You are on page 1of 3

The Jews of Clarksburg , West Virginia, Part II

My father , the late Rabbi William Weinberg, came to Clarksburg, West


Virginia in 1963 and served as Rabbi of Etz Chaim Congregation till 1969.
Here was a worldly-wise man who had lived in Vienna, Berlin, Frankfurt, New
York, and lastly, Washington, D.C. What could possibly satisfy him in a small town of
at best 28,000 population at that time. It was a long 12 hour drive over a winding
highway to his previous home, Washington, and a 4 to 5 hour drive, also over
twisted terrain, to the nearest major Jewish community, Pittsburgh, PA.
When I was a student at New York University, my dorm-mates were perplexed
by this town they had never heard of, except, almost, in a song by the TV-series
rock group, The Monkeys, Take the Last Train to Clarksville( but ville , not
burg). Finally, they were satisfied that indeed, such a place existed, because, on
one of the last episodes of The Fugitive, the hero escape through a tunnel,
which, he is told, will take him into Clarksburg.
Nevertheless, he said, in a thought that presaged the universality of
communications of the iphone and wi-fi era, nothing is distant anymoreall the
benefits of sophisticated society could be found through movies and television and
a good record could substitute for a symphony orchestra. A man who had survived
Nazi prisons, concentration camp, and exile in the farthest reaches of the Soviet
Union could make his home anywhere.
In truth, this town, despite its size and geographic isolation had its own
element of sophistication. It was the birthplace of noted Civil War General Stonewall
Jackson. ( One of the members of the Jewish community, S. Joseph Birshtein was
himself an authority on Jackson.) The graduates of my high school, Washington
Irving, went on to significant universities; a small neighboring college, Salem, had
moved its center to Clarksburg and was drawing students to it from New York City.
There was a local amateur theater company and cultural events of its own.
It also had a Jewish community which supported the Etz Chaim Congregation
( recently disbanded, however). They were key players in the civil society.
There were two rival pharmacy and general supplies stores along Main
Street. The stores constantly advertised promotions to draw customers one form
the other. What was not known was that both stores belonged to the Gottlieb family.
This played to the benefit of the other local merchants despite what may have
seemed unfair competition. One year, a discount store, in the style of a Kmart or
Target, first opened in the outskirts of town, offering a huge selection, deep
discounts, and ,above all else, easy parking. This was devastating to the local
businesshere was a one-stop shop all location, so close, why shop locally.

This did not phase the Gottliebs- they simply upped the ante, began an even
more intensive rivalry between their two stores, the local customers stayed in town
to catch their bargains, and , on their way in and out, shopped at the other local
merchants. Business stayed in town.
Another successful local Jewish business was the Workingmans Store, a
mens clothier that carried both work clothes, as the name indicated, as well as a
line of dress suits. The founder, Berman, was in his 80s when he went to visit Israel
and climbed the long ascent to Masada, to that date, the oldest man to have made
the climb since Josephus time. ( I did the ascent myself when I was 20, and it left
me breathing hard. A cable car has since made that ascent easier and no longer a
challenge).
Jews from distant towns made their way to Clarksburg for Jewish education
for their children. One such family would come in every Sunday from Elkins, at least
an hours drive in winding roads, where they had a lumber mill.
On the Shabbat of their childs Bar Mitzvah, the grandfather came to shule,
took one look at the president, and told the Rabbi- Oh, my gosh! I know who he is! I
put him in jail overnight!
No big crime here. The president,Mr. Weiner, who ran a successful scrap
metal business, had come as a poor immigrant from Lithuania, and started in the
West Virginia towns as an itinerant peddler, a fine tradition started by the likes of
the founders of Macys. At the same time, this Jewish resident of Elkins served as
the mayor, sheriff, judge, clerk all rolled in one. The peddler came to town and it
turned out, the town had a rule against wandering peddlers. He had to cool his
heels overnight in the local clinker . Many years later, this pillar of the Jewish
community, and a generous philanthropist, would preside at the service of his
jailors grandson.
Jewish life for a teenager consisted of the local AZA-BBG, the Bnai Brith Youth
affiliate, with at most a minyan of members. Obviously, one of the greatest worries
for their parents was interdatingwith such a small pool to chose from, young Jews
didnt easily date each otherthey had grown up together, afterall, and were too
close. The big event of Jewish life for the teens, therefore, consisted of pilgrimages
to our fellow teenagers in Uniontown, McKeesport, or the great Mecca for us,
Pittsburgh, a good four hour drive over winding road. Occasionally, our counterparts
would make the trek to Clarksburg in return. Here was the chance to find partners
that were within the pale of acceptability.
There was never a problem to get a good turnout for services on a Friday
evening or Saturday morning, but Shabbat Minhah( afternoon) was a different story.
One way to guarantee the tenth man was to pay the congregations teenagers for
their attendance. This worked well for a while, until, it was told, the teenagers
began to organize, demanded a raise, and went on strike. The congregation, in turn,

was not intimidated, and fired the strikers. They got the minyan without the hired
help.
There was another method for getting the minyan. Across the street from the
synagogue was a lodge, I believe it was the Elks, and it held a club card inside.
Whenever they were ready for the tenth man, they would call the lodge and the
manager would send one of his Jewish members across the street to join the
services.
The teenagers, too, who had now been drafted into minyan service without
pay, after the failed strike, had their own lodge. Next door to the synagogue was
the Masonic Temple, which had a youth affiliate, DeMolay, with its own club room,
featuring a pool table. Here it was that the Jewish youngsters would hang out,
waiting for the minyan to start, and it was here that I learned my best shots.
One time, my father asked the president, the same peddler turned
philanthropist, why he didnt bring his elderly mother, who was in New York, to live
with him in Clarksburg. After all, it would be no problem for him to hire caretakers
for her, and this way, she could enjoy being with her family every day.
But Rabbi,, as you know, when the Moshiach will come, he will raise up the
dead and bring them all to Eretz Yisroel.
My mother is worried- the Moshiach will never find Clarksburg!
###