Snuff, square yarmulkes and bar mitzvah memories

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Washington Jewish Week

February 9, 2006

To prepare me for my bar mitzvah back in the 1930s, I had a good teacher — my father, Moshe Aharon Rosen. In addition to being a shochet and mohel, my father established a cheder in one room of our home, teaching forthcoming bar mitzvah boys how to read Hebrew and preparing them for their haftarah.

Tuition was $1 a week.

We lived at 713 4th St., S.W., in D.C., the former residence of Rabbi Moshe Yoelson, whose son was the famous movie actor Al Jolson.

Empire chicken and turkey products were not yet on market shelves. Housewives had to purchase live chickens and take them to the schochet of their choice — or have the chickens delivered (no charge).

I remember delivering chickens to Rabbi Joshua Klavan’s residence on F Street S.W. to schecten and fliken, to slaughter and pluck. The charge was 15 cents. Going rate for a bris was $10.

My dad was a very active member of Talmud Torah, served as recording secretary, read the Torah every Saturday, blew the shofar on the High Holidays and davened Mincha every Yom Kippur.

I don’t remember the subject of my bar mitzvah speech, but definitely recall that I did not have to dodge any candies. In the 1930s, candy, if available, was only eaten, never thrown.

All the b’nai mitzvah wore a plain square yarmulke, now out of style, rather than the present imprinted kippah. I’m still researching who changed the style, when and why.

The custom at our shul, Talmud Torah, was that immediately following his haftarah portion, the “new man” would walk back to the rear of the synagogue, through the lobby and upstairs to the women’s section, locate and kiss his mother, and then return to the men’s section.

The standard bar mitzvah kiddush menu featured herring and onions, kichel, wine, liquor and usually tomato sardines.

During my youth, I can’t recall attending any gala bar mitzvah celebrations like today’s events featuring a gourmet meal, fancy deserts with dancing, candlelight services, games, balloons, table setting, etc.

Rabbi Klavan, whose son, Hillel, is rabbi emeritus of Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah, officiated at my service. His sermons were delivered in Yiddish and when he walked past a seated congregant, that person would show respect by rising from his bench.

There were two items always on the bima table that have vanished today. The first was a container of snuff (pulverized tobacco inhaled through the nostrils), called smek tabak in Yiddish. Perhaps snuff was popular because obviously no one could light a cigarette on the Sabbath.

The second bima item no longer seen was a leathery-type paddle resting on a leathery base. On the first day of each new month, and on special festival, the shamas (sexton) would strike the base with the paddle announcing, for example, a prayer that might be said only during certain times of the year.

Larry Rosen



Remembering WWII’s Jewish prisoners

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Washington Jewish Week

June 24, 2004

One subject not discussed among the many World War II stories that have been surfacing because of the World War II Memorial dedication is treatment of Jewish American prisoners of war captured by the Germans.

After asking fellow veterans in my army unit, the 42d Infantry Division, who were POWs, “To your knowledge, were Jewish American POWs treated differently than non-Jewish captives?” and after doing some research, I’ve learned that the answer in many cases is definitely, “Yes.”

Jewish prisoners who did not discard their dog tags that indicated “H” for Hebrew or who looked Jewish were separated from other prisoners and not seen again.

David Willetts, who is not Jewish, told me that the German commanders questioned him for a long time, demanding his family history because his first name was David. One ex-prisoner witnessed a Jewish POW being beat up. His eyeglasses were smashed, leaving him to be nearly blind during his entire captivity.

A documentary video shown on public TV, Berga, Soldiers of Another War, related how a German commander who issued orders for Jewish soldiers to identify themselves was not satisfied with the number of men who complied with his request.

He then selected more than 300 prisoners who he thought looked Jewish or had Jewish-sounding last names, as well as some trouble makers, to go to Berga, a satellite of the Buchenwald concentration camp, where they suffered atrocities alongside Jewish slave laborers from other concentration camps.

A periodical titled Ex-POW Bulletin, Voice of American Ex-Prisoners of War, published stories of Berga prisoners. A few comments were: Prisoners had to dig tunnels and blast through slate. Many lost arms and legs in blasting incidents. Meals consisted of a cup of ersatz coffee, a brown liquid for breakfast, and dinner of brown bread divided among a number of men. Some of the Americans were blackmailed by other prisoners, who threatened to tell the Germans they were Jewish unless they gave them their food.

Men died of typhus, malnutrition, overwork, hanging, shooting and infection. In three and a half months, one out of five Americans were dead at Berga.

One Jewish POW, who was liberated, ended up in a hospital and stated he had to sign an order pledging not to discuss being in Berga before the Army would release him. He felt the government suppressed the bad treatment because many Germans were being brought in as scientists in the space program during the Cold War with Russia.

Many of these Germans were former SS officials. Some Jews have stated, “I am an American first, Jewish second.” Had they been prisoners of war in German camps, that statement would have been reversed.

Larry Rosen



Slots equal addicts

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Washington Jewish Week

In reply to Richard Greenberg’s article, “Slots a bad bet?” (WJW, Oct. 23), my response is a big “yes.” Although the legalizing of slot machines in Maryland might add huge sums of money to help its budget crisis, it would also produce a huge number of new gambling addicts whose addiction could destroy existing happy family relationships.

Both Jewish and non-Jewish Maryland residents who occasionally play the slots in West Virginia or Delaware, and new first-time gamblers, could find it easier to pull the levers at a Maryland gambling facility and increase their desires to “get lucky.”

As a senior, I have observed the growth of area gambling, recalling that many D.C. residents played the illegal “numbers game” during the ’40s, many of whom, I’m sure, became addicted. Unlike today’s legal lottery, which offers many different games, numbers gambling was confined to choosing three numbers, selected from the winners of designated races at arranged horse-racing tracks. Gamblers during this period would place their bets, not at lottery machine locations, but with individuals who recorded the bets on small pads. The “number writers” worked on commissions and turned the bets into selected backers.

Gambling has been around, and can be an enjoyable experience — but for those folks who engage in this “fun” too often, the result can be gambling addiction, which is not fun.




Remembering 1968 riot

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Washington Jewish Week

As April 4, 2009, the 41st anniversary of the 1968 D.C. riot, arrives, I want to thank Washington Jewish Week for the many articles that you published about the destruction of my D.C. drug store when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination triggered that riot.

To those who weren’t around 41 years ago, I just want to mention that during this riot, most of the victims who sustained great losses were the merchants who operated small businesses, and the majority of these merchants were Jewish. The majority of the riot victims, including myself, did not reopen their business establishments.

The most informative book ever published on the D.C. riot is Ten Blocks From the White House, by Ben Gilbert and The Washington Post staff. The book is now out of print.

I have donated many photos and articles on the riot to the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.






Second visit

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Washington Jewish Week

There is a possibility that the vicious anti-Semite James Von Brunn, who allegedly murdered an innocent guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (“Once again, ‘never again,’ ” WJW, June 18), was making his second visit to this great institution.

As a former member of the 42d Infantry Rainbow Division, recognized as a liberator of the Dachau concentration camp, I was invited to the dedication of the USHMM in 1993 with a group of my fellow veterans. The ceremony was held outside, in back of the museum, with hundreds of chairs provided for the many guests. Due to the huge attendance, a jumbo screen was provided so that the many visitors would have an opportunity to see the principal speakers, President Bill Clinton, Elie Wiesel and others.

Prior to the ceremony, and during parts of the program, many voices way in the back could be heard shouting, “Six million lies, six million lies!”

The uninvited haters, many of whom could have been buddies of Von Brunn, and, as mentioned, possibly Von Brunn himself, apparently desired to let the huge crowd know that Holocaust deniers were still alive and well. They didn’t want to miss an opportunity to express their feelings at this great occasion.




Hearty ‘mazel tov’

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Washington Jewish Week

As a former active member of the Shaare Tefila congregation when it was located in the Riggs Park neighborhood, I wish a hearty mazel tov to all its members, who, after praying in different locations for five years, finally have plans to move soon into a new location (“Nomads no more,” WJW, July 7).

Reflecting on the history of D.C.-area synagogues with which I have been affiliated, it appears that most have experienced moving to different locations, often merging with other shuls.

When I grew up in Southwest D.C., I attended Congregation Talmud Torah. The Southwest neighborhood underwent redevelopment during the ’50s, at which time that synagogue was demolished. After moving into B’nai Israel’s former location and also the Hebrew Academy, Talmud Torah merged with Ohev Sholom. A new shul was built and dedicated in 1960, known as Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah Congregation.

After serving as spiritual leader, Rabbi Hillel Klavan retired in 2002 and was followed by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld in 2004. Many new members have joined this congregation, now known as Ohev Sholom-the National Synagogue.

After Shaare Tefila moved to the White Oaks neighborhood in Silver Spring, my family moved to Silver Spring, near Temple Israel located on University Boulevard, where my two sons became bar mitzvah and my daughter was confirmed.

Eventually Temple Israel merged with Beth Tikva, now known as Tikvat Israel in Rockville; Beth Sholom moved and finally built a new shul in Potomac; and B’nai Israel moved from the District to its present location in Rockville. I davened at all those synagogues, including Har Tzeon now located in Silver Spring.

As people move, and some synagogues move and merge in the D.C. area, let us hope that shuls continue to grow throughout the world, and, if felt necessary, move on.



Reunion, of sorts

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Washington Jewish Week

April 22, 2010 | Kredo, Adam

Morton Brooks was twice a victim of World War II: first as a prisoner of war, and then as a concentration camp inmate.

It’s an unusual fate that befell about 350 American soldiers who were captured by the Germans and then interned at Berga, a satellite slave labor camp linked to Buchenwald.

Brooks’ transformation from soldier to survivor shocked Larry Rosen, a veteran who fought in the same Army division but hadn’t learned of soldiersurvivors until a few years ago when he was scanning books at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“Nobody knows that American prisoners of war ever become survivors,” Rosen, 86, a Rockville resident, said in an interview Monday.

After reading about the harsh treatment Brooks suffered at the hands of his Nazi captors, Rosen said he began e-mailing and calling the 84-year-old Boynton Beach, FIa., resident to learn more.

“Larry came across my . name in a book about the 42nd [Infantry Rainbow] Division,” Brooks recalled. “He become interested and contacted me and we’ve been communicating since.”

Last week, the two veterans met for the first time at the District’s Mandarin Hotel, which housed out-of-town liberators during the USHMM’s Days of Remembrance events.

Aside from last Thursday’s Capitol Rotunda event, liberators participated in several other events, including a tour of the museum the previous day. Brooks also participated in a panel discussion last Thursday morning, before the Capitol ceremony, in which he recalled his experience alongside a Japanese American and African American, who each recalled his own tribulations during World War II.

“We got to see what each of us looked like,” Brooks laughed, explaining that if it weren’t for Rosen, he wouldn’t have heard about the museum’s remembrance events. “I guess we will continue to be in touch.” – Adam Kredo


Growing up in the Southwest – D.C., that is

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Washington Jewish Week

October 14, 2010 | Rosen, Larry

After concluding Sabbath services at the Ohev Sholom-the National Synagogue, 16th and Jonquil streets in Northwest D.C, Harry Goldberg, a wellknown D.C-area attorney, and I would often share memories of growing up in old Southwest D.C, at the weekly shul kiddush.

Before Harry, who was in his early 90s, passed away on Sept. 4, we would both recall attending Ohev Sholom when it began as Congregation Talmud Torah, located at 467 E. St., S.W.

During the ’50s, the synagogue was demolished, when the Southwest neighborhood underwent redevelopment.

Harry’s parents had emigrated from Latvia in 1904, and operated a small grocery at 413 4 1/2St., S.W.

My family moved from Palestine, then under Turkish rule (before it became Israel), to Cheyenne, Wyo., in 1922, where I was born, a Jewish cowboy. In 1927, my family moved to Washington, D.C., into a home at 713 4 1/2 St., S.W., vacated by Moses Yoelson, father of the famous entertainer, Al Jolson.

My dad, in addition to being a shochet and mohel, also operated a cheder, Hebrew school, in our house. Harry recalled that he received lessons from my father, reading Hebrew and preparing for his bar mitzvah. Tuition was approximately $1 a week.

We both remembered that square-type yarmulkes, now out of style, were worn by most congregants. On the bima table, there was always a container of snuff, available for sniffing by all adults, and a leathery type paddle that the shamas (sexton) would strike on the bima table to call attention to special holiday prayers. On bar mitzvah celebrations, the new young men would exit the synagogue, and ascend steps to the upper ladies’ section to kiss their mothers.

Small groceries were located on nearly every corner, operated mostly by Jewish merchants who either slept in the back of the business or above the store. Additional entrepreneurs also operated small tailor, variety and dry goods stores (selling pants, dresses, shirts, suits, etc.), with their residences in the back or over the store.

Both Harry and I recalled that the schools, movies, and buses were segregated. The Ashley movie house at 505 7th St., S.W., admitted only white residents, and the Jewell movie location, on 4 1/2 St., was open to the African American public.

An additional synagogue, Voliner Anshe Sfard, at 607 4 1/2 St., S.W., founded in 1908, now a townhouse, years later became the Beth Sholom shul, now in Potomac.

St. Dominic’s Church, still located at 6th and E streets, S.W., was left standing during the Southwest redevelopment, and is still open to the public.

As time progressed, 4 1/2 St., S.W., was officially changed to 4th Street, S.W.

Rabbi Moshe Horwitz, who lived at 484 Maryland Ave., S.W., served the Congregation Talmud Torah from 1912 to 1935. His son, Alec, became a wellknown and outstanding surgeon in the D.C. area.

After Rabbi Horwitz, Joshua Klavan became the rabbi in 1936, until 1953, delivering his sermons in Yiddish. Rabbi Joshua Klavan’s son, Rabbi HiDeI Klavan, followed his father’s footsteps, from 1954 to 2002.

A Southwest neighborhood mall that became deserted has been replaced with new office towers; a new Safeway supermarket has risen, featuring a food court and underground parking.

The Arena Stage theater has had a complete $125 million makeover, and a complete redevelopment is scheduled for the waterfront.

In April, I had an unusual experience: After 67 years, I spent a night in Southwest again, this time in the luxury Mandarin Oriental hotel located in the 1300 block of Maryland Avenue, where I attended an army reunion.

[Author Affiliation]

Larry Rosen lives in Rockville.

Rosen, Larry


Forty years after the D.C. riot

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Washington Jewish Week

March 27, 2008 | Rosen, Larry

The 40th anniversary of the 1968 riot, triggered by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., occurs on April 4. During the riot, my drugstore, Smith Pharmacy, 2518 14th St., N.W, which I had owned and operated for nine years, was burned down, becoming one of the 1,634 District businesses damaged or destroyed, resulting in some $24 million damage (a lot of money back then).

According to the most informative book on the ’68 riot, Ten Blocks From the White House, by Ben Gilbert and The Washington Post staff, “It was generally the white businessmen – in many cases the Jewish merchants – who suffered the most.

“Nearly half of the city’s 383 liquor dealers suffered damage and theft during the riot – 37 stores burned, 52 were partially looted, 82 looted of most of their stock.

“Store shelves were loaded when the riot occurred. In addition to their usual heavy first-of-the-month merchandise, the dealers had added to their supplies in anticipation of Easter and Passover.”

Like myself, my brother, Sam, decided not to reopen his neighborhood 5 and 10 on Georgia Avenue – which he had operated for the previous 20 years after it was looted. My brother Phil’s almost new building, which was leased to a liquor dealer, also burned down.

At the time of this riot, D.C. officials should have been aware that more than 300 riots had occurred throughout the entire country between 1965 and 1968, resulting in 200 deaths and the destruction of several thousand businesses (“Burn, Baby, Burn,” Jonathan Bean, associate professor of history at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale). Yet, the D.C. officials summoned the National Guard late Friday afternoon (from gas station pay phones), a day after the riot began, indicating that no concrete preparations in case of a similar destruction in the nation’s capital had ever been made. The Guard arrived Friday evening to a city already in flames.

Many of my friends always asked the same question: “How did you make out on insurance?” My response has always been the same: “Not enough reimbursement to cover my total loss. There was some coverage for loss of inventory, fixture, and business interruption, but there was no insurance for good will,” the livelihood value attributed to a business.

“Good will” is normally listed on a business sales contract as an asset.

Apparently, the D.C. council was aware of insurance reimbursement policies when its president, John Hechinger, suggested to then-D.C. Mayor Walter Washington in May 1968 that “merchants be reimbursed for all losses not covered by insurance such as good will.” The suggestion was ignored.

Although I was not a pharmacist, I managed to operate a profitable drugstore and luncheonette, having received experience from working for nine years in a local wholesale drug firm that sold pharmaceuticals, patent medicines and other merchandise normally sold in drugstores. I enjoyed my job and got used to working more than the customary 40-hour work week. After the riot, I owned and operated some newsstands and gift shops, but enjoyed operating Smith Pharmacy most of all.

A new Target and other nationally known businesses have opened in the Columbia Heights neighborhood where I operated my pharmacy.

All the structures that housed the businesses on the 2500 block of 14th Street in Northwest have been demolished. The sole occupant on the block today is a Boys-Girls Club.

In the same way that our national security officials have taken measures to protect us from terror attacks, our federal and state authorities should also be prepared to restrain any group that threatens the businesses and properties of hard-working Americans.

[Author Affiliation]

Larry Rosen is a Rockville resident.

Rosen, Larry