Members of Arlington County’s early Jewish community often opened businesses in Black neighborhoods, forging strong ties between these two communities in the early 20th century, archivist Jessica Kaplan said at a recent talk about Jewish Arlington.
The first Jews living in what is now Arlington County that Kaplan could reliably document arrived around 1900, she said at the Aug. 11 presentation sponsored by the Arlington Historical Society.
The first Jewish immigrants that settled in Arlington County largely came from Eastern Europe and Russia, said Kaplan. In Russia, Jews were forbidden from owning land, forced into specific occupations, lived in fear of pogroms and could be conscripted into the military at age 12 or 13. Two million Jews fled Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1924. They immigrated to large American cites and fanned out to smaller communities, such as Arlington.
These Jewish families often spoke Yiddish and came with business skills they had picked up from the Old World, Kaplan said. Some opened businesses in Arlington.
The Sher family was one of them. Menachem and Esther Sher and their five children came to the United States from Austria-Hungary, Kaplan said. They bought a store in Arlington at what today is the location of the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse.
Kaplan called the Shers’ single-room shop a “mom and pop establishment” that sold general merchandise, including groceries, meats, dry goods, clothing and animal feed. She noted that startup costs could be relatively low in those days and that family and friends would often help with the costs.
The Sher family lived “above and behind the store,” said Kaplan, which was common. When the family first moved in, there was neither electricity nor running water, and the street it was on, Columbia Pike, was unpaved.
“It was a hard life,” said Kaplan, a resident of Arlington and member of Temple Micah. Making a living required the labor of the entire Sher family. “The kids worked before school delivering groceries and stocking the shelves. After school they worked doing probably the same chores.
“Their only day off was usually Sunday morning,” Kaplan continued. “That’s when church was, and most Arlingtonians were in church.”
Meanwhile, Max and Fanny Hyman came to Arlington around 1910, Kaplan said. They rented a store in Arlington’s Queen City area, which was a predominantly African American community.
“This was a way that Jews often got started in business, by going into Black neighborhoods,” said Kaplan. “The startup costs were extremely low, and other whites shunned these areas.”
“They built good relations in the neighborhoods,” Kaplan continued. “And I think one of the reasons was that the Jewish shopkeepers would extend credit to the families, and it was something that was really needed in the African-American communities.”
Kaplan emphasized that the good relations between Jewish shopkeepers and the Black communities they served primarily represented a business relationship. “The Jewish families, being in the South, especially, were worried about white retribution if they decided to cross that color line.”
Kaplan said that, from its small beginnings, Arlington’s Jewish community has come a long way.
“I think it was a pretty small population, but that they had a pretty big impact on the economic life of Arlington, and I think that really blossomed during the New Deal period, as the population increased and the number of Jews increased,” Kaplan said during a private interview. She added that, today, “the population of Jews in Arlington has really boomed.”