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.

Arlene Cohen Stein's Oral History

Arlene Cohen Stein, retired music teacher from Utica, New York, was interviewed by Isaac Daniel Moore on February 9, 2015 in Boca Raton, Florida. Arlene's father was born in Russia and her mother lived through at least one pogrom in Poland. Her father came to Utica because he had a sister living there who could sponsor him; he worked as a peddler to support the family. Arlene describes growing up in a quiet yet friendly neighborhood in upstate New York. Her parents longed to assimilate and she reminisces about how Election Day was a big event in their household. Although there was little money, she was always beautifully dressed and given piano lessons from the age of six. At one point her parents sold the dining room set to buy her a Steinway grand piano. She describes the warm relationship with her many cousins but a rather formal one with her grandparents. Her mother was a wonderful cook and made everything – blintzes, borscht, gefilte fish – from scratch. Arlene loved singing in the choir in her Orthodox shul. Her parents owned a home-decorating store on a block with mostly Jewish merchants. Arlene became a music teacher in the Utica schools, and remembers a job playing and selling pianos in Woolworth's. She recalls lonely people who would come every day to hear her play. Arlene talks about the importance to her of keeping a kosher home, celebrating the holidays, and fostering family cohesion. She and her family have been through hard times and good times. She no longer teaches music but has continued performing. In her books "The Olive Tree" and "I Love You Goodbye", Arlene reflects on the joys of growing up as an observant Jewish child of immigrants in small town America. She notes the similarities with the Italian community that lived in Utica and Rochester. Toward the end of the interview, Arlene talks about her pride in her heritage and how happy it makes her that her grandchildren are involved with Judaism in its various forms.

This interview was conducted in English.

Arlene Cohen Stein was born in Utica, New York in 1935.

Artifacts related to this oral history