02 June 2010

Pennsylvania Dutch: Ashkenazi, German encounters

Matt Singer has an interesting idea.

He's writing an independent project on the encounter between Ashkenazi Jews and Pennsylvania Germans in Pennsylvania Dutch Country as a material culture analysis.

A Penn State American studies doctoral student, his project should be of interest to Tracing the Tribe's readers. Matt was happy to share additional information with me.

He plans to document and analyze material culture reflecting the encounter between Pennsylvania Germans and Yiddish- and German-speaking (Ashkenazi) Jews from Central and Eastern Europe who settled in the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch Country from the 18th through early-20th centuries. The area is centered in Lancaster, Lebanon, and Berks counties but encompasses most of southeastern and central Pennsylvania.

While Pennsylvania Germans and American Jews have both been the subjects of extensive scholarly research, this particular history - which focuses on the interaction and influence between two Germanic people whose separate diasporas brought them to Southeastern and Central Pennsylvania - has not been studied, he says.

Matt also plans to incorporate and focus on fraktur (example left), a text-based Pennsylvania-German art-form, as part of this study.

Fraktur (example left) is the decoration of paper with calligraphic texts and related designs, figures and symbols, using pen and ink and/or watercolors. Click here (a gallery of examples and many other articles) or here for another article. The first link has many examples of this vibrant folk-art that was used for many types of documents.

Says Matt, a small but significant number of Jews worked as itinerant fraktur artists and scriveners. They functioned much like countless Jews who - typically in their earliest years in the US - earned their livelihoods as peddlers. However, traveling fraktur artists and scriveners, unlike most peddlers, left surviving evidence of their work.

A Google search for "jewish fraktur" turned up a mention in Irwin Richman's book "the Pennsylvania Dutch Country." Pages 57-58 offer information on this variety and mentions two artists, Martin Wetzler who drew a Star of David on his creations and signed his name in Hebrew, as well as Justus I.H. Epstein who lived and worked in Reading.

Fraktur incorporating Hebrew words and phrases was created by Christian Hebraists, and at least one example was made by a Pennsylvania German artist for a Jewish patron.

Finally, through the examination of fraktur in relation to traditional Ashkenazi-Jewish forms such as the ketubah (marriage contract), wimpel (Torah binder), illustrated prayer-books, and mizrachim (a wall-hanging that indicates the direction for prayer - East, mizrach), Matt will search for artistic motifs, approaches, and intentions shared (or not shared) by Pennsylvania Germans and Ashkenazi Jews and their continuity (or discontinuity) as the two distinct yet geographically and culturally related groups established new lives, communities, and cultures in the New World.

Matt, like many of us first became interested in genealogy after watching "Roots" in 1977, as a young teenager. Later, the emergence of JewishGen in the 1990s "turned this interest into a passion."

His paternal SINGER line was from the Ponevezh (Panevezys) area in Kovno Gubernia, Lithuania.

Says Matt, according to a distant cousin (now deceased) who was equally obsessed with genealogy and family history, the family moved from East Prussia to Lithuania around 1840.
"Such a migration pattern is slightly counterintuitive," he says, "and I’ve never been able to document it.

What I do know is that my great-grandfather David Singer immigrated from Neustadt Ponevezh, Lithuania, in 1886 and seemed to have moved directly to Middletown, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, a small Pennsylvania-German town outside of Harrisburg (where much of the family eventually settled).
His primary maternal line - the KLEINMAN/N) - were from the Kurland/Courland region (now southwestern Latvia) which, though absorbed by Russia in the Partition of Poland in 1795, was German in language and culture and not part of (although not far from) the Pale of Settlement.
My great-great-grandfather Abraham Kleinman immigrated from Friedrichstadt (now Jaunjelgava), Kurland, in 1887 and first settled in Lancaster, the heart of “Pennsylvania Dutch Country,” and later lived in several smaller towns in the region before ultimately settling in Harrisburg.

Counting my older brother’s children, five generations of my Jewish family (I’m also one-quarter Austrian and German Catholic by descent) have been born in “Pennsylvania Dutch Country,” and seven have lived in it (my great-great-great grandparents Elias and Sarah Rachel Kleinman—Abraham’s parents—followed their son, immigrating here in 1891).
All of Matt's Jewish ancestors were Litvaks, although he adds:
The Kleinmans represented a sort of German-Litvak hybrid, as did the Singers, I suppose, if they really did move from East Prussia to Lithuania ), as seems to be the norm in the vicinity of Harrisburg (of course, the Litvaks were preceded by Jews from southern Germany ). I believe the same is true of all of Pennsylvania Dutch Country—but that’s a matter for research far from completed!
Matt's geographical locations and names of interest include East Prussia, Singer; Courland, Kleinman, Toor, Tuch, Singer; and Lithuania, Singer, Tuch, Gerber, Garonzik, Ringer and Blau.

Do you have any written memoirs inherited from immigrant ancestors who settled in the area?

Would you share them with Matt? Readers are welcome to contact him.


  1. As a descendant of the Pennsylvania Dutch who is married to a Jewish woman, I found this fascinating. I hope you'll do a follow-up when Mr. Singer finishes his paper.

  2. I would love to hear from you! My mother-in-laws family was Singer they were born in Galizia, austria. they were part of the Ashkenazis branch of Judaism. The husbands family was (spelling got off in Ellis Island),started off Chazan(spelling may not be right) from probably part of Russia, became Hassan at Ellis Island. Any hints for tracking the family would be appreciated!! Linda

  3. Anonymous4:11 PM

    I have an ancestor who's last name was Veith who immigrated from Germany by himself at the age of 13 and sold himself into a Pennsylvania Dutch community to work for his freedom of which he recieved. Veith is a Jewish bloodline name so I've wondered if the Penn. Dutch people were of Jewish bloodline since he chose that people to join into. It was normal for Jewish people to want to live with other Jewish people.

  4. Anonymous12:21 PM

    Im Pennsylvania Dutch, my great great grandfathers name was Solomon Davidson. This is exciting,I've got to get a DNA test.

  5. Anonymous8:17 AM

    My direct ancestor was Barthel Reinau, whose name is Jewish, likely from Romania. My recent DNA test indicates that part of my bloodline is from Eastern Europe. Other names in that line are Wise (Weiss)and Fite (Feit or Vogt.