Revisiting Roselawn's Time As A Booming Jewish Community
It was the 1950s in Roselawn. You could pay a nickel for a pickle out of barrel at the pharmacy. There were at least five kosher butcher shops on or near Reading Road, and Jewish refugees fleeing Europe set up bakeries to sell traditional goods like braided challah and mandel bread, a Jewish version of biscotti.
Rabbi Irvin Wise, 72, says his family moved to Roselawn in the fall of 1962 during the heyday of the Jewish community in the neighborhood.
"They just had an ambiance. And many of the butchers that you knew, they were immigrants. So the people you dealt with in these butcher stores had an accent and they spoke Yiddish and so, certainly, that added to the whole experience."
He used to be able to walk down the street and tell people, "Shabbat shalom," or "peaceful Sabbath." He lists only a handful of other cities in the country — New York, Los Angeles, and Boston — where there are enough Jewish people for that to be a regular greeting.
Rabbi Gary Zola is executive director of the American Jewish Archives at Hebrew Union College. He says Jewish communities roughly a generation ago tended to concentrate in neighborhoods for a variety of reasons.
Migration To The Suburbs
Zola knows the entirety of the local history of Jewish people — from their neighborhood in downtown Cincinnati during the early 1800s to their shift to the West Side in the 1840s. The increased availability of automobiles, highways and mass public transportation changed the way everyone was living in the 1940s.
Zola says it enabled people to move out to the suburbs. Jewish people ended up first in South Avondale, where trollies took people into the downtown area.
"Well, the further out you go, the cheaper that you can get more land," he said of the migration. "There's housing development, which takes place right after World War II."
It meant people could afford bigger, newer homes in the suburbs but still work in the city. They could ride public transportation or drive to work during the week and enjoy walkable neighborhoods on the Sabbath.
"So that way they can kind of walk around and talk to each other on the day of the Sabbath," he said, noting that Orthodox Jewish people don't drive on Saturdays.
Rabbi Wise said those kinds of communities were especially important after the war.
"That (was) sort of leftover from living in enclosed communities and ghettos and things in Europe and then when immigrating, living together so they could speak their Yiddish together and they can be comfortable and more secure," he said.
Wise's family experience is an example of Jewish people migrating through the city. Within a few years, his family moved from South Avondale to Bond Hill to Roselawn, where his parents lived until 1992.
"There were at least five synagogues that I could walk to from my home," he said, recalling other fond memories of the neighborhood.
He remembers taking a date on a bus ride to the Valley Shopping Center in Roselawn to see Exodus, about the founding of modern Israel.
"That was my first date - not only my first date was she Jewish, and the movie theater was in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, but the movie was a Jewish movie," he said.
Roselawn was also home to the city's only ritual bath at the time, called a Mikveh. It's a bath where, for instance, someone converting to Judaism can submerge themselves as part of the process. It's used for other rituals as well.
Wise left the neighborhood after high school, and his Orthodox parents moved to Amberley Village in 1992 when he became a rabbi at a synagogue there, serving for almost three decades.
White Flight 'Not A Happy Story, But A True Story'
Rabbi Zola doesn't want to downplay Jewish history in Roselawn during the 1970s and '80s.
"There were people who, as the African American community moved into Roselawn, you always have what's called 'white flight.' And there were Jewish people, both in Avondale as well as in Roselawn, who would not do that," he said. "But there were also many Jews who decided they needed to leave Avondale when the neighborhood began to become integrated. It's not a happy story, but it's a true story and that did happen."
He said Cincinnati didn't have strict segregation laws like those in the South, but there were still restaurants where some people couldn't eat and he says bigotry was terrible throughout the city. He mentioned a Walnut Hills High School practice from the 1950s.
"The swimming pool was used by the African American students on Friday and then it was drained over the weekend and new water was put in ... so that the white children would not have to swim in the same water that Black children swam, and that was the world of America," he said.
Around the same time integration was happening in Cincinnati, there was a shift away from the more traditional values of the Jewish faith. Walking to Sabbath services shifted to the wayside.
"Liberal Jews didn't care about that. They would drive to the parking lots and, you know, park in the synagogue of their choice. That's an important part of the story," he said.
With that shift, Zola says two things happened.
First, people who didn't mind integration stayed in their neighborhoods of Avondale, Bond Hill and Roselawn, even after some of the synagogues moved further into the suburbs.
Second, Jewish people, whether they supported integration or not, kept moving to the suburbs, for the affordable land and to maintain some of that tight-knit community feel. Zola said Amberley Village became the next stop for a lot of Jewish people.
"Then from Amberley, they moved to Blue Ash and to Montgomery. There was also an important community that began to grow up in Walnut (Hills) and Wyoming," he said.
The days of kosher butcher shops and bakeries are gone, and a lot of people who lived through the Holocaust are no longer around. But Zola helps preserve the history of Jewish people in the city at the American Jewish Archives.
He and Wise, who lives in Rhode Island now, have also done bus tours of important Jewish sites in the city.
This fall, the local Jewish community is celebrating 200 years in the Greater Cincinnati area. A citywide committee is organizing events to commemorate the start of organized community life here. That's officially marked by the creation of the first Jewish burial ground west of the Allegheny Mountains at the Chestnut Street Cemetery.
To see more photos from the era, click the photo at top. Know someone in the photos? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: We corrected the spelling of Rabbi Gary Zola's name.
Correction: A previous version of this story said the Walnut Hills High School practice of draining the pool water occurred in the 1980s. This has been corrected to say the 1950s.
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