Some years ago, I was at a party in Francestown, and I met a man who had moved from Ohio to New Hampshire. He was Jewish, and when he learned that I was too, and that I had grown up in Claremont, he asked. “What was it like?” I thought for a minute. “It was wonderful.” We talked some more, and I told him that my father and his family had moved to Claremont in 1900 (the second Jewish family); my mother’s family moved down from Berlin in 1930. He said, “You should write a book. You could call it ‘The Jews of Claremont.’” “Good idea,” I said, and promptly put the subject out of my mind.
Quite a while later the Claremont Eagle Times interviewed my wife, who was giving a piano recital at the Opera House. When we got to Claremont the following week, and I read the interview, my eyes went straight to the following quote: “My husband is writing a book, ‘The Jews of Claremont.’” You can imagine what it was like at intermission, as old friends came up to me and asked, “How’s the book coming?” Of course it wasn’t coming at all. It was then, as it remains today, unwritten.
Yet, over the past few years, I have written pieces of such a book in these pages – about my grandfather, who started the Jewish cemetery; my grandmother, who fed Jascha Heifetz when they still lived in Littleton; my cousins, the refugees, who came after the War; my father, who owned a mill by the Sugar River; Mr. Gelfand, the tailor who rescued me as a boy when I tore my pants. I could write about many others – Mr. Bloomfield, the only one I can remember who was actually tall. He sat up all night with my father after he died, saying prayers in the Jewish tradition; Mr. Shulins, who ran the dry goods store and spoke an especially “good English;” Mrs. Rosenberg, who grew up in Holland and survived a concentration camp; Mr. and Mrs. Brody, who ran a Jewish delicatessen on lower Main Street; our first rabbi, Rabbi Szenes, who came from Hungary in 1948 and later left us for Concord; Mr. Jacobson, who came from South Africa of all places; and many more. They surrounded my youth.
Today, there are very few Jews living in Claremont. In the 1950s, however, the town’s population of about 12,000 included fifty or so Jewish families. I don’t know how many people; they always referred to the number of families which, I suppose, tells you something. A small minority, but still a community, of which my family was a part. We even had a synagogue, and Rabbi Szenes’s successor, Rabbi Maggal, married a local girl, presided at my bar mitzvah, and then went to Hollywood as a consultant to the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille movie “The Ten Commandments.” (At least that is what we were told.)
Who were the Jews of Claremont, and where did they come from? Many, like my parents, were first generation Americans. Others, like my grandparents and many of the others I have named in this article, were immigrants who came from the Old Country early in the twentieth century. They were mostly shopkeepers and tradesmen. They never lost their accents, or their love for this country. Why did they come to New Hampshire? I remember hearing one explanation. They came for the “luft” – the Yiddish word for air. I suspect there was more to it.
I once asked my grandfather if he would like to go back and visit his birthplace, Bobrovich in Russia, or maybe it was Poland. He answered without a moment’s pause – No! It wasn’t just that he had unhappy memories of a repressive government, and pogroms. It was also that once he set foot on American soil, from Ellis Island to Boston to New Hampshire, he was here to stay. I’m sure the others, all from small villages (“shtetls”) in Eastern Europe, felt the same way.
Why did I tell the man from Ohio that growing up in Claremont was “wonderful?” I don’t think it was just because the 1950s were a peaceful time, and the world seemed like a safe place. I don’t think it was because one always remembers about how good things used to be. I think it was because growing up in Claremont, Jewish, was really a special experience. The Jews of Claremont were part of the community – the town was too small to have a ghetto. We were simply Claremonters, and I have identified myself as such ever since.