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.
Frances Morrill Schlitt's Oral History
Frances Morrill Schlitt, a 75-year-old retired social worker, was interviewed by Emma Morgenstern on December 10, 2010 at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Originally from Auburn, Maine, she is the mother of a 2010-2011 Yiddish Book Center Fellow, David Schlitt. Frances's mother was an immigrant to the United States from Ponovitch (Panevėžys), Lithuania, while her father came from outside Ponovitch. They met and married in the United States. Frances remembers thinking her mother was illiterate, but after she died Frances realized she could read and write (in addition to speak, of course) Yiddish. Frances also found her mother's siddur (prayer book) in Yiddish and Hebrew after she died. Her mother, she said, never really felt like an American or spoke much English. Frances described Auburn as it was when she was growing up there. It was poorer than Lewiston, the adjacent town. Auburn was mostly French-Canadian, but there was a small Jewish community there. Her family settled there when an uncle went and wrote back to his family that it was cheap to buy a house; it turned out, as the family legend goes, that when the rest of the family arrived they found out he had meant to say "horse." In Auburn, everyone knew each other, but still Frances described the self-segregation of Jews in the area. All of her friends were Jewish. Frances moved to Dorchester as a young child. She described the different Jewish neighborhoods of the Greater Boston Area at the time, including Newton, Brookline, and Dorchester. In Dorchester, the students were ethnically mixed in school but self-segregating socially. Frances attended Brandeis University in the very early years of its existence, from 1953-1957. At Brandeis, Jewishness became a backdrop to Frances's and the other students' identities. The milieu of Brandeis, according to Frances, was very different from many other colleges and universities at the time. The social atmosphere was laidback (no dress codes, for example) and there was an emphasis on open debate in the classroom. She talked about the thrilling experiences of being around intellectual hotshots of the time, many of whom were émigrés and could not get posts in other universities. But, she said, there was noticeable discrimination against women faculty, who were often relegated to low-status positions despite their skills and knowledge. Frances shared stories about specific professors she encountered when she was at Brandeis. One of them, Lewis Coser, pressured her to go to graduate school because he saw promise in her as a student; she couldn't face him when she decided to go on to get a degree in social work because she seemed to think he would be disappointed. She also talked about Joseph Cheskis, who presented some radical salary redistribution ideas at a faculty event that Frances was staffing. Frances noticed a lot of pressure to maintain a clean image of Brandeis for the outside world because it was so new. Frances traveled to Israel around the time when she was in college, and she remembered this as the first time she really felt like an American, rather than a Jew born in America. She stayed on a kibbutz and the experience de-romanticized many of her preconceived notions about what a kibbutz was. She also felt the pressure, when talking about Israel to Americans, not to criticize the country. In Israel, at the time, Frances said a tourist could get by using Yiddish rather than Hebrew. There was a tension between the two languages: Yiddish was perceived as weak or feminine, and there was governmental pressure to curb its use. When asked about her religious life and political life, Frances made the point that holidays are meant to be observed communally. This is part of the reason that she and her husband sent their son to a Jewish day school, despite the fact that they were "public school people." They wanted to give their son that kind of ingrained Jewish identity. Frances also spoke of the importance of Friday nights as a ritual in Jewish homes. Frances views ritual as something that cements Jews in their identities and gives them a sense of where they came from. Frances is involved in a bible study group now that she is retired, and this is another way that she relates to Jewish life. Frances saw the emergence of Jewish writers when she was growing up as something that opened opportunities for other Jews in other areas. She especially emphasized the importance of women writers, and how she sees this as connected with the evolving role of women in Jewish religious environments. Jewish women benefited the most from the Equal Opportunity Act, according to Frances. Frances went into social work because she saw that as one of the few career options available to women at that time. Now, she doesn't think enough people go into teaching as she recalls the trouble the Jewish day school her son attended had in finding teachers. Frances met her husband, Jacob, through a friend, although he claims they had met before when they both worked at the Jewish Labor Committee. She was five months pregnant when they married. When asked about the political organizations she is involved in, Frances said she is more of a supporter than an activist. This was a fundamental part of her identity, supporting left-of-center political organizations. But she does not consider herself an extreme leftist. She supported the Kerry and Obama campaigns, as well as some organizations that deal with political issues in Israel like J Street. This reminded Frances of when she was involved in labor organizing in the 1960s, which she remembered as a very exciting time in her life and in history. As advice to the next generation of Jews, Frances suggested an observance of the Jewish calendar is important to maintaining a Jewish lifestyle. She applauded the Yiddish Book Center's shabbes (Sabbath) and Jewish holiday closure. She talked about the ease of celebrating Passover when she visited Israel one year. Frances concluded the interview by talking about the hardships of women today who have careers and families. This is in comparison to when she was younger and gender roles were more clearly defined; it may have been easier, in some sense, even if women did not have the advantages of women today.
This interview was conducted in English.
Frances Morrill Schlitt was born in Auburn, Maine in 1935. Frances Morrill died in 2020.