As a youth in Russia, Harry Finkelstein saw a Bolshevik soldier make advances toward his mother. He proceeded to knock the offender unconscious with a piece of kindling.
Little did the teenager dream that his rash heroics would forever alter his life.
Although Finkelstein’s father paid the soldier 50 rubles not to report his son’s act, the prospect of reprisal so worried the family that they smuggled Harry out of the country as soon as possible. After a stint in South Africa, he joined his brothers in the United States. Louis, Moe, Charlie and Neal were already operating pawn shops in various locations around the Southeast. Harry fell ill while visiting his brother in Florida; lured to western North Carolina by the healing mountain air, he soon opened Finkelstein’s Pawn Shop, which has remained a fixture in downtown Asheville since 1901.
An early photo of Finkelstein’s (its first location was near the site of the current BB&T building) shows a sprawling, two-story building replete with stacked trunks and heaps of dressmakers’ dummies; in the downstairs showcase, watches glitter promisingly in endless rows. A portrait of Harry from the same era shows the shopkeeper standing in front of his car, arms tucked thoughtfully behind him, his face pensive but proud.
Finkelstein’s contribution to Asheville is but one example of the vast impact immigrants have made on our area; their collective force is grandly exhibited in Coming to the Mountains: Immigration and Western North Carolina, a showing of more than 40 historical and recent photographs now on display at the Broadway Arts Building.
Deborah Miles, executive director of The Center for Diversity Education (which is sponsoring the exhibition), explains why this event — created to increase young people’s awareness of and respect for cultural differences — is important:
“Our society is becoming increasingly more colorful,” she notes, quoting census data which predicts that by the year 2030, 48% of the nation’s schoolchildren will be nonwhite. “Kids are going to have to learn how to get along with one another,” she observes.
For school groups, Miles is currently offering tours of the show: The creative history lesson commences with information about WNC’s earliest residents (to show students that everyone who isn’t Native American is essentially an immigrant). Special games — conducted throughout the tour — are designed to recreate the confusion one feels upon arriving in a strange country.
In assembling the exhibit, Miles says she attempted to present as wide a range of people as possible. By all accounts, she succeeded: Coming to the Mountains features photographs of immigrants to WNC from nearly every continent on earth. Her research uncovered a varied lot, including James Patton, the Scotch-Irish weaver and peddler who built Asheville’s Eagle Hotel and oversaw the construction of the three-state-long Buncombe Turnpike; Isaac Dickson — the son of a Dutch landowner and a Shelby, N.C. slave –who co-founded the YMI Cultural Center and became the first black man to serve on a North Carolina School Board; and George Masa (born Masahara Iizuka), a Japanese photographer who rose from his position as a Grove Park Inn valet to become the first person to measure and chart official hiking trails throughout the densely forested Smoky Mountains.
The strategy behind Coming to the Mountains, says Miles, is to literally show local kids the direct impact that certain patterns of immigration have had on their home. Ireland’s potato famine, for instance, produced an enormous influx of Irish settlers to our region in the early 1800s. And by including many examples of later-20th-century immigrants — such as the owners of popular local restaurants El Chapala, China Palace and Salsa — Miles hopes to spur children into making their own cultural connections.
“Young people are very visual. When we focus on the businesses immigrants have created, [they’ll realize], ‘I know who that is’ … that’s how kids think,” she explains.
Miles interviewed some of these more recent newcomers for the photo show, and what emerged from her probing was a shared theme of hard work and gratitude.
Celine Hunan Lurey, an exiled Egyptian Jew who opened Celine’s Catering five years ago, pondered the luck of American youth who will never know how it feels to be “stateless”: “It is only when you lose something, or gain something you never had, that you can truly appreciate what it means to have a country.”
Sam Samal, an Iraqi Kurd who owns a local contracting company, had this admonition for students: “Never take anything for granted. Students have so many freedoms here. A toy that is thrown away, without a thought, would be the only toy a child in Iraq would ever have … when you travel, you learn about other people and [that] helps to develop an appreciation for what is taken for granted — freedom.”
Adopting a lighter viewpoint, Yousef Benomran, owner of Benomran’s Design and Alterations in downtown Asheville, was surprised by “how friendly the folks were [in Asheville] — how interested they were in where I came from.” In a more recent phone interview, the Libyan expanded his praise even further.
“This is one of the best towns [in the country] for diversity,” he proclaimed. And he views the aims of the photo exhibit with similar optimism: “My point of view is that it’s good exposure for the children, to see that just because our color is different doesn’t mean we’re aliens … it’s never too late to learn about [other cultures].”
Coming to the Mountains: Immigration and Western North Carolina will be on exhibit through Friday, March 19 at the Broadway Arts Building (49 Broadway) in downtown Asheville. The Center for Diversity Education invites teachers to call now to reserve a docented tour for their class. And though Coming to the Mountains is geared for grades 4-12, the general public is also welcome and encouraged to view the exhibition. Tour hours are 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Tuesday through Friday. Call the Center at 254-9044 for tour reservations or more info.