THERE MAY NOT BE A LOT of outright anti-Semitism here, but if I had known what it was like when I moved here in 1975, I wouldn't have come," says Harry Leventhal, proprietor of Etch-Art Awards, a small trophy and plaque shop in Salisbury, Md., 30 miles west of Ocean City on the Eastern Shore. "I was raised in Yonkers, N.Y., and lived in Scranton, Pa., and Annapolis, and I've never felt as out of place and unwanted as I do here. Just recently an insurance salesman came while I was very busy. When he kept interrupting me, I replied, and I was just teasing, 'Okay, it will cost $5 to talk to me.' Then he started to say, 'You Hebrews always want money,' and I asked him to leave. It turned he was a minister selling insurance part-time."
The 47-year-old storekeeper is joined by his wife, Elaine, 44. She continues: "This place is full of fundamentalist Baptists and take my word for it, they try to convert you. It's one thing for the hardware salesman to tell Harry in a nasty way that someday he'll come around to believing in Christ. But with our oldest son, Louis, they succeeded in turning him into a Baptist."
When Louis Leventhal accompanied his parents to Salisbury from Annapolis, the 16-year-old had considered becoming a rabbi. But not long after entering high school, he became friendly with a local minister's son. "At first he didn't tell us that they were trying to convert him, and by the time we found out, it was too late," laments Harry Leventhal. "Guess
where he is now? In Dallas, preaching the gospel to others. We're loving, understanding parents, but that
is really hard to accept."
Perhaps as a reaction to what happened to his oldest brother, 17-year-
old Mark Leventhal is attending a
yeshiva, or Orthodox Jewish religious
school, in Baltimore. "We're very
proud of what he's doing and are quite sure that he'll go on to become a rabbi," Elaine Leventhal exclaimed. "If only Louis would have gotten out of here at that age. At least nobody here will be able to brainwash Mark."
Living on Main Street of Smalltown, U.S.A., and maintaining their customs and religious practices has been difficult for American Jews. They are in a distinct minority, surrounded by gentiles whose life styles are different from theirs. As a result, few observant Jews are to be found outside metropolitan areas. The cultural and religious pressures often are so intense that many rural Jews assimilate totally into the non-Jewish community around them, intermarrying at rates approaching 75 to 80 percent not attending synagogue and denying their Judaism.
Bitterly, Elaine Leventhal accuses Salisbury's Jews of contributing to their own demise. "There is no closeness whatsoever between the Jews in this town. Instead of saying to the gentiles, 'Let's maintain and respect the differences between us and coexist,' these Jews want most of all to assimilate completely and pretend that there are no differences at all." The Leventhals, who are Orthodox, emphasize the differences. They close their store on Saturdays to observe the sabbath, reopening on Sunday afternoons.
"Maybe I shouldn't get so worked up, but it hurts me to see Judaism dying here," she says. "Kids go away to college and never return. At least then they have a better chance of marrying Jews. It's when dating starts that you really begin worrying about that."
She is not alone in her fear of intermarriage. Litman Litow, an underground fighter during World War II in his native eastern Poland, moved to Salisbury in 1949 and is now retired from the chicken business. "Jewish children have a very small circle of friends here and no Jewish ones," he says. "We let our kids date but never steadily. After all, nature knows no religious borders in terms of falling in live and marrying. I've been living on borrowed time since 1942 when members of my family were slaughtered only for being Jews. I surely don't want my kids to give up that identity."
Barry E. Hoffman, 39, moved to Salisbury from Baltimore 13 years ago to set up a dental practice. "I wouldn't have come here if I'd known what was coming and I'd still like to get out," he says. "Our three daughters, 11, 9 and 7, aren't exposed to much Judaism here, and I really worry about when they start dating. Sure, intermarriage can happen in Baltimore too, but there's simply not as big a chance. How could you avoid it here?"
Hoffman, who is vice president of Salisbury's Beth Israel Congregation, continues: "Other things bother me a lot now. Our kids are exposed to lots of born-again Christian parents, so we limit the number of houses where they can spend the night. There's a lot of brainwashing in the churches, and one of our daughters' teachers sent a note home with her which said, 'Jesus loves you for being a good student.'
CONGREGATION BETH JACOB, a Reform synagogue in Martinsburg, W.Va., sits unused these days except for one Friday night service a month and High Holy Day services. Fewer than 20 people regularly attend the monthly service, conducted by a member of the congregation.
The temple has no telephone and is unheated except at service times. Paint is conspicuously peeling off the walls and ceiling. There is no religious school. "Five or six of us with small children are trying to figure out what we're going to do when they are old enough to begin religious training," says Anita Thornton, 28, who helps her husband operate a local radio station. The former Fairfax County resident moved toartinsburg seven years ago. "There's only a handful of old-timers who keep Judaism going here and their kids have grown and moved away," Thornton adds. "I'd never give up my membership here, but when the time comes for Sunday school, I'll have to drive the kids to Hagerstown or Winchester at least once a week."
During the 1950s, Judaism thrived in Martinsburg, a prosperous community of 18,000 people 95 miles northwest of Washington. Nearly 40 families attended Friday night services at the synagogue, and once a month a student rabbi made the long train trip from Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College to conduct services and oversee the weekly religious classes.
Lillian Garner moved to Martinsburg from Connecticut following her marriage to a local merchant 40 years ago. "Today, it's nothing like it used to be," Garner says. "My three children have moved away, but we won't go visit them during the High Holy Days. There are so few of us left, if my husband and I weren't here for the services, we'd decrease attendance a significant amount. In towns like this, it's not like in cities. If you're Jewish, you have to participate, because there's nobody else to take your place."
What's happening in Martinsburg -- and in Salisbury -- is common. Jews are vanishing from small towns throughout the United States. In 1957, when the Bureau of the Census was allowed to record religious preference in its National Sample Survey, there were nearly 151,000 American Jews, or 3.9 percent of the nation's total Jewish population of 3,868,000, living in towns with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants. Precise numbers are difficult to ascertain, but the 1985 American Jewish Yearbook reported that the number has dropped to less than 93,000, 1.6 percent of the total Jewish population of 5,817,000 estimated for 1984.
Demographers, citing the less-than-replacement birth rate of American Jews, predict that there will be a significant decline in their number during the next 25 years. Conversion to Judaism is occurring at a rapid pace, with some estimates placing it as high as 10,000 annually, but conversions are not expected to offset the low birthrate and in any case are primarily an urban phenomenon. Given the already depleted numbers of small-town Jews, any further decrease could lead to their virtual disappearance.
As rural sociologist Euren Schoenfeld has observed, "Once thriving
Jewish communities in small and
medium-sized towns have become merely the skeletal remnants of their former selves."
Rabbi J. Jerome Pine of Decatur, Ill., finds the withering away
of the nation's small-town Jewry
depressing to contemplate: "Not
only am I pessimistic about Jews
surviving in small towns across
America, their exodus will
be detrimental to them and their gentile neighbors. It's bad enough now that, through little contact, many gentiles have wrong-headed, negative conceptions about Jews. But what's going to happen when people outside urban areas literally never come into direct contact with a Jew?"
Rabbi Maurice Schwartz, who serves Salisbury's Beth Israel Congregation, compares Jewish life there with that in cities. "There is no doubt about it, being Jewish in small towns is much harder. Their quality of life is not the same. There is not nearly as much to give them Jewish identity."
Robert Elins, 62, owns Berkeley Upholstering Company in Martinsburg. He has lived there since 1948 when he went into his father-in- law's business. He explains that with only a handful of Jews attending religious services, it is not surprising that the synagogue is in such bad physical shape. And he sees dim prospects for the future. "What's going to happen to Judaism here when we die and our kids have moved away? You don't have to be a genius to figure that one out."
VICKI AND ALAN Goldenberg moved to the Staunton, Va., area seven years ago from New Jersey, where they both were raised in heavily Jewish areas. The 46-year-old former executive, who left his firm three years ago to teach at James Madison University and to raise horses and cattle, admits that he became physically ill when he moved to rural America. He still feels out of place being Jewish there. But the Gold have adapted to the slow pace of the Shenandoah Valley and intend to remain.
Vicki Goldenberg, 41, who is president of the House of Israel Temple sisterhood in Staunton, is amazed at the ignorance of the classmates of her three teen-age children. "I went to school a couple of years ago to explain about Hanukah, and the kids simply could not believe that we did not celebrate Christmas. And even though I explained that we exchanged gifts on the eight nights of Hanukah, they not only didn't fully understand but actually felt sorry for us. Finally, one asked, 'You do celebrate birthdays, don't you?'
The Goldenberg children, the only Jews ever to enroll in Riverheads High School in its 22-year history, hear remarks reflecting negative stereotyping of Jews. Scott Goldenberg, a senior, explains. "I hear cracks all the time about Jews being rich, smart and having black curly hair. The kids don't really intend to be mean; they just don't know any better." At times, though, being the only Jewish student in class is embarrassing. Scott says one teacher calls on him "by saying, 'Jew, you should know the answer.' Really, he doesn't mean anything by it. He'll call other people 'Fatty' and things like that, too, but I'd prefer he didn't do it."
Pressures are also exerted on the Goldenberg children to join in Christian prayers. "Imagine how Amy felt when she was the only child in her class who didn't go to prayer service one hour a week," says Vicki Goldenberg. "We were the only ones who didn't sign the permission slip and she spent the hour by herself. They say it's not done on school property, but if it isn't, the trailer is no more than six inches off it."
THE GOLDENBERGS are unusual in their outspokenness. Most small-town Jews are eager to avoid adverse attention. They will join local service clubs to show their support for hometown causes, but most will do nothing controversial. Julius Garner, a retired women's clothing store owner, came to Martinsburg as a child and never left. He says, "A Jew has to behave at least twice as well as a gentile and must never get out of line. If he acts up, chances are his Jewishness will be brought up." Martinsburg's Nadia Elins adds: "No Jew would have ever marched in a civil rights demonstration, because other Jews would have stopped him before the gentiles."
The patter was the same when I grew up in a southern Illinois coal mining town in the late 1950s. My Democratic-leaning parents would not register for the party's primary because they feared that it could be used against them or their business, a small ladies' fashion firm.
At the time, fewer than 10 Jewish families lived in Benton, Ill., whose total population was 8,600. Today only three Jewish families remain. When Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for treason 32 years ago, my parents and other Jews in southern Illinois were afraid. Could the execution launch a wave of anti-Semitism? If my parents had any doubt of the Rosenbergs' guilt, they didn't discuss it -- even at the dinner table with me and my twin brother, the only Jews in the entire school system.
My mother still lives in rural southern Illinois, but like Salisbury, Martinsburg and Staunton, when her eneration is gone, there will be no younger Jews to take its place. Mildred Klotz Degen of Staunton mourns the disappearance: "Some of us got to these small towns by accident. My father, Jacob, set out from Hagerstown in 1899 for Louisville, where my uncle and he were to join their half-brother in the scrap business. Well, their horse died and they never left. Neither have I, but most of the younger generation has."
Other small-town Jews are resolved to keeping Judaism alive. "My attitude is that when we came to Martinsburg, the Jews had established something for us to have, so I feel that it's only right to leave something behind when we're gone," says Robert Elins enthusiastically.
But it may be too late. According to Rabbi Richard S. Sternberger, director of the mid-Atlantic council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, "The only excuse for having a temple in Martinsburg is to maintain a Jewish presence. Actually, it's moribund there. And seeing it is so depressing it virtually gives me paralysis."