The Yiddish Book Center's

Wexler Oral History Project

A growing collection of in-depth interviews with people of all ages and backgrounds, whose stories about the legacy and changing nature of Yiddish language and culture offer a rich and complex chronicle of Jewish identity.

Harriet Bonfeld's Oral History

Harriet Bonfeld, educator and daughter of Yiddish poet and journalist Leon Feinberg, was interviewed by Christa Whitney on October 29, 2010 at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Harriet speaks briefly of her father's background growing up outside of Odessa (the same town as Marc Chagall). She remembers that her father liked to talk about his parents and grandparents, who were wealthy in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution. She knows that he came to America the first time alone at age 14 to look for his father, who had left the family to find work, and was planning to send back for them. She remembers hearing how the two returned to Russia together, and then Leon graduated from Moscow University at a time when few Jews did such a thing. One story she particularly remembered was her father's experience in storming the Winter Palace as a member of the army. Harriet recounts growing up in a family of five children in the Bronx, after her father and most of his family had immigrated to the United States in the 1920s. She remembers there being large shoes to fill, especially since her older brother Gary became a world-renowned physicist. She describes her childhood as a very happy one, though with its quirks. She remembers having to keep quiet since her father slept during most of the day. She remembers, too, her father's odd habits like drinking tea from a glass with a cube of sugar in his teeth, or putting salt on watermelon before eating it. In a Jewish neighborhood off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx (a sign at that time that they'd "made it"), Harriet recalls the neighbors looking up to the family. She describes, too, feeling "different" because her family was so highly educated and culturally literate. What she called the "intelligensia" used to visit her family's home—writers and artists such as Itsik Manger, Chaim Grade, and Glatshteyn. She distinguished her father's love of family and pride in his many children as something that his contemporaries were envious of. She recalls her father's pride in "showing off" that she knew some Yiddish after her education in Workman's Circle Yiddish shul. She, too, felt proud that she might someday be able to read her father's writings in the original. Harriet described her mother as a "saint." Her life's work was being a mother and wife, though Harriet remembers her father used to often take her out to "show her off," as she was very beautiful. Her father liked steak, others liked lamb chops or hamburgers, and her mother used to cook seven different meals according to the tastes of the different members of the family. Harriet remembers that her mother was always willing to lend a listening ear to the neighbors, and reflects that her parents' qualities complimented each other. Harriet describes her father as "dapper." He wore spats, walked with a cane, and smoked Pall Malls from a cigarette holder. It was assumed that every child would have piano lessons—something Harriet is now glad of since she is a big fan of classical music. While religion was minimal in the home, the cultural aspects were paramount. Politics, too, were present. Her father, once a member of the communist party and writer for the Freyheyt (Freedom) communist Yiddish newspaper, became disillusioned with the communist vision, and turned staunchly anti-communist. He wrote outspoken articles against the party in his position as city editor of the newspaper Der Tog (The Day). Harriet remembers that he corresponded with Boris Pasternak, whom her father strongly supported. Harriet has fond memories of her summer camp experiences at Undzer Kamp (Our Camp), the family camp sponsored by the labor Zionist Farband. She describes it as "truly a home away from home," and remembers being depressed for several days after returning to her small city block after the six or seven weeks they spent at the camp every summer. Harriet remembers Kennedy's assassination as a particularly intense moment in her life with her father. She points out the Cuban Missile Crisis, too, as a moment when she turned to her father for comfort and fear of what might happen. Harriet lived at home until the day she was married, and had a close relationship with both of her parents. Harriet reflects extensively on the values that were instilled in her by her parents, and how she tried to pass them on to her own children. Memory of family, especially through storytelling, was of constant import in her family. This value became important in her own role as a mother, as she tried to keep her husband's memory very central after he died when her children were very young. She felt that a core feeling towards Jewish culture and tradition runs through the family, even if there are varying levels of observance. She accepts that children make their own decisions in life, but expressed pride in her son's interest in beginning to celebrate some Khanuka traditions. She remembers her family's Yiddish Passover seder, and tells of how she infuses her Passover seders with Yiddishkeyt in her life today. She feels very close to Yiddish, especially through the memory of her father, and tries to go to Yiddish performances whenever she can. Harriet was deeply moved by the Yiddish Book Center when she first visited in the summer of 2010. She recalls feeling the sense that Yiddish really is not dead after seeing her father's books on the shelves, and young students of the Center's Steiner Summer Yiddish Program leaving class. Most of all, Harriet's father taught her to appreciate culture. She remembers him as a vivid storyteller, one who brought history to life. He was a participant in history, and she often remembers him now when she realizes that he experienced major events that are now displayed in museums or textbooks. January 22nd, her father's yortsayt (anniversary of his death) is always a melancholy day for Harriet, but she perhaps thinks of him the most on Khanuka. She played dreydl with her kids, the way she did with her father, until they moved away from home. Her advice to future generations is to love an honor one's parents, as their knowledge, experience, and wisdom is precious.

This interview was conducted in English.

Harriet Bonfeld was born in Bronx, New York in 1946.

Video highlights from this oral history