Rabbi Orkand: Oscar’s Was A Link To Westport’s “Covenant” End

For 31 years — from 1982 to 2013 — Robert Orkand was Temple Israel’s senior rabbi.

Rabbi Robert Orkand

Rabbi Robert Orkand

He and his wife Joyce now live in Massachusetts, near their son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. But Rabbi Orkand keeps close tabs on Westport, through “06880.”

The closing of Oscar’s sparked the same nostalgia and sadness many Westporters feel. But he has a special perspective on the history of downtown’s famed delicatessen. Rabbi Orkand writes:

The closing of Oscar’s is, in many ways, the end of an era. Locally owned businesses such as Oscar’s are, sadly, becoming a thing of the past.

There is an aspect to the story of Oscar’s, and many other businesses, that is not told often enough. But is a piece of the history of Westport that reflects its diversity and uniqueness.

When I arrived in Westport in 1982, there were a number of businesses that had been founded by Jews — Oscar’s, Gold’s, Klein’s, Westport Hardware, Silver’s, to name just a few. What few people know is how Jewish ownership became possible many years ago.

Gentleman's AgreementUntil the early 1940’s, many real estate agents in lower Fairfield County signed on to an unofficial “covenant” not to show property to Jews, or to discourage them from moving into certain neighborhoods. (The movie “Gentleman’s Agreement” depicted this practice.)

Even though certain cities, such as Norwalk and Bridgeport, had Jewish residents, many towns did not (and in a few places that is still true). Westport was one of the towns in which the “covenant” was enforced.

Before he died in 2009 at the age of 97, Leo Nevas told me how the real estate “covenant” ended in Westport.

He was the 7th and youngest son of Morris and Ethel Navasky, Lithuanian immigrants who met and married in the United States. They settled in Norwalk, and operated a small chain of grocery stores in the area.

Leo earned a law degree from Cornell University in 1936 and joined his brother, Bernard, in the practice of law in South Norwalk. Upon Bernard’s death in 1942, Leo opened an office in Westport. He continued to practice law for 73 years, until his death.

Leo Nevas

Leo Nevas

When Leo purchased the building in which his law office would be located, a local real estate agent inquired about renting an office in the building. Leo said that he would make a deal with her: If she agreed to ignore the informal “covenant” that made it difficult for Jews to purchase homes in Westport, she could have an office rent-free for a year.

She agreed. She began showing homes to Jews, which forced other agents to do the same. As Jews began purchasing homes, merchants opened stores and other retail establishments. One was Oscar’s, founded by Oscar Sisken and his wife, Sally.

While Westport’s Jewish community is strong and thriving, the retail establishments founded by the pioneers who helped establish that community are, sadly, gone. The memories of those pioneers will, however, remain with us.

Click here for “06880+”: The easy way to publicize upcoming events, sell items, find or advertise your service, ask questions, etc. It’s the “06880” community bulletin board!

22 responses to “Rabbi Orkand: Oscar’s Was A Link To Westport’s “Covenant” End

  1. Great story, Bob (and Dan)! One question: which local towns still have no Jewish residents? Darien and New Canaan were the towns most notoriously “restricted” in the 1st half of 20th century, but I know Jews who live in both towns. I’d suspect that Jewish populations in both towns are relatively small, however, because of the towns’ history of anti-Semitism.

  2. Beth Orlan Berkowitz


    I can tell you that there are no Towns that have “no Jewish” residents in Fairfield County. However, there are still people who feel that they would not want to live or even look to live in some towns because of their history about how they used to restrict who could live there. However, it is illegal now to try to isolate or steer any type of person for any reason towards or away from any specific area. That would be deemed discrimination and unfair housing practices. If you look up each town online and look up CERC for each town you can see some of the demographic information available.

  3. Bart Shuldman

    06880 once again proves how important it is to Westport. I have been living here for over 20 years and never knew this story. 06880 is the conduit to our past and the openness to the present and future.

    Thank you Rabbi for sharing such an important story of our past. While somewhat difficult to understand the ‘convenant’ it is important we know. And Rabbi-we miss you.

    And thank you Dan. You provide the venue for these stories to be told. It is powerful and priceless.

    • My family moved here more than 50 years ago and I had never heard this story before today.

      My parents chose Westport in 1963 because, among other reasons, it was a town where Jewish families were welcome–and that was definitely not true of all communities in Fairfield County at that time. Rabbi Orkand and Dan, thanks for sharing this.

  4. A.David Wunsch

    Thanks for an excellent piece of history.

    When my parents moved to Westport in 1953 they were uneasy about buying a house in a town in which there were few Jews. They told this to the woman who was going to sell them her house. My mother asked Mrs. Johns if there were other Jews in the neighborhood. Mrs. J replied :”…there is a family one street over that I think is Jewish . Their name is Katz. But I’m not certain if they are Jewish. Their children have red hair. And I didn’t think Jews could have red hair.”

    My incredulous mother replied ,” My son has red hair and so did my father in law.”

    Ten years ;later when I grew a beard it too emerged red.

    ADW Staples 1956

  5. Larry Weisman

    While I’m sure it is true that there are no towns in Fairfield County that still have “covenants”, anyone who has searched land titles will have seen deeds limiting ownership of real property to “Caucasians” or barring “negroes” and/or “Hebrews”. Thankfully they are artifacts of another time, but they speak volumes about the history of the place where we live and serve as useful reminders – especially in the face of the rhetoric of this year’s presidential campaign – of the danger of institutionalized prejudice.

  6. Bonnie Bradley

    Growing up in Westport and living there for most of my life, both Leo Nevas and his son, Alan, stood at the top of the list of the most intelligent, civic-minded, gentle and respected men in town. In many ways Westport would not be the town it is today without them.

  7. Dorrie Barlow Thomas

    What a wonderful thing Leo Nevas did to make a difference against these disgusting practices. Such an impact!
    Much as today’s youngest voters take for granted the astounding growth and breakthrough that having a black president or a woman nominee is, I grew up utterly unaffected by any of the exclusions the Rabbi’s story highlights. I certainly knew of this past, through my father’s eye-opening stories, but my experience of life in Westport included a school system that was, it seemed to me, fully inclusive, thank goodness. (even, to some extent–but truly not enough–inclusive of blacks…the district bussed in a handful of students–which must have been very difficult for them–but there were also several black families in my neighborhood. So, while Westport’s wasn’t/isn’t perfect in this realm, it’s improving!)
    great post, Dan, thank you.

  8. Rabbi Robert Orkand

    Let me clarify: While, to my knowledge, there are no more “covenants” in Fairfield County–which would of course be illegal–it is still true that in some areas it is still uncomfortable for Jews and other minorities to purchase homes. I know this from stories people told me up until I retired.

  9. This is true! I was born in 1948 to parents of “old-time” Westporters. As I kid, I never understood the mistrust for folks of the Jewish faith. Growing up in Westport, we were so lucky because so many of the children of the “shop keepers” — and don’t forget the Greenberg family — went to school with us and we learned thru various friendships that there was just another religion to be considered. My father went thru the roof when we came home at Christmas time from school and sang the dreidel song. My folks weren’t bad people–it’s just that they didn’t know better. Prejudice is passed down–but in the 50’s it stopped with the Westport public school system. We only had a handful of black families but those kids were never excluded either. My mother had only the nicest things to say about Judge Nevas–and don’t forget Dr. Norman Feitelson who saved her teeth. He was her hero! I still have some of his handiwork in this 68-year old mouth. I am so thankful we went to school in Westport!

  10. Beth Orlan Berkowitz

    As a Jewish person, myself, and a realtor, I cannot comment on specific towns, but I can tell you that this kind of discrimination does still exist in Fairfield County towns and some across the nation. Mostly it is up to the individual buyers to do their own research to determine how comfortable they are looking for a home in each different town/city. It is easy to find out, nowadays online, where the different religious buildings/congregations are located, which sometimes is an indication of the local population. As a realtor, I point out all of the churches, temples/synagogues, mosques, YMCA’s, JCCs, Italian Centers, Iberian Halls, and many more as we are driving by or I have also made specific drive bys when clients specifically ask where a certain place may be located since they want to be close to the place they worship and in some religions they need to be within a reasonable walking distance depending on how observant they are in their faith. While I want to help them decifer these things for their families, needs I am very careful to point out all different affiliations even if they have told me they aren’t interested in a certain kind, so as not to leave any kind out of the discussion and then advise them to do their own driving around the area they have narrowed their search down to and to look up online other information that each town’s website provides.

  11. That’s right Beth–I’m a Realtor here in Naples, FL. and it’s against the law for is to “steer.” Needless to say, I’ve been giving this dialogue thread a lot of thought. In follow up to my comments earlier–Italians & Catholics weren’t high on my dad’s list either…please note that my son is half Italian and a practicing Roman Catholic. My niece is married to a Hindu…times have indeed changed. Back to the merchants, don’t forget the Gladsteins who owned The Linen Closet! Janet splits time between Naples & Chattham, MA and her dad just passed a couple of years ago at close to 95.

    • Thanks, Sally, for your honest and important comments. Westport would not be what it is today without the presence of diverse religions (and those who do not identify with a religion at all). Everyone benefits.

  12. Thank you Dan and Rabbi Orkand for sharing this little bit of Westport history. I think it’s difficult for our children to imagine this was the case in the not so distant past!

  13. Very interesting and thank you for sharing this story. While I am dismayed that Westport did have an unfriendly stance towards Jews at one time, I am grateful to Leo Nevas and others who were bold enough to take steps towards change. Now we need to make Westport more welcoming to other groups as well.

  14. Leo Nevas was a humanitarian on many levels!

    He was recognized on an international level by the UN for his work on behalf of refusniks in Russia.

    Nationally- Leo was Paul Newman’s lawyer- helping to make Newman’s Own products and charities a reality- as well as helping Paul Newman in setting up the Hole in the Wall Gang camps for kids with cancer.

    On a local level Leo contributed very generously to all the hebrew schools in the area- at Westport, Wilton and Norwalk synagogues. The Nevasky Hebrew School at Congregation Beth El in Norwalk is named in memory of Leo’s parents.

  15. Sally Englander

    Great post. Don’t forget Birchwood Country Club. My grandparents wanted to join a specific country club 15-20 minutes away in the 1950s but they would not accept Jew families, similar to other country clubs in the area at that time. I heard this was a contributing factor to why Birchwood was founded, but I’m not entirely sure about the whole story. My grandpa was a dentist in Fairfield and he just wanted to play golf with his friends and my grandma wanted to play bridge. My grandparents made many memories there. Also, it was one of the first clubs in the area that allowed women to play golf 🙂

  16. Beth Orlan Berkowitz

    There were several country clubs formed in Fairfield county for this same reason like Rockrimmon in Stamford when Jews were not allowed in the many other country clubs to play golf or join them. Luckily now, I believe all the clubs are non discrimination. Many of the the yacht clubs were restricted too.

    • Rabbi Robert Orkand

      Part of the sad history of the United States is that in many places Jews could not join country clubs, nor could Jewish doctors practice at some hospitals, nor could Jewish kids enroll in a number of colleges and universities that had strict quotas (Harvard and Yale come to mind). It is for that reason that country clubs such as Birchwood were founded, as well as Jewish hospitals (Mt. Sinai in New York, for example). And, Brandeis University in Waltham, MA, was founded to allow Jews a place to receive a higher education. Thankfully, those days are gone–at least for Jews. Alas, discrimination and bigotry still remain. Anti-Semitic incidents are at an all-time high. We only have to open a newspaper to see reports of violence directed at Blacks and other minority groups. We still have a long way to go.

      • My later father-in-law, who had received his Masters in Public Health from Columbia and had served as a Captain in the U.S. Army during World War II, ended up at medical school at the University of Zurich after the war because of quotas at many med schools here in the U.S. at that time. And his brother went to med school in Switzerland as well for the same reason.

  17. Dorothy Broadman

    I’m seeing this late, but thought I’d add what my mother, now deceased, told me. She said that Westport was one of the few towns that didn’t have a “gentlemens’ agreement”. And so, in 1925, her parents (Ottenberg) and friends (the Bass family) together bought property in Westport and subdivided it. She told me they were the second Jews following the Greenbergs (who owned the store downtown by the same name). She ascribed the more open mentality to there being a lot of artists in Westport, even back then.