Friday, October 8, 2010

Book Review: Jewish West Virgina

Guest post by Toby Anne Bird

Jewish West Virginia
by Julian H. Priesler

We, who are engaged in genealogical research, expect to find Jewish communities just about anywhere, but did you know that there has been an active and thriving Jewish population in West Virginia? This is all laid out in Julian H. Preisler’s delightful Jewish West Virginia, the latest in the series Images of America from Acadia Publishing which advertises itself as “the leading local history publisher in the United States.”

This slim volume is made up of vintage photos of Jewish West Virginians and their religious and civic institutions as well as their business enterprises, with text that annotates each photo. Each of its seven chapters is devoted to a geographical area of the state, from Beckley and Bluefield-Princeton covered in Chapter One to Wheeling and the Northern Panhandle covered in Chapter Seven.

In his introduction, Preisler, a professional genealogist who moved to West Virginia five years ago, presents the reader with a concise history of Jewish migration and settlement in West Virginia. He states that the first record of a Jewish settler was Alexander Heyman who, in 1843, was recorded living in Wheeling. Records reveal that soon after, in 1849, German Jews established a burial society in Wheeling. In Preisler’s overview of the development and evolution of the West Virginia Jewish community, he states that as industries grew, especially coal mining, opportunities for successful retail establishments followed which brought Jewish merchants to West Virginia.

The vintage photos and text that make up each chapter are engrossing. Many are similar to the wonderful sepia-toned cover photo taken in the 1940’s of a celebration of the Temple Youth Group of Bluefield’s Ahavath Sholom. Preisler includes photos of classes and other official synagogue groupings, as well as photos of prominent family groups, couples and individuals. For example, in Chapter Three, which covers the town of Huntington, we meet the Glazer family as well as the large and prominent Broh family. In Chapter Four, Preisler has a number of photos of early Martinsburg Jewish families that include members of the Snyder, Fine and Kusner families.

Synagogue architecture is of great interest to the author, and he has included many interior and exterior shots of West Virginia synagogues, those that no longer exist as well as ones that currently have active congregations. The 1925 photo he uses as the frontispiece of the book is of the construction of the sanctuary dome for Ohev Sholom’s new synagogue in Huntington which is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

In each chapter, Preisler documents how members of the Jewish community made their living. We get a sense of their presence in street shots which spotlight their store signs, and he includes exterior and interior photos of stores selling dry goods, women’s and men’s fashions, furniture, and jewelry.

He also includes photos of drug stores and electrical supply stores as well as full service department stores and movie theaters. There are also representative samples of vintage ads that had been created to publicize the merchandise for sale.

Some families established businesses that grew beyond the borders of West Virginia. For example, the Shoenbaum family from Charleston, West Virginia founded Shoney’s, a restaurant that grew into a chain that expanded into many states in the South. The Shoenbaums were prominent members of the community, known for their acts of philanthropy.

Preisler notes in his introduction that over the past thirty years the Jewish population of West Virginia has both shrunk and consolidated. As has happened elsewhere, many Jews who had been living in rural areas moved to larger towns and cities. Many young people went to college out-of-state and did not return. However, he makes the point that, despite demographic shifts, many West Virginia Jewish communities are thriving.

For more specific genealogical resources concerning the Jewish population of West Virginia, Julian Preisler, has constructed a useful website www.westvirginiajewishhistory.com which includes six links with very specific information. For example, one link will take you to a listing of Jewish cemeteries in West Virginia which then provides links to the burials that are available online. Another link will take you to a listing of the names, addresses and websites of Jewish institutions and another link lists well-known Jewish West Virginians.

Further information can also be found in the Jewish Encyclopedia which has an interesting article about Jewish West Virginia including the names of early settlers.

For those interested in other Jewish-related titles in Arcadia’s Images of America series, an additional seventy titles can be found at http://www.arcadiapublishing.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?

CONCLUSION

This pictorial history that documents the vibrant Jewish presence in West Virginia has been lovingly executed both on the part of the author and publisher. It is a welcome addition to the historical record and, of course, is a wonderful resource for Jewish genealogists.

BOOK REVIEWED BY
New Yorker, Toby Anne Bird, PhD, is a retired English professor and amateur genealogist as well as the author of an intriguing blog which features memoirs and other alternative sources for Jewish genealogists and students of Jewish history and culture.

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