck of the Essex and its aftermath, events that inspired Moby-Dick.
The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars by Frances Ruley Karttunen (Spinner Publications) includes a chapter on the Jews of Nantucket.
Late spring and early fall are the best times to see New Bedford and the islands, especially for those who enjoy lower rates and smaller crowds.
Most visitors to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are day-trippers who come on ferries run by the Steamship Authority (www.steamshipauthority.com) or Hy Line Cruises (www.hylinecruises.com), which leave from Cape Cod via Woods Hole or Hyannis.
The Beechwood Inn, a restored Victorian in Barnstable—a short drive from the ferries—offers comfortable, antique-filled rooms (2839 Main Street; 508-362-6618; www.beechwoodinn.com). Owner Ken Traugot has catered to many Jewish visitors.
While in the Hyannis area, visitors can attend services at the Reform Cape Cod Synagogue at 145 Winter Street (508-775-2988) or at the Chabad Jewish Center (745 West Main Street; 508-775-2324; www.chabadcapecod.com).
On Martha’s Vineyard, the Jewish-owned Mansion House Inn has beautifully appointed rooms with sea views (9 Main Street; 508-693-2200; www.mvmansionhouse.com).
More information about the entire region is available fromwww.theculturalcoast.org.
There are no kosher restaurants in the area, but fresh fish is abundant. In Hyannis, Chabad can arrange kosher meals, and the town’s Trader Joe’s (508-790-3008) carries kosher poultry. Stop & Shop supermarket in nearby Cotuit has kosher baked goods.
In New Bedford and the islands, visitors will discover what Melville described in Moby-Dick: the mystery and might of the whale, the grandeur and power of the ever-changing sea.