Book digs into lost local history

Stories of Jewish Dayton recovers long-buried episodes of life in the Miami Valley

By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer

On July 12, The History Press published my second book, Stories of Jewish Dayton. It’s a thank-you to the Jewish community of my adoptive home. Stories of Jewish Dayton honors 25 years of Jewish journalism here in the form of The Dayton Jewish Observer, which the Jewish Federation has entrusted to my care since I was hired to create a Jewish newspaper for the Miami Valley in January 1996. It’s been quite a ride.

In short order, I fell in love with Dayton, its Jewish community, the history of both, and how they intertwine. Dayton has been very good to me and my family.

Stories of Jewish Dayton grew out of my first book, Jewish Community of Dayton (Arcadia, 2018), a visual history of Jewish life here, with an emphasis on what set Jewish Dayton apart: for example, Arthur Welsh, the first-known Jewish airplane pilot in America; the first National Workshop on Catholic-Jewish Relations, held here in 1971; and opera star Jan Peerce giving the final performance of his career with the acclaimed Beth Abraham Youth Chorale in 1982.

For that book, I composed a list of all the tall tales I had heard about Jewish Dayton in order to find out which were true, which were false, and which were somewhere in between.

The Oakwood And Dayton View Trolley. Dayton Metro Library.

This was how I stumbled onto long-forgotten episodes that kept pulling me back to find out more. After Jewish Community of Dayton came out, the Jewish Federation offered me the opportunity to manage the Dayton Jewish Genealogical Society as a project of the Federation.

I proposed to Jewish Federation CEO Cathy Gardner and to the Jewish Genealogy Society’s then-president Molly Blumer that, along with running the society’s operations, we could expand it to encompass the historical research and writing I love so much. That was the beginning of Miami Valley Jewish Genealogy and History and our well-followed Facebook page, Growing Up Jewish In Miami Valley, Ohio.

To continue with this work is a joy. Eight of the 12 chapters in Stories of Jewish Dayton came out of the research I’ve pursued since 2018. All of the chapters have been published in some form in the pages of The Observer. I’ve significantly expanded and updated them with more details and my latest finds for Stories of Jewish Dayton.

Several people weave their way in and out of multiple chapters of the new book. One who is present almost throughout is Rabbi David Lefkowitz, the greatest leader of Dayton’s Jewish community of his time, also one of the most important leaders in Dayton’s general community in those days. Over his 20 years in Dayton, the rabbi had his hand in virtually every cause to improve the quality of life for all in the Gem City. In Stories of Jewish Dayton, he almost takes on the role of a familiar guide.

A domestic worker with a child on Dayton’s North Robert Boulevard, where affluent German Jews lived before the Great Flood of 1913 devastated the area. Dayton Metro Library.

Those who read the book will notice that two chapters in particular comprise half its length. Both are about racial hatred and race relations: the first is from the beginning of the 20th century, the second from the century’s end.

Much of this history has been forgotten or misunderstood — or possibly never learned at all. Now, as communities across the United States attempt to reckon with and dismantle racism once again, maybe this time we can learn from what went wrong in the past.

In several ways, the challenges our Jewish community faces today are not so different from those we stared down a century ago.

Even amid fearful setbacks, I believe the American dream lives. For those in America who haven’t yet fully tasted the American dream, it is our responsibility to help that happen to the best of our ability, as Jews and as Americans.

To read the complete August 2021 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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