JEWISH LIFE IN KNOX COUNTY—1999
by Michelle Demjen and Christina LeStage
Mrs. Helen Zelkowitz, a long time resident of Mount Vernon, talks of coming from Columbus with her husband, Charles: “We were married in ‘33, and I came the year the banks closed in ‘34. I came here at twenty-one as a bride. I’m now eighty-six and I’ve lived in this same house sixty years.” When Shellmar Corporation came in 1935, it brought much needed business as well as many Jewish families, creating the basis for the strong Jewish community that existed during the 1930s and 1940s. However, looking at Knox County historical records, Mrs. Zelkowitz explains: “a lot of these names of course, I’ve never met. They were here before I got here.”
There was a weekly gathering place for Jews in Mount Vernon: a rented, second-floor apartment above the present-day Jordan Quilt Shop. Mrs. Zelkowitz adds: “I know one thing. I finally ended up with it in my apartment at 512 ½ East Chestnut. We rented an apartment, and I was so horrified, it was eighteen dollars a month, and I thought that was astronomical.” Mrs. Zelkowitz’s grandfather, Mr. Kalmon London, was the first Orthodox spiritual leader in Columbus. She organized services herself in Mount Vernon. They had a Torah, which includes the first five books of the Bible, which is the sacred book of Jewish teachings. Although a rabbi (a legal and spiritual guide for the community) was beyond the community’s economical means, “there were some Jewish gentlemen that were very well-informed,” to lead the services. However, for the High Holidays, people went to Mansfield or Columbus.
During this period, Mount Vernon was relatively more isolated from other cities and towns than it is today. Mrs. Zelkowitz describes her mother’s opinion of her new home: “Oh, my mother was fit to be tied. My mother said to her friends her daughter’s in some little country town.” Yet, it was this very isolation, in part, which made it necessary for the community to form strong bonds. Its members helped each other out with such difficulties as keeping kosher. Kosher food follows Jewish dietary laws and must be properly prepared. For example, meat must be slaughtered in a certain way and may not be eaten with milk.
Mrs. Zelkowitz recalls: “Well, I kept kosher up until the time they [a Kosher food market] sent me a dead duck. And at that time, they didn’t have refrigeration, you know. And I called up that market and told him that I was sorry he lived fifty miles from me because I would’ve brought it in so we could have buried it together. But it was my husband’s birthday and I wanted to have a duck. Well, when that happened, that ended it. I said to my mother, ‘I’m very sorry, but I’m not going to be able to keep kosher because I can’t handle that meat.’ It just wasn’t possible. They didn’t even have frozen bags like we have today. It’s no problem today at all.” In part to compensate for this difficulty, Susan, another long-time Mount Vernon resident, remembers “whenever any of the Jewish women went to Columbus, which, in those days, they didn’t flit to Columbus like we do now. I mean, not everybody had cars. But, if somebody knew they were going to Columbus, they were always very kind and checked with the other families to see if there was anything they wanted them to bring back. Usually, then, they came back loaded [with kosher food] because they had purchased merchandise for a number of families.”
Another difficulty was attending synagogue and religious instruction. “I attended Sabbath School here. And then, I imagine it was because of a lack of families, they gave up the Sabbath School here.” When this happened, a gentleman of the Jewish community, “every Sunday morning would load up his car with any of the Jewish children that were willing and took us to Mansfield, which did have an established synagogue, and we went to Sabbath school there,” Susan continues. Sabbath is the seventh day of the week, and starts with sundown on Friday and lasts until sundown of the following day. It is a day dedicated to God, a holy day of rest.
One gentleman taught Hebrew in his home, key in training for children’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah is the occasion when a boy (Bar) or a girl (Bat) is confirmed into the Jewish faith, age thirteen for a boy, twelve and a day for a girl.
Today, however, the Jewish people of Mount Vernon describe a very different experience. As Mrs. Zelkowitz explains, “None of those families are still here because everybody’s underground. You see, we’re talking about 1935, and I seem to be the only one surviving at this point. The children scattered. They’re all over. I think that Arlene and I are the only two, and Susan.”
Jews who have moved into the county from urban areas within the last twenty-five years, express an initial surprise to what seems to be a lack of Jewish people. “Oh it was really strange, like landing on the moon!” When asked about the Jewish community, the responses were similar: “Jewish people don’t really exist in our school. I mean they’re practically nonexistent,” “the Jewish community [is] virtually noexistent, as far as I know,” “I’m not sure that the Jewish community in this area is very well defined,” “I don’t feel part of a community here, because there isn’t one.”
With time, members of the earlier Jewish community moved away in search of work, in search of a larger Jewish community, or passed away. The emphasis for those remaining, as well as those who moved into the county, is placed upon carrying on traditions in the home and instead of in public gatherings. Sarah, having recently moved here from a large city, illustrates how the home and family are truly important in the Jewish tradition. “What beauty there was in the family and how Judaism related to the family; that part of it I have always felt very connected to. When I would go back for Passover [a spring holiday celebrating the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. It lasts eight days, during which the Jews refrain from eating all leavened foods and products] or whatever thing I went back for, the warmth of the family and the family’s orientation towards the religion is probably the most important part of it. It brings them together; it’s a way of passing on from one generation to the next who you are and I want to be able to participate with my family in that process.” Many rituals, such as those for the Sabbath with the lighting of the candles, are traditionally performed within the home, thus allowing observance to be carried on in private.
Robert is a middle-aged Jewish resident of Knox County. He explains how the private aspect of the religion allows Jews, being a minority, to make an attempt at assimilation. “This is a tradition. This goes back to the German Jews in the 1920s and 1930s, which is assimilate, blend in. You are a Jew at home. It’s private. Don’t make a big deal about it.” Sarah adds, “I just have always felt that it’s your business and nobody really needs to know. I kind of feel like the public really ought to be a neutral place.”
Nevertheless, Jews in the area often express the desire for a community or identification with other Jews. Karen, of the same generation as Robert, has lived in Knox County for twenty-five years. Karen relates: “I can still remember my shock once taking my daughter to a pediatrician in town. There was somebody else in the waiting room and I looked at her and I realized she was wearing a Star of David around her neck. And it was kind of like, ‘Oh my God!’ I mean, ‘Who are you?'”
Karen’s daughter called her once from a summer camp and said, “Mom! There are eight people in my room and they’re all Jewish!” Karen says, “It was like, ‘Can you believe so many Jewish people in one spot?’ So I think it [growing up in Knox County] was a little bit harder for her.”
The fact that there are so few Jews in the county has reinforced the desire for people to practice their traditions. Having grown up in New York City, Robert asserts, “The longer we [my wife and I] were here, the more we realized that the assumptions of this community were the exact opposite of the ones we each grew up in. Our assumption was that everybody was different, and the assumption here was that everybody was the same. So we were always understood by the rest of the world to be not-Jewish.” The question becomes, “How come you forgot to take me into account? Again?” The issue of not being acknowledged comes in many forms, from ham (which is not kosher food) and eggs being served at a breakfast for Jewish students at Kenyon College, to the annual winter concert at the Wiggin Street School in Gambier being called a Christmas concert.
Being Jewish often involves not only following a faith, but also a recognition of one’s ethnic heritage. Middle-aged men and women who had not been religious at a young age, in college for example, found their attitudes changed once they had children. For Karen, this happened when she had her daughter. “This caused me to become more observant than I had ever been before, because I was raising her in this town, with a non-Jewish husband.” Sarah notices this in her own family; “One of my nieces, who was quite hostile to this whole thing about being Jewish for quite a long time, when she became a mother, she started turning around in her thinking and now is joining a temple where she lives. So I think that the historical process is probably more important for a lot of people than the actual religion. It’s hard to cut yourself off from everything and say, ‘well, it wasn’t important,’ because it is important.” As Robert suggests: “You shouldn’t confuse observance with commitment.”
Through the children, the older generations are able to allow the “historical process” to live on. For example, when asked what it was like for his children to grow up in Knox County, Robert responds: “It was great for them! I mean, they really got a sense of themselves and it put them sometimes in positions of discomfort, but at least it gave them some armament. And a lovely thing happened. For example, my kids, then, once they were Bar Mitzvahed and Bat Mitzvahed and learned Hebrew, tutored two other kids. It was a lovely way the tradition kept going.”
Not feeling “a part of it” comes up a lot in talking with young children. Jessica and Emily are middle school students here in Knox County. As Emily explains, “it’s kind of weird for sports because I know for my brother, he plays football in high school, and usually, before a game, they’ll do a little prayer and then run out into the field. He kind of observes [the prayer] but it’s not like he’s really like a part of it.” Jessica talks of her experience during the holiday season; “People say ‘Merry Christmas!’ and it’s like, ‘you mean, Happy Chanukah!’ I mean, they are just trying to be nice, what do they know?”
Normal teenage experiences can be more difficult at times growing up Jewish in Knox County. When asked about dating, Jessica relates: “One time I had this [boyfriend], he was a jerk. One time he asked me, ‘Are you Jewish?’ and I said ‘yeah.’ Then he was like, ‘I thought so.’ I asked, ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘because my parents won’t like me going out with people who aren’t Christian.'”
For the girls, dating outside of the religion is not a problem. For Jessica, there is no choice: “I don’t think I’ve ever dated someone who was Jewish.” Emily followed with, “Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.” Being so young, it is hard for them to imagine having a family ten or more years from now. However, the passing on of the Jewish tradition will be important for Jessica. “If I want my kids to be Jewish, they will be Jewish.” Emily agrees: “I’d like my kids to observe Judaism. But it’s hard, if my [future] family doesn’t want to [observe] I probably still would myself.”
The family is extremely important for preserving Jewish heritage or values. For Karen, raising her daughter to observe Judaism was of utmost importance. “When I got pregnant, one of the things we talked about was that I wanted the child to be raised Jewish. [My husband] said ‘You’re gonna be the one giving the religious instruction.’ So I said, ‘The child is going to be Jewish.’ When we knew she was a girl, that set it even more, because in our faith, she’d be Jewish anyway because I am. It goes through the female line. So, even if she were raised Christian, she’d still be Jewish in the eyes of Israel.”
Karen did not marry a Jewish man. “It was very important for my parents that we all marry Jewish men. We didn’t. So there were conflicts there.” Especially in more traditional forms of Judaism, marrying someone outside of Judaism is like breaking away from a race of people. Helen expresses the importance of this tradition; “Of course my son was Bar Mitzvahed because I drove him every week for his Hebrew lessons. And he subsequently married a very lovely Jewish girl in Columbus, and that’s what he was looking for. It never occurred to him to do anything else because our whole family was so steeped in Orthodoxy.”
Belonging to a people is more important to some Jews than the observance of holidays. Robert talks about the thousands of years of history he feels connected to. “I am not a theologically oriented person. It’s really just not a part of who I am. But there’s something really pretty amazing if you go to a synagogue in, say, Florence. You step into a world and you know people who are somehow culturally part of the stream that you’re a part of, been doing this for three four thousand years. That’s pretty awesome.”
Sarah finds a place in Judaism, even though she has some doubts about “taking anything on faith.” She feels, “there are enough of the other forms [of Judaism] for everybody in between. The thing about Judaism is that you feel you are a part of a historical process that is going on. To remove yourself from it and say ‘I reject this’, it’s cutting yourself off from your roots. It engenders disrespect for the pain that your relatives and ancestors have gone through, and you have to respect what they went through. You can’t say this was for nothing. It couldn’t have been for nothing. There must have been something there for them to make them go through it.”
The historical process Jews are tied to connects them to each other as well, forming a sense of community. Sarah finds “there’s something very natural about being around other Jewish people.” A Jewish community is a sanctuary in a world where Jews feel defensive at times. “When people ask you if you are Jewish, I think you are put on the defensive because you never know what somebody’s attitude is going to be to your answer, considering historical possibilities.” Sarah continues with an example: “My neighbor asked me what my ethnic background was and I told her that I was Jewish. She hesitated for a minute and she said, ‘Oh!’ I didn’t know how to interpret that remark, it left me a little mystified.”
Robert has had similar experiences. “Things like walking away from a conversation and all of a sudden there’s something about ‘Jewish,’ and they are suddenly going, ‘Oh.’ Suddenly you realize these people who you thought were your friends have suddenly just identified you in a way that’s uncomfortable.” Sarah’s reaction to such situations is, “you don’t make friends with people you have to be defensive around.”
As a new resident of Knox County, Sarah is seeking for a way to make friends. “Over the years, the sense of community that you can get if you involve yourself in the Jewish community, is something that I miss. That’s probably why I’ve sought out Hillel.” Hillel is an organization at Kenyon College for Jewish students, professors, and community members. It is the only outlet in the county for Jewish residents to meet and worship together. However, not a lot of local residents go to Hillel; if they do practice it is in Columbus or Mansfield. Sarah wishes that were not the case. “I don’t think that my experiences are really that different than a lot of people’s. I suspect that there are a lot of people living in Knox County who are Jewish or part Jewish and would like to know other people similarly. There really aren’t any opportunities other than coming to Hillel to do that. So it’d be nice if other people could come to Hillel.”
Karen recalls a time when the Jewish community was stronger: “I’ve always said that I love Mount Vernon. It would have been very hard had Kenyon not been here to give me something to gravitate to. It gave me a community, and luckily at a time when I needed it, we had families that bonded together and it was wonderful.”
When asked what being Jewish means to them, people responded: “I accept that in many ways it has formed who I am, somehow being Jewish made me this person. I’m happy. I like this,” “Being Jewish has always meant a lot to me, I never renounced being Jewish,” and “It means being different. It means being proud of where I’m from.”
Note: This story was part of a student field research project, Living Together: Rural Diversity in Knox County, Ohio, conducted at Kenyon College in 1998-1999. Names have been changed at the request of the individuals, with the exception of Helen Zelkowitz.