Essay

Streets were not “paved with gold”

For many, the mom-and-pop grocery store became the vehicle for upward economic and social mobility. The family worked long hours seven days a week, saving money to move the store to a better neighborhood or to buy some property. Although children were expected to work in the store after school and in the summer, most parents then pushed their children out of the store and into college. The dream of Jewish immigrants was to see their children become doctors, lawyers, teachers, and businessmen.

Rosalind Epstein holding her son Burton

Rosalind Epstein holding her son Burton in front of Epstein's Ideal Market at 1629 13th Street, NW.

JHSGW Collections.

Nearly 400 Jewish-owned mom-and-pop grocery stores were located in a wide variety of neighborhoods in all four quadrants of the city and in nearby Virginia and Maryland. Most were in non-Jewish neighborhoods. Storeowners catered to the needs and tastes of their neighbors, selling items in small quantities and extending credit. One store sold Italian sausages; others sold ham.

Celia and Nathan Weinreb in front of their store

Celia and Nathan Weinreb in their store on V Street, NW, near the old Griffith Stadium.

JHSGW Collections. Gift of Ruth Compart

Responding to the needs of their customers, many immigrants found it hard to maintain the traditional Jewish lifestyle. Most stores stayed open on Saturday, the busiest shopping day of the week, making it difficult to observe the Sabbath. Some stores closed only for “half a day on Sunday” and on the High Holidays: Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).

Isadore Gimble reading the paper

Isadore Gimble reading the Forward in his store, the Congress Food Market, at 5th and East Capitol Streets. Yiddish was the first language of most Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Yiddish newspapers like the Forworts (the Jewish daily newspaper) helped immigrants stay connected to their roots and provided practical information on adapting to life in America. Many immigrant storeowners learned English by reading labels on canned goods in their stores.

JHSGW Collections. Gift of Josephine Gimble. Photograph by Gilbert Gimble.

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