“This is not just Asheville’s Jewish history, this is Asheville’s history,” says Sharon Fahrer, author of A Home in Shalom’ville: The History of Asheville’s Jewish Community. Fahrer calls her recently released book the first intentional compilation of the contributions of the city’s Jewish community.
Fahrer says the story of Jews in Asheville really starts to take shape after the Civil War. “[Their] numbers didn’t start accumulating until the railroad came in 1880,” she says. “Then you had immigrants who followed the rail lines, and they came because there were jobs here. There were people who would need goods, so they could open businesses. This is what they were good at because this is what they were allowed to do in Europe.”
Like many visitors to modern-day Asheville, the city’s first Jewish residents did not always fit in. Nineteenth-century Jews had different cultural habits, and many spoke little-to-no English. Fahrer says these factors led to mixed reactions from the city’s residents. “Some people saw them as very different and couldn’t really relate to them. Other people saw them as the chosen people from the Bible, and they would want them to say a Hebrew blessing over their children,” she says.
While many post-Civil War Jewish newcomers encountered cold shoulders, they also benefited from the support of a politically powerful ally. Asheville resident Zebulon Vance, while en route to serve a federal prison sentence along with other Confederate governors, had a chance encounter with Samuel Wittkowsky, a Prussian-Jewish hatter, which led to a lifelong friendship. After his prison term, the two-time governor of North Carolina crafted “The Scattered Nation,” a speech championing the virtues of Semitic tolerance.
Fahrer explains, “Vance gives this speech, and it elevates Jews from objects of prejudice to objects of tolerance. It was noticed not just here in the local community.” The speech resonated enough to be delivered in more than 50 cities during the years 1874-90. Nathan Strauss, co-owner of R.H. Macy and Co. department store in New York traveled to Asheville in the early 1900s to lay a wreath on the Vance Monument and make a donation toward its maintenance.
Vance’s death in 1894 also brought together varying communities when they gathered at his monument to celebrate his accomplishments. “The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the B’nai B’rith would have a joint ceremony for Vance’s birthday at the Vance Monument,” Fahrer points out.
While contending with prejudice from some of the city’s residents, Asheville’s Jewish community members were also struggling among themselves. The eclectic mix of Jewish heritage made it difficult to find consensus on the proper way to worship. Fahrer explains there was no unified Jewish community. “In 1891, you had the first congregation, and some people spoke Yiddish, and some people were from Virginia.”
Besides struggling to form a synagogue, newly established Jewish business owners found that old ways of doing business might not work in Asheville. Fahrer says this sometimes meant going against generations of tradition. “They had to be open Saturday, which was the busiest shopping day of the week. So that meant if they were used to not working on the Sabbath, they had to come to terms with [it].” However, Fahrer says, such dilemmas were part of cultural assimilation. “As each generation succeeded, they became more American, and they blended in more.”
Despite decades of assimilation, Jewish stereotypes persisted, as documented by Thomas Wolfe. The Asheville author includes in his 1937 short story The Child by Tiger, the fictitious character Saul Stein, based on Jewish business owner Harry Finkelstein. Wolfe describes the character’s appearance as “bald-headed, squat, with the face of an old monkey, displaying craggy nuggins of gold teeth.” And Wolfe’s interpretation of the pawn shop owner’s Yiddish accent is just as outlandish, with an excerpt having the Finkelstein-based character state, “Vell, vahat could I do? His moaney vas good!”
Over time, as the Jewish community became established and prospered economically, it was able to make significant contributions to the city. Fahrer points to UNC Asheville as an example of Jewish support. “Many of the people that buildings are named after, and there’s six of them plus a track, aren’t just because they gave money. It’s because they helped Asheville-Biltmore College to be taken over by the University of North Carolina. And a lot of them were people who were denied an education.”
Fahrer says there is a persistent belief that the welfare of the community as a whole is good for the Jewish community. “Embedded in Judaism is the philosophy that it’s your responsibility to make the world a better place. I don’t think you could name a civic organization in this town that did not have a Jewish member once they were allowed to belong.”
Asheville’s landscape has been, and continues to be, populated with Jewish-owned stores, manufacturing operations, restaurants, mills and more. Many still exist, like Dave Steel Co., founded by Lithuanian immigrant Yosel Teivo, who took the name Joseph Dave upon arriving in America. And others, like the Jewish deli Schandler’s Pickle Barrel, still have nods to their one-time importance to the city. The original Schandler’s Pickle Barrel sign hangs at 50 Broadway, the original location of the deli and current home of Mellow Mushroom.
About 3,400 Western North Carolinians live in a home with one or members who identify themselves as being Jewish either religiously or culturally, with about 72 percent of those homes in Buncombe County, according to a study conducted by Brandeis University in 2010. “The Jewish community today, in Asheville, is very vibrant. We have a lot of new people coming, we have a lot of energy,” Fahrer says. She adds the spirit of collaboration and contribution is still important, citing the Asheville Jewish Community Center as an example. “The JCC is a place where you don’t even have to be Jewish and can interact with the Jewish community. What makes that so important is it’s a way for people to interact from all different backgrounds.”
Fahrer doesn’t see prejudice against Jews in modern-day Asheville being a problem. “I think some things are still labeled, but it might be as simple as saying that person is Jewish. Personally, I’ve never had a problem,” she says.
A Home in Shalom’ville compiles the history of Asheville’s Jewish community, from little landmarks to big contributions. “Nobody’s really put all this history together. I’m simply trying to show that this small population of people had so much influence on Asheville to make it a better place. It’s part of Asheville’s history, but nobody’s looked at it from this perspective,” Fahrer says.
Sharon Fahrer will give a free talk at UNC Asheville’s Ramsey Library on Thursday, March 10, from 12:30-1:30 p.m. on how Jewish community members helped shape the university. Fahrer’s book is on sale at the Jewish Community Center and via its website jcc-asheville.org as well as at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, the Asheville Art Museum and the Asheville Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center gift shop.