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KEYNOTE SPEAKERS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN ONTARIO

HISTORY OBSERVED

THROUGH  THE LENS OF INDIVIDUAL MEMORY

 

MYRNA:   As oral historians, we walk the byways of memory. Between us, we have collected, transcribed and worked the recollections of nearly a thousand individuals into books and articles. Many of them deal in one way or another with the Jewish-American experience and regardless of whether the tellers are immigrants, first, second or even third generation Americans; regardless of whether they were born at the beginning, in the middle or close to the end of the last century; regardless of whether they grew up in big cities, suburban enclaves, small towns, or scattered settlements, their stories reflect on the great journey from the old world to the new.

    Tonight we will present excerpts from our books of oral history on the theme of growing up Jewish in America. You will hear about experiencing anti Semitism, finding one’s place in a free and open society, living through demographic changes, pursuing the American dream, reacting to the Holocaust and the civil rights movement, attempting to resolve the tension between the realms of the sacred and the profane.

           In taking on the roles of our speakers, we will be moving without introduction from one individual to another, crossing the continent and the decades of the last century. We hope you will find these mini memoirs compelling and convincing, and that in the end you will agree that while the interest of oral historians lies in the personal and particular, the stories they uncover inevitably illuminate larger social issues and events.

 

HARVEY: Being Jewish was like belonging to another world. It was not explained. I did not understand. Still I knew I was connected to someplace and something else. It had a different time zone. In this world it was the 1900s; in that one it was the 5700s. Time began so much earlier for the Jews. The months were different too; they kept changing so that holidays came out on different days each year. That was a calendar you couldn't depend on. Yet it made more sense. The new year ought to begin when the summer ended, when school started, when everything got going again.


 

           We weren't at all religious, but I knew about all those holidays. There were so many of them, plugging into the ebb and flow of the year, and each had its own props: nuts, little candles, palm branches, apples, cakes, spinning tops, wooden groggers. At holiday times, I would wonder: Are Jews all over the world throwing their sins into the water, fasting, eating matzoh, lighting candles?

     It was like a drill, like someone blew a whistle and all the kids started rolling nuts outside the synagogue. Things appeared and went. All of a sudden, cases of matzoh were stacked up in the stores. Where did they come from?

     I only spoke English, but around me were other languages, a polyglot of strange words. There were German and Romanian, and then not one but two special Jewish languages. The Yiddish sounded familiar enough, but the Hebrew -- again, from another world. And both languages had a weird alphabet, and you read them from right to left, and their books from back to front.


 

     You were living here, but you were connected back to another country you never saw, one that every once in a while people would start talking about. There was a mishmash of memories, incomplete and unfinished. I never got the whole story. A name would come up. A detail would come out. And then it would get lost. Another world. Who were they? What did they look like? What were their names? What happened?

     I would stare into candlelight‑there were always candles burning: at my grandmother's house on Friday nights, in the yahrtzeit glasses -- there were all these death anniversaries of people I had never met. But they didn't frighten me. In a strange way I found the candlelight comforting and also hypnotic, a possible path into that other world.

 

MYRNA: In 1913, my father, a Russian immigrant, arrived in Duluth, Minnesota. He worked seven days a week, and at the same time, went to night school to learn English. In 1917, he bought a little deli downtown. By 1920, when he had become fairly well settled financially, he returned to Russia and brought my mother, sister, and me to America.

          My father's store: Crystal's Kosher Delicatessen was of the mom and pop variety. The customers were waited on one at a time. My dad would literally comb the markets for kosher and fancy foods. He'd get in cones of sugar, Russian mushrooms, and dried mushrooms that came on a string. Figs were a big item. Also Russian "tsikarkis," hard sugar candies filled with fruits that we sold out of a barrel, a penny apiece. He sold kasha in bulk and halavah that came in cones like a dunce's cap. The lox we'd lay out on a slab and cut one slice, two slices, three slices, 98 cents a pound. We retailed caviar. In 1924, a two-ounce jar of caviar cost 35 cents. Jewish people like good food.

Summers in Duluth were beautiful, nice and cool with the lake. Back in the 20s, 30s, peddlers from New York and Chicago who sold umbrellas, fancy handkerchiefs and such would come up for the summers. Their headquarters became my father’s, store. It was a kind of checkpoint on the way west, a place to get kosher food, speak the  “mamalushen." They'd sit around and discuss world and Jewish affairs, read aloud from The Forward. They all wore beards which may be why I thought they were very old.


 

All his life, my father remained very religious, kept kosher, even on the road. He'd take along a kosher salami, sardines and so forth. If he ate out it, was just a glus tay. Early every morning before work, he would put on tefillin and daven in the store.

         Still he had to make accommodations. Friday nights, my dad would close up the store and come home to have his Sabbath dinner. That was very important. But Saturdays, my dad opened up the store and worked. He used to say, "What's to man is to man and what's to God is to God."


 

HARVEY:      About five or six generations on my father's side had raised great draft horses in Germany. When they came to New York, my grandfather bought 1500 acres in Walcott, near the Canadian border. It was an area of muck farms. We were the only horse breeders around.

I was born in the house in Walcott on a cold enamel kitchen table, a most comfortable place. It was a big country house with an enormous amount of land. At one time we had almost a hundred foals breeding. We were the only Jews in a six hundred mile circumference. But I never had an anti‑Semitic experience probably because of my father. He was 6'9", 310 pounds and hard as a wooden table. My grandfather was a little smaller: 6?? 270 pounds. It was like having two King Kongs around.

I imagine what my father translated to the people was: "This man is a Christ killer. Look at him." They were probably afraid if I had any trouble, he'd come to school and tear the walls down. My mother would say, "Your father is not intimidated by any human, animal, or machine. He is so meshuga, that if he stubbed his toe on the tractor, he'd punch the tractor."

Outside of the house, my father didn't talk. He hit. In the feed store, somebody would sneeze "A‑choo." "Jew?" he'd say. "I'll show you a Jew." Bang! Bang! He used to break heads.

Actually, he was a very nice man with a great a sense of humor. He could tell terrific stories. But he had that Prussian in him: you gotta sweat, you gotta outwork the horse. A Jewish Paul Bunyan. If you don't work with your hands, you're nothing.

But I didn't want to work with my hands. I wanted to be a performer. My mother's brother was an itinerant Yiddish actor who would stop off to visit us when he was doing the circuit. Uncle Jonah looked like a 1920s leading man and was very flamboyant with language. But my father found him distasteful. As far as my father was concerned, the only people who worked in the Yiddish theater were sissies. When I told him that I wanted to go with my uncle, my father had a fit.

I left my home in Walcott when I was twelve years old and went on to become a performer. My father, may he rest in peace, never came to see me.


 

MYRNA: In 1905, my grandfather was taken out of a yeshiva and sent to America to pave the way for the rest of the family. It was during the time of the Alaskan Gold Rush. Figuring he could do better following the Gold Rush path than competing with all the other peddlers on the Lower East Side, he boarded the Northern Pacific Railroad and headed west. In Seattle, he met some Jews who needed a tenth man for a minyan, and wound up staying there.

   He was a peddler, buying and selling used clothing. One day he walked four miles out of town to buy some suits from a man. He came back to his little room, and found a diamond brooch in one of the pockets. So he turned around and walked all the way back to the house of the man who had sold him the suits.

   A woman answered the door. "I'd like to speak to your husband," my grandfather said.

   She saw a man with a beard and a hat, obviously Jewish, speaking with an accent. "You can't bother my husband," the woman said. "You were here already. What do you want?"

      I didn't buy a diamond from your husband," my grandfather replied. “I bought a suit."


 

     Her husband turned out to be the president of Rainier National Bank, and he rewarded my grandfather's honesty with an unlimited line of credit. This enabled my grandfather to open up a men's wholesale clothing business and bring over his wife, my uncle, and my father, then aged two. By the next generation, the business was supporting six families. And that is how I came to grow up in Seattle, the beautiful city of hills.

 

HARVEY: Turkish and Greek immigrants began settling in Seattle around the turn of the century. The greenery, the mountains, and water reminded them of the old country, and they were able to earn a living in the fishing industry. A handful of Sephardic Jews followed them. They made a little money, sent for their relatives, and started a small community. By 1910 there were about six hundred Sephardic Jews in Seattle, almost all of whom lived in the section known as the Central District. It wasn't a fancy neighborhood; the Jews were very poor in those days.


 

         In 1908 my grandfather left the Isle of Rhodes, where his family had probably been living since shortly after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and came to Seattle. He worked as a shoe-shiner and cobbler, and by 1911 earned enough to send for my grandmother and seven children.

         My grandfather said when he first came to Seattle, there was no Sephardic synagogue so they went over to the Ashkenazi synagogue. Here they were, Sephardim who spoke Ladino, had names like Romey and Angel, and looked like Arabs. The Ashkenazim didn't think they were Jewish.

MYRNA: When I was a young child in the thirties and forties, the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities of Seattle were separate. A marriage between them was looked upon like an intermarriage.

HARVEY: The Ashkenazic kids used to call the Sephardim "Mazola" because they cooked with vegetable oil. The Sephardic kids called the Ashkenazim "schmaltz" because they cooked with chicken fat.

      We attended the Ashkenazic Hebrew Day School where the Hebrew words were pronounced differently, the melodies for the prayers and Torah were different. Half the time, we didn't understand what the teachers were talking about.

MYRNA: Despite the differences, my father had friends and business associates in the Sephardic community. By the time we were teenagers, the communities were beginning to come together, and the children of both groups became friends.

    

HARVEY:         There were about thirteen thousand Jews in Seattle out of a population of half a million when I was born in July 1945. And if you scratched just a little bit, you would find that every Sephardic Jew in Seattle was related by blood or by marriage. So there was a very strong feeling of home during my childhood. I felt I was in a place where I belonged.

     Many years later, when I had moved to New York, I began going back to Seattle in the summers with my wife and children. It is still such a beautiful city, and I took pleasure in visiting the old neighborhood, in pointing out the Hebrew school and synagogues, the houses that had once belonged to my parents, aunts, and grandparents. Until one summer we drove past my grandparents' house and found all the windows boarded up and on the door a sign that said "Condemned."


 

      It was hard to accept. That house was the symbol of my Seattle childhood. I can still picture the peach tree out front, the cherry tree in the back, the little garden with its string beans, tomatoes, and eggplants. And inside, all the people, the joyous get‑ togethers. There was always an excuse for a celebration or party, for people to dance around the living room to Turkish music. My mother, a redhead, very bright and full of life, would play her castanets. My uncle Jack would add his tambourine, and we’d all sing along.

   Although we knew about the tragedies of the Jews throughout history and had observances that reminded us of them, these were remote events. We thought we were lucky. We thought everything we had was the best. We thought Jews were the happiest people in the world. I didn't know there was such a thing as an unhappy Jew until I came to New York.


 

MYRNA: We were the first Jewish family to live on Maypole Road in the Merrymount section of Quincy, Massachusetts. Our street got its name from the maypole that once stood at the top of the little hill at the end of the block. I used to go sledding down that hill, never knowing that the original settlers used to dance around the "Maypole of Merrymount" every first of May.

         Our house was one of those big white New England colonials trimmed with black shutters. We all loved it. It had a wide front porch downstairs and another one upstairs, a two‑car garage, and a lovely backyard filled with lilacs in the spring.

         It's interesting that my father chose to move to Merrymount‑ the nicest section of Quincy‑instead of Quincy Point, where the rest of his extended immigrant family lived. I think it was because he felt the need to be successful, to show that he had made it in this country.


 

         But I felt very isolated. Up until the third grade, I was the only Jewish kid in my class. We grew up with tremendous anti‑Semitism. The priest at the local church was a disciple of Father Feeney, who would later on be excommunicated for preaching that the Jews were Christ‑killers. I can remember standing on the steps of the big brick church on Saturday afternoons waiting for my friends to come out from confession and knowing they'd be mean to me. I can remember sitting on the front porch with my brother, and the kids we normally played with sitting on a porch across the street and yelling at us, "Dirty Jew, Christ‑killer."

     We had an awful lot of problems in school. Very few teachers were Jewish, and we were never allowed to forget that we were. One of the high school teachers gave an exam on Rosh Hashanah every year and gave every Jewish kid who was absent a zero.

     While Chanukah was never a fun holiday for us. Christmas was wonderful. Since the neighborhood was almost entirely Christian, we used to celebrate Christmas with our neighbors and exchange gifts with them.

     When we were very little, we believed in Santa Claus and thought he filled our stockings with presents. My father had seen this when he called on his customers. He wanted us to feel we were part of American culture.

     He loved America and was always talking about how lucky he was to have gotten out of Russia and come to the greatest country in the world. On patriotic holidays we would put a big flagpole out on the top porch, and the American flag would hang down over the front porch below. Every Fourth of July, there'd be a big parade down the streets of Merrymount, and we'd sit out on the front porch and watch. And afterwards, there'd be barbecues in the backyards and we'd get together with our neighbors. Those were the times we felt we were real Americans and not so different being Jewish.

     There were many times I wished I was not Jewish. It was a lot of trouble; I couldn't see anything good in it. And it was obvious to us that the gentiles considered themselves the better class.


 

     Yet I always felt that my home life was better than the non‑Jewish kids'. I was better clothed. I felt that our mother cared much more about us. She made us chicken or tuna fish sandwiches for lunch while the other kids ate peanut butter. All my friends always wanted to trade lunches with me. At home, our refrigerator was filled with good things. The Christian kids always wanted to come over and eat; they didn't have such good stuff at their homes. Also, we lived much more disciplined a life. We had schedules. We didn't dare not be home when my parents expected us.

         Although we were not a very intellectual family, we grew up always knowing that we would go to college. Our high school was not very big, maybe there were three hundred in each class, but we got the message that education was the way to make it in America. The kids went to Holy Cross, Boston University, Northeastern, some went to out‑of‑town schools.

             But for the boys, Harvard was the epitome of an education in Quincy. And if you were Jewish and you went to Harvard, you were really something special. I was proud of the fact that my brother went to Harvard. For my father, it was the vindication of his entire immigrant experience and struggle.

 

HARVEY: In 1938, when I was fourteen years old, I arrived in Atlanta and met my "American family": Fanny Asman, a widow with a son. I formed an immediate and beautiful relationship with her although I did not, at the time, speak a word of English. I had left my parents behind in Dortmund, a big beer town around the area of Essen and Cologne. My ancestors had lived in Germany for four or five hundred years.

    It was a strange time. Along with the pain of parting from my parents I had a sense of the adventure. I don't think any of us had any understanding of what was about to happen in Germany. We expected to be reunited.

    Over the last years, the environment in Dortmund had become more and more restrictive. Jews not permitted here; Jews get out of here. The nice Jewish school in our community was closed down, and we had to move into a slum school.

     There was the constant assault of the marching, the flags, the singing of anti‑Semitic songs. Without a uniform or some form of swastika insignia on my clothes, I stood out. But after dark, my friends in the Hitler Youth would take off their uniforms and come over to my house to play.

     It was a very lonely existence. Food became scarce, as did fuel for heating. My father lost his business. He was accused on a trumped‑up charge, and the judge, who was a friend of his, told him to abandon his business so the accuser would think he had been sent to a concentration camp. We had heard about the concentration camps. We did not know what they meant, but the prospect was frightening enough.

    My parents tried desperately to get out. I can't tell you how many things they signed up for: Palestine, New Zealand, America. They took the first opportunity that came along: my emigrating to the United States through the National Council of Jewish Women, which sponsored a number of German Jewish children to be placed with American families.


 

     All alone, with the one suitcase of clothes I was permitted to carry, I went to the American consulate in Stuttgart. There I met up with other kids from different parts of Germany. We proceeded, on our own, to Hamburg, where the ship was docked. It was a German ship with swastikas all over it. Nevertheless we were treated respectfully, probably because we were international passengers.

       My parents hoped that when I got to the States, I could get an affidavit to get them out. But as it turned out, that was not possible. People in America did not understand the urgency.

     Before the year was over, I learned of my father's death. He was taken from his home on Kristallnacht and beaten so badly that he died the following month. It was a great shock to me. Halfway through my year of saying Kaddish in the Conservative synagogue in Atlanta, my uncle wrote with the news of my mother's death. She had been a sickly woman, always on special diets. I assume with the food shortages and the general situation, she just couldn't go on.


 

     I ended up saying Kaddish for a year and a half. There was a daily minyan of about a hundred people in that synagogue‑some saying Kaddish, others just attending prayers. The camaraderie among the people there was so comforting to me. Some became lifelong friends of mine.

     The Jewish population in Atlanta was about thirty‑five hundred then. The synagogues, kosher butchers, and community center were all in the same area. Atlanta was not free of anti‑Semitism. I recall a high school teacher who made hurtful remarks; the Ku Klux Klan was an active presence. At patriotic events like the Fourth of July, there was always some anti Semitic and racist rhetoric. But there was an enormous difference between all of that and Nazi Germany. The overwhelming part of the community did not believe it; in Germany everybody believed it.

    American freedom was something new to me. School was much less serious and businesslike, the standard of living much higher. During my first year of high school, I became a Junior Red Cross delegate to the national Red Cross convention in Washington. I attended parties in the White House and met Mrs. Roosevelt. Ironically, that was the first week of September 1939‑the week Germany invaded Poland.

 MYRNA: I was born in the displaced persons' camp in Landsberg am Lech, Bavaria in May, 1946, the same town where Hitler had written "Mein Kampf' in his prison cell. My parents were the sole survivors of large families. We emigrated to the United States in 1949.

Through their wisdom or lack of wisdom, Jewish‑American officials settled us in the middle of a black ghetto in Waterbury, Connecticut. For the better part of my childhood, America was black America to me. Our black neighbors could not believe that Jews were poor, as we were, nor that we would  live among them. As for my parents they had had very little contact with black people. But they soon became comfortable with them. A uniformed white policeman brought back the memory of the horror. Our neighbors represented no threat. A number of the black men had been liberators of the concentration camps. They were able to relate to the things my father talked about in a way few others could.


 

While my mother was unable to talk with me about what had happened, my father was obsessed with the need to bear witness. He was very aggressive, very angry at the world. "Where were you when. I was in the concentration camps? Where was American Jewry? Where was God?" he would ask. Such themes were part and parcel of my growing up years.

From a very early age, I learned about specific tormentors like Kinermann the lame dwarf who walked around the labor camp with a huge German Shepherd and, according to his mood, would either allow the dog to tear a prisoner to shreds or fire a pistol into his victim's head. Whenever friends of mine came to the house, my father would start telling them about what he had lived through. They would look at me: "Why is he telling me this?" It was so embarrassing that after a while, I stopped bringing friends home.

To say that I was everything to my parents is an understatement, and I felt the burdens. I felt American; I was into rock and roll. On the other hand, I shared my parents' sense of being apart from the American Jewish community I was uncomfortable with the Jewish kids I went to Sunday school with. It was like I lived in two worlds.

HARVEY:         I came from Germany originally, but we all moved to England before the Second World War. My parents got divorced, and I remained with my father in England when my mother and stepfather came to the United States. Immediately after the end of the war in Europe, I came to America to be with them.

       I arrived in New York on May 24, 1945, and very shortly thereafter my mother said, "Well, you know people in America get a job for the summer. What are you going to do?" I was not aware of that. You don't have long summer vacations in England.

         I said, "What kind of jobs do people get?"

     She said, "Well, if I were you, I'd try to get something in the country.?

     I spoke to a friend of mine, and he said, "I know just the place for you. I worked my way all through college at this resort in the Catskills." He called these people up. They said sure and hired me to be a bellhop at the Edgewood Inn. They advertised it as “Your Country Estate in Livingston Manor."

     At the end of June, I turned sixteen. A few days later, I took the bus up to the country although I didn't know where I was going or what I was getting into.


 

     I arrived at the place. It was quite nice, a good‑sized hotel with maybe a couple of hundred rooms, a main building, some cottages, a big lake. They had a lot of help, but many of them were young women or young men like myself, because remember this was the summer of 1945, when most young men eighteen or over were still in the military.

     At the time, I had very much of an English public school accent. I still had most of my English clothes, and my English attitudes. So I was quite distinctive.

     They had a PA system: "Mrs. Ginzberg, please come to the telephone,? “Mr. Paul, there is a message waiting for you." "Dinner tonight will be served at 7 P.m." Because of the way I sounded, they put me on the PA system, and everybody thought this was the most phenomenal thing. It sounded like the BBC. I became a bit of a celebrity.

         In England, we were not rich by any means. In fact, we were quite poor. But when all the children were sent to the countryside for the war, I ended up in Cambridge, and so I went to this very fancy public school. And one of the things that they teach you there is that money is sort of crass, vulgar.


 

         Now here, at the Edgewood Inn, I was supposed to be working for tips. I didn't quite know how to handle that kind of thing. I carried up the bags because it was a nice thing to do for people. It didn't seem right to collect money for doing that, so I would take off before I had a chance to get any tips.

         As time went on, though, I realized that I did have to take some money because that's what I was there for. Once someone gave me $3. 1 thought that was an awful lot of money, but I took it.

            I had grown up in a Jewish environment in England. But the Jewish culture here was totally different. I never had seen a bagel or pastrami before. Also where I grew up, people tended to be quiet. They had fun but without being so loud. Here there was always a lot of noise and tumult. There was even a tummler‑what the French call an animateur, someone who created excitement in a crowd.

    I have some fond memories of that summer. The family that owned the hotel were very nice people, the countryside was quite lovely and the lake very appealing. I had always liked boating, and on my free time I would take a canoe and go out on the lake by myself.

     On my day off, I'd go with some of the other people into Livingston Manor to a movie and then we'd go to a soda fountain. I was fascinated by soda fountains. There was a sense of plenty to America that I wasn't used to. No one seemed to be deprived of anything.

     But to be honest with you, it was the summer of my discontent. Everything was so fresh, and I was just really out of it. I didn't know about girls yet, which was stupid of me because girls found me attractive as I was different. I made only passing, fleeting friendships. I had been very close to my father, and I missed him a great deal.

     Don't forget how fortunate I had been. I had not been hungry, oppressed, persecuted. Even though I wasn't born English, I fit in perfectly by the time I had lived there for a few years. For all intents and purposes, I was an English kid, and now for all intents and purposes, I was a foreigner.

     Still, it was the first real job I ever had. I even had to get a social security card in Livingston Manor‑and I took home about $145 at the end of the summer. As it turned out, I remained in the United States, and I always think of the Catskills as my introduction to America.

MYRNA:       Being a member of Union Temple at 17 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn was tantamount to having arrived. It was a world of accomplished men and women, professionals or business people, all American-born. They came to Temple dressed in their finest and conducted themselves with aplomb.

      At that time, there were people who joined temples in fancier neighborhoods because they thought it would be a step up. Union Temple was more like five stories up. It had a sanctuary and balcony, a suite of offices and classrooms, a tremendous ballroom, and a health club with a gym and even a swimming pool.

     At Union, I came across kids who lived in the beautiful apartment buildings on Eastern Parkway near the Brooklyn Museum. Many went to private schools. Once my father scheduled an interview for me at one of them. I had a temper tantrum. I was not going to school with those snobs. My father was a school principal, and we didn't have a lot of money, but we were on the periphery of an upper class environment.


 

     My parents' social life was built around Union Temple. Saturday nights there was a synagogue function, or members went to one another's homes. I remember the elaborate dinners my mother staged; how she planned the menus, worked for days cooking and coordinating, the beautiful tables she set with sterling, her best china, and the sterling silver candlesticks my parents were awarded for being co-presidents of the Young Married group.

     The world of Union Temple was modern, rational, and Reform, Young Judea on Bedford Avenue, however, was Old World, emotional, and Orthodox. And this was my grandfather’s little shul. Dressed in his neat suit and spiffy white shirt with detachable collar, he attended services every morning and night. On the High Holidays, I visited him in shul, dressed in my new hat, coat, and shoes. Because I was a little girl, I was allowed to sit downstairs with him and the other old men.

    Two very different kinds of Jewishness were occurring simultaneously during my Brooklyn childhood: the Orthodox Yiddishkeit of my grandfather's world and the Reform Americanized world of Union Temple, where the men and women sat together, services were in English, and the choir sang to resounding organ accompaniment.

 HARVEY: My father was a rabbi who taught Talmud in the downstairs part of Temple Beth El in Borough Park, Brooklyn. The very term "temple" for an Orthodox shut was a statement. The rabbi of Temple Beth El spoke English. My father, who never learned English, gave his class in Yiddish. His fantasy was that I would become an English‑speaking rabbi, an upstairs rabbi, an American rabbi.

Until I was 13, I davened downstairs with my father. I loved that world. My father was the star. He did not so much give sermons as teach adult immigrants, the less successful so to speak, the ones who spoke Yiddish, who didn't make it or assimilate as much. They came in every night after a long day of work to study.

At its height, there were 30 to 40 men sitting at this long table with open volumes. My father would read and comment. They'd ask questions and argue over some point.

My father was also a schocket. He had to get up at four in the morning to go to the market. The work was hard and bloody, and the crews and owners of the markets were vulgar and ignorant, tough men. My father dreaded their language. It was an agony for him to be there. But it was America, and he had to make a living.

At noon, he would come home quite beaten and tired. His clothes, which were past the point of being worn out, would be splattered with blood. Then, he would wash up and change into something simple and clean, come out, sit down, and find his place in the Gemara. And suddenly he was bathed in light. If he had been demeaned in the morning, in the afternoon he was transformed. It was like the old story about the peddlers in East New York. All week long, they were spat upon. But on Shabbos they were kings.


 

MYRNA: We lived in Mountain Brook, a tiny little suburb over the hill from the city of Birmingham. My ancestors had come there as peddlers in the 1880s. By the time I was born in 1945, my father and grandfather were the owners of a major downtown department store. Almost all the department stores were owned by Jewish families, and we knew all of them.

We lived in separate and unequal worlds: "white" and "colored." Two water fountains, four restrooms, separate upstairs sections in the movie theaters, separate entrances.

Colored people worked in our home. They raised me. They held me. They loved me, I guess. We never, ever socialized with them. You lived in your affluent neighborhood in a beautiful house with carefully tended grounds and constant inequities. The mature man who tended the yard you called "boy."

Our all white‑high school backed on a forest. On the other side was the black high school. We could hear their music. "Oh, yes, that's the black high school band practicing," we'd say. They could have been on Mars. No one thought about it.


 

I knew about Bull Connor, but the explanation was that the people who were causing all the trouble were "outside agitators," and if "they" just left "them" alone, we and the blacks we would work this out. It wasn't even a matter of keeping up appearances. It was just go about your business, and mind your business, and don't cause any trouble, and everything will be okay.

I remember that Sunday when the church exploded, and the four little girls were killed. We heard a tremendous blast from all the way over the hill. We didn't know what it was at first. Then we were stunned. We felt so terrible. But we did not do anything.

In our home, race was never discussed. We simply did not talk about it. We all felt silenced, especially those of my parents' generation. There was a whole system, a conspiracy of silence. If I didn't have a voice, it was because every signal I was given implicitly and explicitly was not to have a voice ‑‑not as a girl, not as a Jew. I had had a whole life of being told to be well mannered, decorous, polite. You would never Just say "Yes" to anyone. That would have been rude. It was always "Yes, ma'am," or "Yes, sir.?I was trained to keep and replicate my place and to be quite grateful.


 

Although my parents did not talk about what was happening, I saw they were being affected by the boycotts, the sit‑ins at the lunch counters. These actions began to take an economic toll on downtown Birmingham. Still there was very little discussion except that we have to tighten our belts. We'll work this out, they said. Don't worry, you'll be taken care of.

          I guess we Jews must have felt so marginal, that we couldn't possibly make a stand for blacks. We were part of that group that existed in the South where you were Jewish in your home, but out in public you try to look like everybody else. You never deny that you are Jewish, but you also don't make waves. You simply do not do that.

 

HARVEY: Growing up in an affluent Long Island suburb in the 1980s, I noticed how all the parents in our area competed with each other to stage a bigger and more elaborate bar or bat mitzvah extravaganza. But the one I remember best was my friend Steve's.


 

           His affair had all the special gimmicks that every other bar mitzvah had and more. Airplane lights flooded the night time sky, and strobe lights flooded the dance floor. Showstopper Dancers came around pulled you up to dance with them. When the twelve‑piece band took a break, a deejay took over. There was a Benihanna chef with a big hat and lightning‑fast hands, a Sushi bar, and a pasta bar ‑all kosher, of course. It went on till 3 or 4 in the morning. And then they served brunch and a copy of the Sunday New York Times to take home.

But what I remember most about this bar mitzvah was the "motzi" ‑‑ the blessing said over the challah. It takes place after the smorgasbord when everyone has been seated for the dinner. Usually there is a drum  roll and the band leader calls up the kid's grandfather to perform this honor. This time, I took a look and there was this big black guy coming out with a yarmulke on his Afro. This can't be the grandfather I thought.

   Then the bandleader announced: "Mookie Wilson will make the motzi," and sure enough, the then centerfielder for the New York Mets picked up the knife and cut the challah. After, Mookie took Polaroid pictures with each kid and personally autographed each photo. Mine is still sitting on my dresser.

MYRNA: In the early 1990s, for the first time in many years, our group of formerly close, first‑generation‑American first cousins came together for the bar mitzvah of a cousin's son. Most of us were married by now. All were college graduates, professionals, or in business, living across the country, moving into middle age.

     When we entered the temple, my cousin's wife was up on the bimah, reading an interfaith?sounding prayer. She had converted years before to please my aunt but remained the quintessential pure blond shiksa, and the children looked just like her.

     We took our seats in the ultramodern sanctuary, a soaring cedar‑walled skylit A‑frame, waved to one another, embraced those nearby, and turned to the printed pamphlet that contained the services. Unlike those of my childhood, they were in English, eminently rational and easy to follow. Yet my mind wandered.

     I kept imagining my father, his older and younger brothers, and their sister, the youngest of all, hovering like angels in the rafters, looking down on their American progeny. That foursome with their fierce loves and relentless hatreds, their instinctive sense of theater and terrible pride‑what did they think of their seemingly calm and decorous descendants in this temple that could just as easily have been a Unitarian church?

     What did they make of the intermarriages and divorces among us, of the ones who "dropped out" and "did their own thing," of the divisions and directions that rent a once‑intimate family into so many separate parts?

     Did they wonder if we remembered the legends they raised us on, of a Russia where the cherries were big as plums and the snow as high as a house, of their grandfather who could dance the kazatsky as well as the Ukrainian peasants he lived among, of the peasants who affectionately called them "our Jews" but could turn violent without pretext or regret, of their tall and handsome father whom we never saw, who died too young, whom they loved too much and mourned the rest of their lives?

     Had we disappointed them? Did they lament our failure to sustain their passion and intensity? Or did they understand this is what happens in America?

 

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