A popular oral history book explores the development of the Jewish community in Morgantown through the stories of its families.
➼ In 2013, Ed Gerson volunteered to write a history article for Tree of Life Congregation’s bimonthly newsletter. “I began talking with longtime members of the temple,” Gerson recalls. “After a couple interviews, names on the bronze plaques in the temple began to come to life. What began as an article clearly demanded a book—the history was so unique and the people so original.” The project became Morgantown’s Jewish Heritage: An Oral History, due for release in October 2016.
The dozens of personal and handed-down family stories Gerson came to collect paint a picture of early immigrant culture in Morgantown. “In the 1880s, all the immigration tied together. Belgians, Italians, African-Americans coming up from the South to work in the coal mines, Russians, Lithuanians, French, they were all coming to the U.S. to work,” he says. “And Monongalia County had a great awakening at that time—primarily, the ability to transport coal, lumber, limestone, sand, and glass by railroad. So we had money coming in.”
Many immigrating Jews had been in the clothing business or shoemakers in their home countries, and some were scholars. “But a lot of the time they couldn’t speak much English,” Gerson says. “The easiest thing to do was, they’d be peddlers here. They’d start off in the morning with a pack with maybe jewelry, matches, little clothing items.” They would go door to door trading for eggs, cheese, and other necessities. A peddler with tailoring skills and equipment might measure a customer for a suit and deliver it later. “And if there was a lost kid, you’d ask at the next house, ‘Have you seen little Johnny?’ So they became part of the community.”
Those informal ways of making ends meet evolved into successful businesses. A peddler with a wagon might exchange for scrap metal and start a scrap yard, for example. Others got into retail with clothing and furniture stores. “One of the first was Hirschman’s,” Gerson says. That was S.D. Hirschman & Co. Clothiers, doing business at the turn of the 20th century about where Morgan’s High Street Diner operates now. “Another early business family here was Green, and also the Wolf family”—they operated Ben Green’s and Wolf’s clothiers, farther up High Street.
Opportunity came slowly for Jews in Morgantown. “WVU had few Jewish professors until the 1960s,” Gerson says. “And my interviews tell me that other Jewish professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, might have practiced but didn’t have their own shingles—they would be in the practices of other people, as associates.”
Storytellers recall a mid-century time of fellowship, when people gathered at each other’s homes rather than at restaurants or bars. They reflect on hardship and on charity. For their small number here, Gerson says, the Jewish population has had an effect on Morgantown far greater than one would expect—noting, for example, philanthropy that has brought the Rosenbaum Family House, the Zelda Stein Weiss Cancer Center, and other good works. “It’s hard to put into words what this place would be like without these donations. You could get by but your quality of life would be different. Our perception of what life can be would be less.”
Taken together, the book’s 20 interviews and 10 submitted personal stories and commentaries paint the picture of a people becoming part of their adopted community and the community, eventually, embracing them.