Sunday, September 30, 2018

Alone Among the Gentiles

As I write these words, Jews around the world are marking the holidays that begin the year 5779 in the Hebrew calendar. In Grinnell, however, there is little sign of these observances. True, the official college calendar recognizes the Jewish holidays, and, with the help of a campus rabbi, student groups gather to welcome the New Year, to mark the Day of Atonement, and to celebrate the Feast of the Tabernacles. But it was not always so. Grinnell, whose town and college both owed their origins to deeply Christian inspiration, was a place that welcomed runaway slaves and northern European immigrants, but no Jews whatsoever were numbered among Grinnell's early population.
January 1909 cover of The Jewish Immigrant
And then, shortly after 1910, Daniel Berman arrived here. Part of the wave of early twentieth-century immigrants who landed on American shores, Berman resisted the flow that drew most new Jewish arrivals to East coast cities. Having left behind densely-populated Jewish towns in Russia's Pale of Settlement, Berman—and later, his wife and two daughters—found their way to the middle of the American plains where they became the only Jews in town. Within a few years Berman's nephew and family arrived here, and at about the same time yet another Jewish family—the Isaac Bucksbaums—made Grinnell their home, so that in the 1920s there were three Jewish households in J. B. Grinnell's new Jerusalem. This post reports on Grinnell's first Jewish residents, adding their story to the dominant narrative of Christian Grinnell.
When J. B. Grinnell and his fellow pioneers were still hard at work establishing the first outlines of Grinnell, Iowa, Daniel Berman (ca. 1873-1955) was born in the so-called Pale of Settlement in the western reaches of the Russian Empire. Because the Pale had been created to isolate Jews and to prevent them from dispersal throughout the Russian Empire, the institution had the effect of creating towns and villages within the Pale that were overwhelmingly Jewish. It was from a village like this that Daniel Berman came. The 1906 manifest of the S. S. Frederich der Große, the ship on which Berman crossed the Atlantic, listed his home town as Nikolaev, a village about seven miles from Chernyi Ostrov, from which his nephew, Samuel, hailed. Both settlements were located near the Bug River in the far northwest corner of Russia's Podolsk Guberniia.
Chernyi Ostrov (arrow) in northwest corner of Podolsk Guberniia (1820)
As often happened with European immigrants, Daniel traveled to the US alone, pioneering the way, intending to establish a comfortable landing for his wife and daughters later. The passenger list indicates that Daniel Berman was traveling, not to Grinnell, but to 601 Main Street, Marshalltown, Iowa where "M. Gralnik" awaited him. How Berman knew of Gralnik is unclear, but information networks among villagers back home often helped prepare the way for the next villager who headed across the ocean. Berman must have benefitted from contacts of this sort.
Undated postcard of S.S. Frederich der Große
Who lived at 601 Main Street, Marshalltown in 1906 I am not sure, but certainly by 1910 it was not M. Gralnik; the 1910 US Census found at that address a certain Morris Gervich. Himself an immigrant from the Russian Empire, Gervich told census-takers that he had entered the United States in 1890. Twenty-nine years old in 1910, he was already established, having fathered three children in Iowa and having established a junk business in Marshalltown. Whether Gervich provided shelter for Berman in 1906 is not clear, but by 1910 Daniel Berman certainly was not living in Marshalltown; instead, the census found him in Newton, Iowa, living with Moses Gralnik, the man to whom Berman had been directed in 1906. Like Gervich and Berman, Gralnik had emigrated from the Russian Empire, arriving in the US in 1900; according to the 1910 census Gralnik, his wife, four children, and two lodgers—one of whom was Daniel Berman—lived in a house on N. Olive Street. Gralnik identified himself as a junk dealer, a trade he was evidently teaching both Berman and his other lodger, Moses Offman, since both men told the census worker that they were employed in the junk business.
Extract from1910 US Census, Newton, Iowa (Enumeration District 34, Ward 3, Sheet 6B)
Exactly how soon after 1910 Berman moved to Grinnell is not documented, but it seems likely that Berman reached Grinnell sometime before February 1913 when his wife, Ida (age 31), and his two daughters, Dora (7) and Goldie (5), boarded the S. S. Haverford in Liverpool, sailing to Philadelphia. No record details how Ida and the girls reached Grinnell, but no later than 1915 the entire family had settled into a house at 803 Pearl Street, Grinnell, adjacent to the railroad tracks and just down the block from 517 Third Avenue where Berman located his junk and scrap metal business.

1922 Sanborn Insurance Map of Grinnell, showing 803 Pearl (bottom left) and 517 Third Avenue
Throughout the 'teens, Berman advertised in local newspapers, promising top dollar for scrap metal, rags, rubber and other recyclables. Later he also acquired and sold various hides, placing ads in the Grinnell Herald to alert farmers to his willingness to pay top prices.
Advertisements from Grinnell Register, August 30, 1917 and Grinnell Herald, December 18, 1917
Courtesy Local History Archive, Drake Community Library
When officials who conducted the 1920 US Census came to Grinnell, the Bermans were still living at 803 Pearl and Daniel was still working as a junk dealer. Berman, his wife and daughters all reported themselves immigrants from Russia, and listed their native language as "Russian." Both the Berman girls were enrolled in Grinnell's public schools, but the first years of school, when English would have been difficult to understand and speak, must have brought plenty of anxiety. Evidently the girls adapted, however, becoming more closely connected to their classmates through extra-curricular activities. For example, when Dora graduated from Grinnell High School in 1924, the yearbook reported that she had been a member of the orchestra for four years (violin). In addition, she had been part of the high school newspaper her sophomore and junior years, and was active in YWCA (although how "Christian" it was I don't know).
Dora Berman, 1924 Grinnellian, and Goldie Berman, 1926 Grinnellian
Goldie graduated in 1926; she, too, had been on the staff of the school newspaper, and had participated in "YW." But Goldie was more interested in athletics than music. A member of the tennis team her senior year, she also participated in "Gym Exhibition" three years and "Circus" two years. The quotation attached to her yearbook photo reported her "Quiet in appearance with motives unknown."

Nothing that survives tells how the girls were received in school. It bears noting, perhaps, that both Dora and Goldie had African Americans in their high school classes: Alice Renfrow was part of Dora's 1924 graduation and Evanel Renfrow graduated with Goldie in 1926. Indeed, the Renfrow home on First Avenue was only a couple of blocks from the Berman home. Conseqently, both Berman girls were part of a more socially diverse world than most Grinnellians of that era experienced.
1929 Whippet Sedan (
While the Berman girls were attending Grinnell High School, a second Jewish family came to town. In 1922 Samuel Berman (1893-1981), his wife Rebecca (Rifka) (1891-1959), and their son Milton arrived in the US. No later than 1925 the family—now supplemented with two more boys who had been born in Iowa—were living in Grinnell at 517 Third Avenue, the site of Daniel Berman's junk business. Details of the transition are missing, but it appears that Daniel transferred his business to Samuel, using the occasion to open for himself a Whippet automobile dealership at 615 Fourth Avenue. The timing was unfortunate, since the new business ran head-on into the Great Depression which rolled across the American Midwest in these years. Fighting a great deal of automobile competition at a time when average incomes plunged, Whippets did not prosper, and the company ceased production in 1931, obliging Berman to adjust his business to focus upon used cars. Whether because of the economic crunch or because his daughters were pursuing their own futures, by 1930 much of Daniel's family had left Grinnell, settling at 1600 Kingman Boulevard in Des Moines. Only Daniel remained in Grinnell where the 1930 US census found him boarding at 1203 Main Street with the Harry Jackson family. Soon Daniel himself moved to Des Moines.
Advertisement in Grinnell Herald, October 18, 1929
Courtesy Local History Archive, Drake Community Library
Meantime Samuel Berman ran the local junk and scrap metal business. The official address moved to 521 Third Avenue, perhaps an indication of an expansion in the yard where Berman prepared materials for shipment by rail. Living in the house at 803 Pearl, where Daniel Berman had previously lived, was Aron [sic] Spector, his wife Libby, and their four children. According to the 1930 census, Spector had emigrated from Russia, arriving in the US in 1913; his wife immigrated nine years later. Spector was renting the house at 803 Pearl Street, probably from Berman with whom he was working in the junk business. Isadore Berman reported in his 1992 interview that his dad, Samuel, the early to late '20s had a partner by the name of Sam [sic] Specter [sic]. So he and Sam Specter was [sic] partners in the scrap iron metal business up until about 1936 when my dad's partner Sam Specter went and moved to St. Louis....
Samuel Berman (ca. 1972)
Photo courtesy of Keith Kozloff (
At some point in the 1930s the Sam Berman family moved to a house at 703 Second Avenue, where the family remained at least through the 1940s while the Bermans' four boys, like Dora and Goldie Berman before them, moved through the Grinnell schools. Milton (1921-2008) graduated from Grinnell High School in 1940, Harry (1923-1998) and Isadore (1924- ) in 1941, and James (1925-2006) in 1944.
James (1944), Milton (1940), Isadore and Harry (both 1941)
Senior pictures from the relevant years of the Grinnellian
Unlike the Berman girls, however, Sam Berman's boys took little part in school activities. Only Isadore's yearbook caption mentions participation in a club (the Commercial Club); the others listed no activities whatsoever, perhaps an indication that the boys lived on the borders of Grinnell High School's social life. However, in a 1992 interview, Isadore explained that even as boys he and his brothers were heavily involved in their father's business, organizing and processing items that their dad had collected for resale. No doubt the boys had little free time to pursue sports and other extracurriculars.

But it was also true that 1940s Grinnell did not open its arms wide to the small group of Jews who lived here. Isadore recalled that there was "a certain amount" of prejudice, if "no outright discrimination."
We were subject to name-calling—of "kikes" and "Jews." I did feel a little bit the sense that maybe we weren't probably accepted at that particular time...But it never affected us too much. We went about our own business and ignored the element that would make remarks. And as far as being active in other social functions, we didn't participate in many community functions...and so what we didn't know we didn't miss.
If Samuel Berman followed his uncle Daniel straight to Grinnell, the path Isaac Bucksbaum took was more circuitous, even if it began not far away from where the Bermans had left for America. In 1888 Noah Bucksbaum (1866-1950) married Anna Green (1868-1944) in the Galician village of Wojnicz. Part of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire and adjacent to the western provinces of the Russian Empire, Galicia had gained considerable autonomy in the second half of the nineteenth century. Dominated by a largely Polish nobility, the population was primarily peasant, and, like Russia's Pale of Settlement to the east, included a large number of Jews. Wojnicz itself counted about 200 Jews in 1900. In the years leading up to World War I, the local economy worsened and gave impetus to increasingly bitter anti-Semitism. These circumstances encouraged large numbers of Galician Jews to seek better lives elsewhere.
1882 Map showing Wojnicz, east of Krakow
Katherine Schouten, At Home in the Heartland: A Bucksbaum Family Album (Chicago: History Works, Inc. 2007), p. 13
In August 1913, Noah Bucksbaum joined this exodus, taking with him his two oldest sons, Morris (1889-1957) and Louis (1896-1954). The three set off overland for Bremen where they boarded the S. S. Cassel for the long trip to the United States. Unlike most of that era's Jewish immigration, the Bucksbaum men landed at Galveston, Texas rather than at one of the American east coast ports. Beneficiaries of the so-called Galveston Movement, the Bucksbaums were directed to settle in America's heartland rather than in the more densely-populated Jewish quarters of New York, Philadelphia, and other eastern cities. Consequently, soon after their ship docked in Texas, the Bucksbaum men were on their way to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Nine months later, two of the Bucksbaum daughters—Sarah (1895-1977) and Tessie (1897-1954)—also crossed the ocean, landing at Baltimore and then making their way across country to Cedar Rapids. Only one month after their arrival, World War I broke out, for the time being dooming any chance to bring the rest of the family to Iowa. Anna and her remaining three children had to wait until September, 1920 before they set foot on Ellis Island, and then onward to Iowa.
Louis (left) and Morris Bucksbaum, Grinnell, 1916 (Brooks Art Studio, Grinnell)
Schouten, At Home in the Heartland, p. 31
Noah, Morris, and Louis Bucksbaum quickly settled into life in Iowa, taking jobs in some of the industries that had gathered around Cedar Rapids. But already in 1915 Morris and Louis Bucksbaum found Grinnell, residing for a time at 332 Main Street. Apparently the brothers formed their own junk business to compete with Daniel Berman's, as Morris's 1917 draft registration announced that he was employed by the "Bucksbaum Brothers," junk dealers in Grinnell. Perhaps the two young men received training from their father back in Cedar Rapids, because Noah himself ran a junk business there.

But by 1918 the family was gradually gathering in Marshalltown, the brief experiment in Grinnell left behind. Tessie and her husband, Abraham Schwartz, and Louis and his bride, Ida Gervich, were already living in Marshalltown when Noah himself relocated there in 1918. Within a year Morris Bucksbaum, who had spent almost two years in the Army, also settled in Marshalltown, marrying Bessie Dorosin there in September, 1919. Consequently, when Anna, Isaac (1901-1986), Frieda (1905-1970) and Sol Bucksbaum (1907-1980) finally arrived in Marshalltown in late 1920, the family—now enlarged by the addition of several grandchildren—was together again, although in a very different world from the one they had left in Galicia.

As the Bucksbaums and their in-laws put down roots in Marshalltown, one part of the family developed a clothing business, and this became the link to Grinnell. Morris Bucksbaum, who had been part of the short-lived 1915 junk business in Grinnell, got his start in clothing in the early 1920s by working in the Marshalltown stores of his two brothers-in-law, Hirsch and Saul Dorosin. Before long, Morris opened his own store in Marshalltown, calling it Star Clothing. Then, in February 1924 he helped his brother Isaac open a second Star Clothing store, this one in Grinnell. Initially headquartered on Fifth Avenue, next to the Grinnell Herald building, the store moved to the Spaulding Building at 918 Main Street in 1925. Stocking only men's clothing and shoes, Star Clothing did not offer women's merchandise until the 1950s, shortly before Isaac sold the business to his son, Arnold. When Arnold accepted a position at Collins Radio in Cedar Rapids in 1963, he closed down Grinnell's Star Clothing for good.
Isaac Bucksbaum in Star Clothing, Grinnell (ca. 1940)
Schouten, At Home in the Heartland,  p. 78
According to Arnold Bucksbaum's recollections, Star Clothing was a prosperous, busy enterprise, even during the Depression. Its Main Street address put it next door to J. C. Penney, a location that Isaac thought advantageous, as Star could carry items that Penney's did not; customers disappointed at Penney's had only to walk next door to find what they wanted at Star Clothing. The store was open six days a week, 7 AM to 5:30 or 6 PM. Saturday, when many of the area's farmers hit town to do their shopping, was the busiest day of the week; only on Sundays did Isaac close the store.
Advertisement from the 1932 Grinnell Telephone Directory
In late 1924 Isaac Bucksbaum (1900-1986) had married Bessie Celia (1903-1994), and the couple soon added two sons to the household: Arnold (b. 1925) and Sol (1929-2006). The family occupied a series of houses in Grinnell, beginning at 709 Eighth Avenue; the 1931 telephone directory has them at 934 High Street, but two years later they were living in a handsome two-story at 929 Elm. From 1936 until at least 1944, the Bucksbaums resided in the modified Cape Ann house at 1424 West Street. After the boys grew up and moved out, Isaac and Bessie lived at 1526 Broad where they remained until they moved to Des Moines in 1956.
Isaac and Bessie Bucksbaum, ca. 1940
Schouten, At Home in the Heartland, p. 56
In an article published in the Grinnell Herald-Register just before he left town, Isaac waxed lyrical about his time in Grinnell, thanking the "many fine friends in the Grinnell area" who had helped make his business a success. Nevertheless, life for the Bucksbaums was not without evidence of bias. In autobiographical reminiscences published just a few years ago, Arnold recalled some uncomfortable moments in his Grinnell high school sociology class.
The class started out presenting the various Races of people of the world...Almost everyone [in the class] seemed to have light brown or blond hair and have a light complexion or skin color. That means [that] their families were probably from northern Europe or [of] Scandinavian background. One exception was me...I had black hair...Also I had a somewhat darker complexion than most of the other students...I suppose [that] I looked different enough from the other students, you know, black hair and darker complexion so the teacher said, "Arnold looks like an Indian." I felt very embarrassed, but I did not say anything nor did anyone else in class say anything during the class or after the class...[The teacher's] comment bothered me (Last One in Iowa [n.p., 2015], pp. 67-69).
Arnold Bucksbaum and his wife, Corrine (1950)
Schouten, At Home in the Heartland, p. 164
Although in the 1920s several Jewish students attended the college (Joe Rosenfield was one), these three families pioneered Jewish settlement in Grinnell. Living alone among so many gentiles must have been shocking to  immigrants from the heart of Eastern Europe where Jewish populations were often large. For example, at the time of the 1897 census of the Russian Empire, Nikolaev, which Daniel Berman abandoned when he left for America, boasted 2100 Jews. Chernyi Ostrov, from which Samuel Berman came to Grinnell, reported a population of around 1100, more than sixty percent of whom were Jews. In other words, the Bermans were accustomed to living in communities where Jews constituted either a majority or large plurality of the population. But when Daniel Berman reached Grinnell he was the only Jew in town, and when his wife and two daughters arrived a few years later, the Berman family was the single Jewish household in Grinnell—four Jews among some 5000 Christians.
1915 Iowa Census Card for Daniel Berman, which declared his "church affiliation" as Jewish
It was not much different for Sam Berman and Isaac Bucksbaum, even if Daniel Berman's family was already here. When Sam and Rifka Berman, along with their first-born, Milton, reached Grinnell, they added just three persons to Grinnell's minute Jewish community. The three Berman boys born here helped expand the group some, as did the arrival of Isaac and Bessie Bucksbaum. But even during the few years when Aron Spector's family was living on Pearl Street, Grinnell's Jewish population remained very small. True, the Spectors raised four children, all born between 1923 and 1929. But not long after the Spectors settled here, Daniel Berman and his family moved to Des Moines. Consequently, in the thirty years between Daniel Berman's arrival and the outbreak of World War II, there were never more than fourteen Jews (not counting college students) living in Grinnell. These small numbers made it difficult for the Bermans and Bucksbaums to practice their religion or celebrate their traditions.

By contrast, Marshalltown, whose total population after World War I was more than 15,000, in these years became home to a growing and thriving Jewish community. Some forty Jewish families had settled there, and their increasing numbers encouraged the founding in 1920 of the Sons of Israel congregation. Too small to afford a building or a rabbi, the congregation used laymen to conduct Saturday services in the Woodbury Building (32-36 E. Main Street), and for High Holidays they rented a hall and hired a cantor.
1904 Photograph of Woodbury Block, Marshalltown, Iowa
Only in 1939 did the congregation acquire a residence on W. State Street and convert it into a synagogue. A rabbi was hired to conduct religious services and to provide instruction for children. Many years passed before the congregation purchased Trinity Lutheran Church at 211 W. Church Street, and dedicated it as a synagogue.
Undated photograph of Trinity Lutheran Church, Marshalltown, Iowa, which became the synagogue of Congregation of the Sons of Israel in 1962; after the Congregation dissolved in 1985, the building was occupied by House of Compassion
In other words, just about the time that Grinnell gained its first Jewish residents, Marshalltown's Jewish community grew large enough to establish a congregation and offer religious services. In Marshalltown one could follow the traditions of Judaism in the company of one's neighbors, and the Bucksbaums embraced this possibility. The senior generation was perhaps the most faithful in maintaining Jewish practices. The family history asserts that Noah Bucksbaum was known as "one of the most devout members of Marshalltown's small Jewish community," and Arnold Bucksbaum, remembering his grandparents' household, thought that Noah's and Anna's
way of life must have been directly transferred from the old country. The language was Yiddish, chickens in the back yard, papers on the scrubbed floor to start the Sabbath, wood-fired stove, goose down quilts and pillows, and all meat from a kosher butcher... (Last One in Iowa, p. 22).
The situation was different, however, for their children who resided in towns like Grinnell where there were few Jews and no synagogue. Almost inevitably, therefore, the second generation of Bucksbaums followed a generally less intense practice of Judaism. Katherine Schouten thought that "personal religiosity among the younger generation ultimately varied" and "certain Jewish traditions were followed [only] in deference to Noah" (At Home in the Heartland, p. 118). All the sons had a bar mitzvah, for example, and Noah and Anna regularly hosted the entire family on the holidays. The grandsons, too, regularly appeared in Marshalltown on Sundays for Hebrew school, traveling the rough roads from Grinnell, Eldora, and Oelwein. In other respects, however, these family satellites proved less rigorous in practicing their religion. Schouten says that among the second generation "kosher kitchens were to some extent [emphasis mine—DK] kept," but it had to be difficult for households that had no Jewish merchants or synagogue near at hand.
Yahrzeit of the Sons of Israel Congregation, Marshalltown, Iowa
Iowa Jewish Historical Society, Accession Number  2011.020
The Bermans, who had no relatives in Marshalltown, had even less reason to travel there regularly. Visits to the synagogue were often limited to the High Holidays, as Isadore Berman recalled. Even so, the Sons of Israel was their religious anchor. Indeed, the Yahrzeit memorial board of the Marshalltown Sons of Israel Congregation, entrusted to the Iowa Jewish Historical Society after the 1985 dissolution of the congregation, includes the name of Samuel Berman as a longtime member.
If, as Calvin Coolidge is reported to have said in 1925, "the chief business of the American people is business," then the Bermans and Bucksbaums proved themselves fully American in Grinnell. Their commercial success joined the men to the town's merchant class and made it easier for them to ignore the slurs and slights that occasionally came their way. Their children rubbed shoulders with kids their own age in the public schools, while keeping themselves focused upon their own homes and their distinctive background. Grinnell's few Jews were not welcomed into the most elevated groups in town—the men were not invited into the Poweshiek Club and the women were not asked to join the Magoun Club, for example—but neither were they hounded out of town or prevented from buying ice cream at Candyland (as African Americans were). And when Grinnell celebrated its past, as it did in 1929 with a pageant to mark the first 75 years and as it did again in 1954 to observe the centennial, no stories of Jewish immigration made it into the script. Nevertheless, the Bermans and Bucksbaums succeeded here, and left their mark upon the town and its history in anticipation of a time when we might see the town's early history with a less prejudiced eye.
PS. Special thanks to Dorrie Lalonde for putting me onto the Bucksbaum family publications and to Michelle Roseburrough for sharing with me a history of the Sons of Israel Congregation.


  1. Because my father was in the same class as Isadore Berman, I was especially interested in reading about his family background. My dad and my mother always looked forward to seeing Izzy and Ida at class reunions. I’m just curious to know how and where Isadore met Ida.

  2. Dear Dan, I read your Grinnell Stories with interest, and have some additional Jewish families from Grinnell's early days to add to the account. My great grandparents, Ozer and Rachel Winer, along with Rachel's siblings Todros Aryah Shpall and Leah Yehudit Shpall lived in Grinnell from 1907- 1912. Actually, they may not have been in the town the whole time, because they were homesteading in the rural areas. But my grandfather was born in Grinnell in 1909, and his cousin Harry Bernstein was born there the following year in 1910. Why on earth they chose Iowa is something I am still researching. Do you know if there is a local Jewish historical society that might be able to help? Any tips gratefully accepted! Best wishes, Davida