When a Cowtown couple began restoring a ramshackle, century-old bungalow in the Fairmount National Historic District, they realized that attached to a doorway was a tiny, 3-inch-long mezuzah — a slender religious object that marks the entry to a Jewish home.
From a title search, they knew that the two-story house at 1717 Hurley Ave. had once belonged to a Jewish cobbler — Wolff Moses, a Russian immigrant who lived there from 1920 to 1948. His son, R.D. Moses, born in 1928, had grown up in the house, with its wrap-around front porch and hitching post at the curb.
A downtown shoemaker, Wolff Moses died in 1967. His son, who operated Ajax Glass and Mirrors, died in 2009. To track down descendants, the new homeowners contacted the Fort Worth Jewish Archives. By the end of June, they were in touch with Arthur Moses, one of Wolff’s grandchildren and the custodian of the family’s historic photos and memorabilia. Arthur had never been inside the house, but he knew its location. Whenever he and his father had dined on chicken-fried steak at Massey’s, an Eighth Avenue landmark, they drove to the restaurant via Hurley Avenue. His dad would point out his boyhood home with its gables and half timbers.
Arthur Moses, an internationally-known collector of Houdini memorabilia, understood the intrinsic value of the religious object his grandfather had left behind. “I am a very nostalgic person as was my dad,” he said. Within 24 hours, he was at the Fairmount address to meet the new owners and, hopefully, retrieve the mezuzah that his grandfather had affixed to an interior doorway 100 years before.
Literally meaning “doorpost,” a mezuzah is a decorative case that protects a parchment scroll on which a scribe has written Hebrew verses from Deuteronomy. The biblical verses command Jews to affirm the oneness of God and to place these words on the doorposts of their homes.
Inside the Hurley Avenue address, amid dust, peeling wallpaper, piles of new lumber and old bricks jarred from a fireplace, Arthur was directed to a door frame propped against a kitchen wall. On one support beam, layers and layers of white paint covered the oblong mezuzah. A Christian tenant who had lived in the home until last summer used to touch the talisman every time she walked through the doorway, because it made her “feel good.”
Arthur had come equipped with a razor blade and a few small tools. Patiently, he scraped away decades of paint caked around the object. Then he gently pried it from the door frame. Two small nails that had held the mezuzah in place for 100 years gave way to new hands. Quietly, he recited several words from a Hebrew blessing. Although the current homeowners are not Jewish, he promised to buy them a mezuzah of their choosing once the bungalow was restored.
The couple rehabbing the house are Stacy Luecker, who serves on the Tarrant County Historical Commission, and John Ladd, who has rehabbed a house in Rosemont and another in Fairmount. The Hurley Avenue dwelling, constructed in 1911, was built for John Naylor, a rancher. Wolff Moses and his first wife, Rachel, purchased the property in 1920 for $2,000 and moved in with their five children.
After Wolff’s wife died from breast cancer in 1923, a matchmaker introduced him to Aida Kushovotsky, a widowed immigrant visiting relatives in Dallas. The couple married in 1926. She gave birth to a son in 1928. Much to the new wife’s displeasure, the baby was named Rafael David, in memory of the father’s first wife, Rachel. The new wife shortened her son’s moniker to R.D., and it stuck.
Wolff Moses had immigrated from Minsk to New York in 1903 when he was 26. After three years eking out a living in Brooklyn, an agency relocated him to Fort Worth. Initially, he worked with another cobbler, a Mr. Feibelstein, for $9 a week. Within months, he and Feibelstein became business partners. Ultimately, Moses opened his own shoe repair shop at 107 E. Belknap St. He named the business Liberty Bell Shoe Repair when he moved to 108 W. 9th St. The shop, which employed 30 people, became a gathering place where bus drivers, cowboys, bankers, and even the minister of the First Baptist Church kibitzed as they waited to catch the trolley.
Wolff was a regular at Congregation Ahavath Sholom, the city’s traditional synagogue located downtown on Taylor Street until 1951. Granddaughter Lynell Moses Norman said that her “Pappa Moses” was a regular at daily prayer services. Undoubtedly, he affixed a mezuzah on each of the doorposts leading into his house on Hurley Avenue and on many interior doorways.
The mezuzah that Arthur Moses removed from the house weighs “less than a penny” and is fashioned from tin. Later, in his own workshop, he gently rubbed and cleaned the religious object, using fine steel wool until it glistened. Gingerly, he removed the klaf — the Hebrew term for the parchment scroll inside. The parchment — a thin, transparent writing material made from animal skin — was in mint condition. Although faded, its handwritten text containing 713 Hebrew words remains legible.
However, the three raised Hebrew letters that adorn the mezuzah’s exterior – shin, dalet, yud — are less distinct. Those letters, which spell the Hebrew word Almighty, have been slightly worn down by people who touched the talisman, no doubt out of reverence or superstition, as they passed through the doorway decade after decade.
Hollace Ava Weiner, a former Star-Telegram reporter, is an author, historian and director of the Fort Worth Jewish Archives.