Doris W. Kahn, who worked to honor a forgotten Maryland patriot, dies

Doris W. Kahn, a former Northwest Baltimore resident who waged a campaign in the 1990s to draw acclaim to Thomas Kennedy, a 19th-century Maryland legislator who supported Jewish civil rights at a time when few did, died Oct. 1 in her sleep at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital.

She was 104.

A longtime member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and Suburban Orthodox Congregation, Mrs. Kahn lobbied local officials for three-and-a-half years to have Mr. Kennedy’s efforts on behalf of Jewish citizens formally recognized in Annapolis.

In a 1992 article about her efforts, The Baltimore Sun reported that Mr. Kennedy had been “a portly, blue-eyed Scot” who came to the United States at age 20. He was elected to the House of Delegates in 1817, a time when Jews did not have the right to seek or hold public office or practice law in the state. About 150 Jews called Maryland home during that era, most residing in Baltimore.

Mr. Kennedy once stated he had not the “slightest acquaintance with any Jew in the world,” yet he made civil rights for Jews a cornerstone of his legislative agenda. Harry L. Golden, a Jewish-American writer and newspaperman who was the publisher of The Carolina Israelite, wrote that “Kennedy was a man looking for a cause. He had found one. He resolved to right this wrong.”

For years, Mr. Kennedy proposed legislation for Jews’ rights; it was routinely defeated by largely anti-Semitic legislators who referred to its author as “Judas Iscariot.” It wasn’t until 1825 — and with only a margin of one vote — that the restrictions against Jewish citizens in Maryland were removed.

More than a century-and-a-half later, Mrs. Kahn sought recognition for the delegate who championed that cause.

“I thought, ‘Why isn’t this man remembered?’” Mrs. Kahn told The Sun. “He must have been a very fine, kind, caring person. He just felt this wasn’t fair, that we’re all God’s children.”

Mr. Kennedy had been honored in 1918 when the Independent Order of Brith Sholom placed a granite obelisk at his grave in Hagerstown’s Rose Hill Cemetery, but Mrs. Kahn lobbied for a memorial in the State House.

Her wish was realized when a brass plaque was placed there in 1992.

“I have no idea how she got interested in Thomas Kennedy, except she was always interested in social justice and must have discovered him in her reading,” said a daughter, Barbara Friedman of Timonium.

The former Doris Unger was born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx. She was the daughter of Hyman Unger, a toy manufacturer, and Celia Unger, a homemaker.

When she was 11, she began playing the piano, and performed on the radio in 1931. Her love of the piano lasted for the remainder of her life.

A graduate of New York public schools, she was 20 when she took a job selling cosmetics at Gimbel Bros. department store in Manhattan.

“She was a crackerjack sales person,” Mrs. Friedman said. “When a new product, V-8 juice, came out, she became a demonstrator. She knew all eight vegetables — and could recite them even at 104.”

In 1939 she married Walter Weikers, a furniture salesman. They moved to Baltimore in 1942 and settled into a home on Park Heights Terrace. The couple later divorced.

Mrs. Kahn worked as a nursery school music teacher. She volunteered at Spring Grove and Rosewood state hospitals, and also at then-Levindale Home for the Aged. She was president of the Royal Sisters Society and Brith Shalom.

A member of the Baltimore Jewish Theater Guild, she performed in many shows and played piano for numerous other organizations. She also had been a music specialist for the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks and was a group leader for the Canton and Hampden senior centers well into her 80s.

A 2015 article in The Baltimore Jewish Times described Mrs. Kahn as a “spitfire redhead.”

“She had that flaming red hair until two years ago,” her daughter said.

The former Smith Avenue resident, who later lived at Weinberg Woods and at Atrium Village in Owings Mills, moved to Levindale after suffering a stroke when she was 98. Yet she had not lost her ability to play her spinet piano. She liked keeping busy and going to restaurants.

“I don’t like to be down, you’ve got to be peppy,” she told The Jewish Times.

“That’s why God gave her 104 years — because she had so much to work to do,” her daughter said.

Mrs. Friedman said her mother did not smoke or drink, and when she saw someone smoking a cigarette, “she’d go up to them and tell them to stop. It could be embarrassing at times, but surprisingly, they didn’t get mad at her.”

Mrs. Kahn avoided any organized exercise.

“She didn’t need to exercise because she was on the go all the time,” her daughter said. “She brought balance to her life. Her whole life was amazing; as a person, she was larger than life.”

Her husband of 31 years, Edward L. Kahn, who worked in collections, died in 1998.

Funeral services were held Oct. 3 at Sol Levinson & Bros. in Pikesville.

In addition to Mrs. Friedman, she is survived by a son, Clark Weikers of Taneytown; another daughter, Susan W. Balaban of Pikesville; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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