In 2011, when I returned to my hometown of Hamilton, Ohio, to conduct shared memory groups for a book project on Jews in the town, Tree of Life, Charlottesville and Jersey City were not part of anti-Semitism’s lexicon. These hate-ridden attacks should not have been a surprise. The anti-Semitism inflaming them festered in the American psyche for generations. It did in Hamilton, although nobody I interviewed remembered experiencing it. Sometimes, without prompting, the first thing I’d be told was, “I just want you to know, I never experienced any anti-Semitism.”
This was the collective recollection of the 12 men and women, ages 35 to 82, who gathered at the Cincinnati JCC to talk with me about their experiences in Hamilton, a once-thriving industrial city of over 75,000, where Jews had been established merchants and industrialists since 1852, and until 1968 supported two congregations, one Conservative, one Reform. Most people in the group shared anecdotes, self-deprecating and vaguely humorous, but mostly they recalled only tolerant neighbors, good gentile friends.
The historical record supports a different narrative. The anti-Semitism in and around Hamilton adopted many guises. Some of it was merely crude, like the 1930s newspaper headline recounting the story of John “Jew” Marcus, a man with a long rap sheet: “Jew Marcus Shot And Killed.”
But some of it was chilling. Butler County, where Hamilton is located, has long been a Ku Klux Klan stronghold, and a tacit acceptance seemed to set in between the hate group and the town. The local Hamilton newspaper often reported on Klan events as though they were social outings. In one rally, Klansmen pointedly mocked Jewish dry-good merchants. On Flag Day in 1924, in an eerie precursor to Charlottesville, 5,000 masked and gowned Klan members paraded down High Street past Temple Bene Israel, the new Reform temple, dedicated only months before.
Both the arriving early German and Eastern European Jews were refugees from persecution. Marooned in Hamilton, needing goodwill to prosper, their defense was to be discretely conciliatory and subtly instructive. In 1858, a letter from a local Jew in the Weekly Hamilton Telegraph complained about an article critical of a judge who, during the laying of a cornerstone for the new Masonic Temple, had the audacity to kneel beside a Jew. Setting the tone for how Jews would respond to anti-Semitism, the writer goes to great effort to apologetically demonstrate that Jews do not really differ from Christians in their belief in Jesus and anonymously signs with only his initials, BDS. (How ironic!)
In the local papers, documented acts of anti-Semitic violence remained unreported. Through the years, a few temple windows were noted as broken; Mark Brilliant, a Jew and a socialist, was the only person beaten in socialist labor riots in 1915. There were witnesses; nobody was arrested.
For the few Jews who did slip through into the private world of WASPs, the safety of “acceptance” came at a cost. Socially accepted Jews disassociated from other Jews.
One man in the memory group said he couldn’t contribute much; his family hadn’t associated with the Jewish community. Later, I sent him a copy of the newspaper announcement of his confirmation at a temple.
A woman in the group said, “Last night my mother knew I was coming here and she asked me, ‘Did you ever experience anti-Semitism growing up?’ I was thinking about it and I don’t think I did. Maybe I was naïve and there was some.” A little later in the conversation she said, “In sixth grade, the prettiest girl in the class came up to me and said, ‘You killed the baby Jesus.’ I didn’t know what she was talking about. My image of him was on a cross; he grew up. [She laughs]. I think that was the only time I remember in all my years in Hamilton any overt thing like that.”
As for me, during a fight with my next-door neighbor when we were both 9, she called me a “dirty Jew.” I never questioned how she learned that phrase. In my senior year of high school, my Catholic boyfriend had to apologize for not taking me to the prom. The Christian Brothers, who ran the high school, forbade him since I was Jewish. I rationalized it. He went to the prom with a Catholic girl, and we continued as a couple through our freshman year in college.
Group participants proudly recounted our success at cultivating interfaith understanding. We seemed to live in a happy ecumenical atmosphere of acceptance punctuated with endless interdenominational forums and discussions.
Hamilton Jews, I believe, ever mindful of their precarious position, advocated for vigilance. In May 1941, Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld of Congregation B’nai Israel, a Reform temple, ruefully noted in his annual congregational report, “I have been disturbed of late by evidence that, among many of our members, this institution is looked upon merely as a façade for anti-defamation activities, as a protection against anti-Semitism — and its rabbi is looked upon as no more than a front man, as Ambassador to the Gentiles.”
Hamilton wasn’t Lake Woebegone. We were quick to accommodate, assimilate, discount, disregard, avoid direct challenges. Perhaps it was a necessary defense. And so there were warm memories of growing up in our town. But despite the group’s claim to comfortable lives, recognition and purported commitment to community, only one of its members had remained in Hamilton.
And yet, every member of the memory group remained a proudly affiliated Jew, and as I understood it, they have passed that pride along to their children and grandchildren.
On my way out of town, a billboard from an evangelical church reminded me of what I left behind: “Jews Convert Now!”
Melanie Radley is working on a book, “Ninth and High: A Jewish Address,” about a Reform temple in Hamilton, Ohio.