BY JERRY STERNBERG
In 1840, Moses Weinstock arrived at the port of Charleston after a harrowing journey across Europe from Poland to escape the danger he and his family faced in their home country. He got a job as a “back peddler,” carrying merchandise on his back or on a mule as he trudged through the countryside selling such things as imported jewelry, laces and fragrances to the farmers’ wives.
In 1900, Siegfried Sternberg, whose family had been cattle traders in Germany, arrived at the port of Houston. He made his way to Asheville, where he eventually bought a cowhide business and became a very successful merchant.
In 1930, as a result of this and a number of other genetic and geographical events, a baby boy named Jerry was born in Biltmore Hospital.
No, he wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat or even a skullcap. He was, however, circumcised in accordance with Jewish ritual, though, of course, he didn’t enjoy the party.
My family attended a Reform temple on a regular basis, as well as observing many Jewish traditions in our home. At that time, Asheville had about 250 Jewish families and two synagogues.
I don’t know when I began to feel that I was somehow different from my Christian friends. I remember my mother telling a story about me coming home crying when I was about 4 or 5 after playing with a little girl down the street. My mother asked me what had happened, and I told her that little Mary had called me a “doo.” She asked me what I did, and I said I called her a “kitten.”
When I started grammar school at Claxton, almost all of the students and staff were Christian. We had excellent, dedicated teachers, but their religious upbringing did not leave much room for tolerance of the handful of students who didn’t share their spiritual background. Like our classmates, we were expected to participate in the daily Christian prayers and sing the Christian songs, and while we observed the Christian holidays, there was little recognition of or respect for ours. Some of us worked very hard to achieve “perfect attendance,” but we were not excused for Jewish holidays and quite often were given additional makeup work as punishment for our absences.
Ironically, however, one little Jewish boy got to play Santa Claus in the Christmas play because his father’s store lent the school a Santa suit.
When I was in fifth or sixth grade, we had a teacher who thought it would be a great idea to put a poster board on the wall displaying every classmate’s name. The purpose was to encourage the children to take part in religious activities. Every Monday morning, she would ask all the children who’d attended church the day before to hold up their hands. She would then affix a gold star to each name. Attending Sunday school, Wednesday night prayer meeting, vespers, etc., would earn additional stars.
It took five or six weeks for her to recognize that the two or three Jewish children’s names stood out because they had no stars. Oops.
Living in fear
In the late ’30s, antisemitism was on the rise in Europe and was spilling over to the U.S. The Jewish community had always strived to be accepted by their Christian neighbors, doing everything possible to earn their goodwill. Many were respected merchants who owned downtown stores and were always in the forefront of civic activities benefiting hospitals, the arts, local schools and youths.
Yet the Jewish community lived in great fear. The Ku Klux Klan was active, and right there on Charlotte Street sat the headquarters of the virulently antisemitic Silver Shirts, which was similar to the pro-Nazi German American Bund and other such hatemongering organizations.
Even as a young boy, I was aware that the intensity of local prejudice against Jews was increasing exponentially as the Nazi threat to the European Jews escalated. The arrival of Jewish refugees in our community reinforced this paranoia. In order for them to get asylum, they had to be sponsored by a financially responsible citizen and show evidence of having a job and the ability to avoid becoming an economic burden.
My father and other Jewish business owners sponsored many of these refugees, most of whom came from Germany. Several of them were relatives who visited our home on a regular basis. My father, who spoke German, taught us a few words and phrases so we could make the visitors welcome.
I will never forget hearing one of these refugees, who spoke English, telling our family about the horrors of Kristallnacht: how the Nazis had broken into their home, beaten them and smashed their furniture. Some of those thugs were neighbors with whom they had at least a passing relationship.
During the late ’30s and early ’40s, Asheville’s growing Jewish community was very careful to keep a low political profile for fear of triggering an antisemitic backlash. We avoided discussing Jewish matters in public: If my mother wanted to do so while we were riding a bus, for example, she would use the code word “wedge,” which is basically “Jew” spelled backward.
B’nai B’rith, the oldest and most prestigious Jewish organization in the nation, established the powerful Anti-Defamation League, which was dedicated to fighting antisemitism and racism in our country. Almost every place in the U.S. that had a measurable Jewish population had a B’nai B’rith chapter dedicated to the health and welfare of the local Jewish community.
The Asheville chapter held its meetings on the second floor of the S&W Cafeteria on Patton Avenue. With the rise in antisemitism, members found it necessary to post a guard outside the door, fearing the possibility of violence.
This led to one of the members declaring that “We Jews should not have to live in fear like this. We need our own place.” That night in 1939 this group of true visionaries, my father among them, dedicated themselves to building what became the first independent Jewish community center in North Carolina — and remained the only one for decades.
According to my research, I am the oldest Jewish Asheville native who still lives here. Watch for “The War Years,” the next installment in this new series, in an upcoming issue of Xpress.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An anthology of his columns is available from Pisgah Legal Services for a donation of $25 or more. To order your copy, visit pisgahlegal.org/jerry, or send a check labeled “Jerry’s book” to: PLS, P.O. Box 2276, Asheville, NC 28802. All proceeds support the nonprofit’s work.