Thursday, January 24, 2013

A “Staying Alive” Museum

Last week, I made an online and somewhat anonymous contribution to the Goldring Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. I had heard about the group from a college classmate from Mississippi with whom I shared stories of growing up Jewish in the South. Now, I want to be more outright in my support of the organization’s work because I am sure they will use my money well.

The ISJL started out as the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in the mid 1980s.  That sounds like a place that houses old papers and pictures of a dying culture. It doesn’t sound like an organization that’s alive and growing or one focused on a culture that is alive and growing. Which all sounds pretty pessimistic to me. Luckily, the organization chose to expand its mission. Here is how it describes the current mission on its website:

“Today, the Institute provides rabbinic services to small congregations across the region. It has developed a comprehensive religious school curriculum and support program that is being used by over 75 congregations in thirteen states. The History Department works to preserve and interpret the rich legacy of the southern Jewish experience.  Its Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities offers detailed histories of over 200 Jewish communities and congregations in the South. The ISJL also sponsors a range of cultural programs throughout the region.”   

So why is this important to me?

My paternal grandfather came to this country in the early 1900s and settled in the Deep South, traveling across the region from Mississippi, to Louisiana, to Texas, to Arkansas. He was not a deeply religious man, from what I am told, but he had his own way of keeping Judaism alive. He was a peddler and a butcher by trade. He slaughtered and cut up meat for a living, and the meat he used in his own household was slaughtered in a kosher way. It was one important vestige of Judaism that he tried to maintain.

This is the one picture I have of
my grandfather as a young man.

He eventually settled with his wife and most of his 12 children in the tiny town of Calion, Arkansas, not far from the semi-booming metropolis of El Dorado, probably in the mid to late 1920s. According to the entry on El Dorado in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, the city became a boom town in the 1920s when oil was discovered there. The boom led a number of Jewish merchants to come to El Dorado to open stores, deal in real estate, and establish oil-related businesses.

Now, it is important to know the luck of my family when it comes to oil. I can remember visiting my aunt, uncle, and cousins in the late 1950s in the unlikely-named town of Oil City, Louisiana, near Shreveport. Looking out from their backyard I could see oil well, oil well, oil well, then my uncle’s property, then oil well, oil well. What’s wrong with this picture?  I am told that if I had visited my Aunt Libby in Kilgore, Texas, I would have seen a similar plethora of oil wells with a blank space on her property. And my mother says my grandfather suffered a similar plight on his land near El Dorado. It seems that we Goodmans were destined not to get rich quick (or even rich at all).

While he failed to prosper, my grandfather did continue to practice his brand of Judaism. He must have had a decent voice because he often served as Cantor for the High Holidays in El Dorado’s Ohev Zedek congregation. Sadly, that congregation slowly died out and was disbanded for good in 1936. My grandmother died in 1937, and my father left the El Dorado area to move in with his brother in Oil City. Three years later, he arrived as a serviceman in Savannah, where he met my mother and settled down. Like his father, my father was not a religious man, but he always hosted a Friday night dinner, observed the holidays, and supported my mother in establishing and maintaining a kosher home all of his adult life. 

My father’s story was not typical of his siblings. Only two other children in his family married Jewish spouses and only one other—that uncle in Oil City—brought up his children as Jews. Intermarriage and the malaise of Judaism in the Delta took their toll. Other small branches of my father’s family in the Greenville, Mississippi, area did manage to keep Judaism alive. And there is a family legend told of my Aunt Fannie Schwartz who used to invite Jewish servicemen in the Greenville area during World War II to come to Friday night dinner, often entertaining as many as 20 for a mostly kosher meal. (My aunt always brought her own kosher plate and kosher food to luncheons in Greenville and went to Memphis periodically to get the kosher meat she kept in her own personal deep freezer.)

Which brings me back to the ISJL and its mission. There are still a large number of very small Jewish communities spread out in small and large towns in the Deep South. Providing support to these communities for simchas and sad occasions, offering information on Jewish history and learning, and providing a means to store elements of our own history is so very important. So I decided to make a small monetary contribution, and to write this blog post to perhaps stir others to find out more about the organization, and to continue my efforts to learn and write more about my family’s Jewish roots so my children can have something to hold on to and something important to add to their own foundation. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Statement of Unity

Some people think back to the good moments in their lives, and that is what stays with them. I usually recall the not-so-good moments or the not-so-admirable deeds. It is that mode of thinking that brings to mind the time I felt the most insulted in my life. And that, ironically, is what I am thinking about on this Martin Luther King Day.

It occurred during my junior year in college. I was part of a committee appointed to choose a Graduate Fellow to live and work in Pierson, my residential college at Yale. The man we were interviewing was the leader of the Black Law Students Association at Yale. He was a dynamic and somewhat belligerent individual from Atlanta. As a fellow Georgian, I wanted to make a personal connection with the man and asked if he had worked on campaigns to elect Maynard Jackson as a senator in Georgia or as the first African American vice mayor of Atlanta. (Three years later, in 1973, Jackson was elected as Atlanta’s first black mayor.) I noted that I had done what I could in Savannah to raise both money and awareness for Jackson. Surely, the law student and I had a common experience here. Right? Not really.

His response set me way back on my heels. “You upper middle class white people had time for campaigning and raising money from other rich people,” he said. “I was too busy trying to make enough just to get myself to college.”

He was wrong on so many counts in his statement, but I was too stunned to challenge him. I just let the sting sink in. I even felt guilty hearing his words, even though my financial aid needs to attend Yale were probably nearly as great as his.

The memory of that insult brings to mind images of the changing black-white dynamic in my life in Savannah, Georgia, in the 1950s and 1960s—my growing up years.  Here is what I remember:

  • Buses with signs that read “Colored Seat from Rear”
  • Separate water fountains near public building for whites and “coloreds”
  • When those signs disappeared in my late elementary school years
  • Overhearing a barber cutting my hair when I was about eight or nine lament to the adults in the shop that he might soon have to drink water from the same fountain as “the coloreds”
  • My being literally raised by our African American maid Louise (which was not exactly a scene out of the book or movie The Help) and my shock at seeing the conditions where she lived when my father and I drove her home one night. (This. I am sure, had an impact on my later political thinking.)
  • The desegregation of my junior high and senior high schools and our sports leagues
  • The amazement and jealousy we white students felt when our school basketball team played its first games against primarily black schools and we watched Beach High’s cheerleaders and fans rock to cheers such as “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey, Big B, you look so good to me!” I think the Savannah High fans, with little rhythm, responded with something like “Hey, hey, hey, hey, Big S, we know you are the best.” Lame!
  • The lunch counter at Kresses becoming a hot bed of protest by both blacks and whites in 1962, and my vociferously defending the rights of blacks to sit at that counter (and my amazement today to see that store be an integral part of the Savannah’s reborn downtown that has occurred through the impact of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD)
  • Arguments in school and at B’nai Brith Youth Organization meetings, where we raised money and helped distribute pro-Civil Rights materials
  • The deaths of Schwerner, Goodman, and Cheney in Mississippi and my pride as well as concern that the two whites were also Jews
  • My disgust when the buses of accelerated students like me attending American Legion-sponsored Boys State were greeted by racist gubernatorial candidate Lester Maddox (who would be elected governor the following year through a series of strange political circumstances)
  • My extreme sadness at the deaths of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in 1968 and additional sadness that Hubert Humphrey, who had stood up for Civil Rights long before Lyndon Johnson or so many other politicians, would be vilified during the 1968 elections, when I believed that he was the best person to help heal our troubled country
  • My confusion in reading a Time magazine cover story entitled “Black vs. Jew” in January 1969 and wondering what could be causing such a rift between two groups of people who should be bonded in their joint oppression

  • My being insulted by a puffed up black law student who didn’t know my history and decided to stereotype me when he thought I was stereotyping him
These are my good and my bad memories of those times. I am not proud of all of them, but they are strong in my mind.

All of this seems a little heavy to me, so I’ll end with my favorite black-white bonding moment, which happened not to me but to my wife’s cousin Lou Walter. Lou ran a successful dental supply business for many years and prided himself on remembering and caring about every customer. Once, while walking through JFK Airport, Lou spotted a distinguished African American man who looked very familiar to him. Certain he had spotted a former customer, Lou approached the man with outstretched hand, calling out “Hi, Lou Walter, Walter Dental Supply.” Somewhat taken aback, the man took Lou’s hand and countered, “Hi, Andrew Young, United Nations.” Lou was not at all embarrassed by the incident. He was proud of the connection he had made to a new friend, the UN ambassador.

That handshake is my statement of unity to commemorate this Martin Luther King Day.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Searching for Roots

I have been thinking about my family history lately. Visiting with many family members in Savannah over the winter holidays often does that to me. Plus, my daughter Amanda connected with several of our relatives this week while on a trip to Israel, learning how Israel’s major companies function and the value of conducting business activities with Israelis. Amanda said she also felt a stronger connection to her Jewish identity as a result of her trip to Israel. That’s not hard to understand.

But onto family history, after one more digression. . . .

I recently read a book of essays by Eli Evans entitled The Lonely Days Were Sundays. Evans is a chronicler of Jewish life in the South, especially during the period between 1900 and the 1970s. The title of his book comes from a comment that Evans’s grandmother had made about the difficulties of being Jewish and surrounded by non-Jews in a small Southern community, in this case Durham, North Carolina. Here is the whole quote:

“The lonely days were Sundays—Sundays when I watched the town people going to church, while we stayed upstairs in our apartment. Then I would feel like an outsider in this little community. I would have hunger in my heart for my own people. I would visualize a Utopia—a village like this of all Jews—going to a temple on the Sabbath.”

A few pages into the book, Evans quotes a Jewish scholar and rabbi named Jacob Rader Marcus, who asserts that “no Jew was ever the first person to go anywhere. There was always a cousin or an uncle ahead of him.”  So it has been with my family.

Both my grandfather and his sister, the grandmother of my cousins in Israel, were born in a strong Jewish community in Brest-Litovsk, Poland, in the late 1800s. My grandfather came to America in the early 1900s, where his older brother had already settled. The older brother had entered the country at Ellis Island and had proceeded to Savannah, Georgia, where some cousins were already settled. How and why did they get to Savannah? I just don’t know. My grandfather eventually joined them in Savannah in 1911, bringing his fiancĂ©e (my grandmother) along. They soon married and became Southern Jews, with a Polish accent.

My cousin Yosi (Joseph) in Jerusalem filled in some information about my grandfather’s remaining three siblings, one of whom was his grandmother. They all stayed in Brest until the mid 1920s. His grandmother married and worked with her husband in the family’s farm equipment business. Then, one day in 1926 or 1927, a customer in the store began spouting anti-Semitic remarks. The husband took offense and hit the customer in the head with a piece of farm equipment, injuring but not killing the man. Fearing for their lives, the Jewish couple decided to immigrate to Palestine, of all places. In 1927, that was not an easy decision to make. They became Halutzim (pioneers) and worked to help build what would eventually become the state of Israel. They would also begin a new branch of my family, whose last name was Volovelsky before World War II and was eventually changed to Laor (“the light” in Hebrew) several years after the war and after Israel became an official country in 1948. The delay in changing the name was because my cousin Eli determined not to make the change until he was sure that no relatives remained who might have survived the Nazi occupation of Poland and might come looking to reconnect with him in Israel using the Volovelsky name.

Halutzim from Eastern Europe in the 1930s

Sadly, the two siblings who remained in Brest, and the rest of the family members, were taken to concentration camps and slaughtered during the Holocaust. We know their exact dates of death, thanks to the efficient recordkeeping of the Nazis.

This is what I know about the movement of my mother’s side of my family. My father’s side’s history is a little bit sketchier. I am told that my grandfather and grandmother came into the U.S. via either Galveston or New Orleans. They were from either Odessa in southern Russia or Lebanon (my sources do not all agree on this). The man who sponsored my grandfather was named Goodman, and so he chose that as his American name, too. [The original name was something like Byall, which would probably go over well in the South but be confusing, as y’all can imagine.] 

European Jews enter U.S. at Galveston in 1907
My grandfather, whose name was also Michael, became a peddler—like so many immigrant Jews in both the South and North—and moved from place to place. The family of two adults and 12 children made their home in small towns in the South, where they constituted the entire Jewish population. How strange that must have been for them and for their neighbors! Their homes included such “metropolises” (metropoli?) as Anguilla, Mississippi (pop. <800), where my father was born, and Calion, Arkansas (pop. <Anguilla’s), where my father spent his high school years. I will write more about those places in another blogpost, and about their lives as Jews.

Which takes me back to the Evans book for one more thought. Evans said he is often asked to describe the differences between Jews in the North and Jews in the South.  (I am asked that, too, since I have lived in both worlds.) He notes that, unlike Jews in the New York area in particular, Southern Jews have always existed as a minority in a majority culture. They have generally found the need to bond tightly with each other to establish and maintain an identity as Jews. In Evans’s words, “My generation of Northern Jewish friends were upwardly mobile; we [Southern Jews] wanted roots.”

The desire for roots took my immediate ancestors from their ancestral homes to the United States (North and South) and to Israel. There are no written records of their journeys, so I figure I should take on the task as best I can for now and look for help to fill in the gaps.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Work + Ethics, Then and Now

This is a story about work and ethics and labor and management.

One of the nicest compliments you can pay someone is to say that he or she has a good work ethic. When I speak about my children in prideful tones, I often discuss the great work ethic that each of them demonstrates. They take their jobs seriously and deliver even more than is expected of them. I would like to think that I have shown a positive work ethic over the years, too. However, I have a confession to make: In my first job I found a way to separate work from ethics. It was on a very small plane, mind you, and I felt justified in my unethical actions.

When I was 15 or so, I was hired to bag groceries on Saturdays in the supermarket in which my father was an assistant manager. The work required a little bit of planning (determining the most efficient and safest way to load the groceries into each bag), a little bit of strength (since we offered customers the service of carrying their bags out to their cars or even to their homes if they lived nearby and loading the sacks into their trunks), and a little bit of hustle (since we hoped to receive tips from the customers for fast service, and more customers meant more tips).

The hustle part is where the ethics came in. The store had a policy regarding tips and salary for bagboys. Our salary was the minimum wage of the time—either $1.15 or $1.25 an hour, as I recall. That would have added up to a good take-home amount when combined with our tips; however, we were not allowed to make that combination. We were expected to report our tip total at the end of each day, and that number would be deducted from our paychecks. We didn’t actually have to turn in the small coins; just write the total on our time card. In other words, our final salary was not to exceed the minimum wage, whether we hustled or not.

Why did the store management follow this practice? Was it for the workers’ good? I doubt that seriously. We would have welcomed an extra few dollars each day. Did they save enough money to offer even more teenage boys employment? Another doubtful notion, since the tips turned in by all of the bagboys (usually 3 or 4 worked on a Saturday, and we never received more than a quarter from any customer we assisted) probably totaled less than $30 a week. I would explain the store’s policy this way—they did it because they could. They were management, and we were labor.

Now my father was a man of integrity. As I began my job, he said he expected me always to work hard and to be honest, just as he always was. I met the first requirement. I would like to think that I was the hardest-working bagboy at the Henry Street store on those Saturdays. I hustled, but I was careful. I was polite and friendly. And I tried to seem just as grateful for a nickel tip as I was for a quarter, though we bagboys got to know the “small-change” tippers and tried to avoid them if we could.

I might have objected if Mitt Romney had tried bagging
groceries in my store and hoped to beat me out for tips.
Now, for the confession about honesty (and I have kept this secret for nearly 50 years) – I discovered early on that I usually pushed myself a little harder than most of the other guys and often made more tips. This did not qualify as intense work or high finance, however. I might rake in $9.25 for the day while the other guys were in the $6.50 range. And they didn’t appreciate my writing a number on my timecard that might make them look bad, especially since they often declared only $5.50 of their $6.50. So, I would usually write in $7.25 or so, which was high enough to show my positive work ethic and make my father happy but low enough to pocket a little cash and “stick it to the man” at the same time. I was not some wild-eyed radical fighting for justice; I just wanted to make a little more money, even if I wasn’t exactly playing by the rules.

I thought of this story a few weeks ago when the Governor of Michigan discussed his reasons for pushing legislation that would make Michigan a “Right to Work” state. He was doing it for the workers, he said. Why should they feel any need to join a union or to pay union dues? They could now save that money. Besides, unions just get in the way, after all. And what if union bargaining helped to raise salaries? Didn’t those higher salaries actually hurt workers in the long run by discouraging employers from hiring as many workers? Like the management of my grocery store fifty years ago, the governor of Michigan pushed for the change in labor rules because he could. And he was hoping to reduce the power of any group or institution—such as a union—that might oppose his action.

One more newsworthy item on this front: I signed a petition a few weeks ago to protest the actions of restaurants such as Applebee’s that were planning to cut back on employees’ hours just to avoid Obamacare insurance costs for workers. The protest has been effective, and the restaurant backed down from its plan when its profits went down significantly. In one of the articles I read, it was noted that Applebee’s has not raised its base hourly salary for wait staff (approximately $2.15/hour) since the early 1990s. If servers are making more these days, it’s because you and I have agreed to raise our tip level from 15% to 18-20%. We’re the good guys here, not management.

This started out as just a stroll down memory lane, inspired in large part by my visiting Savannah last week and riding by the building in which I had worked, which is no longer a grocery store and does not feature teens hustling to earn dime or quarter tips. The neighborhood around it is still a little rundown, but, like most of Savannah, it’s going through a positive change. And I hope change comes positively to those workers in Michigan that the governor is looking out for so diligently and that Applebee’s workers don’t lose their healthcare coverage or their jobs. And I wish that 2013 will be a happy new year for us all.   

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Home for the Holidays

I have made an honest attempt to find the exact quote from Kurt Vonnegut about the importance of home. As I remember it, Vonnegut noted that no matter where a person moves in life, his real “home” is the place where he was brought up. That’s the emotional center of his universe.

Both my father and I have been wanderers in our lives. Following his mother’s death when he was 18, my father left his home near El Dorado (pronounced “El doh RAY doh), a small Arkansas town (and certainly not Coronado’s famed city of gold), and found his way as a 20-year-old recruit in the Army Air Force to Savannah, Georgia, where he met my mother and “settled down.” He found and created a new family in Savannah. I am not sure whether Savannah became the true center of his universe, however. We never discussed it. I can remember only one trip that we made to El Dorado when I was eight or nine years old, and I don’t remember anything about the town itself. My only memory involves our driving through a small cemetery where my father pointed out his parents’ graves. When we left the cemetery, we didn’t stop to see the town at all. Instead we drove straight to other relatives’ homes in either Mississippi or Louisiana. My father was not much for telling stories of his youth, and he didn’t tell any that day either. (I once considered writing a biography of my parents until I realized that the part about my father would probably, of necessity, be more fiction than fact. I have heard some stories, of course, but they were related by relatives who I would consider to be very impeachable sources.)

At age 18, I too wandered far from my hometown—Savannah, Georgia—leaving for New Haven, Connecticut, to attend college, then settling in various towns in New Jersey. I have returned to Savannah for short visits once or twice a year since then. Yet, if someone asks me where I am from, I will say Savannah, where I spent those early years, much more readily than Glen Rock, New Jersey, where I have lived since my late 20’s.

So the trip that I made with my wife and children to Savannah last week really felt like a return home. My cousins Debbie and Joel Rotkow added to the homecoming feeling by hosting a cousins’ party for some 50 extended family members. They have done that each year in late December for many years now, and each gathering is warm and funny and solidifies the sense of Savannah as my emotional center. It’s where we can tell stories aloud about the crazy cousins who are no longer with us (or simply unable to attend the party) and gossip about those who may be in the same room but out of earshot. We are not just catching up on family news; we are feeling at home.

The cousins from my generation, minus a few who couldn't
make the trip. But, we talked about them anyway.
(photo by Lynn Levine)

During the rest of our visit, we go through Savannah rituals—eating at favorite restaurants, driving out to the beach where I continue to hope that the store that carries boiled peanuts will be open (but it is more often closed for the holidays, and I have to settle for inferior peanuts in a can or a sealed package), and threatening to take my children past my childhood locales. For some reason, they have almost no interest in seeing my high school or junior high ever again. So I drive by and reminisce when they are not in the car.

I also make my own ritual trip each year to visit my father’s grave, in my own way mimicking that trip to El Dorado so long ago. Each year, I find more gravestones nearby with the names of parents of childhood friends etched on them, and I have to find more rocks to place upon the gravestones to indicate the connection I feel between them and me.

Most of us these days are wanderers. A few of us are lucky enough to find our way home at least once in a while.