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Five Year Old Hoodlum Becomes Optometrist. The story of Hendersonville

Documentary tells story of early Jewish merchants.

“This was my hangout when I was 5, 6, 7, 8 years old, ” he says in a 53-minute video he wrote and narrated about the Jewish merchants who pioneered Hendersonville’s retail business in the early 1900s. “To say the least, I terrorized downtown Hendersonville. I was always an absolute hoodlum and was always in trouble.”

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His habit was to hide out all day in a poolroom, armed with his trusty sword. It was an unsavory place, but for some reason the operators never questioned the presence of a 5-year-old amid the drinking, bad language and fights.

Beckerman went on to become an optometrist, serving with the Indian Health Service in Texas, Oklahoma and Alaska before retiring to his hometown in 1992. He did not mean to become the keeper of the flame for the Agudas Israel temple and particularly its members’ contributions to downtown retail. It just kind of happened.

“I’m the second oldest person in the congregation who grew up here, ” he says as he introduces a 53-minute video that chronicles the business careers of the temple’s earliest leaders. “I’ve got this history and there’s a lot of information that I don’t want to die.”

With the help of longtime filmmaker Sid Williams (the son of Sammy Williams and grandson of Lewis Williams), Beckerman, 68, has made a lasting tribute that does save much of the history.

Historical tidbits

Beckerman starts in front of present-day Mezzaluna, where he is guiding a tour for synagogue members. The popular restaurant was the home of Kalin’s Furniture, owned by Morris Kalin, an Agudas Israel lay leader who helped lead services along with Beryl Cohen, who had come to Hendersonville from Israel.

Another merchant, Meyer Levinson, seemed to have wound up here when he got off a Greyhound bus and just stayed. He married Shirley Achler. And here’s where Beckerman drops in one of his tidbits that, while having nothing to do with business per se, adds colorful detail.

The couple’s son, Sandy, was a member of Duke University’s College Bowl team on the quiz show that aired on NBC starting in 1959. Sanford Victor “Sandy” Levinson went on to get a law degree from Stanford and a PhD from Harvard and is a nationally renowned constitutional scholar and law professor at the University of Texas.

Beckerman unearthed the stories of the merchants and their backgrounds. He got in touch with their children — his old Sunday school classmates from the temple — and reports in many cases on their whereabouts and careers.

“In a nutshell I always wanted to do the tour for the synagogue group, ” he says of the sidewalk tour of the old clothing stores, bakery, jewelry shops and department stores that the Jewish retailers operated. “I thought I could do it off the top of my head but I thought I better do some research. I looked through old phone books and city directories at the libraries.

“The more I researched the more I realized, man, you don’t know anything, ” he says. “You need to do a lot more research. It turned out to be a whole lot more research than I imagined. Sid Williams won’t take credit but he’s put hundreds of hundreds of hours into that video. It was a labor of love but more labor than I imagined.”

Mountain Jewish Festival

People can watch Beckerman’s video this weekend during the first Mountain Jewish Festival this Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Agudas Israel, 505 Glasgow Lane. The festival features homemade traditional Jewish food, exhibits and music. Beckerman’s film will be shown continuously in a loop.

The narrator gives an entertaining account of his maternal grandfather’s experience.

Born in Poland, Harry Mottsman came to the United States in 1904 at the age of 13 and went to Kentucky to stay with an uncle. The uncle sent him to Hendersonville, in 1905 or 1906, to work for the Pattersons, an established merchant family.

“Family history says that he got involved with a local Shiksa (a girl or woman who does not follow Orthodox practices) and was quickly shipped back out of Hendersonville to Cincinnatti to learn to become a tailor and learn the cleaning business, ” Beckerman says. “Somehow he ended up in Pittsburgh. He married in Pittsburgh and had seven children, one of whom died.”

The family then headed south to Brevard, in 1924, and three years later moved to Hendersonville, where Mottsman opened Central Cleaners in the 200 block of North Main Street.

“My grandfather fancied himself a pretty good amateur electrician and he rigged up something in the back of this store, ” Beckerman said. “It turns out that amateur electrician (work) and volatile drycleaning chemicals don’t make a real good combination. The ensuing explosion and fire put him out of the drycleaning business.”

Next up in the film, Becky Sherman Banadyga talks about her grandparents starting the Army store, the predecessor of the sporting goods store she owns and manages as a third Main Street generation
“This was the greatest store ever, ” Beckerman exults in the film. “It had toys, model airplanes, model ships, guns, fishing equipment, baseball equipment. If I could have been born into their family I would have died happy.”

E. Lewis Dry Goods

Edward Lewis left Polish Russia in 1887 and moved to Montgomery, Ala., where his brother lived. After relocating to the Blue Ridge Mountains for its healthful climate, Lewis and his wife founded E. Lewis Dry Goods Store at 244 N. Main St., the home of Tempo Music today. His son, Abraham, joined him in the family business.

While telling the Main Street history, Beckerman also traces Agudas Israel’s founding and growth. It started in a building that now houses the Salvation Army’s thrift shop. When parking and the stairs became an issue, the congregation moved in 1992 to its current building.

In the old days, “Every Saturday night after Shabbat there was a poker game at the Synagogue, ” he said. “There were probably 10 guys who played. They had a great big poker table that was kept in the synagogue and they would roll it out every Saturday night and have a poker game.”
Morris Weisberg took an unusual path to Hendersonville.

While serving in World War I, Weisberg was gassed. The Army sent him to the V.A. hospital in Asheville for treatment. Discharged in 1920 after two years of treatment, he settled in Hendersonville and opened Reliable Furniture store, first at 126 N. Main (now Sherman’s) and then two blocks up the street.

Weisberg’s wife, Mae, was the sister of Minnie Williams, who was the wife of Louis Williams, the hardware store and salvage yard owner. (Louis Williams & Sons didn’t make the movie because the store wasn’t on Main Street, Beckerman says.)

At 344 N. Main St. was Patterson’s department store, founded by “the biggest driving force in Hendersonville’s Jewish history — Harry Patterson, ” Beckerman says. Born in Russia in 1874, Patterson reached Boston in 1899. He moved to Kentucky and then, in 1906, after his wife contracted tuberculosis, to Hendersonville. He was a successful merchant in several businesses before he founded his department store. (It was later Efird’s department store.)

In 1943, Patterson sold his inventory and retired. His wife, Minnie, worked in son Ed’s clothing store in the 400 block of North Main until 1973. “She would have a drink of Scotch every evening of her life, and that’s probably why she lived to be 87, ” Beckerman says.

Irish name, Jewish baker

The film also covers Schulman’s department store, in the space now occupied by Mast General. Born in New York 1910, Jack Schulman ran a hot dog stand in Miami and later clothing stores throughout the South before moving to Hendersonville after World War II. As a sideline, Schulman sponsored “Talk about Talk” on WHKP, in which he and a co-host would “talk about anything that came to mind.”
A well-known Main Street bakery makes the movie, too.

“With a name like McFarlan’s you wouldn’t expect it to have a Jewish connection but it did, ” Beckerman says. Arthur Rubin’s father, Joe, owned and operated Osceola Lake resort. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Rubin landed a job at McFarlan’s and soon bought out the owners. Rubin operated the bakery from the early 1970s until he died in 1992 at the age of 46. His wife, Sandra, and daughter Wendy ran McFarlan’s for a while, then opened Doughboy’s Donuts, “which made the best doughnuts in the history of the world.”

At the end of the film, Beckerman articulates what he hopes is the point of this labor of love.
“This has been the story of the downtown Hendersonville Jewish merchants but it’s really the story of much more than that, ” he says. “It’s also the story of many Jewish merchants in communities all across America. It’s the story of persecuted Jews who fled the old country in search of better times and better opportunities for their descendants and themselves. These people represent a generation that is almost entirely passed on. Many of us owe our posterity and our very lives to these people. My deepest hope is that they never be forgotten.”

First published at HendersonVille lightning, by Bill Moss



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