Join me for a walk in Southwest D.C.

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Washington Jewish Week

May 18, 2006 | Rosen, Larry

Rabbis Shmuel Herzfeld and Yossif Pollak have asked me to lead a tour back to Southwest D.C., where our synagogue, Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue, originated.

Having grown up at 713 4 1/2 Street S.W., from 1927 to 1943 in a house previously occupied by Rabbi Moshe Yoelson, father of the famous entertainer, Al Jolson, I have many memories of life in this old neighborhood.

My father, a shochet and a mohel, at first performed the ritual slaughtering of chickens in our backyard. Subsequently, he moved to Paul Clarke’s live poultry shop, then at 1105 Maine Ave., S.W., where he worked in one section of the business. The going rate to schecht and flik, kill the chicken and pluck the feathers, was 15 cents.

The Southwest section was called “the island” – it was isolated from the rest of the District by a canal that was later filled up.

Around 1850, a handful of recent arrivals from Germany opened a few little store in Southwest and settled there. Around 1900, an influx of Russian and Polish Jews arrived in the area, growing to about 190 families in 1920.

Because little capital was required to open a grocery, most of the arriving Jews entered into this business, borrowing money from relatives or the Hebrew Loan Society. Often, wholesalers extended credit, and soon, groceries sprang up on just about every corner. Dry goods stores, tailor, shoe repair and variety shops also opened their doors, with most proprietors sleeping in the same location as the business.

After meeting in a small wooden building, Congregation Talmud Torah was built in 1906 at 467 E St., S.W., with a membership of 36 families. The synagogue served as a hub of activities and acted as the neighborhood country club.

Around 1954, the Southwest area began massive redevelopment, with all dwellings disappearing by 1961.

After the E Street synagogue was demolished during the redevelopment of the area, it merged in 1958 with Ohev Sholom at Fifth and I streets, N.W. The present synagogue is now at 16th and Jonquil streets, N.W.

Another synagogue, the Voliner Anshe Sfard, at 607 4 1/2 Street, was founded in 1908, later adopting the name Beth Sholom. After a few moves, that synagogue ended up on 11825 Seven Locks Rd., Potomac. A modern townhouse exists today on the former location of the Voliner Anshe Sfard synagogue at 607 Fourth St., S.W.

Our tour will focus on the former busiest blocks of 4 1/2 Street, later changed to Fourth Street, from what was K Street to E Street. The construction of the Waterfront Metro, Waterside Mall and the F Street freeway resulted in the disappearance of some of those streets. Other former Southwest residents and places will be remembered.

While most tours focus on existing buildings, home, statues, shops, etc., our tour will focus on the many memories that still linger of the once-existing life in old Southwest. Among my many memories is that this area, prior to redevelopment, had little crime and was a neighborhood where whites and blacks got along.

[Author Affiliation]

Larry Rosen lives in Rockville. He invites the community to join him for his tour on Sunday, beginning at 2 p.m. at the Southwest Waterfront Mall, Fourth and M streets (on Metro’s Green Line). A free bus will depart from Ohev Shalom on 16th Street at 1:15 p.m.

Rosen, Larry

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