Filmmaker Esther McBride captures a D.C. that’s largely out of sightbut not quite out of mind.
When D.C. native Sophie Litman Shapiro, 86, cruises the streets of her hometown, she sees several different cities at once. “The orphanage was right here,” Shapiro points as the car makes a right turn off 14th onto S Street NW. A brown-brick town-house complex now occupies the spot where her late husband, Paul Shapiro, lived at the age of 18 months, after his mother died in the flu epidemic of 1918 and his father felt temporarily overwhelmed as a single parent of three boys.
That was long before she met Paul at the lunch counter of his father’s drugstore, before Saturday night automatically meant a date with him, before he stomped on the glass at the end of their wedding ceremony at the old Adas Israel synagogue, which is now Turner Memorial AME Church in Chinatown.
Shapiro next turns her attention across the street, to a parking lot and the modern brick building that’s a D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation warehouse. “This was my elementary school, Dennison Elementary,” she says as she shakes her head at the asphalt. “And it sure didn’t look like that, honey!”
She marvels at the renovated row houses creeping eastward into Shaw. Shapiro understands urban evolution: After all, this is the same neighborhood in which Jewish Russian immigrants Jacob and Gussie Litman owned a corner grocery store at 12th and S Streets NW, where they earned a penny profit for every loaf of bread they sold to their predominantly African-American customers, and where their childrenLouis, Bessie, Alex, and Sophiemade friends with their black neighbors, even in the days when Washington was a segregated Southern city.
“I’m telling you: Washington was a small town for a long time,” Shapiro repeats again and again on the afternoon jaunt. And, she notes, everyone knew everyone in the city’s Jewish community.
The store faced S Street, with a family kitchen and living room in the back of the building and bedrooms and an indoor bathroom upstairs. “Now that was high-class livin’,” Shapiro recalls in The Old Days: Jewish Life in Washington, DC, a new documentary by local filmmaker Esther McBride. The Old Days revisits the Washington of Shapiro’s youth, back in the days when evening formals ended at Childs restaurant near Union Station and familiar local philanthropists such as “Old Man Cafritz” owned little corner groceries, pharmacies, and saloons.
A left turn puts Shapiro at U Street NW. She cranes her neck to take in the sights. “I was just looking for the old ballpark,” she says, catching a glimpse of the sprawling brown-brick building that’s now Howard University Hospital. The site, near the intersection of Georgia Avenue and V Street NW, was once the home of Griffith Stadium. On Friday afternoons before Shabbat, Shapiro recalls in The Old Days, she would attend ladies’ day at Griffith, where she rooted like heck for the Washington Senators.
“Goose Goslin was my god,” she says, referring to the Washington slugger nicknamed for his birdlike nose and neck.
As the car heads south on 7th Street NW, Shapiro points out a landmark that exists not just in her memory: the dilapidated but still standing Howard Theatre. “The last person I saw there was Fats Waller,” Shapiro recalls, peering at the theater’s now-unglamorous façade. “It was New Year’s Eve, and I still remember him singing ‘Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries.’”
McBride, 63, grew up on what she calls the “wrong side of the bridge”that being the Duke Ellington Bridge, which connects tony Woodley Park to trendy Adams Morgan. Back then, though, Adams Morgan was a largely transient neighborhood. After her parents divorced, when she was very young, McBride lived with her mother and her grandparents in a three-story row house on the Adams Morgan side of Calvert Street NW.
McBride’s grandfather also owned a corner grocery, located at one time at 9th and M Streets SW, in the days when Southwest Washington was a thriving Jewish neighborhood and not an urban-renewal eyesore. “It’s part of my own
history,” McBride says about the quadrant, which hosted two synagogues in the early part of the century. “I felt it was very important to preserve those stories. No one had collected the stories and photographs to plunge us back and help us feel what it was like to live there back then. No one else had preserved it in this way.”
Though she had all the right credentialsOyster Elementary, McFarland and Paul Junior Highs, Coolidge Senior High Class of ’56McBride’s path to D.C. documentarian was indirect. After studying art at the University of Maryland, McBride worked a number of secretarial and administrative jobs. While toiling in public affairs at the National Institutes of Health in the mid-’80s, she put together a three-projector slide show on the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. That production, she says, got her interested in filmmaking.
She soon started writing scripts for other government agencies. Then she approached the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington to find out if it might be interested in funding a documentary on Southwest Washington’s Jewish community. It initially declined, but McBride got a phone call from the organization a little while later. In 1994, she produced Half a Day on Sunday, an 18-minute film about D.C.’s Jewish mom-and-pop grocery stores. Two years later, she made Tzedakah, a film about D.C. Jewish women and their involvement in community service.
McBride began fundraising for The Old Days in 1996. Although her enthusiasm for the project puzzled her at the time, she now understands her motivation a bit better. “What [The Old Days] does is document my mother’s whole childhood,” McBride reflects. As a child, McBride’s mother suffered from spinal meningitis, diphtheria, and scarlet fever. “Throughout her life, she mourned her brief childhood, [but] her childhood seemed so much better to me than mine was,” laughs McBride.
“It was the stories of that generation that I wanted to capture, that I wanted to preserve, that I wanted to discover for myself,” she adds, “because there was a lot that I didn’t know, that I needed to fill in….to understand my own past.”
Outside of synagogue dances and banquets for the District Grocery Store chain, teenage social life in those days revolved mainly around the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, at 16th and Q Streets NW. “My younger brother, Alex, and his gang used to play basketball and swam here all the time,” Shapiro remembers, as she and McBride stand in the lobby of the building, which was shuttered in 1967 and reopened in 1997. “I took elocution lessons here, and I took dramatic lessons,” Shapiro continues. “I never took dance lessons, because I didn’t have to. I didn’t need to.
“We practically lived at the DCJCC,” she says. “All the kids did. Oh yeah, we went swimming there. We had our club meetings there, and then, of course, Saturday-night dances.”
McBride herself remembers some of those dances, held on the rooftop of the building. “I felt a closeness to that generation,” she says, as she listens to Shapiro’s memories of those magical evenings, when Shapiro and Chuckie Maisel and Sam Futrofsky would all pile into Maisel’s car and head to the dance. Other nights, they might have ended up at a Hot Shoppes, maybe the one near
Georgia and Gallatin Streets NW, for the hot-fudge cake or the fried-chicken special.
In The Old Days, McBride eschews conventional narration, using only archival photographs and voice-overs from elder Washingtonians. “I didn’t feel any interpretation was necessary. I wanted people to speak for themselves,” McBride says of the decision. “If I had written a script for a narrator, I’d be telling the storiesand I wasn’t even there.”
The film took nearly six years to make and cost $43,000. McBride simultaneously worked freelance gigs and vigorously fundraised to make the project a reality. She interviewed more than 60 people, pressing them for vignettes, reminiscences, and photographs. She ended up choosing the voices of 11 Washingtonians, all in their 80s or 90s.
“I know people in Washington; I grew up here,” says McBride. “I started with people I knew, who referred me to others, who referred me to others.”
As McBride mined their personal stories, she unearthed more than a few gems. In the days when many local beaches remained restricted, for example, many Jewish families spent their summer afternoons at Tidal Basin Beach, which is now the area in front of the Jefferson Memorial. Shapiro recalls that one summer, her brother Alex was the Tidal Basin Beach city champion swimmer. “Ah, I think I’m gonna cry,” she says as she leans on McBride and surveys the Tidal Basin waterfront. “It was gorgeous. So gorgeous.”
McBride has obviously connected with her interviewees. “Other people made it such fun for me to explore their lives,” she says as she gives Shapiro a comforting rub on the back. “It’s a life that doesn’t exist anymore.”
Indeed, some of that life might seem unimaginable to many now living in the District. In the thick heat of the summer, Shapiro recalls, D.C. families would regularly trek over to Meridian Hill Park and Hains Point for outdoor sleepovers. “My father would pack us all in the big, old car, and we’d ride down with our blankets and pillows, and we’d sleep around Hains Point,” she says as she drives by the public golf course there. “The grass was real nice and thick…and we’d sleep there all night.
“I don’t have to tell you how Washington summers can beand there was no such thing as air conditioning,” she adds.
McBride notes that three of the 11 storytellers in The Old Days have passed away since their interviews with her. Unfortunately, she didn’t have space in her film for all their recollections. “I wonder what to do with the stories that didn’t get in,” she says. CP
The Old Days: Jewish Life in Washington, DC will screen at 6:30 and 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 6, at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center. McBride and Shapiro will lead a discussion following each screening. For more information, call (202) 357-3030.