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Up From the Valley

They came from Germany, Russia and Eastern Europe: the untold history of Richmond’s first Jewish enclave.


The Farmers’ Market by the 20th century remained the center of a multi-cultural neighborhood, at far right as depicted in a 1868 illustration in Harper’s Weekly. - LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
  • Library of Congress
  • The Farmers’ Market by the 20th century remained the center of a multi-cultural neighborhood, at far right as depicted in a 1868 illustration in Harper’s Weekly.

In Shockoe Bottom on April 3 some two dozen somber and placard-holding demonstrators form a phalanx along a Broad Street sidewalk. They are protesting — pre-emptively — the prospect of full city blocks of the original 18th century city grid being mowed over for a new ballpark for the Richmond Flying Squirrels.

"This is considered to us — people of color — a sacred area," one protester tells a reporter. "It's insulting, what they've done to this area. … Our history is being erased. … We're trying to keep what's left here."

Shockoe Bottom is known for not just having one of the nation's oldest farmers' markets but, sadly, as a former center of American slave trading. The 50 slave auction houses that operated here simultaneously before the Civil War produced revenue second only to New Orleans.

In recent years traces of that tragic history have been uncovered and finally are being acknowledged. Just north of East Broad Street and hard along the constant roar of Interstate 95, a former parking lot has been sodded and marks — as respectfully as possible — both an African-American burial ground and the footprint of the famous Lumpkin's slave jail. A monument and interpretative pocket park at 15th and East Main streets commemorates the end of slave importation to the United States in 1807.

But as talk of a minor league ballpark once again ratchets up — concerns over the stadium's possible disturbance of slave history sites remains a major political obstacle — there's additional Shockoe Valley history to consider. For almost 200 years, this often muggy and historically flood-prone area was a densely populated Jewish enclave. From the mid-1700s until World War II, hundreds of Jews, mostly from Germany, Russia, Poland and other Eastern European countries, made the Bottom (they called it Church Hill) their first stop in Richmond. Some stayed and established homes, raised families and built businesses here. And while Jews and blacks shared the tight physical confines of a neighborhood encircling the 17th Street Farmers' Market and were often interdependent economically, they lived on separate blocks and observed distinctly different traditions.

Most Richmonders are clueless to Shockoe's multi-faceted overlay of race and religion. But not Jerry Soble, 78, a retired furniture retailer who now lives on Monument Avenue. He grew up in the valley, first with his family at 215 N. 19th St. and later at 1820 E. Broad St. when his father's parents lived with them. His maternal grandparents, the Rothenbergs, lived next door. "That whole area down there was a ghetto," he says. "If you weren't Jewish, we thought something was wrong with you."

Today the East Broad block where the Sobles and Rothenbergs lived is completely rebuilt. A McDonald's sits next door to a sleek, five-story apartment complex that houses the Bottom's latest demographic wave, young professionals and graduate students.

But standing on the brick sidewalk and gazing along 19th Street where many of the buildings of his youth still stand, Soble fondly recalls his 1930s and '40s stomping grounds. "First of all, you had the kosher food shops on 18th Street and there was the kosher baker," he says. Sisisky's Deli on 17th Street was a short walk from his house (the proprietors' son, Norman Sisisky, would become a U.S. Congressman). Kaplan's Variety Store kept young Soble in candy and cap pistols.

A synagogue, Keneseth Israel (Assembly of Israel) was at 209 N. 19th St., a block from the Soble home.

And at 315 N. 19th St.: "You also had the Rev. [Abraham] Glick, a mohel who performed the circumcision when a boy was eight days old," Soble remembers. "When Rev. Glick reached an age that his hands were shaking I remember people saying, 'He should retire.'"

The Branch Public Baths were conveniently situated nearby. "I took baths twice a week there," he says, "For a nickel they gave us a bar of soap and a towel."

Neighbors Bobby Soffee, back left, and Jerry Soble embrace while Mooty Soffee, front row left, and other Shockoe Valley friends pose in a mid-1940s photo. - JERRY SOBLE
  • Jerry Soble
  • Neighbors Bobby Soffee, back left, and Jerry Soble embrace while Mooty Soffee, front row left, and other Shockoe Valley friends pose in a mid-1940s photo.

The Sobles, like many Richmonders, had plumbing but the bathhouse was considerably better equipped. Opened in 1909, within a few years the baths were attracting 60,000 patrons annually — a cross section of humanity ranging from professionals to street urchins.

Soble says he sledded Jefferson Hill, dipped neighborhood cats in paint buckets with his buddy Frank Seldes, and once soaped up the metal wheels of an electric trolley car so they'd spin in place.

The city playground, which stretched along Grace Street from 18th to 19th streets, was common ground for neighborhood Jews and blacks, the latter of whom lived on the western side of the Bottom and on the eastern slope of Shockoe Hill. "We used to rough house and have rock fights for maybe hour or so," Soble says.

But his fondest memories are of the Neighborhood House. The community center, converted from an old townhouse, still stands today at the corner of 19th and Broad and like many properties in the Bottom has been converted to apartments. It was established in 1912 by the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Association, whose members were affiliated mostly with congregation Beth Ahabah (House of Love), Richmond's once aristocratic Hebrew congregation of German descent.

"The elegant German ladies would travel to the nonelegant areas and literally teach the new arrivals the language and mores of America," an older Richmond  woman told journalist Frank Rich, the former New York Times columnist, for an article he once wrote for the Richmond Mercury, a local alternative weekly in the 1970s. "There are many, many Jews living in sumptuous West End homes now whose roots were in that [settlement] House … and who learned their first English from a Schwarzschild or a Mrs. Thalhimer."

The center offered literary groups and classes in sewing and wood shop or in drama and the visual arts. On Sunday afternoons in 1919, during World War I, dances were held for area servicemen.

For Jerry Soble, the house provided a window to the world and a sports outlet. Within the ridiculously tight confines of the center's gym, Soble played basketball. "It was so small that if you went up for a layup you'd hit the stage and hurt yourself," he says, "if you went out of bounds, you'd hit your head against the wall." There was no place to watch except from the stage.

"Our coach was Mannie King [a legend in local basketball circles] He was 70 years old but was still playing ball. He'd give us elbows under the basket."

Soble had his bar mitzvah at the Neighborhood House. "We had no music since I had two great uncles who'd died within a week of each other. People just sat around, talked and ate. I thought to myself: `Couldn't they have picked another time to pass away?'"


The former Beth Shalome was founded in the Bottom and moved in 1822 to this building near Capitol Square. - BETH AHABAH MUSEUM AND ARCHIVES
  • Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives
  • The former Beth Shalome was founded in the Bottom and moved in 1822 to this building near Capitol Square.

The first Jew to settle in Shockoe Bottom (which pretty much was 18th century Richmond) was Isaiah Isaacs, who emigrated from Germany and was living here in 1769.  

He and a business partner, Jacob I. Cohen, also German-born, opened Richmond's first tavern, the Bird in Hand, at the corner of what is now Main and 25th streets. The businessmen eventually accumulated extensive real estate holdings in Powhatan and Louisa counties, the Dismal Swamp and on the frontier in Kentucky where they employed Daniel Boone in 1781 to survey 5,000 acres of property. Isaacs, apparently slow to learn English, presented Boone receipts signed in Yiddish.

By 1785 the duo had opened Cohen & Isaacs, which was also known as (and called by the proprietors themselves) the Jews Store. The product mix included pots, pans, fabrics, drugs and even artificial flowers.

Both Isaacs and Cohen served on Richmond's Common Hall (the predecessor of City Council today). Cohen was also a trustee of Masons Hall, the 18th century lodge where members still meet at 1807 E. Franklin St.

Isaacs owned slaves.

Both men were devout Jews, but since Richmond had no synagogue, in 1789 Isaacs helped found Beth Shalome (House of Peace) which was the nation's sixth and westernmost synagogue. At first its members worshipped in a private home on 19th Street using the Sephardic (Spanish and Portuguese) ritual. By 1791 the congregation had 29 member families.

That same year Isaacs was an organizer of the first Jewish cemetery in Virginia, which can still be seen (although all but squeezed out on three sides, by a recently built apartment complex) at East Franklin near 21st Street. And yes, there are still remains buried there, although the markers have long since disappeared.

In 1811 Beth Shalome built its first synagogue nearby at East Cary and 19th streets where it remained for about a decade. In 1822, the congregation moved to a new synagogue on the eastern slope of Shockoe Hill near the Capitol. This marked the beginning of Jews' westward drift from the Bottom.

In 1841, during a major wave of Jewish immigration from Germany that had begun in the 1830s, another congregation, Beth Ahabah (House of Love), was established by some Beth Shalome members who wanted to worship according to the German ritual. They eventually settled in 1848 on 11th Street between Clay and Marshall and established a reformed congregation.

As Richmonders moved westward, the Bottom, already in the flood zone, deteriorated. In his 1859 history, "Richmond in By-gone Days," Samuel Mordecai, a historian who was Jewish, cited the century-old Bird-in-Hand, tavern as an example of "modern antiquity" but deemed the place "lately a ruinous hovel."


Philip Whitlock, pictured young and old, arrived in Richmond as a teenager and worked as a tailor in Shockoe before becoming one of the city’s most successful tobacconists. - BETH AHABAH MUSEUM AND ARCHIVES
  • Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives
  • Philip Whitlock, pictured young and old, arrived in Richmond as a teenager and worked as a tailor in Shockoe before becoming one of the city’s most successful tobacconists.

Throughout the 19th century, however, Jews continued to settle in Shockoe Valley. One of Richmond's most enterprising adopted sons was German-speaking Philip Whitlock, who in 1854 escaped a dreary existence and no prospects for advancement in Wlotzlaveck, Poland.

The first English the 16-year-old learned upon arriving was "come back," whenever he'd leave his quarters.

Whitlock initially lived with his brother, sister-in-law and their two children in two rooms behind a store on East Main between 15th and 16th streets (across from what is now Main Street Station). On his first Friday and Saturday nights in Richmond, Whitlock attended services at Beth Shalome, but found the Portuguese service odd. He later joined Beth Ahabah.

Soon after arriving he also witnessed his first and only slave auction in Shockoe Bottom, an experience he recounted in 1908 in a self-published autobiography: "a great big man was brought in — he had his pants rolled up as far as his knees and his shirt open in front so you could see his breast, his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Some of the buyers examined him by feeling his legs and arms. The man sold for $2,300. I left after that and never had any desire to go there again. … I did not approve of that traffic." He also noted that "there were a good many people who were looked upon as respectful and in good standing that were engaged in this business. Some were Jews."

Within days his arrival in the Shockoe Valley, Whitlock began the challenging process of finding work to support himself.

After working as a tailor for his brother for 15 months without pay, Whitlock fled the household to another shop just two blocks away at Main and 17th streets where he lived and worked in the same room with his employer and his quarrelsome wife. Soon after leaving their place, he moved a block east and shared a room with Harris Jacobs whom he'd met on the voyage over. Whitlock began taking piecework in from other tailors and sewing in his room.

What little money he saved was sent back to family who still lived in Wlotzlaveck. Whitlock stipulated that the first funds be spent on a tombstone for his deceased parents.

While working for an uncle who lived at 14th and Franklin streets, Whitlock learned to use his Singer sewing machine, the first such model in Richmond.

Two years later Whitlock purchased an existing business with a friend, Sampson Pike. It was a confectionary store on 17th Street in the upper Shockoe Valley, in rough Butcher Town, the slaughterhouse district in the vicinity where the city jail now sits. Sales were sluggish and Whitlock was denied a liquor license because of his age. And at least once Whitlock had to flash a knife he always carried with him to dissuade a rowdy gang of Irish boys who threatened him. Richmond had no formal police force in the 1850s.

Whitlock moved back with his brother and went to work for an uncle before finally going into tailoring for himself in a space at Main near 15th Street. Now established, he brought a nephew, 15-year-old Abe Whitlock, over from Poland.

Ida Plotnick Schreiber, 93, lived and worked at her parents’ grocery store on East Main Street and often visited her grandparents on North 19th Street next to Keneseth Israel. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Ida Plotnick Schreiber, 93, lived and worked at her parents’ grocery store on East Main Street and often visited her grandparents on North 19th Street next to Keneseth Israel.

A bright spot amid the back-and-forth of Philip Whitlock's early experience in Richmond was an invitation join to join the Richmond Grays, a local military company.

With the secession of Virginia from the Union in April 1861, the Grays were called up. Ironically, a Polish-born boy who had escaped conscription by the Russians was now serving not the United States, but the Confederacy. "While I was very patriotic and I loved the country of my adoption being a full-fledged citizen," he wrote, "I was ready to fight for its rights. Especially since I was of the Jewish faith, I thought that if I was negligent in my duty as a citizen of this country, it would reflect unfavorably on the entire Jewish race and religion."

Other Richmond Jews in the Grays included Simon Rosenfield (whose father had a store on 17th Street), Isador "East" Lovenstein and Herman Hirsh. While stationed in Norfolk the friends were assigned the same tent which they furnished nicely with mattresses and even a handsome carpet. Wrote Whitlock: "It was the envy of all the others."

During the war after Whitlock became ill, he was assigned to quartermaster duty back in Richmond — in a building in the Bottom at 14th and Cary streets.

In November 1863, Whitlock married Eva Abrams, his brother's sister-in-law, at a ceremony in his brother's house (who was then living at Broad and 19th streets). George Jacobs of Beth Shalome officiated.

After the war Whitlock opened a clothing business on Main Street between 13th and 14th streets. When this didn't work out he started making cigars by hand. He and his brother-in-law, Ellis Abram, established Whitlock and Abram at Main and 15th streets and began producing cigars, using mostly young female workers.

He experimented in cigar-making machinery, even patenting equipment. Whitlock found cheroots — cigars without heads — his most profitable product. One brand, Old Virginny, featured a logo with a black man on the packaging. Burber Graves, an employee, served as the model.

To keep up with customer demand Whitlock bought a vacant lot in the Bottom on 20th and Franklin streets and built a large, five-story factory.

By 1870 he'd rented a house on Franklin between 21st and 22nd streets for Eva and their three children.

Sales eventually topped $33 million and in 1891 Whitlock and Abrams was sold to American Tobacco Co., through its Richmond associate, Maj. Lewis Ginter, a leading figure in late 19th-century Richmond.

Philip Whitlock, now wealthy, moved uptown and into a fashionable house he built at 205 E. Grace St. near Second Street.

Richmond historian Robert Beverley Munford wrote in "Richmond Homes and Memories" of "the happy picture of Mr. and Mrs. Whitlock as they were seen on most any fine afternoon being driven along Grace or Franklin Street in their open carriage drawn by two spirited horses — both horses and coachman being handsomely equipped in the fashion of the day. Their carriage was one of the last to be seen on the city's streets, long after automobiles had been adopted by most of the people of wealth."        

Once-penniless and unable to speak English, Whitlock had made his mark entirely in Shockoe Valley.


The north side of the 1700 block of East Main Street, shown here in a modern photo, and the south side of the block shown in a historical view below, were centers of both Jewish family and business life. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The north side of the 1700 block of East Main Street, shown here in a modern photo, and the south side of the block shown in a historical view below, were centers of both Jewish family and business life.

Like Eva and Philip Whitlock, by the early 20th century, many Jews had moved out of the Bottom and to other neighborhoods such as Jackson Ward, Monument Avenue, Ginter Park and Westhampton, although some developments such as Windsor Farms were restrictive.

Jews continued to live in the Bottom until after World War II.

Ida Plotnick Schreiber, 93, a former dietitian and veteran of World War II, lived with her parents and brother and sister in the rear of the family store, Plotnick's Grocery, at 2407 E. Main St. "We had a kitchen, living room and dining room downstairs. There was no such thing as central heating. The only heater we had in the store was one placed in the center. In the morning I'd get up and put on two or three sweaters."

She recalls working in the store during the 1930s in the depth of the Great Depression: "We sold practically everything. Cigarettes were 10 cents a pack. We'd break a pack and sell a cigarette for a penny. Dominoes were 10 cents. We had barrels of salt fish. I hated it. We sold heating oil and bagged coal. I got to the point where I could cut pork chops. This was before sliced bread and we sold a slice of bread for a nickel and put it in brown paper. Sanitation has come a long way since then."

Schreiber says although it was against the law to operate on Sundays, "we always took a chance and opened for four hours in the morning. Our customers were very poor." Many people also bought day-to-day as they didn't have refrigeration.   

"Most of our customers were black and worked in nearby tobacco and cigarette factories," Schreiber says. "We got to know them very well and many of them bought on credit and would pay on Saturday. I especially loved the little babies."

"But can you imagine opening a store at six o'clock in the morning and closing at nine and taking in $18?" she asks.

"We went to the synagogue on the holidays," Schreiber says. For Seders, feasts held in the home on the first day of Passover commemorating the exodus of Jews from Egypt, Plotnick would go to her paternal grandparents who lived in an apartment on the second floor of the house next door to Kenneth Israel on North 19th Street. Sometimes there were as many as 18 people there. "My grandmother kept a kosher home," Schreiber says. "The Seders would start at eight o'clock and end at midnight."

In addition to working in her parents' grocery store, during the Depression years Schreiber says she took a job in a Shockoe Bottom clothing shop across from the Main Street Station. The clerk position paid 15 cents an hour. "I wasn't there very long. A black man came in and wanted to get the socks that were in the window," Schreiber says. "I messed up the merchandise display. But they'd told me to satisfy the customer."
Schreiber walked to classes at East End Junior High School and graduated from the old John Marshall High School, which was then on Marshall and Ninth streets downtown.

And she, like Jerry Soble would do years later, participated in programs at the Neighborhood House.

  • Library of Congress

In 1938 she graduated from the College of William and Mary and had first considered a career in medicine but "I didn't do too well in organic chemistry. It didn't help that one of her uncles, Dr. Barney Plotnick, who had a family practice on Church Hill on Venerable Street for 50 years, squelched it: "'Women are not doctors.' And that took care of that."

She became a dietitian. Schreiber first worked at Medical College of Virginia and later got a job at Fort Lee in Petersburg.

In 1938 she met her future husband, Mendel Schreiber, a native New Yorker who'd moved to Richmond with his parents who also had a grocery store. The couple met on a blind date at Tantilla Gardens, a popular dance hall that was located on West Broad Street. "It was the only time I went there," she says.

They married in 1940, lived in the West End and reared two sons.

"Then, when war was declared, he was drafted and I applied to become a second lieutenant," she says. She was assigned to an Army post in Fort Story in Virginia Beach. Eventually she became a captain and was the first woman commander of the Jewish War veterans.

In retirement, Schreiber, a daughter of Shockoe Valley who lives in her brick house on a shady tree lined street in the West End, has accomplished as much as she did during her career. She has provided more than 20,000 hours of volunteer service at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center.

Schreiber thus continued the tradition of volunteerism that the Mmes. Schwarszchild and Thalhimer, whose forebears also had their beginnings in Jewish Shockoe Bottom, had brought to the valley in a previous generation. But at 93, she admits she can't do all she used to accomplish: "What I'd give if I could volunteer for one day more."

By the mid-1950s the spirit of the old neighborhood had disappeared. I-95 ripped out the western edge. And when Keneseth Israel merged with Beth Israel in 1952 and moved to the West End, the Branch Public Baths and the Neighborhood House had already been closed for two years. S