The chances of two traditional, Hebrew-speaking Jewish men, one from Rhode Island and the other from Arizona, winding up in West Virginia for the recent National Endowment for the Humanities’ “Voices from the Misty Mountains and the Power of Storytelling” summer institute for teachers is surely quite slim.
We were part of a group of 25 teachers from around the country meeting for three weeks in July to explore Appalachian music, literature, theater arts, culture, and folk and musical arts. Based in Shepherdstown, the institute was led by Sylvia Shurbutt, an English professor and head of Shepherd University’s Appalachian Studies Program.
While there, we decided to explore Jewish life in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. To many Jews, even those living in West Virginia, the notion of Appalachian Jews seems improbable.
One of the first Jews we met was Marjorie Weingold, who invited us to her home and told us about life in Shepherdstown, where she has lived since 1990.
“A project on the Jews of Appalachia? My first thought was: ‘Well, that’s going to be skimpy,’” Weingold said after offering us ice-cold seltzer. “I can’t even think of Jewish people in relation to Appalachia. I can’t imagine Jewish people living in Appalachia. I mean, where would they come from? I don’t feel like I’m living in Appalachia.”
Before long, Weingold was describing how she and other area Jews are shaping and growing the town’s annual Contemporary American Theater Festival.
Shepherdstown’s 180-seat Marinoff Theater is named in recognition of a legacy endowment gift from Stanley Marinoff and in memory of his late wife Shirley, who was active in forming the CATF.
A few days later, Shepherdstown storyteller and musician Adam Booth, who founded the town’s monthly “Speak” storytelling series in 2013, offered us a different perspective on Appalachian Jewish identity as we sat sipping Arnold Palmers on a Sunday afternoon.
“Central to my work is letting others know about the people of Appalachia and dispelling the notion that Appalachia is all white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. I’m living proof of this. My family is half Jewish,” Booth told us.
“It’s central, and a lot draws on me being able to look back on my childhood and draw on my upbringing in Appalachia,” he said, recounting his youth in Huntington, West Virginia. “There was an image that the outside [world] was feeding me, an idea that Appalachia was a homogenous area. And it’s not. I’m a representation of that.”
Booth explained how the Speak series began.
“In 2013, I rented the Shepherdstown Community Club for seven times over eight months. I called up my friends around here and asked them if they would come out and tell stories. I sold tickets to pay the storytellers. By the end of the first season of the story series, I could tell people were asking if it would happen again. This is our sixth season of the series.”
We realized that though the Jewish community of the Eastern Panhandle was not large, it exerted an outsized cultural influence in the area, including in theater and storytelling.
This influence was also apparent when we, along with Professor Shurbutt, visited the nearby city of Martinsburg. We were met at the Berkeley County Historical Society by its president, Todd Funkhouser, and its curator, Carol Appenzellar. After some pleasantries, and some joshing about one of us being a northerner, Funkhouser commenced an account of Jewish influence in Martinsburg.
“I think the Jewish community was an indicator of the city’s artistic and cultural enhancement. The Martinsburg community’s artistic and cultural enhancement rose and fell with the Jewish community. There were once more than three dozen Jewish businesses in downtown Martinsburg. They brought theater and the library,” Funkhouser said.
“The Jewish community invested in the civic institutions and gave their time to the government institutions. They were pillars of the community. They invested back into the community. Not like Walmart. When the synagogue closed, that was the end of the Jewish community,” he lamented.
Funds from the dissolved congregation were donated to parks and libraries in the area. The Berkeley County Historical Society has a Jewish History Room, which houses a permanent exhibit that chronicles Jewish life in Martinsburg and displays artifacts from the closed synagogue.
Funkhouser and Appenzellar also took us to the Research and Archives Center next door and showed us some of its many documents related to the Jewish community.
After leaving the historical society, we headed to the Martinsburg home of Hannah Geffert, a civil rights activist, historian and retired professor. Over iced tea and homemade cupcakes, she spoke about Jewish life in Martinsburg.
“The Jewish families were very integrated into the community. There was a Jewish mayor,”
Geffert said, referring to Gene Diamond, who served for three terms, from 1972 to 1978. “One of the biggest social events here was the Purim Ball. Everyone in town would go. It was a big event for the area.”
“The downtown had lots of little stores – clothing stores, doctors’ offices,” she continued. “These stores were all Jewish. The rise and fall of downtown Martinsburg was connected to the rise and fall of the Jewish community. When Walmart came in, it shut down downtown.”
Geffert also spoke with us about Jewish Appalachian identity.
“I’ve lived in Appalachia most of my adult life. You know, there is a question of how much this is Appalachia. But yes, I feel very much like an Appalachian. My home is West Virginia.
“I’m a southerner. All my children know how to say ‘yes, ma’am,’ ‘no, ma’am,’ ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ And they all live in the south, but one.
“Jews are different here from those in other parts of the country. Jews growing up here are very involved in the experience of the community, especially if you raise your children here. The attitudes are different, not because we are Jews, but because of the larger community.”
Geffert elaborated on this distinctiveness: “Jews here tend to be more pro-gun ownership, to go hunting, to go fishing. I very much believe in self-defense and gun-ownership, after the Holocaust. If I go down, I’m going to go down fighting! I have two boys who served in the military, a daughter whose long-time romance was in the military and a niece who was in the U.S. Marine Corps. One of my boys is a state trooper.”
We were in search of a Jewish Appalachia and we believe we found it, as well as a sense of community with the Jews we met. The storytellers we encountered opened their hearts and minds to us, sharing their narratives. They embraced us and thereby enabled us to embrace the region in its diversity and complexity.
We thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for sponsoring and funding our participation in the institute and Sylvia Shurbutt for her support and assistance.
SHAI AFSAI (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Providence.
DAVID CEDOR (email@example.com) lives in Avondale, Arizona. His grandfather and uncles were Pennsylvania coal miners who raised their families in Appalachia.