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Growing Up Jewish

GROWING UP JEWISH

I grew up on the near west side of Chicago, just west of the loop. It was a neighborhood of three-story apartment buildings, called “three-flats,” with little meticulously cared for patches of grass in front of stone steps that led to a tiny lobby with mailboxes and a stairway. Each apartment had a wooden deck in back that allowed the residents on different floors to talk to each other and, escape the oppressive heat and humidity of Chicago summers. We had fans, which succeeded in blowing hot humid air across our faces, but gave us the illusion of being cooler. It was my first experience of learning to endure.

The neighborhood was predominantly, if not exclusively Jewish – Jews who had fled Czarist Russia, the slaughter of the pogroms, and institutionalized Anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. They had lived with the constant threat of annihilation, confiscation of any and all possessions, and exclusion from cities, without permission and after dark. Emotionally, they were tortured souls; never free from worry; consumed, perpetually, with a subterranean terror of sooner or later having everyone and everything in their lives, ripped away from them.

My two grandmothers, who were the key figures in my earliest years, were obsessed with my happiness. I was the hope for a life free from horror, that they could only dream of. I was the center of their existence, like the sun’s the center of our universe. I was the first born grandchild in the land of milk and honey.

The people I grew up with were not simply happy to be in the United States, they were convinced that a divine providence had singled them out to be delivered to a heaven on earth. I will never, as long as I live, forget their gratefulness for having been granted the privilege of living not only without constant fear, but of being able to take care of themselves. My grandfather felt privileged to be able to work in a tailoring sweatshop, and my grandmother thought she was lucky to roll cigarettes in what we would now consider an oppressive work environment.

As a toddler, I lived in benign ignorance of the suffering around me. I ran and played and rode my tricycle around with total abandon. Everything I did was wonderous, for both me and my grandmothers. I could go anywhere in the neighborhood with a complete sense of security and freedom. Many of the neighbors were relatives, and those that weren’t felt that they had the rights and prerogatives of any aunt or uncle. When I was around three, the tranquility and isolation of the ghetto was disrupted by a journey, with my mother and grandmother (her mother), to the West Coast. We took a train to Los Angeles to, ostensibly, be closer to my father, who was stationed in Hawaii during World War II; in the event he might be granted a leave. We ended up in an apartment right across the street from Universal Studios.

My mother was a rebel in her generation and in the Jewish community. She was a trained ballerina, a chorus line dancer, and a teacher of physical education. She was extraordinarily beautiful, with a figure to match. (Very few people in my generation, have “cheesecake” photos of their mother, sitting provocatively on a stool in front of a sound stage at a Hollywood Studio.) Somehow, she ended up in three movies popular in the war years, dancing behind two musical stars of the era -Donald O’Connor and Peggy Ryan. She talked very little about that time, but took great pride in the fact that O’Connor propositioned her on a number of occasions.

What was noteworthy and had a lasting impact on her, and later, on me, was the striking contrast of the culture of the entertainment industry, with the ghetto we had come from. Interracial relationships, gay couples, transsexual men and women; all were an integral part of the work and personal environment that we lived in. That experience laid the foundation for growing up in a household where the terms “queer,” “niggers,” or “weirdos,” were never uttered. We were, by no means, free of prejudice, but it was part and parcel of the complex and often contradictory facets of the relationships, in particular, between Blacks and Jews, that I will address later.

There were three core beliefs, or totems, that were imbedded in the ghetto culture that I grew up in. The first was the almost religious devotion to education and learning. In my community, it took the form of an assumption that every child would not only obtain as much schooling as was offered, but that he would excel and bring honor to his family through academic achievement. This was never presented as a choice. There was a half-joke, half-truth, that immediately after circumcision (remember, these were chauvinistic times), the family started investigating undergraduate schools, and after one’s bar mitzvah, the search began for appropriate grad schools.

The second belief involved the sanctity of Portability. This was clearly tied to the history of persecution and confiscation. The large numbers of Jews in the professions has not happened by accident. If you cannot rely on anything outside of yourself, to sustain you and your family’s life, you better have a skill and knowledge bank that you carry inside of you – and that no one can take away.

The third belief focused around the almost obsessive concern with Ownership. The message I got around work was unequivocal – if there’s anything you can do to avoid working for someone else, do it. Your goal, above everything else, is to own what you do to make a living. Working for others is precarious and dangerous, and puts your fate in the hands of people you cannot trust to act in your behalf. Jews don’t own businesses to simply make more money; they own them as a form of job security.

There is a legacy of sadness and self-limiting assumptions that co-exist with the three core beliefs. They can be subsumed under what I experienced as a subtle, yet all-pervasive expectation of doom.

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