1900s Jewry Fireworks

1900s Jewry Fireworks

Rabbi David Geffen recounts the Atlanta Jews traditions of fireworks during the 4th of July.

Rabbi David Geffen

Rabbi David Geffen is a native Atlantan and Conservative rabbi who lives in Jerusalem.

Atlanta Auditorium and Armory, 1909.
Atlanta Auditorium and Armory, 1909.

“We were firecracker people,” the late Professor David Macarov told me as we sat together in Jerusalem. “Atlantans and many Jews too loved cherry bombs, whirling dervishes, sky rockets, small crackers and all the others that were manufactured sometimes legally and sometimes illegally.”

He was tallking about Atlanta in the 1920s, but Jewish firecracker tradition of kids at The Orphans Home, Ahavath Achim, the Temple and Shearith Israel started earlier. Beth Israel, which lasted only 15 years or so, also participated in this exciting routine on Independence Day.

A few notes about the Fourth of July. “The advent of this day of American Independence, which was once hailed with universal gladness and celebration throughout the entire nation, now meets scarcely a recognition in Southern Land,” a Georgia newspaper wrote on July 8, 1877.

“Away with your 4th of July until Democratic resolutions shall again plant the Union solidly upon the principles of American Independence which marked the days of Washington.” This was, of course, a little bit of crying by the beaten Confederates.

That same year the Selig and the Haas brothers went out to either Grant or Piedmont Park on July 4. They had bought a bunch of “crackers,” and they wanted to ensure that Atlanta knew that American Jews were real patriots. From a few notes I found, that night was one of glory for these four because they had such pleasure in being old time Atlantans, which their families were.

Of the early “cracker” boys were the sons of Jacob Elsas, who owned the Fulton Cotton Spinning Company, better known as the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill. The Elsas boys, the Adler boys, and the Dreyfus boys, who had more change than some of the others, bought a lot of this stuff.

In 1896 they had a grand time in Grant Park joining up with their Christian friends to make it an Independence Day long to remember.
From the Zimmerman family, old time Shearith Israel founders and members, the younger kids had quite an evening over on Hunter Street near the Oakland Cemetery. When they became too wild, they were chased back to their homes.

In 1905 a group of families, best known as the Eplans and Sauls, broke away from Ahavath Achim to form Beth Israel. They called themselves “Conservative,” clearly Atlanta’s first such shul. A large synagogue was built at Washington and Clarke streets, trying tocompete more with the Temple than Ahavath Achim.

July 4th arrived in 1909, and the city had welcomed Teddy Roosevelt. Down on Butler Street at the Ahavath Achim, a whole crowd gathered. Rabbi Levine, Morris Lichtenstein and others were there. The boys from Ahavath Achim, Shearith Israel, Beth Israel and the Hebrew orphanage had a grand time.

Cherry bombs were a favorite because, when they exploded, everyone had to hold their ears. Skyrockets were shot into the air, and the Jewish families looked up in amazement, thinking that fireworks on the Fourth made you a real American.

The last event that I found some evidence for in those early days was a July 4 celebration, 1912, in Piedmont Park. Ahavath Achim and Beth Israel kids got together at a congregational picnic and barbecue roast.

When darkness fell, the firecracker sounds boomed and the sky lit up.
I knew the late Meyer Balser well, but I never asked him if he and his friends were “cracker” boys. Maybe Macarov had a list of those who were firecracker people like himself, but I never got to ask him.

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