Letter from Virgina: Back to a Southern Shtetl
Most immigrants in 19th-century America wanted to assimilate as fast as they could. Not so the Litvaks who set out to create this prosperous, Orthodox enclave.
Were I to relate only the facts, they could be summed up briefly: There was once a town called Berkley (Virginia), situated across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk, in a spot George Washington had considered for the nation’s capital. There was once a Jewish community in Berkley that numbered over 400 people. The independent town of Berkley is gone, incorporated into Norfolk in 1909. Gone, too, are the Jews, who scattered across the country by the late 1940s.
However, these facts do not tell the real story of Jewish Berkley. They do not describe how Lena Goodman wooed her future husband with homemade rugelach, how the backroom of
Mace Sack’s Candy Store was the neighborhood hangout for the Jewish storekeepers, or how East European song poured forth from the Mikro Kodesh synagogue onto Liberty Street. They do not tell of the camaraderie of the first Jewish families to arrive in the late 19th century—the Glassers, the Legums, the Salsburys, the Zedds—or the bustle of the stores and saloons on a Saturday night when everyone, friends and family, seemed to be out in the street. Thanks to extensive in-marriage, most of Jewish Berkley were friends and family.
And those basic facts certainly do not explain why, over a weekend last October, 250 descendants of the town returned to remember and share stories about the self-contained Jewish community in Virginia.
“I grew up listening to Berkley stories,” says Amy Ostrower, a California screenwriter whose book, Nana Lena’s Kitchen: Recipes for Life (Dog Ear Publishing,) recounts her grandmother’s tales of Berkley with memories and recipes. “Berkley stories were my fairy tales.”
For the true berkley beyond the fairy tales and simple facts, I turned to my uncle, Stephen Baer, who has taken it on himself to preserve and pass on the town’s legacy. “This was a Yiddish-speaking shtetl in Dixie,” he says, warming to the discussion. “The families were extremely close. The Jews who settled here did not want to assimilate. They were Orthodox Jews…[who] brought their Litvak shtetl with them.” Baer, now in his sixties, remembers visiting his family in Berkley on weekends, driving down or taking the Old Bay Line south from Baltimore, where his family had settled.
“My mother had such a strong feeling about her neighbors and the people she grew up with; her influence was grounding to me,” he continues. “She had 10 brothers and sisters in Berkley, and her parents still lived there…. Because of these visits and my mother’s love for the place, I always had a Berkley feeling.”
Baer’s career took him from Baltimore to New York, where he was a successful publisher and popular jazz pianist, but still, he felt drawn to the Tidewater area of Virginia. He moved there in 1999 and married his second wife, my aunt Joan London. In the tradition of Berkley in-marriage, they already shared an uncle, an aunt and many cousins, and they knew each other from childhood. In an even deeper connection, Joan’s late first husband—my father’s brother—was also a descendant of an original Berkley founder.
Despite all those links, it was not until a heritage trip to Lithuania three years ago that Baer’s interest in the origins of Jewish Berkley ignited.
“I saw the town square of Ligim in Kovna Gabernia [in Lithuania], the shtetl where my ancestors originated,” he recalls. “I saw the wooden synagogue, one of only seven [not] burned down, and I saw the family tombstones in decrepit condition.”
After his lithuania visit, baer called on his cousins—and in the close kinship of the Berkley Jews, who couldn’t be counted as a cousin?—and formed a reunion committee. When asked why he decided to organize the reunion, he answers simply, “It was time to bring the community back together again. This was a unique place with a unique character. They safeguarded their cultural heritage and their haymishe values. They passed these things on. I wanted to be a part of that. For me, [sharing this story] verified the reason I’m here, justified it because I didn’t grow up here. Bringing everyone together was, for me, a public statement. Hineini, I am here.”
I never knew of Berkley and my family history until Baer described it. I knew my grandmother’s maiden name had been Legum; I knew her father had been named Abraham and that she came from Virginia. But she never spoke much about it. She had moved to Baltimore from Virginia at a fairly young age, married into a German Jewish family and had a thoroughly modern outlook.
She was not one to gaze back into the past, so Berkley meant nothing to me. I had never seen a photo of Abe Legum until Baer showed it to me.
In preparation for the reunion, Baer dove into the records in Virginia and Baltimore, reconstructing the Jewish narrative. He collected photographs and newspaper articles, studied ship manifests and created a 102-slide PowerPoint presentation.
The saga he uncovered begins in the Pale of Settlement in Lithuania. During the vicious pogroms of the 1870s and 1880s, life in Ligim became almost unbearable for the Jews. Two young men, Abe Legum (my great-grandfather) and Dovid Glasser (Baer’s great-grandfather), made their escape, embarking by ship to Baltimore, a place where many Lithuanian Jews had settled before them. At the same time, Moses Molin, who was from a nearby village, fled to the same destination.
Jacob Epstein, one of the most prominent members of this Maryland Litvak community, had founded the Baltimore Bargain House, one of the four largest wholesalers in the United States. Epstein wanted to expand his business into more rural areas. In these new arrivals, he found the entrepreneurial spirit he needed.
He dispatched Molin to the farming community in Salisbury, Maryland, to go door to door selling goods.
When molin first arrived in Salisbury, he would knock on the doors of the various farmhouses and the person would open the door and then slam it in his face,” Baer relates. “He went to another farm and got the same treatment. In each instance, the person would shout ‘Scarlet Fever!’ Molin didn’t understand what that meant and he was very distraught. He had traveled all this way in his wagon and no one wanted his goods. All they wanted was ‘Scarlet Fever.’ So he got word back to the Baltimore Bargain House: ‘Send me some “Scarlet Fever.” You gave me the wrong stuff!’” In time, Molin’s business found its way, and he changed his name to Moses Salsbury.
Dovid Glasser, who changed his first name to Davis, was sent off to Pendleton County in West Virginia, where he opened a small store selling Epstein’s merchandise to the coal miners. His English was limited, but he met with modest success.
And lastly, at the request of Berkley-based Chesapeake Knitting Mills, Epstein sent Abe Legum to supply the workers with staples. The mills’ main product was high-quality underwear, and with 175 employees, the mills were booming. One of Legum’s granddaughters suggests Abe had been the first East European Jew to settle in Virginia.
Business was good for Legum in Berkley, and he asked that Epstein send down his landsman friend, Glasser. Epstein did so and also sent Moses Salsbury. As business flourished, the men sent for their brothers and sisters and parents to join them.
New families came from Baltimore and from Lithuania—Goodmans, Zacks, Krugers, Galumbecks and Zedds. They all settled within a four-block area around Grayson, Louisa, Fauquier and Fluvanna Streets and bordered by Grace Field and Liberty and Rockingham Streets. Much as they had in Lithuania, all the families, with their complex web of marriages, lived near each other.
They opened grocery stores and hardware stores and furniture and dry goods retailers and saloons. Baer’s research showed 11 saloons in the Jewish neighborhood that mostly served gentile customers from the mills or the shipyards. Horses and cows needed to eat, too, and Abraham Berman made a business selling hay, grain and feed. The town kept growing to the point where Norfolk’s financial institutions opened Berkley branches and the non-Jewish community was glad to do business with the Jews.
They were still, however, missing a place to worship. Three times a day they held services in a store owned by the Salsburys. In 1892, they built the Mikro Kodesh Synagogue, named after the shul in East Baltimore. In 1893, the first Jewish wedding in Berkley took place. A local newspaper noted that the service “was enjoyed on account of its novelty, especially by the Gentile portion of the assemblage, which was quite large.”
As the community grew, a larger Mikro Kodesh was built; it was completed in 1922, with a price tag of $50,000. The original cornerstone is still in place.
Times changed in Berkley: A bridge was built to span the river to Norfolk and the streetcar brought Berkley’s children to school in the city, where they interacted with assimilated Jews. The Norfolk Jews nicknamed Berkley “Herring Town,” even though the Berkley Jews had built fine homes in Southern style with wraparound porches on tree-lined streets. Their religious piety, old-fashioned closeness and continued use of Yiddish marked them as different.
Ostrower recalls a story her grandmother told her about a Sukkot when the Goodmans expected a large number of people for dinner. Their house had a barn behind it and, to make room, the cow and the horse were evicted, the place was cleaned and the barn was used as the sukka. “There were so many Goodmans,” Ostrower says, “that when they walked into the synagogue, it was like a parade.”
“World War II changed a lot of things,” recalls Ted Kruger, who grew up in Berkley. “After ’46, I never really came back. Most young people didn’t come back for more than Sunday visits.”
The young men returning after World War II had been exposed to the wider world; they expanded their businesses into Norfolk and beyond. They intermarried—that is, married Jews from outside Berkley.
“By the late ’40s, it was evident Berkley had had its day in the sun,” Baer notes with a touch of regret.
Ellie Lipkin, who moved from Berkley to Norfolk in 1942 at age 13, remembers when the younger generation was no longer taught Yiddish. By the 1960s, most of the Jewish residents had moved away to more cosmopolitan environments to establish businesses or practice their professions—to Norfolk proper, Philadelphia, New York, even Los Angeles. Shtetl life in Dixie had come to an end.
During the three-day weekend reunion, the local social hall, used as a lunchroom, renamed itself The Nosh Shop; in its earlier incarnation, it was Pincus Paul’s Furniture Store. On Saturday night, members of the African American community told their own stories about Jewish Berkley—how welcoming it was, how people looked out for each other when times were hard. The church that now occupies the old shul building—Mikro Kodesh closed in the 1960s—opened its doors to the visitors and was once more alive with Jewish song. Sitting on the same wooden pews their ancestors had used, visitors soaked up 120 years of their history as Baer presented his slideshow—many hearing the story of their lineage for the first time. Families walked through the streets on a tour, visiting the old houses and addresses that held so many memories. People told each other stories that they had heard from their parents and grandparents.
“It is an amazing thing,” Kruger says. “This natural camaraderie that was never lost. In Lithuania, in America, these were the people you were comfortable with.”
It was also fascinating, says Ostrower, who brought her mother with her, “to see that many people descended from 8 or 10 people who came from Lithuania.”
On Sunday, the final day of the gathering, they went to the old Mikro Kodesh Cemetery, established in 1890, on Kemet Road for a memorial service. Rabbi Lawrence Forman, the retired rabbi from Temple Ohef Sholom in Norfolk, gave a dedication and Cantor Jennifer Bern-Vogel chanted Yiddish songs.
Baer feels fulfilled by what he has accomplished. “I made it real for [the descendants],” he says. “I connected the dots. I became a historian of our common heritage and became part of Berkley by telling the story.”
The assembled children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the founders dedicated a plaque at the cemetery. It reads:
Here lie the founding members of the Jewish Community of Berkley, Virginia, who rebuilt their lives with hard work, determination and dedication to their faith. We, their descendants, proudly and lovingly dedicate this memorial plaque to their memory.
The Berkley Reunion,
October 21, 2007.
The Berkley community and its way of life are gone from America— the unlocked doors, the idyllic summer picnics. These are the American dreams of simpler times, a dream the Yiddish-speaking Litvaks of Virginia embraced, embodied and passed on, a dream their descendants will hold dear and, it is hoped, pass along to their children and grandchildren.
As Lipkin says, “No matter when you left Berkley, you took something with you that you cherish. It was a special place.”
Charles A. London is the author of One Day the Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War (HarperPerennial). His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, www.thenation.com, The Baltimore Times, The Columbia Review and the Baltimore City Paper. He is writing a book about the Jewish diaspora in unlikely places.
WHRO Public Television in Norfolk is producing a documentary of the Berkley, Virginia, family reunion, which will air in 2008. To learn about genealogical research or for a DVD of the weekend presentation, contact Stephen Baer at firstname.lastname@example.org.