Friday, March 11, 2016
Why Did Immigrating Jews Choose Cincinnati, Ohio?
By Rick D. Cauthen
Historically, I always used to wonder why my grandparents and great grandparents chose to leave Eastern Europe and settle in Cincinnati, Ohio. I mean, I certainly understand that if they were traveling where family had already existed, it certainly would stand to reason that they would want to choose to live in a destination in the United States where family was already present. However, with regard to my family’s ancestry, it was my great Uncles Benjamin Schear and Leo Schear, who traveled first from Kursenai, Lithuania to Cincinnati, Ohio in the year 1890. I can’t tell you how many years I have wondered why on earth they chose Cincinnati to travel to. I mean, couldn’t they have chosen something like Miami, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; or even Los Angeles, California. Of course by now you probably have surmised based on those options that I’m not particularly fond of the winter months that we have to endure here in Hamilton County, Ohio. True, I despise winter, if it had been my choice, I would’ve selected something more like Honolulu, Hawaii. Although when I think about it, that probably would’ve been more challenging, considering Hawaii wasn’t even a state back in 1890.
It wasn’t just the Schear line in my family tree, it was also my Goldhoff line. My great-grandfather Abraham Goldhoff also left his home in what was Courland, now Latvia, back in 1888 to travel to Cincinnati. Of course I have to ask myself the same question. Why did my great-grandfather choose to travel to Cincinnati? Yes, there was a Jewish community that already existed in the Cincinnati region. However, neither Abraham Goldhoff or Benjamin and Leo Schear were coming to a destination where they already had family. In other words, they were the original pioneers in those families. So if you were a pioneer in your family, where would you choose to lay down your roots? Why choose Cincinnati over any other city in the country? That’s what I wanted to know and understand. What was it about Cincinnati that was pulling them here? There always had to be some sort of a drawing card as to why our ancestors made the decisions that they did. Why did they choose one destination over another?
In my ever pursuit of genealogical research I came across what I believed was probably the answer as to why Cincinnati was selected. Although I realize that my answer is somewhat pretentious. I actually believe that they came to Cincinnati because it was in fact “Cincinnati.” In other words, Cincinnati itself became a highly favored destination for Eastern European Jews to settle in much in the same way that travelers might have feelings towards New York City or Chicago. We all understand that those two cities are major travel destinations in the United States. Well, believe it or not, Cincinnati was much the same during the heavy period of Jewish migration to the US, more specifically, the years of 1880 through 1924.
As a child, I couldn’t have imagined that I was living in a city that was perceived by our Jewish ancestors as a destination holding great desirability. I was actually living in a city with a fairly heavy amount of Jews with respect to many other cities in the United States. I was naïve to think that all United States cities had had just as large a Jewish population that was located in Cincinnati. Of course there were specific neighborhoods within the greater Cincinnati area that were more heavily concentrated with Jews. During my growing up years, which would’ve been the 60s and 70s, the heaviest Jewish populations were located in Roselawn, Golf Manor, and Amberley Village. Going back to the days of my great grandparents and grandparents, the Jewish populations were located in downtown and then moving out to Avondale, North Avondale and Bond Hill. Additionally, there was a Jewish population located just across the Ohio River in Northern Kentucky, namely Newport and Covington. It was at least large enough population to support two Jewish congregations back in the early 1900s. However, the Jewish population located in Northern Kentucky eventually shrank to the point that both of those Jewish congregations closed. If you ask me today which neighborhoods have the heaviest Jewish population, I would languish to say that there isn’t such a thing any longer. I believe that as time has marched on the Jewish population has spread over the entire greater Cincinnati region. This is just evidence of how Jews have completely assimilated into American culture as opposed to the shtetls they lived in back in Eastern Europe.
The concept of shtetl life (shtetls were small intimate villages) explains why Jews tended to concentrate in certain neighborhoods. It was important to the Jews that they selected areas that a good amount of Jewish families was already living there. Additionally, they would’ve wanted to be within walking distance of a Jewish synagogue or temple. There aren’t as many observant Jews that have a strong need to be within walking distance of a congregation or even groceries that specialized in kosher foods. Society and culture are not stagnant. They both undergo an evolution as time marches on.
Of course it is a well-known fact that Cincinnati was a very popular for Germans to immigrate to. Another known fact of Jewish history was that Jews that resided in Germany suffered much more severe anti-Semitism earlier than those that lived throughout the rest of Eastern Europe. As a result, German Jews began to immigrate to Cincinnati as early as 1820, but with much greater numbers starting in 1850. It was these early arriving Jews that would fight in the Civil War. Since Jews always tended to follow where there were already communities of Jews residing, consequentially it makes sense that a large number of Ashkenazic Jews followed the German Jews, during the years of 1880 to 1924.
One important issue to note was that the Jews that resided in Cincinnati, did not face the anti-Semitism that Jews would have faced in the southern states of the United States. States that would have been slave states in Pre-Civil War history. It was actually quite the opposite. The Jews arriving early in to Cincinnati were met with much esteem and highly respected by their fellow citizens. Cincinnati was a city of goodwill and understanding where Jews and Christians interacted freely. Jews and Christians in early Cincinnati interacted socially as well. We know this from handwritten letters that have been left behind.
Many of the Eastern European Jews that were still living back in the old country, would hear from the letters sent to family about the city of Cincinnati being a great place to come to. It was through this Jewish grapevine that Cincinnati became more and more well-known as a new home for Jews wanting to immigrate to America. It would be a destination that would be ripe with economic promise and social acceptance. Considering the world of hatred and discrimination, these Jews suffered in their lives within Eastern Europe, is it any wonder that they chose Cincinnati as their new home. I think not.
Sarna, Jonathan D., and Nancy H. Klein. The Jews of Cincinnati. Cincinnati: Center for Study of the American Jewish Experience on the Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 1989 (see esp. pages 1-3)