David Charak Adelman was a well-known Providence lawyer. The law was his vocation, the history of the Jews in Rhode Island his avocation. It was his dream to found an organization for the proper study of this history and to collect relevant material. This would also necessitate obtaining a proper place to store the material, a place more suitable for an archive than the trunk of his car.
Adelman found six kindred spirits. Together they applied for a charter from the state of Rhode Island, and, on Nov. 20, 1951, in temporary quarters, the incorporators held the first official meeting of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association.
For years, Adelman had been collecting material germane to our history from numerous sources: official records, printed items and original documents. He scoured early court documents and city directories from several parts of Rhode Island for possible Jewish names. He accumulated references in books and articles, and would later refer to them – or refute them, if need be.
But how to disseminate all this data, all this information, for the current and future generations? The answer appeared in November 1954 as the first issue of Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes, edited by David Adelman. Notes continues Adelman’s mission to this day.
Vol.1, No. 1 was completely Adelman’s handiwork. The issue contains a list of Jewish family names found in the Providence and Pawtucket directories of 1877, Jews in the Court Records of Providence 1739-1860, and Jewish names in naturalization records through 1906.
Through 1906, applicants for citizenship needed two witnesses (American citizens) to attest to their fitness and moral character. Some witnesses seem to have appeared repeatedly and frequently in the rolls. We may assume that most acted out of the goodness of their hearts on behalf of friends or “landsleit,” but at least one man was known to have charged for his services. When U.S. immigration laws were revised in 1907, procedures changed.
Numbers 2 and 3 were devoted to reprinted speeches and programs from important events, as well as articles by Adelman and Beryl Segal (my father).
Number 4 contained the kind of notes, short articles and excerpts Adelman particularly enjoyed and envisioned as integral to the publication. They were gleanings from early sources and, taken together, show the serious, ironic and lighter side of history. Here, in condensed form, are some of my favorites.
• When searching for the earliest newcomers to an area, historians caution that there is always someone who came earlier but left little trace save, often, a name. I am intrigued by two items in the Notes. In several sources, Adelman found the name of Jacob Judah, from Rhode Island, on a list of prisoners taken during the French and Indian Wars and released in Boston in August 1747. Adelman also noted the name of Henry Cohen, who served with Lt. Richard Hoyle in the same war and was killed in action. Where did they live? What brought them to Rhode Island? Were they conscripted or did they volunteer? No further mention of either has been found. Questions (mine), but no answers.
• Between 1892 and 1905, Adelman noted, very few (24) voluntary name changes were made by Jews in Rhode Island, and none seems to have been made, he stated, to escape identity with the Jewish community. Two caught my eye. In 1895, Richard Krasnetzky became Richard Cross. One year later, Richard Cross was one of the incorporators of Linnath Hazedeck Congregation, known in South Providence for its strict adherence to Orthodox tenets. Morris Brown, in 1904, changed his name to Moritz Braum, something of a reverse to the pattern of “Americanizing” difficult names.
• Adelman also included this story of a change of name told to him by the person involved. In the heat of summer, a young man named Mark Yahrashevsky went from drug store to drug store in search of employment, with no success, until finally in the late afternoon he found a job. His ordeal convinced him that his name was a liability. Upon leaving the store, he glanced up at a street sign. Plainfield, it read, and he immediately adopted that name. The late Dr. Mark Plainfield was a well-known physician and respected member of the Jewish community.
• And did you know that the newspaper publisher Adolph Ochs lived for a while in Providence, where he worked as a cash boy in a grocery owned by a relative, Augustus Rodenberg, and attended business college at night? It’s in the Notes.
Now, 63 years after the appearance of Vol. 1, No. 1, Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes, Dr. George M. Goodwin, editor, continues to document the serious, the ironic, the human sides of our history in Rhode Island. Join our association and read for yourself. It’s a good read!
GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 401-331-1360.