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Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

Growing up Jewish in America: An Oral History

(Harcourt Brace/Harvest Books, 1995 Hardcover;  ISBN: 0151001324)

(University of Nebraska Press, 1999 Paperback)

Excerpt:

Chapter Seven: The Precious Promised Land

"Behold I will take the Children of Israel from among the nations whither they are gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land." Ezekiel, XXXVII:27

STEVE SOLENDER: I'm from the generation that was born in the Depression, grew up during the Holocaust, and experienced as children and teenagers the birth of the State of Israel and its first years of struggle. That's part of our memory.

YITZ GREENBERG: The Holocaust was something that people wanted to put behind them then. The focus was Israel. For religious Jews there was almost a kind of messianic quality about it. We prayed for it, dreamed of it.

ADDI FRIEDMAN: I used to imagine Palestine as a little medieval city of nooks, crannies and towers, a dusty place of Arabs with daggers and Jews living in walled towns. I dreamt how wonderful it would be when there was, at last, a Jewish state.

MOE SKOLER: We used to listen to the news every single night at the kitchen table. We tried to find out what was going on. In l946, l947, we began to hear stories about Jewish refugees trying to get into Palestine, and we began the paper drives all around Boston, gathering and selling them and sending the money to Palestine. I was no more than ll when I was unloading trucks of newspapers.

BALFOUR BRICKNER: Our favorite pastime as kids was picketing the British consulate in Cleveland. Our struggle was to create the State of Israel.

YITZ GREENGERG: From the age of about l2 on, I went out with Jewish National Fund boxes into the Brooklyn subways to collect money for Israel. It seemed the riders on the West End line which ran through Borough Park didn't give much. The best subway was the Brighton Beach line. Somehow Jews gave more money there. The technique was to get on a train with a box in each hand and stand in front of the doors. As soon as they closed, I would shout: "Open the doors!" Everyone would look up-at which point I'd continue: "Open the doors of Israel to new immigrants." It was a great attention getter. My older brother had an old broken down car that he used to transport the boxes from our local branch to the main office. One day he parked his car in a no parking zone to deliver the money and got a parking ticket. The price of the ticket could have broken the back of the organization. Besides that my brother was very headstrong; fighting that ticket was a matter of principle. At the traffic court, everyone was "guilty, guilty," no matter what they said. When it was his turn, he said, "Well, I had these boxes to deliver and so I had to park." "What boxes were they?" asked the judge. "Those were JNF boxes," he answered. "It's a good cause." "Not guilty," the judge said. Back at the office, no one believed my brother. They called up the traffic court. It turned out that the judge was Manuel Rothenberg, president of the Jewish National Fund.

MANNY AZENBERG: My father was a Zionist, always a Zionist. A self educated man who spoke five or six languages, he was born in Poland and lived in London before coming to America. In 1919, he worked directly with Chaim Weitzman at the Second Zionist Congress. It was always around the house. We sent money to plant trees in Palestine; we dropped the coins in the Jewish National Fund box. My father worked for the Zionist Organization in New York. In the summer, he managed the Zionist Camp Kindleveilt. It was joy. At home, I was under pressure in school, in Hebrew school, on the streets of the Bronx.

At camp, there was none of that. You played basketball, you swam, you necked, you had color war with blue and white teams-what else? You had social dancing and Israeli dancing, you sang Hebrew songs, dozens of them, early 1940s Israeli songs about the Palmah. They sank into you. There were kids up there in "Habbaneam"-an organization that sponsors Aliyah. Adults visited the camp, people like Golda Meier and Abba Eban and also people who painted houses, worked as butchers and in the garment center. Nobody rich, a very active group of working class, lower middle class first generation or immigrant Jews. They were not educated, but they knew the value of education. These were people who discussed and listened. These were people who read four newspapers: You saw the papers laying around the camp. Famous Yiddish and Hebrew writers came up to talk. We kids weren't invited. We wouldn't have gone anyway; we wanted to play basketball. But we were surrounded by an atmosphere. It didn't hurt. We bumped into people who were committed. Coming back to the Bronx was culture shock. I started thinking about the next June.

We grew up in a traditional Jewish home. Friday nights, we waited for my father to come home, had challah from the G & R Bakery on l6lst Street, said kiddish, ate gefilte fish and chicken. We went to shul on the High Holy Days, and we had a seder. But as time went by, religion diminished in our lives. We moved from being pulled by religion to being pulled by Zionism. When I was 14 and my sister was 10, my father took us out of school and up to the Waldorf Astoria to meet Chaim Weitzman.

This was the day before he went to see President Truman to persuade him to have the United States recognize the State of Israel. Secret Servicemen escorted us into his room. I had seen pictures of Chaim Weitzman in the house. I expected him to be about l7 feet tall. So I was surprised to meet this little man with spots on his bald head who was going blind. He asked me when I was going to Israel. "Next year if there's peace," I said because that's what I was told to say. But he chastised me: "There will be peace." And I, of course, agreed right away. "Don't worry, there will be peace." As we were leaving, Weitzman said to my father, "Tsvai feina kinder" (two fine children). It was like George Washington telling your father "nice kids." Whatever my father was or wasn't, he was a Zionist. He had a passion about it. You were respectful about that passion no matter what. He sat at the kitchen table listening to the radio while the United Nations voted on partition. They ticked off the names of the countries. When they got to Uruguay which put it over the top, he just sat there and cried. But in many ways, his job was over.

BALFOUR BRICKNER: When that voted was taken in Lake Success, we all went crazy. Who ever believed the state was going to be established? It was a justification of my dad's life.

MIKE LECAR: My father died in 1943. He had been a great Zionist but did not live to see the fulfillment of his dream. After Israel became a nation, I began having this dream in which my father had not died after all. He was alive, living in Israel where he was working as a spy. One day, I would go there, and I would see him again.

ALAN LELCHUK: Burt, a dear older brother type who lived upstairs from me, had enlisted in the Air Force as a l7 year old and got shot down over Germany in a B-17. He had about 40 operations to get out the pieces of the experimental German glass bullets that broke into parts when they exploded in his body, but he never fully recovered. He was arrogant and caustic, cynical as well. Nevertheless, when Israel was being formed, he decided to go to Palestine and fly with the early Jewish Air Force. He became part of a small group of American flyers, not all of whom were Jewish by the way. My father thought it was crazy for Burt to take this heroic gesture, and they had arguments over his going there. I was about ten years old then, and Israel was beginning to take on some concrete reality for me.

MARNIE BERNSTEIN: In September, 1948, 5709, I entered fifth grade and Israel celebrated its first New Year. For me, these two events-one personal and one historic are forever entwined. I can still remember that September morning sitting in a classroom in a Brooklyn elementary school, my neatly folded hands resting on a desk that was bolted to the floor, listening to the teacher talk of the usual first-day-of- school things. Much as I and the other children tried to pay attention, we kept glancing out of the fourth floor classroom window where the spire of the Coney Island parachute could be glimpsed in the distant sky. Our teacher must have sensed our longing for freedom because she smiled at us and said, "Summer is over, and now we must turn to the business of learning." But leaning against her desk, her hands crossed on her lap, she suggested this would not be such a terrible thing. We looked at her with some curiosity. She neither looked nor sounded like the martial matrons we were accustomed to at P.S. 177. She was graceful and pretty, dressed in a long flowing skirt and silky blouse tied at the neck with a bow-a "New Look" outfit, that romantic reaction to the military inspired dress of the war years. "This year," she told us, "we will study American history, and you will learn how lucky you are to be living in this wonderful country." She did teach us American history as well as all the other subjects...

Catalog Copy

Catalog Copy (University of Nebraska Press)

Barnes and Nobles signing

Growing up Jewish in America evokes Jewish- American childhood from one end of the nation to the other and from the beginning of the 20th century to close to its end. The memoirs of a hundred men and women from ages 22 to 99 combined to create a portrait of Jewish-American life in the 20th century. Includes 50 photographs.

      
First Edition Harcourt, October  1995 Read the excerpt in jewishmag.com

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