Monday, December 13, 2010

The Jews of West Virginia-- Clarksburg and the Coming of the Messiah

The Jews of Clarksburg , West Virginia, Part II
My father , the late Rabbi William Weinberg, came to Clarksburg, West Virginia in 1963 and served as Rabbi of Etz Chaim Congregation till 1969.
Here was a worldly-wise man who had lived in Vienna, Berlin, Frankfurt, New York, and lastly, Washington, D.C. What could possibly satisfy him in a small town of at best 28,000 population at that time. It was a long 12 hour drive over a winding highway to his previous home, Washington, and a 4 to 5 hour drive, also over twisted terrain, to the nearest major Jewish community, Pittsburgh, PA.
When I was a student at New York University, my dorm-mates were perplexed by this town they had never heard of, except, almost, in a song by the TV-series rock group, The Monkeys, “ Take the Last Train to Clarksville”( but “ville” , not “burg”). Finally, they were satisfied that indeed, such a place existed, because, on one  of the last episodes of “ The Fugitive”, the hero escape through a tunnel, which, he is told, will take him into Clarksburg.
Nevertheless, he said, in a thought that presaged the universality of communications of the iphone and wi-fi  era, nothing is distant anymore—all the benefits of sophisticated society could be found through movies and television and a good record could substitute for a symphony orchestra. A man who had survived Nazi prisons, concentration camp, and exile in the farthest reaches of the Soviet Union could make his home anywhere.
In truth, this town, despite its size and geographic isolation had its own element of sophistication. It was the birthplace of noted Civil War General Stonewall Jackson (one of the members of the Jewish community , S. Joseph Birshtein, was himself an authority on Jackson).  The graduates of my high school, Washington Irving, went on to significant universities; a small neighboring college, Salem, had moved its center to Clarksburg and was drawing students to it  from New York City. There was a local amateur theater company and cultural events of its own.
It also had a Jewish community which supported the Etz  Chaim Congregation ( recently disbanded, however).  They were key players in the civil society.
There were two rival  pharmacy and general supplies stores along Main Street.  The stores constantly advertised promotions to draw customers one form the other. What was not known was that both stores belonged to the Gottlieb family. This played to the benefit of the other local merchants despite what may have seemed unfair competition. One year, a discount store, in the style of a Kmart or Target, first opened in the outskirts of town, offering a huge selection, deep discounts, and ,above all else, easy parking. This was devastating to the local business—here was a one-stop shop all location, so close, why shop locally.
This did not phase the Gottliebs- they simply upped the ante, began an even more intensive rivalry between their two stores, the local customers stayed in town to catch their bargains, and , on their way  in and out, shopped at the other local merchants. Business stayed in town.
Another successful local Jewish business was the Workingman’s Store, a men’s clothier that carried both work clothes, as the name indicated, as well as a line of dress suits. The founder, Berman, was in his 80’s when he went to visit Israel and climbed the long ascent  to Masada, to that date, the oldest man to have made the climb since Josephus time. ( I did the ascent myself when I was 20, and it left me breathing hard. A cable car has since made that ascent easier and no longer a challenge).
Jews from distant towns made their way to Clarksburg for Jewish education for their children. One such family would come in every Sunday from Elkins, at least an hours drive in winding roads, where they had a lumber mill.
On the Shabbat of their  child’s Bar Mitzvah, the grandfather came to shule, took one look at the president, and told the Rabbi- Oh, my gosh! I know who he is! I put him in jail overnight!”
No big crime here. The president,Mr. Weiner,  who ran a successful scrap metal business, had come as a poor immigrant from Lithuania, and started in the West Virginia towns as an itinerant peddler, a fine tradition started by the likes of the founders of Macy’s. At the same time, this Jewish resident of Elkins served as the mayor, sheriff, judge, clerk  all rolled in one. The peddler came to town and it turned out, the town had a rule against wandering peddlers. He had to cool his heels overnight in the local clinker . Many years later, this pillar of the Jewish community, and a generous philanthropist, would preside at the service of his jailor’s grandson.
Jewish life for a teenager consisted of the local AZA-BBG, the Bnai Brith Youth affiliate, with at most a minyan of members. Obviously, one of the greatest worries for their parents was interdating—with such a small pool to chose from,  young Jews didn’t easily date each other—they had grown up  together, afterall, and were too close. The big event of Jewish life for the teens, therefore, consisted of pilgrimages to our fellow teenagers in Uniontown, McKeesport, or the great Mecca for us, Pittsburgh, a good four hour drive over winding road. Occasionally, our counterparts would make the trek to Clarksburg in return. Here was the chance to find partners that were within the pale of acceptability.
There was never a problem to get a good turnout for services on a Friday evening or Saturday morning, but Shabbat Minhah( afternoon) was a different story. One way to guarantee the tenth man was to pay the congregation’s teenagers for their attendance. This worked well for a while, until, it was told, the teenagers began to organize, demanded a raise, and went on strike. The congregation, in turn, was not intimidated, and fired the strikers. They got the minyan without the hired help.
There was another method for getting the minyan. Across the street from the synagogue was a lodge, I believe it was the Elks, and it held a club card inside. Whenever they were ready for the tenth man, they would call the lodge and the manager would send one of his Jewish members across the street to join the services.
The teenagers, too, who had now been drafted into minyan service without pay, after the failed strike, had their own “lodge”. Next door to the synagogue was the Masonic Temple, which had a youth affiliate, DeMolay, with it’s own club room, featuring a pool table. Here it was that the Jewish youngsters would hang out, waiting for the minyan to start, and it was here that I learned my best shots.
One time, my father asked the president, the same peddler turned philanthropist, why he didn’t bring his elderly mother, who was in New York, to live with him in Clarksburg. After all, it would be no problem for him to hire caretakers for her, and this way, she could enjoy being with her family every day.
But Rabbi,, as you know, when the Moshiach will come, he will raise up the dead and bring them all to Eretz Yisroel.
My mother is worried- the Moshiach will never find Clarksburg!

1 comment:

  1. Having been born and raised in Clarksburg I found you piece very interesting. I have returned there of a few occasions and have shared some of my reflections in articles published in the Greater Phoenix Jewish News over the past eight years. If you or any of your readers would be interested, please go to, The changing song of the South and When Jews saved an Italian restaurant.

    There are a few interesting coincidences in your article. You mentioned the boy from Elkins’ Bar Mitzvah and the Berman family (The Workingmans (sic) Store). I was in Clarksburg in 2002, the day before that event and was invited to stay over. Unfortunately I was unable to do so. The keeper of the key for the Shul mentioned in that article was the last surviving Berman in town and yes he called his store The Workingman’s Store, albeit a mere shadow of it’s former self and then located on Main Street.

    When my family left Clarksburg the Gottlieb’s store, Fountain Drugs was not in competition with its self and was located on 4th Street near Trader’s alley.

    My father moved to Clarksburg in 1935. He opened Wally’s a workingman’s store, was in direct competition with the Berman’s and was located just a few doors down the street. Dad was forced to close his store in 1945 when he was drafted into the army.

    If you would like to learn more about Clarksburg’s history, go to, where you cannot only find a picture of Wally’s in 1935 but an ad for The Workingmans Store, located at 328 W. Pike. Note Wally’s was at 312 W. Pike. Julian Preisler has done a wonderful job of documenting WV Jewish communities. On the Clarksburg site is a link to an article “The Jews of Clarksburg” by Deborah Wiener, which is also quite interesting.

    I would love to communicate with you. My email is