Here at the JT, we’ve tackled many stories exploring various aspects of our history. I’m not referring to the history of Baltimore’s premier Jewish publication, but rather to the history of the Jewish people, with a particular emphasis on how that history intersects with Charm City and its environs.
In that spirit came last week’s cover story about Jewish contributions to seafaring and the existence of Jewish pirates, as well as articles over the years looking at the history of the Baltimore Jewish community at the turn of the 20th century. This week, we explore what for many is probably overlooked — the heyday and decline of that great Jewish industry: the scrap business.
When we lived in Israel, my kids used to run out as the neighborhood scrap collector would call out, in Hebrew-inflected Yiddish, alte zachen. Whatever we had left out by the street would invariably get scooped up, perhaps to be resold, more likely to be repurposed. Tradition traces the practice in Israel to the Old Country, where some hardscrabble individuals would go up and down streets working menial jobs and collecting what others didn’t want. It’s the same root as the histories behind such firms as Cambridge Iron & Metal and Boston Metals, both with deep Pikesville and Jewish ties.
The recollections of these company’s founders are part of an upcoming exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
Scrap “was seen as an occupation someone would enter because there was no other choice due to language skills, lack of technical training or religious discrimination,” says Marvin Pinkert, the museum’s executive director. “And then folks advanced bit by bit to become business people, then entrepreneurs.”
Pinkert himself grew up in the scrapyard business.
For most people, history in and of itself is fascinating, but even if you don’t viscerally appreciate the twists and turns of “junkmen,” there’s a larger message here. For one, as Pinkert points out, “everything is scrap,” meaning that the entire physical world — everything we use — experiences a lifetime of transformation. But that can also apply to ourselves and to our community. The entire arc of Jewish history, in fact, is one large story of rebirth and reinvention, all while maintaining the core of Jewish identity — Torah, community, justice.
The act of exploring your history, whether in the scrapyard or the ocean depths, makes you appreciate not only where you came from, but also where you’re capable of going. Our ancestors, whether in Minsk, Baltimore or elsewhere, survived in new environments by changing what they did without changing who they were. We all should be doing the same.