“An act was done in Milton on Sunday morning the like of which was never done before in this town.”
So begins a paragraph by David A. Conner in his November 12, 1915 letter to the Milford Chronicle. The usually prolix correspondent was for once seemingly at a loss for words. What was the “act” in question?
In actuality, the “act” was a common religious ritual among Jews, beginning with the story of Abraham’s covenant with God in Genesis 17:11 – 14. Conner’s reaction, somewhere between astonishment and shock, is an indication of how little the people of Milton knew of the Jewish faith in 1915, despite references throughout the Bible. In fact, there were only two Jewish families, each headed by a Hankin brother, living in Milton in 1915: Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Hankin and their three children, and Mr. and Mrs. William Hankin, with their one child. Prior to 1910, Jews could be found in small numbers in Lewes, Milford, Newark and Wilmington, but none are known to have settled in Milton.
The Hankin brothers, their six siblings and their parents were first-generation Russian Jews who emigrated to the U. S. with their father Shmuel Yaakov (Samuel Jacob) and mother Rashe (Rosa) in 1887, when Aaron was four and William was three years old. Their actual surname is uncertain; I have not yet located their immigration documents, and immigration officers routinely changed the names of new arrivals to something an American could pronounce and spell. Based on the transit papers of other members of the extended family, the Hankins probably left from the port of Bremen in Germany, and arrived in Baltimore.
The Hankins came from the town of Nyzhni, located in the southeastern part of modern Ukraine, in what was once called the Pale of Settlement. The Pale was created by Catherine the Great, empress of Russia, when the Russian Empire suddenly found itself with a large number of Polish Jews as a result of the partition of Poland and Lithuania in 1791. With very few exceptions, the Pale was the only part of Russia where Jews were permitted to live.
By the time the Hankin family left the Pale, successive pogroms (state-sponsored terrorism) had resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Jews and the burning of their homes and businesses. The hope that many Russian Jews held – that their living conditions would improve as the Czarist regime slowly liberalized – was gone for good. Not permitted to own land, most Jews eked out a living in the needle trades, and as peddlers, teamsters, small merchants, and day laborers. Jews in the Pale had always had to endure deadly spasms of anti-Semitism and squalid poverty; for a great many, the pogroms of the early 1880’s were the final straw.
Between 1881 and 1924 about 2,000,000 eastern European Jews came to the United States, most of them from Russian territory. Among them were Aaron and William Hankin, some of their older siblings, and their parents. Unlike other waves of immigration, where the male head of a household would come alone, establish himself, and then send for the rest of his family and relatives, Jews from Eastern Europe came as entire family units. They did not expect to return to a land hostile to their presence. This was generally true of the great majority of Russian Jewish immigrants, in contrast to other ethnic immigrant groups where more immigrants as a percentage of the whole returned to their home country.
Sometime after their presumed arrival in Baltimore, the Hankin family settled in Wilmington, where there was a nascent Jewish community. Samuel, the head of the family, worked as a clothing salesman; sons Aaron and William had joined him in that trade by then, when they were in their early teens. But Samuel Jacob died in 1900, leaving the teenage Aaron and William to make their own futures and support their mother and two younger siblings. But in a city like Wilmington, with many competing clothing merchants within the Russian Jewish community as well as in the general population, it would have been hard to achieve great success in world of haberdashery. Older brother Harry had already determined that he could do better elsewhere, and by 1899 he, his wife Fannie and their very young children settled in Lewes. He was successful in his venture there, a clothing store, and had expanded into a fish canning enterprise, while planning for still more ventures. Aaron and William saw a business opportunity in Milton, perhaps while on a visit to Harry and his family, and with Harry’s encouragement, made the decision to set up shop there.
Information about the Hankin brothers sojourn in Milton comes primarily from David A. Conner in his Milford Chronicle Milton News column. We know that for a few years, they operated a haberdashery in town. In his column of June 17, 1910, David A. Conner reported that the brothers had moved into retail space on the Palmer block, rebuilt after the 1909 fire and needing tenants. In the letter of November 4, 1910, he mentioned the brothers attending their mother’s funeral in Wilmington. It’s clear that their mother and siblings remained within their established social and support network in Wilmington. The brothers maintained their ties with that network, though. It was probably how Aaron found a wife, Sadie Korngold, in Wilmington. On December 11, 1910, the two were married.
In fact, Aaron’s first two children, daughters Roberta and Leah, were born in Wilmington in 1911 and 1913 respectively. It would appear that Aaron divided his time between Wilmington and Milton, and did not move his wife and children to Milton for several years. It may have been Sadie’s desire to remain within the small but active Jewish community of Wilmington, close to family and friends.
Meanwhile, Aaron and William were became a part of Milton’s business community. Their mention in the Milford Chronicle was scant, and in 1912 included items such as a burglary of their store (and partial restitution of stolen items), the settlement of a lawsuit, and William’s election as delegate to the Democratic convention in Dover. The brothers formed a partnership with a Mr. Workman of Ellendale and built a tomato cannery just outside of town, at Wolfe’s Crossing. It began operation during the tomato-canning season of 1912, and burned to the ground in February of 1913.
William met Minnie Fox, a friend of his sister Sarah, in 1913. William began a dancing school on Federal Street that year, but no further mention was made of it in the months that followed.
I have not been able to locate photographs of any members of the Hankin family who emigrated from Russia. There are, in fact, no printed advertisements for the Hankin Brothers Milton store to be found, except for one placed by the Beaston & Thompson Shoe Co. in Wilmington. That ad names the Hankin Brothers store in Milton as a dealer of the shoe company’s products. The ad appeared in the March 31, 1914 issue of the Wilmington News Journal. 1914 was also the year that the Hankin Brothers became one of the first tenants of the newly-built Conwell Building on Union Street, just north of the Broadkill River. Today, the Conwell building is an integral part of the Milton Public Library.
It appears that Aaron’s wife and daughters had made the move to Milton by this time; three-year-old daughter Roberta, “a bright and cheerful little girl, full of childish effusion and witty intelligence” according to Conner, already had made the news in November 1914 by falling down the attic stairs at Uncle Harry’s house in Lewes. A minor skull fracture was the result. Aaron moved his family into a larger home on Broad Street in early 1915, and with the birth of Samuel James later that year, they appeared well settled in Milton.
We can now return to the main topic of this post: the “act … done in Milton the likes of which was never done before in this town.” This was none other than a bris, or ritual circumcision of a Jewish boy a few days after birth, and also the occasion for naming the child. David A. Conner was invited to the ceremony at the home of Aaron Hankin and, along with others from the town, witnessed the rite. The infant was Samuel James Hankin, weighing in at 7½ pounds at birth, the firstborn son of Aaron and Sadie. A rabbi from Wilmington performed the circumcision. We can take Conner at his word that a bris had never before been performed in Milton, as he had been a resident of the town for more than forty years at that point. If there was a bris in the past, he would have known about it.
Anyone who has read the book of Genesis as well as other parts of the Old Testament would know about the ancient Hebrews’ covenant with God and how that covenant was sealed; most of the church-going folk in Milton, who were serious readers of the Bible, fall into that category. It is one thing, though, to read about an ancient ritual and quite another to see it actually carried out in someone’s home, as Conner did on a Sunday morning.
While relations between the Gentiles of Milton and the Hankins appeared cordial and friendly, the southern third of Delaware had little contact with the vast number of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe that had flooded into the U. S. in the preceding three decades. Italian and Bohemian immigrants were seasonal workers in the canneries, brought in from Baltimore by train and living in bunkhouses at the canneries, but few settled in Milton permanently. More decades would pass, however, before the culture and religious practices of Russian Jews in become more familiar to the rural population. Not until the late 1930’s did a significant number of Jewish Kosher chicken wholesalers from New York City appear in Sussex County, buying up as much of the Sussex County chicken production as they could. More descendants of the Russian Jews would follow at mid-century.
The future did not pan out so well for the Hankins. Harry, the pioneer of the family who settled in Lewes before 1900, died in 1917. In 1918, for reasons that are unclear, both Aaron and William took their families back to Wilmington, and the retail space in the Conwell building was offered for rent. Less than a month after their return to Wilmington, Aaron’s wife Sadie died of an hemorrhage.
On learning of Sadie’s death, David A. Conner wrote “The people of Milton were surprised, shocked and made sorrowful…” He also describes the deceased as “vivacious and full of life, and respected and loved by all who knew her.” That is about as personal a description of any of the Hankins ever recorded by Conner. Compared to other eulogies that Conner wrote in all the preceding years, this was quite terse. My feeling is that although Conner knew the Hankins and was invited to Aaron’s home at least once, he never formed a real bond with them.
Aaron and William Hankin would try their hand at retailing in Wilmington in 1919, but closed the haberdashery by 1920. William returned to Milton to try his hand at retailing one more time; that effort ended in bankruptcy proceedings in 1929. Aaron, a Democrat in the heavily Democratic 1st Ward of Wilmington, ran for City Council and lost to a Republican. He remarried in 1923 and had two more children by his second wife, Bertha Pimes. He died in 1943 in an auto accident near home in York, PA.
And what became of Samuel James Hankin, whose bris was the object of Conner’s astonishment? He married in 1940, fathered two children, and served in the military during WWII, as did his sister Leah. After the war, he made a career selling real estate. He committed suicide in 1963 by shooting himself in the head, according to the death certificate. No mention was made in news reports of either the suicide or the reasons for it.
The Hankin brothers’ transient presence in Milton is not much more than a footnote in the town’s history, but it is an indication that Milton would not be isolated forever from events taking place in locations thousands of miles away.
Epilogue: Jewish emigration to the U. S.
Jews came to America in three waves: a small number of Sephardim in the colonial era, a larger one of German-speaking Jew starting in the 1840s, and a massive third wave of 2 million Russian Jews (Ashkenazim) starting in 1881. Sephardic Jews – Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking traders – arrived in New Amsterdam (modern New York City) by way of Brazil in 1654 and had established a trading business on the Delaware River by 1655. Sephardic Jews were sophisticated, worldly, and prosperous. They settled in major port cities on the Atlantic coast, but none in Delaware. Starting in 1840, German-speaking Jews began arriving in significant numbers, spreading to the Midwest and South where they began as itinerant peddlers, then prospered and became settled business owners. Before 1870, there were small numbers of Jews in Wilmington, Dover, and Milford, but never enough men to form a minyan – the quorum of ten men necessary for public prayer.
As with most ethnic groups who came to the U. S. over the course of three centuries, Jewish immigrants gravitated toward established communities of previous immigrants who shared the new arrivals’ language and religion. This was true of the third wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia: the Ashkenazim, who began to arrive in large numbers from about 1870 to 1924, after which immigration was severely restricted. This group’s arrival proved to be problematic for decades. Penniless, many lacking work skills (with the exception of the needle trades), and jammed into cities where Jewish communities already existed, this wave of immigration gave rise to a new underclass, which shared limited space and job opportunities with Italians and other Europeans who sailed on the same ships with them. As with a great many immigrants of that era, in the space of three generations the new arrivals and their descendants had assimilated fully and productively into American life.
In a future post, I will look at the life of Samuel Shapiro, a descendant of the third wave of Jewish immigration, who came to Milton in the 1940’s to open a clothing store on Union Street, and subsequently became one of the town’s leading and most respected citizens.
Milford Chronicle, 1910 – 1917
Wilmington News Journal, 1900 – 1963