Whether the discussion focuses on it being one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad, the countless tales shared by whalers who made it their home during that trade’s heyday, or the literary giants who have immortalized it in their own way, Sag Harbor is a village with a long and colorful history.But at least one aspect of that extensive history, recently explored by newspaper columnist and author Karl Grossman in a new television documentary, has gone unrecognized, according to the longtime investigative reporter.
“The (Unusual) Jewish History of Sag Harbor,” written by Mr. Grossman for Hamptons TV, focuses on how unique the village was in terms of being open to diversity, and explores how Sag Harbor’s historic district once housed the only Jews who were welcome in the Hamptons.
According to Mr. Grossman, a Press columnist who lives in Noyac and is himself Jewish, most of Southampton and East Hampton towns were “off-limits to Jews” up until a couple of decades ago because of widespread anti-Semitism. Mr. Grossman would later concede that the residents of the two towns “didn’t even welcome Catholics. They were just two major WASP strongholds.”
But Sag Harbor always has been a haven for immigrant and homegrown Jews alike—a statement backed up in the documentary by Gertrude Katz, a lifelong Sag Harbor resident who was born in the 1930s.
“We were always welcome. We weren’t quite equal, but we weren’t separate,” Ms. Katz recounts in the film. “We were all assimilated. [World War II] was the constant reminder of who you were, but I never felt separate.”
The film explores places like the current-day Temple Adas Israel, which was founded in 1898 and is the oldest synagogue on Long Island. According to legend, and the film, the temple received its first Torah, which is the first five books of the Bible, from Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, and his band of Rough Riders while they were being quarantined in Montauk following their battles in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.
Mr. Grossman also delves into the life and times of Joseph Fahys, the owner of the Fahys Watch Case Company, a social pioneer and the great-great-grandfather of former Republican presidential nominee Howard Dean. Mr. Fahys built and owned the original Sag Harbor watchcase factory before a fire in 1925 destroyed much of the building.
Mr. Fahys became a social pioneer in the interest of making a good product, according to Mr. Grossman. He began hiring Hungarian Jews known for their skill and precision engraving, often meeting the immigrants, including Mr. Grossman’s grandfather, Herman Grossman, at Ellis Island and bringing them to the village himself.
Ironically, while village residents welcomed them with open arms, the Hungarian immigrants actually started resenting their non-Hungarian Jewish brethren, opting to worship—and be buried—separately, according to Mr. Grossman’s documentary.
“The Hungarian Jews considered themselves special,” Mr. Grossman explains in the film, “and didn’t get along with Jews already here, shopkeepers in the main, from Russia and Poland and other places where Jews had been dispersed. The separation extended to burials [where] two side-by-side Jewish cemeteries serve Sag Harbor, a fence down the middle, where for several decades Hungarian Jews were buried on one side, the other Jews on the other.”
“Wasn’t it nuts?” Mr. Grossman said after a recent screening. “While Jews weren’t welcome in East Hampton and Southampton, here in Sag Harbor they had this dopey split.”
Also featured in the documentary is David Lee, who, after serving in the British Army in World War II, settled in Sag Harbor and became president of Temple Adas Israel. “Back when I became president, what we had was a lot of displaced Jews from all over the world,” Mr. Lee said. “I did the best I could to run services, but everyone had a different prayer book, and everyone knew that their prayer book was the right prayer book. It was maddening.”
He noted that today’s temple is much more organized and has a constantly growing congregation, while other temples around the Long Island are struggling.
Originally, the scope of Mr. Grossman’s project was much smaller. He simply wanted to retrace his grandfather’s footsteps through the old Fahys Watch Case Factory after years of being told it was too dangerous to do a walk-through.
In the end, though, Mr. Grossman got a lot more than he bargained for, admitting that much like Temple Adas Israel—whose website banner proclaims it is “renewed and reinvigorated”—his interest in Sag Harbor’s history only grew with the project.
“I have so much respect for the history of this place, and I can’t wait to see where it will take me,” he said.
The film will be airing occasionally over the next three months on Hamptons TV, and can be viewed at any time on the Hamptons TV YouTube site.