In the opening of his just-released memoir, “My Shtetl Baltimore: Stories and Recollections By a Native Son,” Eli W. Schlossberg defends his use of the word shtetl in his title — a word that conjures images of Eastern European Jewish villages, where little boys in knickers and forelocks played among close-set whitewashed cottages.
“Do real shtetls even exist anymore?” Schlossberg asks the reader. Well, read on and you will find a compilation of Schlossberg’s previously published writing, new writing and reminiscences by others that will answer the ways in which the Baltimore Orthodox community fits the bill.
“Through a mix of nostalgia and factual details, I express my profound affection for the town in which I was born and raised, a place where a small number of Jews were so intimately interconnected that they might as well have been living in an East European shtetl,” Schlossberg writes.
Born at the 20th-century’s midpoint in 1950, which perhaps gives him a good perspective for looking back to the 19th century and looking ahead to the 21st, Schlossberg, 67, grew up first in the Druid Hill Park area attending the Shearith Israel Congregation on McCulloh Street. When he was 8, and a student at Talmudical Academy, his parents moved the family to a home on Jonquil Avenue in Park Heights and began attending the branch shul of the same congregation.
“Jonquil was a very Jewish neighborhood with a ‘Leave It to Beaver’ ambience,” he writes. “Mr. Manny Gesben, who lived next door, was an avid fisherman who actually took me fishing. After our expedition, I was at Sunny’s Surplus on Garrison Boulevard and Reisterstown Road buying a fishing rod and reel. That hobby didn’t last too long. Scaling the fish on our back porch was messy; it was easier to buy fresh fish at Manny’s fish store on Park Heights.”
Schlossberg graduated from TA in 1968 and spent three years at Ner Israel yeshiva, a year at a yeshiva in Israel and earned a degree in business at Loyola College. He entered the family business, Castle Food Products, when he was 22. He met his future wife while a youth director for the National Council of Synagogue Youth. They later married and had two children.
In the chapter entitled, “Willi Goldschmidt: The Grandfather I Never Met But Know So Well,” Schlossberg pays tribute to the man who died two years before he was born. William “Willi” Goldschmidt, his mother’s father from Limburg, Germany, survived some months at Buchenwald concentration camp following the infamous Kristallnacht. He and his family were eventually able to immigrate to America when Joe Kennedy signed affidavits authorizing their departure.
In chapters such as “Nothing Like Good Old-Fashioned Home Cooking,” “Death of a Salesman,” and “How Did Her Garden Grow,” Schlossberg gets personal with family reminiscences, while the section titled “The Way We Were” steps further afield with pieces about early rabbis, old kosher establishments and a community mikvah, among others. The book also includes profiles of people who were important in Schlossberg’s life and essays such as “The Wizard of Oz and the Torah.”
For 40 years a volunteer administrator with the Jewish charitable organization Ahavas Yisrael Charity Fund, Schlossberg worked 15 years with Castle Food before selling it in 1987 after 45 years in business.
“We were in the distribution of gourmet delicacies. We supplied all the gourmet shops, cheese shops, all of the Giant Foods,” he said. “Our business was concentrated in Baltimore and Washington. I became a consultant to the kosher industry after I sold the company.”
Having a foot in each world, his Orthodox community and secular business community, made Schlossberg more aware of life beyond his shtetl. But what Schlossberg finds most fascinating is how the Baltimore Orthodox community, grew, then shrank, then grew even larger.
“When I was born, there were very few Orthodox families in Baltimore. That’s very interesting, because if you go back to the 1930s there were more Orthodox. But then people became less Orthodox because of Shabbos and getting jobs. There was a lot of pressure. It was very hard to get a job. That happened from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s,” he said.
Schlossberg said there were only a few Orthodox families in his Park Heights neighborhood when he was a boy and 200 to 250 Orthodox families total in Baltimore city. And everyone knew everyone.
“I grew up in a nonreligious neighborhood, a lot Jewish, but not Orthodox. Everybody had respect for the few Orthodox Jews in town,” he added. “Our neighbors were very sensitive; they wouldn’t mow their lawns on Shabbos. When we had a sukkah — it was a novelty. We invited all the neighbors.”
But it was the educational institutions that changed the face of Orthodox Baltimore, according to Schlossberg, including Talmudical Academy, Bais Yaakov and Ner Israel.
“Ner Israel was the real influence on Baltimore because the alumni, who came from all over America, began to settle in Baltimore,” Schlossberg said. “They took government jobs and other positions. That changed Baltimore. Today, we are one of the most explosive Orthodox communities in the country. We probably have over 4,000 Orthodox families in Baltimore. And it’s growing.”
In addition to his charity work and consulting business, Schlossberg, also a musician, recently launched Symphonic Art Design, commissioning artists to transform violins. One is covered with a mirror mosaic, another painted with colorful modern art. But one violin seems to reflect Schlossberg’s vision of the Baltimore Orthodox Jewish community. On it, a bearded man in a white shirt and vest plays a fiddle, a simple brown cap on his head, while all around him are the modest white-washed, thatched cottages of his shtetl.