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)

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What they have said about the book:


PHILADELPHIA JEWISH EXPONENT


Having Their Say: Husband-and-wife writing team continue their oral. history of Jewish life

They finish each other's sentences, cap each other's jokes and occasionally step on each other's best punch lines.

In the literary and real-life marriage of Harvey and Myrna Frommer, a romance with each other - and with words - is a given. And this simple rule of communication holds: The person who says the first word may not be the person who gets and last one.

"It's all very good-natured, and we're quite accustomed to this kind of togetherness," said Myrna Frommer, who concedes that while the two get along famously in their partnership, there is some rivalry over the new "baby" in the household, a fine, sleek new computer.

The Frommers have learned, however, that compromise and cooperation yield literary rewards. The authors of It Happened in the Catskills and It Happened in Brooklyn, the Frommers have just published the latest entry in their Jewish oral-history series, Growing Up Jewish in America (Harcourt Brace). Comedic vitality

It Happened in the Catskills was, in the authors' description, a celebration of the vitality of the mountain resorts, as told by "the busboys, bellhops, guests, proprietors, comedians, agents and others who lived it."

The Frommers had a two-pronged thesis in this work. It was their contention that during their postwar heyday, the Catskills resorts became a Jewish symbol for "making it" in America.

Also, the hotels in what came to be known as the Borsht Belt were a proving ground for a pool of talent whose members went on to define American humor, among them Jackie Mason, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis and Mel Brooks.

It Happened in Brooklyn was conceived by its authors as a companion piece to the earlier book. But where the Catskills had been an unknown to the Brooklyn-born husband-and-wife team, the famous borough was their own story, their back yard.

The completed work was a celebration of what the Frommers called the "Brooklyn of old," before the massive changes of the 1960s - both social and territorial - transformed the area completely. A long-held interest

"We got interested in Jewish life a long time ago," Harvey Frommer said in a recent interview.

"It was really in the late 1980s when we first wrote about the Jews of Finland and the Jews of the Caribbean," Myrna Frommer added.

Harvey: "But our first love was writing about the Jews of Spain...."

Myrna: "Then our editor, who happens to be gentile, suggested that we try a project that would be a sweep of America and its Jews. We saw it first as a nostalgia kind of things...."

Harvey: "But we also recognized that the common theme we wanted to explore was reaction to the Holocaust."

Myrna: "And another theme was how American Jews reacted to the birth of Israel."

So it came to pass that Harvey and Myrna Frommer, who are both professors of communication at the City University of New York and visiting professors of oral history at Dartmouth College and Wesleyan University, set out to explore the experience of American Jews.

In the process, they have created a lively, interactive format through which American Jews of various ages, backgrounds and regions "converse" about everything from urban vs. suburban childhoods and Bar/Bat Mitzvah experiences to their first understanding of the seminal event of modern Jewish history, the Holocaust.

The Frommers' research took them to South Dakota, Arizona, Texas Missouri and Washington state.

"Harvey is better at getting people interviewed on the phone," says Myrna Frommer.

"Myrna is better at everything!" quips Harvey. "She's a master of taste, style and organization." Buried treasure

Both authors surely deserve credit for Growing Up Jewish in America, a lively work that contains wonderful nuggets, details and texture in its more than-250 pages.

Interview subjects include prominent types - like New York Times critic and op-ed writer Frank Rich; Blu Greenberg, the feminist Jewish writer; and Rabbi Marc Angel of Manhattan's Spanish and Portuguese synagogue Congregation Shearith Israel - and others the authors call "regular folks," who simply tell their tales.

In all, there are nearly 100 subjects who range in age from 22 to 99. Philadelphia is not ignored - there are interviews with Cal Abrams, the Brooklyn Dodgers player who grew up in Philadelphia, and Robert Leiter, an editor and reporter for the Jewish Exponent.

Certain themes resonate:

Postwar prosperity and optimism; a sense of being "the other" in parts of the South, where being Jewish could mean pervasive insecurity; vague rumblings of terror about what was going on "over there" during the Holocaust; and the multitudinous experiences of the Bar Mitzvah ritual in America. Southern living

Here is a fairly typical example, from Susan Levin Schlechter, dealing with growing up Jewish in the South.

"I was raised knowing that there was a polite but very clear anti-Semitism. Evidently, I heard my parents talk about Jewish and non-Jewish, about country clubs that my family couldn't join. I imagine I was scared in a very profound way as a child, but I incorporated my fears.

"In Birmingham, you start swimming in May and keep on swimming till December. I as quite little when my parents got me a plastic pool for our back yard. We invited the neighborhood children over, none of whom were Jewish. I asked, `Is this a Jewish pool?' My mother said, `No, Susan. Everybody can swim in this pool.'"

Some of the most moving words of the book appear on its first pages, when we meet Max Wechsler, the pseudonym of a Jewish writer who grew up in Brooklyn. He says:

"Being Jewish was like belonging to another world. It was not explained. Still, I knew I was connected to some place and something else. It had a different time zone.... You were living here, but you were connected back to another country you never saw."

From Wechsler, yoked to the old ways, to Neil Postman, media critic, author and director of the culture and communications program at New York University, the connection may seem tenuous. Yet, as he reflects on Jewish life in America, Postman says:

"Some say the children of the children of the children feel less connected to their Jewishness. Some say we're expunging, eliminating ourselves. I don't agree....

"There's always enough anti-Semitism around, and that's been a binding factor for Jews. I don't think Judaism is so superficial that it can be wiped out."

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The book concludes with the words of another Brooklyn writer, who is identified by the pseudonym Marnie Bernstein. A family gathering

She begins by describing a family Bar Mitzvah that took place in the late 1980s. The many cousins who gathered for the simcha had been close as children, and were mostly married college-educated professionals or businesspeople entering middle age.

"Where 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 and sky lit 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?...

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


By SALLY FRIEDMAN, JEWISH EXPONENT, April 18, 1996 - April 24, 1996

Growing Up Jewish Was 'Like Belonging to Another World' 
A husband-and-wife writing team travel across America to continue their oral history of Jewish life

They finish each other's sentences, cap each other's jokes and occasionally step on each other's best punch lines. In the literary and real-life marriage of Harvey and Myrna Frommer, a romance with each other-and with words -- is a given. And this simple rule of communication holds: The person who says the first word may not be the person who gets the last one. 
"It's all very good-natured, and we're quite accustomed to this kind of togetherness," said Myrna Frommer, who concedes that while the two get along famously in their partnership, there is some rivalry over the new "baby" in the household, a fine, sleek new computer. 
The Frommers have learned, however, that compromise and cooperation yield literary rewards. The authors of It Happened in the Catskills and It Happened in Brooklyn, the Frommers have just published the latest entry in their Jewish oral-history series, Growing Up Jewish in America (Harcourt Brace).


Comedic vitality

It Happened in the Catskills was, in the authors' description, a celebration of the vitality of the mountain resorts, as told by "the busboys, bellhops, guests, proprietors, comedians, agents and others who lived it." 
The Frommers had a two-pronged thesis in this work. It was their contention that during their postwar heyday, the Catskills resorts became a Jewish symbol for "making it" in America. Also, the hotels in what came to be known as the Borsht Belt were a proving ground for a pool of talent whose members went on to define American humor, among them Jackie Mason, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis and Mel Brooks. 
It Happened in Brooklyn was conceived by its authors as a companion piece to the earlier book. But where the Catskills had been an unknown to the Brooklyn-born husband-and-wife team, the famous borough was their own story, their back yard. The completed work was a celebration of what the Frommers called the "Brooklyn of old," before the massive changes of the 1960s-both social and territorial -transformed the area completely.

A long-held interest

"We got interested in Jewish life a long time ago," Harvey Frommer said in a recent interview. "It was really in the late 1980s when we first wrote about the Jews of Finland and the Jews of the Caribbean," Myrna Frommer added. 
Harvey: "But our first love was writing about the Jews of Spain...." 
Myrna: "Then our editor, who happens to be gentile, suggested that we try a project that would be a sweep of America and its Jews. We saw it first as a nostalgia kind of thing.... " 
Harvey: "But we also recognized that the common theme we wanted to explore was reaction to the Holocaust. 
Myrna: "And another theme was how American Jews reacted to the birth of Israel." 
So it came to pass that Harvey and Myrna Frommer, who are both professors of communication at the City University of New York and visiting professors of oral history at Dartmouth College and Wesleyan University, set out to explore the experience of America and Jews. 
In the process, they have created a lively, interactive format through which American Jews of various ages, backgrounds and regions "converse" about everything from urban vs. suburban childhoods and Bar/Bat Mitzvah experiences to their first understanding of the seminal event of modern Jewish history, the Holocaust. 
The Frommers research took them to South Dakota, Arizona, Texas, Missouri and Washington state. 
"Harvey is better at getting people interviewed on the phone," says Myrna Frommer. 
"Myrna is better at everything!" quips Harvey. "She's a master of taste, style and organization." 
Both authors surely deserve credit for Growing Up Jewish in America, a lively work that contains wonderful nuggets, details and texture in its more-than-250 pages. 
Interview subjects include prominent types-like New York Times critic and op-ed writer Frank Rich; Blu Greenberg, the feminist Jewish writer; and Rabbi Marc Angel of Manhattan's Spanish and Portuguese synagogue Congregation Shearith Israel-and others the authors call "regular folks," who simply tell their tales. 
In all, there are nearly 100 subjects who range in age from 22 to 99. Philadelphia is not ignored-there are interviews with Cal Abrams, the Brooklyn Dodgers player who grew up in Philadelphia, and Robert Leiter, an editor and reporter for the Jewish Exponent.

Certain themes resonate

Postwar prosperity and optimism; a sense of being "the other" in parts of the South, where being Jewish could mean pervasive insecurity; vague rumblings of terror about what was going on "over there" during the Holocaust; and the multitudinous experiences of the Bar Mitzvah ritual in America.

Southern living

Here is a fairly typical example, from Susan Levin Schlechter, dealing with growing up Jewish in the South. "I was raised knowing that there was a polite but very clear anti-Semitism . Evidently, I heard my parents talk about Jewish and non-Jewish, about country clubs that my family couldn't join. I imagine I was scared in a very profound way as a child, but I incorporated my fears. 
"In Birmingham, you start swimming in May and keep on swimming till December. I was quite little when my parents got me a plastic pool for our back yard. We invited the neighborhood children over, none of whom were Jewish. I asked, 'Is this a Jewish pool? ' My mother said, 'No, Susan. Everybody can swim in this pool.' " 
Some of the most moving words of the book appear on its first pages, when we meet Max Wechsler, the pseudonym of a Jewish writer who grew up in Brooklyn. He says: "Being Jewish was like belonging to another world. It was not explained. Still, I knew I was connected to some place and something else. It had a different time zone.... You were living here, but you were connected back to another country you never saw."

A wide expanse

From Wechsler, yoked to the old ways, to Neil Postman, media critic, author and director of the culture and communications program at New York University, the connection may seem tenuous. Yet, as he reflects on Jewish life in America, Postman says: "Some say the children of the children of the children feel less connected to their Jewishness. Some say we're expunging, eliminating ourselves. I don't agree.... 
"There's always enough anti-Semitism around, and that's been a binding factor for Jews. I don't think Judaism is so superficial that it can be wiped out." 
The more things change, the more they stay the same. 
The book concludes with the words of another Brooklyn writer, who is identified by the pseudonym Marnie Bernstein.

A family gathering

She begins by describing a family Bar Mitzvah that took place in the late 1980s. The many cousins who gathered for the simcha had been close as children, and were mostly married college-educated professionals or businesspeople entering 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 and 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 e 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 one s 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?"

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


WASHINGTON POST

"A heightened sense of how wide the American-Jewish spectrum can be."


OUTLOOK

"A rich and personal view of history."


LIBRARY OF CONGRESS AUDIO

"Two cassettes Childhood memories of Jewish men and women of all ages from across the country. They describe their urban and suburban experiences and discuss long-held traditions and religious rituals. Presents a kaleidoscopic view of twentieth-century life from immigrant and minority perspectives."


BARNES AND NOBLE, READER'S CATALOG RECOMMENDATION

"This oral history from the acclaimed authors of It Happened in Brooklyn and It Happened in the Catskills brings together the voices of 100 men and women, from 22 to 99 years old. Together, their childhood memories paint a unique portrait of growing up Jewish in America, not just in Brooklyn or Los Angeles, but in places as diverse as Maine, South Dakota, Texas, and South Carolina. The result is a witty and perceptive volume as much about being American as it is about being Jewish with all its vibrancy, complexity, humor and contradictions. Some recollections are common to most growing-up-in-America sagas, others are undeniably unique to the Jewish experience."


BOOKLIST

"The most compelling reason to study twentieth-century Jewish life in America is to hear and read the wealth of amazing stories, vivid anecdotes, memories, and wisdom, a diverse array of which the Frommers have collected. The participants in this oral history range from the grandson of a Civil War veteran to a journalist who was born during Israel's Six Day War. Some of those who discuss their lives are well known, such as media critic Neil Postman, but each person's stories enlighten. An account of riding freight cars as a teenager during the Great Depression and another about farming in South Dakota during the 1950s are as revealing as the more common descriptions of New York's Lower East Side. There's even a story about the discovery of Ivory Soap. Moreover, the Frommers find several intriguing threads that link the contributors' outlooks, despite differences in age and geography. Chapters about the Holocaust, communal ties, and rituals reveal that traditions have been maintained amid the temptations of comfortable assimilation. This thought-provoking amalgam should please ethnography students of all stripes."


PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

"Compilers of two previous oral histories, the Frommers (It Happened in Brooklyn) here mix the experiences of some 100 interviewees-a good fraction of them writers or Jewish community officials-into a rich mosaic portrait. They cover much ground, from life in New England ("a benignly non-Jewish environment"), the isolating South and the comforting frenzy of New York. Interviewees discuss politicization, the impact of the Holocaust, the effects of Zionism and the ongoing tensions about assimilation and anti-Semitism. Some anecdotes are arresting, and all are quite short. Thus, this book is an accessible introduction to the varieties of the American Jewish experience."


LIBRARY JOURNAL

"In another popular history, the Frommers (It Happened in Brooklyn,)have produced a breezy but informative look at Jewish childhood in 20th-century America. What makes this book tick is the wide variety of people profiled and their unique life stories. They show what it is like to be a Jewish child in various geographical regions in various times and how anti-Semitism is a common experience to all. And they show how even Jews brought up in orphanages or residing temporarily in refugee camps can find creative expression for their experiences. In many ways this is a reassuring book. The interviewees are not all of one Jewish movement or outlook, and yet most have a positive Jewish identity. The only criticism is that the reader would like to hear more about a number of the truly remarkable people interviewed here. This easily digested book will circulate well in medium-sized libraries serving a Jewish or diverse clientele."


DETROIT NEWS

"In the 1920s, the whole world seen from the Dorchester and Mattapan area near Boston appeared to be Jewish. I felt sorry for the occasional gentile I met; he didn't appear to be having as much fun as I was." So remembers Arthur Kantor. For Marilyn Cohen in New York City, the perspective was somewhat different: "Hollywood created images of what I thought America was, people who looked like June Allyson and Van Johnson. We looked nothing like them." But Frank Rich scrutinized the media for entertainers who were more like himself. "When I was a kid, the media images of families were Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver. They were not Jewish. But there was also a whole strain of popular entertainment that even if I couldn't pinpoint it as Jewish, was so ethnic to me, had such a Jewish feel: Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Phil Silver." One comes away from this book with a heightened sense of how wide the American-Jewish spectrum can be."

 


ST LOUIS POST DISPATCH

"THIS IS a fine book for goyim. Being gentile, as far as I know, I can say that. One never knows exactly what one's roots might include. As Leon Toubin comments on a Texas community in this entertaining oral history, "We were probably all Jewish once, but we're Lutheran now." The complexities of American life make this book fun and often pure poetry. Some vital turning points come to life in a just few sentences.

Zipporah Marans, whose father was an Orthodox rabbi in Raleigh, N.C., during World War II, recalls G.I.s "would have three days' leave before being shipped overseas. Their girlfriends would come down, and my father would marry them in our living room. My mother, sister, a soldier friend and I would each hold a corner of the chuppa, the wedding canopy."

St. Louis Jews - really, all Jews west of the Appalachians - might feel a bit slighted in this study. David Bisno talks about the divide between Jews of German and Russian descent in St. Louis, but he doesn't offer many details. Ansaie Sokoloff recalls his family leaving St. Louis for Cheyenne, Wyo.

Other communities in the chapter about the Midwest and West include Detroit, Duluth, Omaha, Pittsburgh and San Fernando. It reminded me of a gas station attendant in New Jersey who noticed my Missouri plates and said, "I have a cousin who went to school in South Dakota."

New York and environs get the bulk of attention here. That's fine, but what I find particularly fascinating are more detailed accounts of unique or remote communities and families struggling to maintain traditions. J. Sanford Rikoon, of the University of Missouri, has done this in his recent "Rachel Calof's Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains."

One hears many fragments of fascinating memories, which together present an insightful portrait of vibrant communities and individuals."


JEWISHGEN

This unusual book presents the childhood memories of one hundred men and women, ranging in age from twenty-two to ninety-nine. It creates a vivid portrait of the American Jewish experience in the twentieth century.

 


DALLAS MORNING NEWS

The overriding themes of the Frommers' survey of Jewish childhood in America are familiar: emigrating, settling, learning, and then facing the age-old conflict between adopting a new culture while holding on to a precious heritage. But the authors humanize these familiar strains with the firsthand accounts of a hundred men and women from their 20s to their 90s who tell us what being Jewish means to them. Although some are famous, most are not, but almost all of their stories revolve around Max Wechsler's sense that "you were living here, but you were connected back to another country you never saw." A rewarding book. 

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