Saturday, September 29, 2012

Citizens of the World Part 1

This post continues to share the interviews I have completed in the Jewish Identity and Legacy interview series.*

Some interviewees are difficult to draw out, others are natural storytellers. After 17 interviews in this project, I have learned that each story is an interesting one. Along with that realization, I have also developed a special appreciation for those who know how to tell a story. My interview with Harold and Dorothy offered some complexities. It was the only interview I had done with two primary subjects as well as a child and grandchild. How was I going to assure that I gave each subject sufficient focus? Logistically could I even fit everyone into the video frame?

I was quickly relieved to realize that drawing out the story would not be one of my challenges. Both Harold and Dorothy were storytellers and they had many stories to tell. When they were too modest to share their accomplishments, their son prodded them. And while each was accomplished in their own right, they took pride in their partner's successes and helped to elicit their stories.

Our interview began with them sharing that they had been married for 66 years. Both in their nineties, it soon became evident that they had shared a wonderful partnership that took them all over the world and used their talents fully. Their sense of humor also soon became evident adding a leavening to our interview.

Dorothy came from a well-known family in Minneapolis. Her father started the first kosher grocery store that also sold Jewish books and tallisim. The store served as a community center and Dorothy recalled when Louis Brandeis and Chaim Weitzman came to the Twin Cities, they did a stop at the store.

Dorothy recalled being a small child, but her father told her “You should go and say hello because these are going to be hugely important to the Jewish community.”

Dorothy shared the immigration story of her parents who left Russia because of pogroms. They decided they didn’t want to raise a family only to have them killed by pogroms. They did not tell their parents they were leaving for fear they would try to dissuade them. Once safely ensconced in Minneapolis with friends they let their parents know they were safe.

After settling in Minneapolis they raised a family of seven children. All of the children had Hebrew names which soon got Americanized by their kindergarten teacher. Dvora became Dorothy, Shoshana became Ida, Shear Jashub became Joe and so on. Their son Ralph chuckled in amusement as he imagined Dorothy’s brother being asked “What’s your name little boy?” “My name’s Shear Jashub”, he replied. “Right, you’ll be Joe.”

Harold grew up in Marion, Indiana and as he relates,”Marion, Indiana isn’t the best place for Jews to be born; It’s in what is called the Bible belt. The Ku Klux Klan had an office right next door to my father’s tailor shop. And so, they would have parades on Washington Street in their sheets and headdresses…. So there was a tremendous amount of anti-Semitism. And you found it in places like the schools … some of them (the teachers) were just openly anti-Semitic.”

Harold too absorbed the stories of his parents’ immigration to America. His mother was raised by an older sister who shipped her to America when she discovered she had gotten involved with the Communist party. Having the 100 rubles for passage was just part of the challenge. One also needed an exit visa and those were not readily available to Jews. Instead one had to sneak out at night over the border, the “grenz”. His mother crossed the border into Germany, but an innkeeper, recognizing what was going on said, “For you we have no place”. Undeterred she slipped in behind another wayfarer and slept under a table until she could take the train to Hamburg the next morning.

Arriving in America, she found her way to relatives in Passaic, New Jersey who promptly took her to the Manhattan Shirt factory to find a job. She soon made the rounds to various family members in search of a husband. Her journey led her from New Jersey, to Massachusetts, to Cincinnati, Ohio and finally to St. Louis, Missouri where she met Harold’s father.

His father was one of nine children. Harold related, “When one (a Jew) was inducted into the army he could stay there his whole life and was always given the worst jobs. For the first two or three boys, when it came time for them to go they were able to borrow, beg or get enough money to buy them off. By the time it got to my father, he was the fourth; they couldn’t keep him out of the army so he went into the army. This was 1900 or 1901, the Russo-Japanese war was aflame and he was shipped to the Pacific. If you were caught escaping the penalty was death. But he did, he made his way to Odessa, that’s the southern part of Russia and he apprenticed himself to a tailor and pretty soon he saved up the 100 rubles and got a ticket to the United States.”

I am always intrigued with immigration stories as it often solves some of my personal family puzzles. I have stories of my grandmother being shot at crossing the border and never fully understood the circumstances of her exit. The difficulty Jews encountered in receiving exit visas began to make sense of this saga. Similarly my grandfather fled the Ukraine lest he become fodder for the Russo-Japanese war.

We had yet to learn of what brought Harold to Minneapolis and brought the two together. More to come…

* This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Monday, September 17, 2012


I always find the development of a painting to be an interesting process. One often thinks that the artist knows where it is going, but as in life they may start out with an idea that changes and evolves. I’ve learned to watch the process with interest as it often takes me to surprising places.

My process begins with story. In my current series on Jewish Identity and Legacy I review the interviews that I’ve done and see what speaks to me. Fannie, who I referenced in the earlier blog entry is very much a story teller and also deeply involved in her Jewish heritage. She speaks with energy and passion so her stories drew me in.

During my first interview with her she began to expound on Yiddishkeit. Yiddishkeit is defined as Jewish character or a Jewish way of life.

Because if you’re Jewish and you don’t display or tell or show that you are Jewish, you’ve lost it and then we’ve lost it, we’ve lost something. I don’t like people who are ashamed of being Jewish.

Here she referenced someone who she knew who she felt was uncomfortable with being Jewish as she mimicked, “Don’t act like that, act nice, act normal.”

What is acting “like that?” I asked.

Well you see, you don’t flip an accent, and you don’t say a joke and you don’t say a Jewish word, you don’t say Oyyyyy. You don’t use expressions like that. And when you’re with me you walk straight, you don’t wiggle around. And you don’t sort of show so that they know you’re Yiddish.

I would use my hands, I still do today, I use my hands. And maybe I don’t walk just prim and proper.

I was amused at the energy with which she expressed these sentiments, but understood that she was speaking of that very energy and spontaneity as Jewish characteristics. I often have reflected on the fact that I have always had many Jewish friends, even when I was not actively engaged in a Jewish community. The common thread was often the very traits that she referenced.

But it was more than personality traits. She explained, “It’s everything, it’s everyday. Yiddishkeit is everyday. You can’t just put it aside before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Yiddishkeit has to be spontaneous, it isn’t locked in little cubby holes.

It’s a way of living, it’s a way of living.

It’s part of being part of the synagogue, no matter which one it is, it’s part of being body and soul of everyday living and believing of what they do and knowing what it is Tzedakah and Mitzvah. Those are natural words and natural things, they are things that happen and you make them happen and you learn to give from the time you’re that high. It just comes naturally and it has to and that’s Yiddishkeit.

In painting this I began with the idea of cubby holes, compartmentalization versus spontaneity. I built up a background of color and squares. First with words spilling out of them, then painting over that early effort to create a waterfall of words, only later noting that it resembled a prayer shawl. The words I used are the words that have meaning to me and are very much about Jewish values. You can find the words Mitzvah (Good Works), Tzedakah (Charity) and Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World) spilling forth from the waterfall that pools at the bottom of the painting. What else conveys spontaneity? Hands, those hands that gestured throughout her riff on Yiddishkeit. The irrepressible energy she couldn’t contain. So I painted them in, but they seemed a bit disembodied so I sketched in her face as well. I hadn’t planned on a portrait, but Fannie’s energy found its way in, almost as if her hands parted the painting and the rest of her followed.

Is it done yet? I'm not sure. Normally I like to live with a painting for awhile before I decide it is finished, but I hang a show tomorrow and would like to include it. So for now it's done, always subject to future revisions.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Two Women Take Charge

Fannie was one of our original interviews and one of our natural storytellers. You can read some of her stories from our initial interview in Fire, Light and Legacy. For this interview her daughter Miriam joined us.

Fannie is petite and attractive with an elfin charm. She quickly takes command of a room. At 95 she still has an energy that reminds me that she was an active force in the Jewish community.

In our prior interview, Fannie had told us a story of how her mother had sat her down as a child and told her stories with the instruction to "Shreibes arupt", write it down. She began to do that in her 70s, subsequently publishing several books. I asked her if she had shared her stories in a similarly purposeful manner with her daughter.

Fannie replied, "I tried in my way. It was not like my mother. My mother used to say, “Ich vill zuchen epis” . I’m going to show you something. And I just blurt things out as I go along, as we live and I say, this is what happened and this is what happened so they …."

Miriam: So when we’re together, inevitably…
Fannie: I talk

Miriam: She talks about different times, different events and different people that are all in the books and …

Fannie: If they’re not in one, they’re in another
Miriam: Exactly

One of the most delightful aspects of this interview soon proved to be the interaction between our interviewees. There was a rhythm to the way they jointly told these oft-shared stories, like a ping pong ball batted back and forth between them. It was more than finishing each other's sentences, it was as if they jointly told the story, each one contributing a sentence followed by the other. I've tried to preserve the flavor below.

We began by asking Miriam if there was a favorite story of hers and she told us that the most exciting story was that of how her grandparents got together and immigrated to the US.

Miriam began,"When Mariam wants to marry Shimon, but other relatives of the family have other plans for Shimon so Mariam’s mother, my Bubbe Ruchel, gets together with Shimon's mother and they have a plan to sneak Mariam to …"

Fannie: America

Miriam: Well to America

Fannie: They have to get down to Bucharest

Miriam: They have to get down to Bucharest first and Mariam doesn’t have a birth certificate so she takes her best girl friend’s birth certificate because her best girl friend is married, she’s not going anywhere, so her name is Mary Greenberg. So she took Mary Greenberg’s birth certificate and she goes with

Fannie: She went alone to Bucharest and when she got to Bucharest she wasn’t well received of course, but Shimon was there

Miriam: And Shimon was traveling with another aunt.

Fannie: No Shimon was traveling with this group.

Miriam: Yes, but it was an aunt, right?

Fannie: Yes, yes

Miriam: Not his mother, an aunt, and the aunt had other ideas. She wanted her daughter to be with Shimon. Gittel.

Fannie: Gittel, that’s right.

Miriam: She wanted Gittel to be with Shimon.
Fannie: They all went there

Miriam: She’s not happy, but she’s traveling with Shimon and Gittel and the aunt and whoever else was there and they get to America. They get to the port and they look at everybody’s papers and her papers have a different last name. And so they didn’t let her off the ship when they let everybody else off the ship.

Fannie: They let her off and they put her in…

Miriam: A holding place, a detention place. So anyways, because she had a different last name, they didn’t let her off with the family. So Shimon had to come back a day later…

"Four days," interjected Fannie.

"Four days later to retrieve her, " said Miriam.

Fannie informed us, "If you’re not picked up in four days, you’re shipped back. So Shiman promised her, I’ll be here in four days. Don’t worry. On the fourth day, he did come and she will tell you to the day, that it was after fourth of July. It was on the fifth of July. Why do you say that? Because all of the streets were covered with confetti and they had a parade, it was the fourth of July the day before. And the streets were still dirty on the fifth of July and that’s when they came for her. And she asked specifically, “Why are the streets so dirty?” Because it was the geboyrn tog (birthday) of the country."
"Imagine how frightened she was," exclaimed Miriam sympathetically.

Fannie confirmed, " She was frightened, absolutely."

We asked Miriam what she loved about that story and she replied," Well that the two mothers got together to sneak her off."

They then related how Mariam's father opposed her marrying Shimon, but the mothers put their heads together and snuck the daughter out on a stage coach to Bucharest and then to America while the father napped. Strong matriarchs definitely populated this family.

The stories of Fannie's mother were very colorful and held a very dominant place in family legacy. I asked Fannie and Miriam if they had new stories in America that became part of a new legacy.

They began by telling me of Fannie's son who is a world traveler and related how he stopped in Iran to meet the family of their Persian kid.

"Persian kid?" I queried.

" We brought a kid home, a family of ten children. He stayed with us from ninth grade to…well he forgot to go home.." replied Fannie wryly.

She then related the story of his older brother who was a resident doctor cajoling her into sponsoring his 14 year old brother. It was to be a one year stay, but he stayed until he went to college. Fannie continued in the role of Mom.

"He lived on campus, but where did he come? " Fannie asked. "He came to me. Who was Ma? I was Ma."

Gradually his other brothers started coming as well.

Miriam related waking up and coming downstairs to find the floor covered with Persian rugs, their Persian kid and fourteen family members.

Fannie reported, "The Shah had come to town. And they came home from the shindig and they grabbed me and took me back to the Lemington Hotel and I sat right across, eye to eye with the Shah of Iran. He was handsome."

In the space of our interview we had covered two very different immigration stories. This was to be a theme for several of our interviewees, reaching out to help a new immigrant make their way in America. Is this a form of passing it on I wondered?

I asked Miriam what she thought of as her mother's legacy and she spoke to her long history of community involvement both within the Jewish community, but also in the community at large. Whether it was community relations, food shelves or youth programs, Fannie had been in the vanguard. Often she drew Miriam in as well.

Our interview closed on a forward looking note. Fannie had told us of her granddaughter who is studying to become a rabbi. Fannie was of course very proud of her and touched at the thought that she may have played a role in that choice.

Well she says to me, “It was because of you Bubbe”.

What did I do? I didn’t do anything.”

And she said, “Oh yes you did”. That’s all she said.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.