Thursday, May 7, 2009

Pockets of Judaism in DC

In honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, a look at Jewish Life in DC…

Arguably a “Southern City,” Washington never relied on industry to build itself. Absent were the mills and factories that built New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago in the nineteenth century. Government was (and is) the business of Washington. For this reason Jewish immigrants faced a different experience than they would have in other US cities.

Though Jews began immigrating to the US in fairly substantial numbers after the 1820s, the Jewish population in DC remained small. Part of this is explained by the aforementioned lack of industrialization and trade. To work in government you needed to know English, and as a consequence Jewish immigrants in DC often came from other American cities first where they had gained exposure to the English language. This meant that Jewish individuals in DC were already on their way to assimilating American culture; being an Eastern European Jew or a German Jew was not as significant as it would have been elsewhere.

After the Civil War, the absence of immigrants, coupled with discriminatory practices against African-Americans, provided a unique opportunity for Jews to find a niche in the market. Long accustomed to working as peddlers (one of the few businesses they were permitted in Europe), Jews used their business skills to set up Mom-and-Pop groceries. Because Jews typically preferred to live near their businesses, small Jewish neighborhoods, with synagogues emerged in DC, particularly near 31st and M (NW), 4th Street (SW), 7th (NW). Al Jolson of “The Jazz Singer” fame lived at 208 4 ½ Street (pictured above), SW where his father was Rabbi of the Talmud Torah on the Southwest Waterfront.

The stores and neighborhoods served as a vehicle for upward mobility, allowing Jews to enter the middle-class and escape poverty. It allowed them to form collectives to negotiate prices of goods and contribute to society through philanthropic organizations, such as the Hebrew Home for the Aged. The Jewish population continued to grow well in to the 20th century; by 1956 there numbered 40,000 in the Washington area. The 50s brought movement to suburbs and Jewish life shifted in to Maryland and parts of Virginia. However, there is still a strong Jewish presence in Washington today; the Historic 6th and I Synagogue (built in 1906) is ranked as one of the Top 25 most vibrant congregations in the country.

Sources: Hasia R. Diner and Steven J. Diner, “Washington’s Jewish Community: Separate but not Apart,” in Ed. Francine Curro Cary, Washington Odyssey.

Herbert G. Goldman,
Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life.
Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington,
Half a Day on Sunday.
Picture Source: Harris and Ewing collection, Library of Congress.

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