5 miles of separation with Sidney Katz

Montgomery County Council member Sidney Katz. Photo by David Stuck

When Sidney Katz was growing up, his family were the only Jews in Gaithersburg.

Katz, 72, who was Gaithersburg’s mayor for 16 years, has lived his whole life in the city. Last month he was elected to a third term on the Montgomery County Council, representing District 3, which comprises Gaithersburg and neighboring Rockville and Washington Grove.

But being the only Jewish family in the 1950s, meant that he and his brothers traveled to Washington on Sundays, where they studied with a private Hebrew-school teacher. They had their b’nai mitzvah in Baltimore.

At Gaithersburg High School in the 1960s, Katz was the only Jewish student. The Washington Post quotes him as saying that he recalls being “treated differently, but without the negative connotations.”

Katz likes to tell the story of how his family came to Gaithersburg, where they opened a feature typical in small Southern towns — the Jewish store. It was called Wolfsons.

The story goes like this: The family had come from Lithuania. Katz’s maternal grandfather, Jacob Wolfson, had a twin brother named Albert, who owned a store in Rockville. When America entered World War I, Albert went overseas to fight. So Jacob, who stayed behind, took his place running the store.

In 1918, with the war over, Albert came back to Rockville — and his store. Jacob didn’t want to compete with his twin, so he moved his family five miles away to Gaithersburg and opened Wolfson’s on East Diamond Avenue. The store began as a dry cleaners but soon expanded to serve the needs of the area’s farmers.

“My grandfather was a tailor, and he would fix things,” Katz said. “He also had ready-made clothing, and he was a suit maker. I can’t sew on a button, I mean, but that was their trade, and they made a very nice living.”

When Katz was born in 1950, Gaithersburg was still a farming town. “It was like the South,” he said. “It had that kind of small town feel to it. Everybody knew everybody, very pleasant. We were the only Jewish family for many, many years.”

When non-Jewish customers came in the store, they were self-policing. Nothing untoward was tolerated, especially not in front of Katz’s mother, Sara.

“Sometimes, they had maybe a drink more than they should have when they came in, but nobody said anything out of the way in front of my mother, ever — and I mean ever,” Katz said.

“Three guys would come in, and somebody would curse, and somebody else in the group would say, ‘You don’t do that in front of them.’ ”

Katz was the third generation to own Wolfson’s. But it began to look as if the fourth generation wasn’t interested in inheriting the store. So in October 2013, Katz closed Wolfsons. The following January, he filed paperwork to run for the District 3 council seat.

“It was such a different world,” he said of the Gaithersburg of his youth and earlier. “I mean, you know, today you can order something [on Amazon], and you get it within an hour. I always joke about that — my grandfather didn’t want to be in competition to his brother. So we went all of five miles away.”

On the other hand, he said, in today’s traffic, it probably takes as long as it did when his grandparents traveled between Rockville and Gaithersburg on country roads.

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