The Jewish grocers of D.C. (and suburbs)

imageJew were once the Koreans of D.C.-area commerce, the owners of hundreds of small food-related stores. Sy Solomon, the builder in The Solomon Scandals, was the son of a Washington butcher come down from New York; and in a related vein, I was pleased to run across a virtual exhibit on the Web site of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

Half a Day on Sunday—Jewish-Owned Mom and Pop Grocery Stores revisits the basics and is a must-view for the assimilated and their children and grandchildren. “Newcomers often apprenticed in a family member’s grocery store until they had gained some experience and saved enough money to open a small store of their own,” reads an essay. “The business appealed to many immigrants because it required little start-up capital and only minimal knowledge of English. Moreover, because most grocer families lived above or behind the store, family members of all ages were readily available to serve customers.”

image“The online version of the exhibition,” says JHSGW, “includes an illustrated historical essay, a searchable database of grocery stores and photographs, activities for children, and a video about Jewish grocers’ experience in Washington.” Of special interest might be the public TV video, now available on DVD. Just click on the left image to watch it for yourself.

In the video, a daughter of store-keeping immigrants recalls: “My mother learned to spell off cans.” Self-service didn’t exist—clerks fetched the goods themselves. Decades ago, some of the customers lacked electricity at home, and the stores did a brisk business selling kerosene for lanterns. The video was shot in 1995, and I can’t help but wonder how many people in it are dead now. But Jewish grocers are hardly extinct, and I was surprised to learn that the local Magruder’s chain—talk about names!—is actually Jewish owned.

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David Rothman

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