Deep in the hollows of West Virginia, Jews ran some of the most visible retail stores in the state.
They campaigned to be mayors of their towns, and they served as justices on the West Virginia Supreme Court.
To be sure, West Virginia is not the first place that comes to mind when one thinks about great Jewish population centers. It may even be near the bottom. But Jews did — and do — live there, and they made significant contributions.
Julian Preisler tried to tell their story.
A Washington, D.C., resident, Preisler, a professional genealogist and researcher, is just out with a new book, “Jewish West Virginia,” which seeks to tell the story of this small statewide community, largely through never-before-published snapshots.
Arcadia, a leading local history publisher in the United States, published the book. It also put out a history of Squirrel Hill in 2005.
“It needed to be done,” Preisler said of his latest project. “There is really only one book out [about West Virginia Jews] and it’s a wonderful, scholarly book, but it doesn’t cover the whole state. It only covers the coalfield communities. Basically, there wasn’t a lot available.”
He was referring to the book “Coalfield Jews,” by Deborah Weiner.
But “Jewish West Virginia” is different. Far from a scholarly work, the book reads more like a family album.
The 127-page book, organized by cities and regions in the state where Jews lived, contains shots of synagogues, downtown stores, family portraits and confirmation classes (to name just a few scenes) that tell stories of the Jews who lived in these places.
Some communities in the book have thriving Jewish communities to this day. Others, such as Martinsburg in the Eastern Panhandle, do not. But that didn’t stifle interest in the book.
“I got quite a few inquiries from non-Jews in the area who are either interested in the topic or remember going to Cohens Department Store (a Martinsburg business landmark),” Preisler said. It’s just interesting finding non-Jews who are interested in the topic.”
But as the book shows, West Virginia Jews became more than just storeowners.
• Alex Shoenbaum of Charleston, who started the Shoney’s Restaurant chain and went on to become a leading Jewish philanthropist;
• Justice Fred Caplan, perhaps the first Jew on the West Virginia Supreme Court swearing in another Jew, Jerome Katz, as a judge of the Mercer County Circuit Court (Princeton);
• Simon Meyer, a Charleston homebuilder, who bequeathed enough funds after his death to hold the semiannual West Virginia Jewish Reunion;
• Moshe Dayan appearing at a speaking engagement at Marshall University in Huntington;
• Abraham Kaplan, a department store owner in Harpers Ferry — known largely for John Brown’s raid — who went on to become mayor of the town.
Much of the information in the book was collected through a website Preisler set up for the project — westvirginiajewishhistory.com — which is still up, where many photos in the book have been posted. Preisler said he didn’t have the budget to travel to every community he wrote about.
“I would have loved to travel all over the state doing research, but I had to keep my costs down,” he said. “With books like this, you don’t make much.”
He also couldn’t include all the photos he had or include certain smaller communities that once had Jewish communities, such as Logan and Williamson.
“It doesn’t cover everything,” Preisler said of the book. “Arcadia has a set standard — 128 pages and up to 200 images — and you can’t deviate from that. That’s one reason some of the coal communities like Williamson and Logan I wasn’t able to include in the book, because there wasn’t enough room, or the photos I got weren’t up to the specs of the publishers.”
Even so, he learned things about the West Virginia Jewish community. For instance, the level of integration of Jews into their various communities. “They were very well [integrated] socially, civically in some cases politically; they really became a part of their communities, and became very involved,” he said. “I thought there would be a lot of discrimination; there really wasn’t. The Jews who settled there did well, they found a welcoming home and they gave back to their communities. They were very proud to be West Virginians.”
A Detroit native and graduate of Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va., Preisler is a genealogist and researcher who has specialized in Jewish history. He’s written seven other books about Jewish history, architecture and genealogy.
Preisler understands his book isn’t strictly speaking, a research tool. He thinks it could spur further research into the community.
“I think for the most part it’s going to be that photo album type,” he said. “I’m trying to get it into libraries and historical societies so it could possibly be used as a research tool, and then it could bring about further research because actually many of the photos have not been published before.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)