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Teachers discover Jewish culture in the Eastern Panhandle during NEH institute

By Staff | Aug 10, 2018

The chances of two traditional, Hebrew-speaking Jewish men, one from Rhode Island and the other from Arizona, winding up in West Virginia for the National Endowment for the Humanities’ “Voices from the Misty Mountains and The Power of Storytelling” July institute for teachers is surely quite slim.

We were part of a group of 25 teachers from around the country, led by Dr. Sylvia Shurbutt, professor of English and head of Shepherd University’s Appalachian Studies Program, meeting for three weeks to explore Appalachian music, literature and arts.

We both decided to learn about Jewish life in the area. One of the first Jews we met was Marjorie Weingold, who invited us to her home and told us about living in Shepherdstown, where she moved in 1990.

Before long Weingold was describing her and other Jewish people in the area’s work, shaping and growing the town’s annual Contemporary American Theater Festival. Shepherdstown’s 180-seat theater, Marinoff Theater, is named in recognition of a legacy endowment contribution by Stanley Marinoff, and in memory of his late wife Shirley, who was active in forming CATF.

A few days later, Shepherdstown story teller and musician Adam Booth, who founded the town’s monthly “Speak” storytelling series in 2013, offered us his perspective on Appalachian Jewish identity, as we sat sipping Arnold Palmers on a Sunday afternoon.

“Central to my work is letting others know about the people of Appalachia and dispelling the notion that Appalachia is all White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. I’m living proof of this. My family is half Jewish,” Booth told us.

We realized that though the Jewish community of the Eastern Panhandle was not numerically large, it exerted an outsized cultural influence in the area, including on theater and storytelling.

This influence also became apparent when we visited Martinsburg with Dr. Shurbutt. We were met at the Berkeley County Historical Society by its president, Todd Funkhouser and by its curator, Carol Appenzellar.

“I think the Jewish community was an indicator of the city’s artistic and cultural enhancement. The Martinsburg community’s artistic and cultural enhancement rose and fell with the Jewish community. There were once more than three dozen Jewish businesses in downtown Martinsburg. They brought theater and the library,” Funkhouser said.

Next we headed to the Martinsburg home of Hannah Geffert, a civil rights activist, historian and retired Shepherd professor. Over iced tea and homemade cupcakes, she told us about Jewish life in Martinsburg.

“The Jewish families were very integrated into the community. There was a Jewish mayor,” Geffert said, referring to Gene Diamond, who served for three terms from 1972 to 1978. “One of the biggest social events here was the Purim Ball. Everyone in town would go. It was a big event for the area.”

We thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for sponsoring and funding our participation in the institute, and Dr. Shurbutt for her support and assistance.

Shai Afsai is a school librarian and writer living in Providence, Rhode Island. David Cedor teaches in Avondale, Arizona. His grandfather and uncles were Pennsylvania coal miners who raised their families in Appalachia.