For small town and rural immigrant Jews in the early 20th century, one of the greatest challenges was, literally, maintaining their Jewish identity in a sea of non-Jewish neighbors. The early Jews of Martha’s Vineyard, a tiny island off the coast of Massachusetts, faced this challenge and, in their own way, maintained a distinctly Jewish way of life despite their isolation from the mainstream.
Historian Kenneth Libo speculates that the first "Jewish" settlers of Martha’s Vineyard may have been Cape Verdean descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Sephardim who, generations earlier, had converted to Catholicism. The first definitively identified Jewish settler on Martha’s Vineyard was Sam Cronig, who arrived there in 1905. Cronig was born in rural Lithuania, the oldest son of a Yiddish-speaking family who expected him to become a rabbi. At age fifteen, according to Libo, "after an encounter with a Cossack’s whip, he left the yeshiva his parents had sent him to in Minsk and became a baker’s apprentice." It took Cronig two years to save $200 to purchase his passage to America.
At age 17, Sam Cronig landed on the Lower East Side of New York. Finding the atmosphere there unhealthful, he visited relatives in New Bedford, Massachusetts, who located a farm worker’s job for him on Martha’s Vineyard. There, he work for a retired mariner, Captain Daggett, and his wife. The Daggetts took Cronig under their wing, teaching him English. At one point, they fantasized about adopting him, but Sam never forgot his family in Lithuania. Working on the Daggett farm and as a grocery delivery boy, Cronig was able to save enough by 1917 to bring his three brothers, a sister and, eventually, his future wife Libby from Minsk to Martha’s Vineyard.
In 1917, despite having no previous entrepreneurial experience, Sam Cronig and two of his brothers opened a meat and grocery market on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. On the recommendation of a Christian islander whose daughter went to high school with Sam, a purveyor in New Bedford staked the Cronigs to a supply of merchandise. Today, Cronig’s grocery store remains a mainstay of Martha’s Vineyard commerce.
In 1913, a second Jewish family planted roots on Martha’s Vineyard. Yudel Brickman, a cobbler, brought his wife and children from Lithuania that year. In 1914, the family of Mrs. Brickman’s brother, Israel Isaakson, joined the Brickmans and Cronigs to form the heart of the "pioneer" Jewish community on Martha’s Vineyard. Israel Isaakson and Yudel Brickman pursued skills they developed in the "old country": Isaakson became a tailor and dry cleaner; Brickman borrowed a few hundred unsecured dollars from the Martha’s Vineyard National Bank and went into the retail shoe business.
These core families did their best to perpetuate Jewish traditions and practices despite their sparse numbers. They conducted prayers in the Cronig’s living room and imported kosher meat from New Bedford and Boston. According to his daughter, Israel Isaakson persuaded an island undertaker to visit a Jewish funeral home in Boston to learn Jewish funeral practices because, "God forbid, something should happen, we’re stuck." Prophetically, when Israel Isaacson died, a storm kept the New Bedford rabbi from reaching the Vineyard to preside at his funeral and the local Methodist minister conducted the service, reading a Psalm of David.
Before there were sufficient numbers for a minyan on the Vineyard, mainland New Bedford provided the setting for the island’s organized religious life. The Cronig, Isaakson and Brickman boys were shipped to New Bedford for six weeks to make final preparations for their bar mitzvahs. For the High Holy Days, the families would worship in a New Bedford synagogue or gather at a hotel in Onset, on Cape Cod. For Passover, the pioneer Jewish families would gather at the Cronig’s home. A Cronig daughter recalled that each family would bring its own food and prepare it in the Cronig’s kitchen. Sawhorses and planks provided the Passover table, which stretched form the dining room to the living room. Each family sat as a group but, in a sense, they formed one, extended family.
Sabbath observance was more varied. While Sam Cronig’s wife lit shabbos candles, Sam felt obliged to tend his grocery store on Fridays, which was the island’s traditional paydays, and Saturdays, when many non-Jewish families had their only chance to shop. Regardless of their religious observance, however, the pioneer families kept Yiddishkeit alive, speaking the mother tongue at home, cooking foods such as knadlach and stuffed cabbage and encouraging their children to marry Jewish partners. In 1937, when 10 Jewish households were permanently established on the island, they established the Martha’s Vineyard Jewish Center.
Dorothy Brickman recalled that there were places on the Vineyard, such as Edgartown, where Jews were not welcome to purchase homes and it was rare to be invited socially to the home of a non-Jewish family. By the measure of participation in organizations such as the Lions and the Masons, however, or appointment to positions such as health commissioner or the board of the Martha’s Vineyard National Bank, the Vineyard’s pioneer Jewish families were accepted members of the broader community.
Historian Libo has described small town settlers as "Jewish ambassadors to American society." Balancing Jewish identity with life among the non-Jewish majority, the pioneer Jews of Martha’s Vineyard, like the Jewish residents of countless other small towns and rural areas, paved the way for later generations of Jews.
Sources: American Jewish Historical Society