I don’t want to pat myself on the back too hard. After all, one must always keep their ego in check. But in my many years as a reporter, I’ve written about a lot of topics: murders, suicides, interfaith relations, immigration, neighborhoods, education, politics, spirituality, discrimination, sexual abuse, you name it. I once even covered a dog fashion show, believe it or not, in Hampstead. (A docile, doe-eyed beagle named Penny emerged the victor, if memory serves correct).
But never – and I mean never – in all of my professional years have I received an avalanche of responses from readers about an article like I have about my recent story on what I call the “mystery building” on S. Caroline Street in East Baltimore. I can’t tell you how many calls, letters and emails I’ve received on this matter—all for an article that I almost didn’t write because, frankly, I thought a lot of people would consider it a bit irrelevant, silly and provincial.
How did it all begin? Well, about a year ago, I was driving through East Baltimore, on my way to Fells Point or someplace like that, when I noticed an old, church-looking building. I love old architecture and wondered to myself if this abandoned building—padlocked and surrounded by weeds and broken glass in a not-so-safe section of town—might have once been a shul. I noticed the cornerstone, and sure enough, there was a Hebrew inscription etched into it, with the year “1925.”
But then I looked up, and I saw an insignia at the top of the building with a Star of David and with what appeared to be a dollar sign in the middle of it.
Dollar sign?! Huh? It blew my mind. Why would a dollar sign be in the middle of a Star of David? (Anti-Semitism? A Jewish bank? A Hebrew loan society?) Then, I parked, got out of my car and took a closer look at the cornerstone. There was a Psalm in Hebrew written on it, but also a reference to the Gospel of Matthew. You don’t have to be a crack reporter to know something was very different about this building. (And not too kosher.)
So I decided to go to my trusted sources on this one – Gilbert Sandler, whom I call the Bard of Jewish Baltimore, and Dr. Deborah R. Weiner, research historian and family history coordinator at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. To my amazement, I stumped these two Jewish Baltimore experts, something that doesn’t happen too often. Deb’s hunch was that the building used to belong to Hebrew-Christians, or Messianic Jews, who reached out to the Jews of East Baltimore in the first part of the 20th century.
But I wanted more information, especially about that vexing dollar-sign Mogen David. So I decided to open the field and write an article about it, seeing if anyone in the community had any answers, recollections or insights. And to my amazement and delight, I’ve been flooded with interest. One older gentleman even told me that the article was the main topic of conversation at a recent gathering for senior citizens at Beth El Congregation, and I know of other recent situations in the community where it’s been widely discussed.
I’m not going to tell you yet what I’ve come to learn about this building. With the help of many people, I believed I’ve pieced it all together – for the most part – and plan to write a follow-up article in the Jewish Times (I don’t want to scoop myself).
But I will tell you one thing I’ve learned in this process.
There’s a feeling out there that in our society today, people don’t care about history. “It’s old news” – that’s the conventional wisdom. We practically don’t teach history in our schools. I’m astounded by how little history is taught in my children’s public school. As a result, most kids (and subsequently adults) think it’s boring and irrelevant. It has no meaning in their lives (unless it’s taught with the rapid-fire special effects and uber-concise narratives of the History Channel).
But this article has proven to me that besides the fact that people love a good mystery, they also have an unquenchable thirst for history, whether it be Jewish history or Baltimore history or whatever. The future may be a mystery, but so is the past in many respects. And for the most part, analyzing history is the only way that we can get an inkling of what’s ahead. We need to know history to know who we are.
I almost didn’t write this article because I figured no one would care. Instead, I found that there’s a burning interest for this type of historical exploration and remembrance. That’s something Gil Sandler’s been telling me for years.
We shouldn’t lose sight of this in an age of historical illiteracy. The ramifications could be perilous.
(By the way, for what it’s worth, I’m sure that if she were still with us, Penny the beagle would agree.)
Look, I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news. But I knew I had to tell him. He’d want to know. So reluctantly, after coming home last Wednesday night from the charred remains of the Suburban House, I called “Jersey Boy” – my good buddy who lives in the so-called Garden State – to let him know that the landmark Pikesville restaurant suffered a major fire.
There was a long pause on the phone, and I even wondered if some tears were being shed. “Is it gone?” he asked, sounding fragile. I told him the damage was fairly extensive, but I was hopeful that they would reopen.
I sensed a great relief. “That’s good,” he said. “That place just has to stay open.”
Whenever he comes to town for a visit, Jersey Boy always wants to go to S&H (as Suburban House is known in the local vernacular, a holdover from the initials of the first names of the former owners). Jersey Boy loves their food, and obviously a lot of other fressers do, as evidenced by the customers being evacuated from the building while carrying plates full of food. Along Reisterstown Road, I swear I saw plates with half-eaten hotdogs and onion rings left on the grass and sidewalks.
(They couldn’t just leave the food while fleeing a fire?! They had to bring it with them?!! When I told this to a colleague, she shrugged and simply responded, “That’s our people.” I’m sorry, I’m Jewish, too, but you tell me that a restaurant’s on fire, I’m hauling my butt out the door and leaving the kreplach and kasha varnishkes far behind. No food is that good!)
But you know, the community’s longtime love for S&H goes far beyond the quality and abundance of its old-world Jewish cuisine and noshing appeal. It may not be the most beautiful or well-decorated place. One has to have a love of kitsch and nostalgia to truly appreciate it. (For example, paint-by-number-style portraits of Abe Lincoln in the dentist’s chair might not be everyone’s idea of high art.) Some people might not enjoy being the youngest person in a restaurant by a good 30 years. (One friend told me, “I always feel like I’m in a senior center or a nursing home when I go in there.”) I’ve always said that S&H is the Jewish version of the old Women’s Industrial Exchange restaurant in downtown Baltimore (but without the tomato aspic).
And the informality of S&H isn’t everyone’s cup of tea when it comes to fine dining. Cases in point: loud, boisterous conversations among families, and octogenarians helping themselves to third, fourth and fifth cups of coffee without permission from the waiting staff. Some people might not like the décor (paneling, mirrored walls, autographed portraits of local “celebs,” and painted, shlocky beach scenes) nor the spinning dessert case.
But as Baltimore Jewish bard Gilbert Sandler told me yesterday, all of that is part of the charm of the place. The minute you walk into S&H, you immediately know you’re in a decidedly and unabashedly Jewish restaurant. The corny placemats with the silly Borscht Belt humorisms (about mothers-in-law, “goyim” buying retail, and Liz Taylor’s countless marriages). And then there’s the schmoozing (oh, the schmoozing!). The laughing and kibitzing and wheeling and dealing. The arguments.
S&H reminds us that we’re still Jews, we’re not WASPS yet. We don’t have to put on airs there. We can just be ourselves, among our own. We don’t have to keep our pinky fingers in the air there when we drink our coffee, or worry about getting a few crumbs or stains on our shirts.
That’s why it’s one of the last of its kind. It’s not just the soup with the matzoh ball that’s bigger than your head. Or the omelette that could feed Ghana. Or the coddies or shiva trays or gefilte fish or chicken-in-a-pot special. It’s the way S&H makes you feel when you go in there. You not only feel welcome, but you feel like you can take your time and be yourself. A lot of places say their customers are like family to them. At S&H, you don’t feel like family; you feel like mishpachah. There’s a big difference.
Everyone has an S&H story or two. They used to always go there with their zaydie or bubbie every Sunday morning. Maybe they went there after the movies while on their first date with their future wife. Perhaps their family went there after someone’s bris. (Ouch!)
Here’s one of my S&H stories. A couple of years ago, I bought Jersey Boy a great big pen at S&H’s counter with the restaurant’s information imprinted on it. I knew he’d love it because a) it was a souvenir from S&H, and b) it lit up in the dark. Of course, he was thrilled with it, but I decided to go back and get one for myself.
Trouble was, they were all out. The hostess at the cash register apologized profusely, but they didn’t have anymore. However, Joe Stowe, one of the co-owners, must’ve seen the disappointment on my face and came over.
“You know what, I’ll look through my house, I’m sure I have one of those pens lying around,” he said to me. “Give me your address and I’ll mail it to you.” He didn’t know anything about me (such as that I write for the Jewish Times). He was just being a mentsch. Then, he turned to his hostess and said, “If a customer wants a pen that badly, I’ll find it for him.”
And damned if a week later, that pen didn’t show up in my mailbox. That says a lot about a place, that it takes its customers’ loyalty seriously and doesn’t take its following for granted. If only more businesses were run that way these days.
When I finished my conversation with Jersey Boy on Wednesday night, he seemed encouraged about S&H’s future, despite this setback. “They’ll find a way to reopen,” he said. “They’ve got a good thing going there. The next time I come to town, we’re going back.”
You’ve got a date, Jersey Boy. And the matzoh ball soup’s on me (figuratively speaking).
Someone asked me the other day, “So, pray tell, what’s the Jewish angle on Michael Jackson?” Then, they chuckled.
Of course, there is a Jewish angle on the late, great King of Pop. (Isn’t there always?) Supposedly, his ex-wife, Debbie Rowe, is Jewish, and thus two of his three kids are members of the tribe (well, at least from a halachic point of view). And then there was one of his best pals, Liz Taylor, who’s among the most famous converts to Judaism in history (after she snatched Eddie Fisher from under Debbie Reynolds’ nose back in the late ‘50s).
But there really isn’t much of a Jewish angle to Jacko, who will be memorialized in Los Angeles today at a service unlike any other in history that’s expected to be viewed by an estimated billion or so. He was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and reportedly dabbled in Islam and perhaps even kabbalah.
But as I watched the mayhem beginning to unfold in L.A. this morning on the TV talk shows—all covering Michael’s farewell service while giving short shrift to President Obama’s work with the Russians on nuclear disarmament (after all, what’s the planet’s safety next to whether the Gloved One’s children are really his, or whatever happened to Bubbles the Chimp?)—I couldn’t help but be struck by a few words from the Rev. Al Sharpton.
In footage from his sermon last Sunday morning, Rev. Sharpton, who seems to be quite ubiquitous right now, condemned the media for examining some of Michael Jackson’s controversies (drugs, his manner of death, the molestation case, the plastic surgeries, etc.) and infamously odd habits and eccentricities. Right now, he said, is a time to focus on the brilliant entertainer’s positives and not the negatives.
Fair enough, even though I don’t necessarily agree.
But then, Rev. Sharpton spoke of a double-standard regarding coverage of Michael’s passing, strongly intimating that the racist media don’t go after white dead celebrities in the same vicious and no-holds-barred manner.
“I’m here because of the disgraceful and the despicable way [the media are] trying to destroy the legacy [of Jackson],” he said. “You have had other entertainers that have had issues in their life. [The media] did not degrade and denigrate them.”
Rev. Sharpton and I must watch different TV channels. Because from what I can tell, dissecting and beating up celebrities – white or black, dead or living – has become blood sport in this country. Where do you start? Elvis, Heath Ledger, Farrah, even poor Ed McMahon, etc. Celebrity-bashing, especially the deceased ones and particularly before they’re put into the ground, has become an American media tradition. I’m not saying it is right, it just is the way it is. That’s now the big business of our media in a celebrity-obsessed culture. This is what people are talking about at the water cooler.
For Rev. Sharpton to bring up race in this situation is inappropriate and does a disservice to the times when racism actually is a factor (which is plenty) in society. Let’s face it, Michael Jackson is just as fascinating in death as he was in life, and his sudden exit from this cacky coil leaves us (once again) with more questions than answers.
Rev. Al should know better. There are plenty of other times when he can play the race card. A celebrity of Michael Jackson’s stature and caliber has died, and no mention of the weirdness or controversies? Just that he had great moves and an amazing ear for hooks and riffs? To loosely paraphrase Michael himself, expect a full-court media circus and post-mortem, it don’t matter if you’re black or white.
It’s a tough call. What do you do? You hear that a controversial group – a church outfit, no less – is coming to town, for a rally in front of three Jewish institutions. They want us all to repent, and they don’t mind getting nasty and bigoted in their condemnations and proclamations. They’re famous, most of all for holding protests in front of funerals for U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. (How vile and sacrilege can you get?)
They’re fundamentalists who believe that everyone else is going to hell and only they have the true answer, and that the rest of us better straighten up and soon. (Some people would say that really means they’re just a bunch of nutjobs.) And they obviously love attention and media coverage, almost as much as they love their so-called religion, not only because it gets their word out but it also pays for the butter on their bread. After all, they might be small in numbers but they obviously have deep pockets from external sources, to go around the nation and protest at soldiers’ funerals and other venues.
So what do you do if you’re a media outlet? Do you give them their much-cherished publicity? Or do you just ignore ‘em, like a nagging toothache?
That was our staff’s dilemma yesterday when those crazy folks from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kans., dropped by and held protests in front of the Park Heights Jewish Community Center, the Jewish Museum of Maryland and the headquarters of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
Only three Westboro members actually showed up – Shirley Phelps-Roper, the hateful, acid-tongued daughter of the church’s longtime spiritual leader, and her two obviously brainwashed kids, Rebekah, 22, and Gabriel, 13. A fair-haired boy in t-shirt and shorts, Gabriel looked like he’d rather be anywhere else than where he was. He had that look on his face that many boys his age wear when they’re at their overly-affectionate aunt’s house for a family dinner. Simply put, he looked absolutely miserable.
The Westboro folks’ message for Jewish Baltimore? It’s time to atone – for killing Christ, for stealing the land of Israel, for murdering Palestinians, for condoning homosexuality, for being generally wicked. (There was no mention of deplorable driving habits on Reisterstown Road during rush hour.) They also seem to have beefs with Ed McMahon and Michael Jackson, both of whom they say are now dancing the tango in hell for their sinfulness (and whose funerals they plan to protest).
At times, their rallies here yesterday seemed rather lame and pathetic. Singing hateful songs against Jews and gays with insipid lyrics to a blasting iPod. Yelling at and arguing with motorists and passersby, until they’d resort to quoting specific biblical passages or singing loudly to avoid further discussion. And with only three of them here, it frankly just seemed a bit silly. Wearing a bunch of signs with provocative messages, they looked like clowns on a picket line.
Which goes back to the earlier stated question—is it really worth covering these guys, with such a small number of “protesters” and with their obvious craving for attention? One person even said to our executive editor, Phil Jacobs, that these guys wouldn’t even bother coming out of their holes and do this kind of stuff if those of us in the media would simply ignore them.
To be honest, I go back and forth on it. I don’t enjoy giving people like this a pedestal for their expressions of hatred. Why give them what they want?
But on the other hand, I think it’s important that we know who we’re dealing with. These folks are nationally-known, have been on virtually every major national news program and in every major publication, and not everyone out there thinks they’re nutjobs, even if they themselves wouldn’t personally go out on a street corner and scream that Jews are murderous reprobates heading for a fiery demise.
It’s important that we know who is lurking in America’s underbelly, even if we have to occasionally give them their 15 minutes of fame. And to come face to face with such unadulterated and perverse hatred is something to behold, even if it did get a little boring after a while.
At one point during one of the “rallies” yesterday, when arguing with a University of Baltimore law school student, Rebekah Phelps-Roper alluded to the victims of 9/11. In her defense of Westboro’s tactics, she said that those victims are now in hell because of America’s hedonism and wickedness, its failure to truly adhere to biblical law. A pause fell over us, and I looked at the U of B student next to me. It was as if both of us were telepathically saying to each other, “OK, do you want to hold her down while I knock her silly, or should I?” But then, we seemed to think better. We knew that’s what she and her ilk would have wanted.
So we let them have their say. And then we move on.