Annapolis, From The Inside
11/23/07
Editor & Publisher
As concerned as I am about the outcome of this week’s scheduled Mideast peace conference (now downgraded to “meeting” and soon, perhaps, to be scaled down to “photo-op”) in Annapolis, Md., I must admit that I get a kick out of seeing international headlines every day referring to my small hometown on the Severn River. Annapolis, widely known as Crab Town USA, is having its 15 minutes of fame.  It’s a chic, upscale and growing community now, where many people live who commute to nearby Baltimore or Washington for work. Downtown is hopping on Saturday nights. But when I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s, Annapolis was a picturesque and quaint but sleepy city of about 30,000 where phone numbers had four digits, a teen’s summer evening entertainment might entail going over to the pharmacy to watch the druggist fill prescriptions, and everyone knew your name. People would stop me on Main Street (yes, Main Street), overlooking the harbor, and ask, “aren’t you the Jewish rabbi’s son?” I would stifle my smart-aleck desire to respond, “as opposed to the Catholic rabbi’s son?” but would simply smile and say yes, with pride. My late father served as the rabbi of Kneseth Israel, then the only synagogue in town, and was civilian chaplain to the Jewish midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy for almost 40 years; my brother and I lived in Annapolis until we each got married; and our Mom, bless her, has been living in town for 62 years, where she is still known as “The Rebbetzin.” As the capital of Maryland and the home of the Naval Academy, Annapolis was founded in 1645 and is rich in American history. George Washington resigned his commission as Commander in Chief before the Continental Congress in the State House in Annapolis in 1783, the only state house to have served as the nation’s capitol. The Naval Academy — separated from the town by a white wall, making it ideal for security for the upcoming conference — was founded in 1845. And St. John’s College, a tiny liberal arts college famous for its “great books” curriculum, dates back to 1696; only Harvard and William and Mary are older institutions of higher learning in the U.S. (Surely no two universities could be as physically close and institutionally dissimilar as the Naval Academy and St. Johns.) Some of the finest 17th and 18th century Colonial architecture in America can be found in Annapolis, with its narrow streets, paved in red brick. As a kid, I was always interested in Annapolis history. The street where I lived was built in 1696, in the historic center of town, and just a few doors down was the Jonas Green House, now a bed and breakfast but once home of a printer whose family came to America in 1627. It is one of the two oldest residences in Annapolis, but more importantly to me and my friends at the time was that it was said to be haunted by the ghost of old Jonas himself. That meant if we were playing baseball and the ball landed in the Green House yard, it stayed there. (The house where I grew up, incidentally, is an historic landmark, as well. It was a two-family apartment then, but was gutted and restored by its current owner, Howard Safir, former New York City police and fire commissioner.) For a very brief time when I was about 11, I tried to parlay my knowledge of Annapolis history by going to the Naval Academy after school and hiring myself out as a guide to unsuspecting tourists. I would sidle up to an older couple looking up at the statue of the Indian warrior, Tecumseh, in front of Bancroft Hall, the largest dormitory in the world, and say something like, “do you know the Midshipmen here call Tecumseh ‘the god of 2.0?’” (a reference to a passing grade). And then explain that the Middies would throw pennies into his sheaf of arrows for good luck before exams. When I would offer my services for a tour of the grounds, the startled visitors would usually scurry away, sometimes stopping to say, “Here, kid,” and giving me a quarter out of compassion. More fun, though, was going to each of the three local movies for free on our family’s clergy pass, often with my friend, Michael, whose father was the cantor. Once, when we were about 12, we went to a weekday matinee in the summer and Michael approached the only other patron in the theater. “Excuse me, that’s my seat,” he said politely. “But I’m sitting here,” the startled gentleman replied. “You don’t understand,” Michael said. “This is my permanent seat.” How we laughed when the poor man shuffled off. These days, when I go back to visit, I know more people in the cemetery than the shul, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year but always working to attract younger members. Maybe when the Israeli delegation comes to town for the peace talks they’ll want to visit Kneseth Israel, as well as the beautiful Jewish chapel on the grounds of the Naval Academy, dedicated two years ago and named in honor of Uriah P. Levy, the 19th-century Jewish naval hero. Or they could stop off at The Rebbetzin’s. I’m sure she’d be glad to offer up some homemade chicken soup — and free advice about how to deal with the Palestinians. E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org

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10/09/2009 - 10:51

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