Surprises in the Jewish South: Asheville, North Carolinaby Judith Fein, Photos by Paul Ross November 28, 2018
There are a lot of reasons to love Asheville. It has easy access to nature, great food, art, music, spirituality, healing, shopping, characters galore and off-the-beaten path, out-of-the-box experiences. But what may surprise you most is the quirky, unexpected, very varied Jewish story that most of the city’s visitors don’t even notice.
They walk by Chicken Alley, which is a small, narrow street located between North Lexington Avenue and Broadway Street in Downtown Asheville. They probably stop to take a photo with the huge, arrogant male who dominates the large mural by local artist Molly Must, and his smaller, more submissive female mate. Mr. Big is a rooster, and his little lady is a hen. And besides providing bold local color, the painted chickens are a reminder of the area’s past, when poultry ruled the roost, so to speak, in the early l900’s. According to Asheville Jewish historian Sharon Fahrer, “Chickens used to be sold and slaughtered there. Bessie Rosen sold chickens and had the largest grocery store on the street. Jake Rosen, her husband, was the shochet, or slaughterer. He had been in the Russian army.”
The rest of the mural tells the story of those poor poultry, who used to run freely up and down the street; they hang from their feet, lifeless, waiting to make their way into kosher chicken soup.
And which of the tourists who flock to Asheville for its cool art scene and counter-culture vibe would think of exploring Jewish music? They would, if they knew that Robert Arthur Moog, who invented the Moog synthesizer, was Jewish and is buried in a Jewish cemetery in the city. Which musicians used his synthesizer? The Beatles, the Beach Boys, Bon Jovi, U2, Jeff Beck, the Byrds, the Doors, ABBA and an endless list of others.
In the Moog Music Factory, at 160 Broadway Street, you can learn all about Bob Moog (1934-2005), the genius who revolutionized rock, taught some of the most famous rockers and created an effects pedal called—what else?–– the moogerfooger. He invented a modular electronic synthesizer that had a keyboard and was compact enough to be portable. At the factory, you can try out instruments, and see workers making synthesizers today. Even if you aren’t a big music fan, you will learn, enjoy and even make a few sounds that will surprise you. Be sure you call ahead for a tour (828-251-0090), or just drop in and enjoy the experience with synthesizers in the lobby.
If gorgeous bodies appeal to you, you’ll want to stop in at the Antique Car Museum, where you’ll learn the story of Harry Blomberg, who owned a gas station, motor inns and a car dealership. He drove notables who were visiting Asheville around in a Cadillac, and his clients included President Franklin Roosevelt, Bob Hope and Gene Autry, the singing cowboy. His father Lewis told him, “You will never amount to anything. You have wheels in your head.” Well, half of it was true; he did have wheels in his head, but he did amount to something, and his antique car collection is proof. Visitors gawk in admiration at beauties like his 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, 1928 Chandler Sedan, l915 Ford Model T, 1940 Packard Coupe, 1925 Dodge Touring and 1928 Pontiac Sedan.
If you sign up for a walk and “forest bathing” with No Taste Like Home in the lush, mountainous countryside around Asheville, you may not realize that a nice Jewish boy named Alan Muskat owns the company. Far more than a hobby, foraging is a lifestyle for Muskat, who is probably the most famous ecological citizen of the city. He is also a mushroom maven, and he teaches people to live close to the land, forage and grow wild plants. During the tour, you will set out to meet, greet and then eat wild plants after a cooking lesson. For a special treat, you can take your basketful of edible herbs, plants and mushrooms, and deliver them to Marketplace Restaurant where the chef will transform them into gourmet dishes when you dine later that night.
On the subject of food, a very popular and wonderful Indian restaurant named Chai Pani serves Indian street food. Prepare your palate to be delighted with new taste sensations. The owner and chef, Meherwan Irani, is married to a Jewish girl from Asheville, and she may pop in while you are eating there. And in West Asheville, Bim BeriBon serves feel-good food. You can go there for rutabaga latkes and Russian borscht. It’s not kosher, but it’s food with a modern spin from the Eastern European homeland.
And if you are in town on a Friday night from April to October, after dinner stop by Pritchard Park on Patton Avenue at College Street. Locals gather there for a Drum Circle, with drummers and dancers of every size, shape, age and ethnicity drumming and dancing. It has no Jewish connection, but it’s good for the soul.
Sharon Fahrer says that out of a population of 90,000 in Asheville, there are about 3,500 Jews; they are secular, Reform, Chabad and Conservative. “In early 2000, a friend said we had to document Jewish history in the area, so I became a Jewish historian,” Fahrer explains. “At the University of North Carolina Asheville, The Center for Jewish Studies is a bridge between the local community and the university and brings programs and lecturers relevant to Jewish content. Six of the university’s buildings are Jewish related, which is a testimony to the local involvement of the Jewish community with the university. We put up 3×5 foot panels at each, telling its Jewish relevance. For example, one is the track that was named for Karl Straus, a German Jewish estate lawyer. He was a runner himself and on the university board.”
As a fascinating side note to her research about Asheville, Fahrer and project partner Jan Schochet went to Sylva, a small town with a population of 2,500, about an hour away from Asheville. Sol Schulman was closing out his clothing store, and after 71 years of business, they figured Sol would have a lot of stories. They put a notice in the newspaper that they were doing a story about Sol, and “people lined up to tell us Sol stories,” Fahrer reports. One example concerns Sol hiring architect Charles Parker, the man who built the famous Grove Arcade in Asheville, to design his home. Sol figured he might need money because it was the Depression. And he was right. Charles Parker agreed to build Sol’s house. Then he wanted the best builder and pursued him until he said yes. He gave the builder a suit when the house was done, and he stuffed the suit pockets with money because he did such a good job. The delighted builder said, “You know any other Jews who need their houses built?”
Fahrer and Schochet also undertook a project called The Family Store, A History of Jewish Businesses in Downtown Asheville from 1880-1990. They found over 425 Jewish businesses on the downtown streets. They examined and put panels in the windows of 11 of those businesses. “We went on a right wing radio show to contact people we couldn’t get to,” Fahrer recalls. “People started calling up with stories of the Jewish businesses. Panels went into stores, we made a brochure, and the exhibit went up three times in the downtown area—in places like the public library, the Lifelong Learning Institute and the Asheville Art Museum. The panels were about streets, people, and stores.”
On her 90-minute Jewish walking tour of Asheville, Fahrer makes one unexpected stop: Basilica St. Lawrence. She leads guests through the spectacular, elliptical-shaped interior, and points to a plaque between the images of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI. The plaque is from Rabbi Sidney E. Unger, who served in Asheville from the 1940’s to the 60’s. He was friendly with the monsignor of the church, and he donated the plaques for the two popes who told their flocks to stop blaming Jews for the death of Christ.
In the Montford historic neighborhood, you may want to visit the Victorian-style, rural Riverside cemetery. Notables who are buried there include writers William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry and also Thomas Wolf. A sign with the words “Beth ha-Tephila cemetery organized 1891” designates the small Jewish area. Among those interred is Carrie Long, who was part of the Coen Mills family. They made denim for Levi Strauss and had mills all over North Carolina. Her husband, M.L. Long, was one of the founders of Congregation Beth ha Tephila in 1891; it was Asheville’s first synagogue.
According to Fahrer, Asheville is at an altitude of 2,200 feet. Back in the day, the roads were very bad and access was difficult. But once a toll road was built, it became a busy trade route, and some Jews were probably involved in trade. According to one source, local Cherokee Indians called Jews “egg eaters” because they wouldn’t eat meat.
One of the first documented Jews came to Asheville in 1860 to escape the Civil War that was raging in Charleston, South Carolina. It was much calmer in Asheville, because there weren’t a lot of slaves, and those that were slaves didn’t work as field hands. They were skilled and made bricks, shod the horses and worked as domestics.
During and after the war, one of the most prominent citizens was Zebulon Baird Vance, who served as a Confederate military office and became governor. He befriended Samuel Wittkowsky, a Jewish merchant and gave a speech that became significant to Jews in North Carolina and around the country. Referred to as the “Scattered Nation” speech, it was a plea for respect and tolerance for Jews and illustrated the governor’s commitment to justice. “He liked assimilated German Jews, and advocated for them,” Fahrer says of the governor. “He wasn’t so nice about immigrant Jews. B’nai Brith and the United Daughters of the Confederacy did a joint ceremony at his monument on his birthday.”
Later on, in the 1930’s, a self-proclaimed American Hitler, William Dudley Pelley, was a vocal anti-Semite. He organized the Silver Shirts, modeled after Hitler’s Brownshirts, and their headquarters were in Asheville. They wore silver shirts and had a printing press. How did the local Jews mobilize against him? They got together with the sheriff of Asheville and eventually ran him and his underground fascist organization out of town on the pretext that Pelley was bad for local business.
In 1880, the railroad came to Asheville and population grew exponentially. Immigrants, which included Jews, followed the rail lines, but people also came to the area for their health. Asheville was home to the first tuberculosis sanitarium in America, and people who fled from the plagues of malaria and yellow fever also arrived. It is documented that some Jews came from Alabama to escape yellow fever.
By 1891, there were enough Jews in Asheville– more than 60– to form a congregation. They called themselves Conservatives even though they weren’t Conservative; it was a move to get them all together. In 1899, an Orthodox congregation was established. They made chicken soup for people with tuberculosis. By 1906, there was a Zionist organization. In 1916, a YMHA was established. The Jews of Asheville were in touch with and plugged into the Jewish world outside of their city and state. Merchants traveled to New York and business dealings with other Jews were widespread.
In Asheville, people readily did business with Jews, but Jews couldn’t stay in some hotels, live in certain neighborhoods or belong to country clubs to socialize with important people. “So they made their own country club,” Fahrer reports. “Jews were OK to do business with but not after 6 p.m.”
With great ingenuity and inventiveness, Jews continued to excel and they made a mark in industry, performance, the arts, textiles, philanthropy, health, education and even clothing. Bob Bayer, for example, introduced disposable clothes with the Mars company. Under the “Wastebasket Boutique” label, he developed a paper dress, foil evening gowns, bathing suits, and even paper football jerseys and kids’ clothes.
Other clothiers were active in improving the health of locals. The Vanderbilt shirt factory, for example, was owned by three forward-thinking Jewish guys. They saw that many of the Appalachian people who worked in their factory were losing their front teeth, so they brought in someone to teach them about nutrition.
And entertainers like Ira Bernstein, from Long Island, arrived in Asheville. He specializes in Appalachian flatfooting and performs all over the world—doing clogging, flatfoot and step.
“Jews are so interconnected with Asheville,” Fahrer says, adding with pride, “We have even had three Jewish mayors. Asheville’s Jewish community has made contributions well beyond the proportion of its numbers to the Asheville community.”
Sharon Fahrer: history-at-hand.com or 828-777-1014. She is also the author of Shalom’ville. For further information about Asheville, and to plan a trip: exploreAsheville.com.
Award-winning travel journalist, author, and speaker Judith Fein is a former resident of San Diego. Her website is: globaladventure.us.