Jewish 1830’s – 1970’s

The first wave of German Jews immigrated to Cincinnati between 1830 and 1870. They wanted to adopt a new country, provide for their families, and practice their religion without persecution. Because many Jews came with few assets, they often started as peddlers. Many traveled the frontier along the Ohio River, stopping at farmhouses to sell clothing and to sharpen knives and scissors. With their profits, many opened clothing stores along Cincinnati’s riverfront. By the 1850s, Jews owned the majority of clothing stores in Cincinnati and the city became known as “the ready-made clothing capital of the West.”

A second wave of Jews came to Cincinnati in the late 1880s when violent anti-Jewish attacks forced them to leave Eastern Europe. Often, several families crowded into unsanitary unheated apartments in Cincinnati with little money and few possessions. They set out to become American citizens as soon as possible. However, whenever the country and Cincinnati suffered from recessions as in the 1890s, Jews often became “scapegoats” and were blamed for the nation’s problems.

After streetcar lines were laid to Avondale in 1903, many wealthy German Jews migrated there from the city’s declining crowded West End and from Clifton neighborhoods where they were not welcome by some citizens. From the 1920s until the end of World War II, Avondale was known as a predominantly Jewish neighborhood because 60% percent of its population was Jewish.


During the first half of the 19th century, a number of central European [Jewish] immigrants arrived in the Cincinnati area seeking economic opportunity. As peddlers they traveled alone to outlying communities carrying heavy backpacks, on foot, laden [loaded] with merchandise (Fig. 2). Many peddlers eventually opened their own stores, and in turn, helped other new arrivals to start their own businesses. (Fine)

Ohio’s “wandering historian,” Henry Howe, called it [Cincinnati] “a sort of paradise for the Hebrews.” “No other Jewish community on the face of the globe,” according to a Chicago Jewish newspaper, “accomplished so much good in the interest of Judaism and its people.” Others termed it [Cincinnati] the center of Judaism and its people,” . . . the “center of Jewish American life,” and “the pioneer [Jewish] city of the world.” (Fine)

Such extravagant tributes, which might have been appropriate for Jerusalem or New York, come in this case as somewhat of a surprise. Why Cincinnati? Its Jewish population was generally modest in size, especially in comparison to coastal Jewish communities. Its leading Jewish families may have acquired considerable wealth, but certainly not on the level of New York’s Jewish elite. (Fig. 1, Fig. 5). . . Nevertheless, as the praises sung to it demonstrate, Cincinnati Jewry, especially late in the nineteenth century, occupied a singular position in American Jewish life. [Fig. 3 is a portrait of Isaac M. Wise, founder of American Judaism in Cincinnati; Fig. 4 is the 1869 Plum Street Synagogue in downtown Cincinnati]. It was the oldest and most cultured Jewish community west of the Alleghenies, and had, many thought, a spirit all its own. (Fine)

There is, however, another side to Jewish-Christian relations in Cincinnati, which does not comport to the regnant [positive] image, and has, as a result, been less frequently told. This is the story of anti-Jewish prejudice in Cincinnati, particularly manifestations of social discrimination. . . Hatred of Jews also figures prominently in the first Jewish novel set in Cincinnati. . . the novel as a whole may have been, the complex portrait of post-Civil War Cincinnati as a city where Jews as a class met with hatred, while individual Jews were loved, and where Jews could attain great financial and social success in spite of continuing prejudice certainly rings true. (Sarna)

The Jewish Hospital opened . . . in 1854 [in Cincinnati] was among the first Jewish hospitals in the United States. It was established, in part, to shield Jewish patients from Christian missionaries seeking deathbed conversions and also to provide for dietary concerns [kosher] of observant Jews. (Fine)

. . . anti-Semitism [hatred of Jews] erupted in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Cincinnati . . . Several clubs . . . refused (or in some cases ceased) to accept Jewish members . . . The most prominent College Preparatory School for girls likewise kept Jews out . . . even if the Jew happened to be the daughter of popular Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra maestro Fritz Reiner. . . Most serious of all, Jews found themselves frozen out of positions in certain banks and law firms. (Sarna)

Literature Sources

1) Fine, John S. and Frederick J. Krome. Images of America: Jews of Cincinnati. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, c. 2007.

2) Sarna, Jonathan and Nancy Klein. The Jews of Cincinnati. Cincinnati: Center for the Study of the American Jewish Experience, 1989.


All figures from: Sarna, Jonathan and Nancy Klein. The Jews of Cincinnati. Cincinnati: Center for the Study of the American Jewish Experience, 1989.