Gil Sandler is a city guy who is apt to gab about the old neighborhood when you bump into him on one of his favorite downtown street corners.
He's something of an authority on neighborhood life in Baltimore and one of its most vociferous proponents. He gets uneasy on his rare ventures into that vast, yawning suburbia across the city line.
"They got cows out there," he says, in his best Dead End Kid style.
He loves to tell stories about life in the city. He wrote a book called "The Neighborhood: the Story of Baltimore's Little Italy." And for more than 25 years he has explored and extolled city life in features for The Evening Sun and, most recently, the Jewish Times.
Now a selection of pieces from the Jewish Times, seasoned with a sheaf of new ones, have been collected in a book, "Jewish Baltimore: A Family Album," to be published this month by the Johns Hopkins University Press in association with the Jewish Museum of Maryland, which supplied most of the evocative photographs.
The book opens, after a prologue, with Sandler's reflections on "The Old Neighborhood," the old Jewish neighborhoods of South and East Baltimore, along with a fond appreciation of the city's public baths.
Sandler has lived a lot of the history he recounts. His own old neighborhood was Lower Park Heights. He was born there in a second-floor bedroom at 3608 Cottage Ave.
"They call it Southern Park Heights today," he says, "but it was always Lower to me. I never knew where 'Upper' began. I was always suspicious of where people drew that line, Upper Park Heights. I lived on Lower Park Heights."
He says it with a ring of pride in his voice.
"I drove by there recently," he says. "The house is there. I can't tell you what's wrong with the picture. The configurations are different. And it may be a matter of scale, size. You know, the street's so narrow now."
He's like a man looking backward through the wrong end of a telescope. Everything seems smaller and older and more distant.
"I can't figure it out. I'm standing there, and this is it. But it's not it. But it tugs at the heart to think that I was born on those streets.
"That's where I spent my summers, in the streets. When I went back, I saw the wires overhead and I was reminded that we used to play wire ball. We made up games, as children do. Hit the wire with the ball. It wasn't easy, little guys, 40 feet up, straight up.
"I did it.
The strumming wire echoes down the years.
"I did it.
"I thought to myself, 'I wonder if I had a tennis ball in my hand, if I could hit that wire.' "
He didn't go into the house.
"No," he sighs. "I can't do that. I can't do that.
"It's hard enough to stand outside. If you know every brick of that house, every brick in the sidewalk, it's something to look back at the house you lived in from the day you were born. If you allow time out for the Navy and college, I didn't leave until I was 28 years old. I had a room in that house waiting for me whenever I came home.
"And it tugs hard enough on an old man, and you want me to go inside? Come on, that's cruel and unusual punishment. I know those rooms so well."
Sandler is 77, but he's quite a vital "old" man. He has the natty dash of a public relations man who ran his own firm nearly 30 years. But he also habitually wears a crumbled rain hat. He looks a bit like Bert Lahr, about midway between "The Wizard of Oz" and "Waiting for Godot."
He still comes downtown every day to his job as communications director and resident sage for the Abell Foundation. He invariably rides the light rail from Mount Washington where he lives, just as he caught the No. 5 streetcar some 70 years ago to come downtown to help his father, Joseph Sandler, an optometrist with a shop at 105 N. Eutaw St.
"A parking lot is there today," he says.
His father had been a pharmacist, with a drugstore at Baltimore and Ann streets in East Baltimore.
"Interesting story there," Sandler says. "My father, as the neighborhood pharmacist, was the neighborhood physician. During the flu epidemic of 1918, it was his job to go house to house as the physician and administer what aid he could. What aid he could! He put camphor around their necks, he told me.
"Children died through the night. And when he came home at 4 or 5 in the morning, so the family oral history goes, his own daughter was dead. Her name was Miriam, a sister I never knew.
"He couldn't face East Baltimore or the pharmacy anymore. The next year they moved to Cottage Avenue. That's when he studied optometry, which was quite a different profession than it is today. It was not merchandising frames. They were like ophthalmologists."
But his mother, Minnie Ziev, and his father met at the drugstore. They hadn't known each other, but both had emigrated from Lithuania as children with their families.
"I grew up downtown," Sandler says. He's in a conference room at the Abell Foundation now, about 23 stories above the Inner Harbor, looking south to Federal Hill, South Baltimore and Locust Point, in a city enormously different from the Baltimore of his childhood and youth.
"If you grew up downtown in the Thirties, you were very conscious that the tumble of life was downtown, the restaurants, the movies. The factories were all downtown. The great giant men's clothing factories that dominated the world markets were downtown! Schoenneman and Greif and Sonneborn were downtown, Jewish-owned.
"I saw all that. And in the matter of memory and writing, I put it away, I guess, stored it up until some day when I could let it all out. Which I did.
"I saw how Jews fit into that. The department stores, for the most part, were Jewish-owned. Hochschild's, Hecht's, Hutzler's, Brager, Levenson & Klein - Jewish. All the delis I knew were Jewish-owned, most of the wholesalers.
"It makes for a fascinating story for me to see how the original immigrants arriving in 1850, 1860, within 20 or 30 years they were holding debutante balls for their children.
"Of course, they had their own [balls]. Protestant society did not welcome Jewish debutantes.
"Jacob Epstein, a Jew from Lithuania, could hardly speak the language, had a mansion on [Druid Park] Lake Drive in no time; his children were debutantes. Is that possible?
"And all this is in the book."
He thinks he's uniquely qualified to do this family album. His family worshipped at Shaarei Zion, one of the first Orthodox congregations to be formed on Park Heights Avenue as the Jewish community moved northwest.
"All of a sudden my father joins and puts me into Temple Oheb Shalom - Reform!" Sandler says. "Much to the chagrin of the neighbors [on Cottage Avenue], who looked on it with great wariness."
His father had become convinced that Reform Judaism was the way of the future. Sandler was bar mitzvahed from Shaarei Zion and confirmed at Oheb Shalom.
"I grew up astride two cultures," he says. "There aren't many Jewish boys who grew up that way. Many adults went from Orthodox to Reform. I was Orthodox and Reform when I was 8 years old. I knew all about the schism between German Jews and Russian Jews long before most young people did.
"I saw how the neighborhoods formed along these same lines. Forest Park and Cottage Avenue were East European for the most part. Eutaw Place and Mount Washington and parts of Upper Park Heights were German. The synagogues were separate. The country clubs were separate."
Putting history to work
"I was lucky in that I had a unique perspective on Jewish history," Sandler says. "I could say I grew up in the two cultures. I could see more Jewish history than most young men could because of that. So coming out of [a] bookish background, exposed to history early on, I began to write these articles."
His Jewish Times pieces caught the attention of Robert J. Brugger, regional editor for Hopkins Press.
"He said, 'If you write an introduction and an epilogue and about 10 new pieces that haven't been published before, I think you've got a book. Why don't you try it?'
"So I tried it," Sandler says. "And it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I loved doing it! Because I talked with people who had lived these experiences ...
"Historians can say anything they want to say - and they do. But you can't get away with that when you do recent history within memory. People are forever upbraiding you and saying 'Hey! That's not the way it was.'
"And then you say: 'How was it?' And then they tell you ...
"So I began to write history through people's memoirs, eyes, ears.
He begins the book with the Old Neighborhood, then writes about "The Private World of German Jewry."
"Here's where the Phoenix Club comes in," he says, "and Eutaw Place and those once magnificent apartment houses on Eutaw Place - the Esplanade, the Temple Gardens, the Emersonian."
At the Marlborough, he writes, Claribel and Etta Cone lived in apartment 8B where they assembled the great collection of paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin and others that now grace the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The album's chapter "The Way We Were" ranges from "The Streetcars of Northwest Baltimore" to "Summers Down the Shore" - at a camp on the Severn River called "Benny Birth," a twist on B'nai Brith, coined by, of all people, "Mr. Dooley," the philosophical Irish barkeep created by that nonpareil Chicago columnist, Finley Peter Dunne.
Through all this Sandler charts the Northwest Passage of the Jewish community.
The course he plots starts in East Baltimore, he says, "then keeps going west, to Eutaw Place, up through the park to Park Heights Avenue, Reisterstown Road and, lo and behold, to Owings Mills!
"There are synagogues, 20, 30 miles from the Pennsylvania line," he says, in unfeigned amazement. "How did it happen?
"You went north and west because you were not welcome north and east, because the signs said 'No Jews Allowed,' the ads read 'Only Christians Need Apply.' "
He records Barry Levinson's observation in "Liberty Heights" that Falls Road was a red line for Baltimore Jews as late as the 1950s.
"Today," Sandler says, "Beth El synagogue holds Hebrew classes at the Roland Park Country Day School for its members who live east of Falls Road.
"If you read the Chapter One or the Prologue of my book, you would bet that couldn't happen. That's what fascinated me so. And that's why I wrote the book. It's a collection of fascinations, stunning fascinations.
"I could see all these things going on around me," he says.
"James Thurber said the only gift he ever had was that he could hit a milk bottle with a stone from 15 feet away. The only gift I ever really had was to remember all these things - the little bricks that made up the household of my life, I guess."
What: Brunch for Gilbert Sandler's "Jewish Baltimore: A Family Album"
Where: Jewish Museum of Maryland, 15 Lloyd St.
When: Sept. 24
Admission: Free for museum members; $5 for others