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Interview with Herman Blumenthal

Blumenthal, Herman
Haas, Steven
Date of Interview: 
Jews and Charlotte; Jews and the South; recreation; Jewish organizations; anti-Semitism; World War II; arts and Charlotte; Jewish religious education; Jews and politics; religion; politics
Long-time Charlotte resident and civic activist Herman Blumenthal discusses the Jewish experience in Charlotte beginning upon his arrival in the 1930s. He describes the small Jewish community centered around the synagogue and recalls prominent families. Blumenthal talks about the postwar changes in the Charlotte Jewish community, including increased population and a growing acceptance in mainstream social and civic organizations. Likewise, he discusses his own civic involvement. Blumenthal reflects upon the creation of and the positive impact of Shalom Park and discusses his desire to see stronger Jewish religious education in Charlotte. Mr. Blumenthal died on October 28, 2001 at the age of eighty-six.
Charlotte, 1930s-1989; Savannah, GA, 1915-1930s
Interview Setting: 
Jewish Community Center, Charlotte
Charlotte Jewish Historical Society Collection
Collection Description: 
Charlotte Jewish Historical Society
Interview Audio: 
HB (Herman Blumenthal): You ready?
SH (Steven Haas): Yeah.
HB: I'm Herman Blumenthal.
SH: How long have you lived in Charlotte? And how long has your family been connected in Charlotte?
HB: I first came to Charlotte, 1937, and lived here until about 1939. Went to California where we had a little business and then went in the Army from California in 1941. At that time you went in for one year, and I thought it would be wise to get that behind me and then I could make plans. But as the war turned out, I didn't get out until early in 1946 and then came back to Charlotte in 1946.
HB: --up there, went through school and then attended University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and after that came to Charlotte, as I had an older brother here who had already established a business.
SH: What are your earliest memories of living in Charlotte, especially the Jewish community in particular? And who are some of the individuals that you recall that stand out in your mind from that time?
HB: When I moved to Charlotte in 1937 the community was very small. There was one congregation called Hebrew United Brotherhood, which then became Temple Israel. And the--, it was quite strange to me because there weren't any Jewish merchants here, and I moved from a town in Savannah, Georgia there was numerous Jewish merchants. They were, you know, part of, the big part of the community. Some of the people I remember were the, the Schwartz family, the Pressman family, the Neimans, the Goodmans, Sinkhoes, and a number of others who were very active but they were a very, very small community. There were, there were practically no young people in Charlotte at that time. I was single, and there was a small group, very small group of, of Jewish unmarrieds that we got together on Sunday. We had a little club on Trade Street in an upstairs, upstairs over one of the stores there. But I left here in 1939-1940 to go to California, and when I came back the community had, had grown quite a bit.
SH: What was Jewish life as far as did it center around the synagogue? You spoke of a young singles club. Where did you feel that most Jews identified with when they came to a town like Charlotte? Did they go right to the Jewish synagogue?
HB: The synagogue was the only activity. I don't recall a B'nai Brith or a, any of the other Jewish organizations being active at the time. There were just very few Jewish families here.
SH: You had mentioned, and we heard from other people, the lack of the Jewish merchants in Charlotte at that time. What was it like being Jewish in a community like Charlotte, you know, of course communities where the Jews are a minority, but, was it different in Charlotte? And did you encounter any anti-Semitism or any problems in Charlotte?
HB: I didn't encounter any anti-Semitism. If so, it was very, very little. The Jews had not begun to take an active part in the community although there was one Jewish councilman in Charlotte, a fellow by the name of Max Kahn. And he was very active in the community as was elected to a City Council but other than that, there were very few that began to take any part. My brother, I. D. Blumenthal, got active in the, in the 40s and 50s and a, a few others did too. Arthur Goodman was very active as a matter of fact. He was elected to the state legislature. And the, the community didn't seem to grow for quite a while. And then after the war I guess, after World War II ended, a number of new Jewish families moved here.
SH: Do you think there is a difference in your experience from being in California, and then being in the service, an attitude of wanting to be--, remain less visible, the Jews of Charlotte, than in other communities where perhaps there were greater numbers?
HB: Not necessarily. Of course California had a large Jewish community, you know. They had several Jewish sections that were practically all Jewish. And in Savannah where I grew up, there was a large Jewish community, so much so that on Yom Kippur that you'd think it was Sunday if you walked down the main street because practically all the stores were closed. In Charlotte it was quite different. There were very few merchants and the, the big department stores have sort of controlled the retail industry. It was, it was quite strange but nevertheless I think we've made great strides in Charlotte in getting involved in the community, and I have been advocating that for quite some time. I'm involved in several different organizations myself and you meet a lot of nice people here in Charlotte, Jewish and non-Jewish. And the town is a much more open town now. Jews are invited to belong to certain clubs and civic organizations whereas before it just didn't happen.
SH: With respect, or acknowledging all of the positive changes that have occurred in Charlotte, is there anything about the past that you miss?
HB: No. I don't think so because Charlotte didn't have a lot to offer in the late 30s and then in the early 40s. Today we, we have so many added cultural activities such as our symphony and Oratorio Society and Community Concert Series and--. We have just so many things that you can keep busy with through the Mint Museum, Discovery Place, Spirit Square. All those are additions that have just made Charlotte a exciting place to live.
SH: Do you think the Jewish community has been a part of that or could, could perhaps become more a part of the general community?
HB: It can become more, but it is growing and more people are becoming involved in the different organizations such as the Mint Museum, the, the hospital boards, the bank boards. Jews have been invited to, to, to sit on, and in the, somewhat in the Chamber and other civic organizations.
SH: What kind of contributions do you feel that you personally feel that you would like to, to do more? What directions? You certainly have done a lot to contribute to the Jewish community, but is there any area that you feel the job is not quite finished and that you'd like to see yourself participating in any way?
HB: I feel that we need a more complete and a, a more intensive Jewish education program in Charlotte. We haven't, we haven't had as good a education program as we should have, and it's something that I'm working on now. And I think it'll, it'll be much better within the next few years. We have more interest now and the leaders in the community are beginning to realize that we need more Jewish education and a broader program.
SH: Can you look to any one single event that has, none like any other events, impacted to a greater degree on the Charlotte community?
HB: I think Shalom Park was a, was the best thing that we could ever have done. And while a lot of people who hear about it think it was a, a Herculean job to accomplish, it actually came very easy to us, easy in the sense that we got very little in opposition from the community. And leadership in the community participated and got all excited about a, a program, a installation like Shalom Park. And it, it just moved along very well. We raised the money, we built it, the programs are going along very well, improving all along. And I, I know several people who, just recently, who, when they heard about Shalom Park, decided that they would like to live in Charlotte and move here for that reason. They have young, young families, young children, and they think this would be a wonderful place for their children to grow up.
SH: When people look to the past in Charlotte`s Jewish community, one of the things that they speak of from a positive point of view is the closeness that the community had when it was smaller. Now of course, Charlotte is growing. What's our greatest challenge?
HB: Well the community was maybe closer but there were also frictions, and there was much more competition between the two temples. We seem to have out grown that. There are a number of people moving in Charlotte so there is, there are enough people for both temples. As a matter of fact, pretty soon, there may be a third temple. But we, we, we work together better than we did in the past. The temples have joint programs, the rabbis are very close and they cooperate with each other, and we, we're doing more things together than ever before, which is very good for the community.
SH: Do you have any advise for the future generations?
HB: Well, as discussed before, we need to get involved in the community, in the, the civic community and the political community and let ourselves be seen and heard. I don't think we'll run into any opposition. We have a Mayor Pro Tem now in Charlotte. Perhaps we'll have a Jewish mayor here one of these days. It will be very good, I think, for the city. And it would, it would raise our stature of, as Jews, to let other people see that the Jews can be leaders and good citizens in Charlotte.
SH: You speak of really becoming involved in the community-at-large, which is, would be a very good thing for the Jewish community, create, I'm sure, better relations between the non-Jewish community and the Jewish community. How do we strengthen our own Jewish identity at the same time?
HB: Well education really is the answer, I think, for that. And the temples are beginning to do more. We've never had as good a programs as we do now. Both temples are increasing their membership. They're increasing their participation. They're, they're increasing their staffs. And with a, with a program, with a bureau which we are, are trying to organize here in Charlotte now, which we'd call Bureau of Jewish Education, every Jewish organization in the community would be benefited through a central educational program.
SH: Well, we certainly thank you very much for giving your time to share your thoughts and your hopes for the Charlotte Jewish community, and we thank you.
HB: Good.
SH: Thank you, sir. Let me get this off you.