Ed Asner’s Jewish Life

Highlights from an Oral History

“I could have filled myself with such Yiddishkayt if I had wanted to.”
Ed Asner, in his 2018 oral history with the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project

We honor the memory of acclaimed actor and activist Ed Asner, z"l (1929-2021). Christa Whitney had the special opportunity to sit down with Ed for an interview as part of the Center’s Wexler Oral History Project back in 2018. In the interview, he reveals his humble beginnings growing up in his father’s junkyard, attending kheyder [traditional Jewish religious school] four afternoons a week while his friends were out playing ball. He reflects on his complicated Jewish identity, how his bar mitzvah kicked off his acting career, and his love of Yiddish. We’ve included some highlghts below; you can also watch the full interview, search the transcript, and browse the photos donated along with the interview. Ed Asner’s oral history interview is part of our growing digital collection of over 1,000 interviews about Yiddish language and culture.

From the Forests of Eyshishok to a Junkyard in Kansas City: Ed Asner’s Father’s Immigration Story

“My father came from . . . Well, he called it Eišiškės, or Eyshishok. And I gather it’s right on the border of Lithuania and Belarus . . . so much I want to tell about him. He was orphaned. His mother died when he was twelve. His father remarried, and she was not nice, the second wife. So the initial children from the father were somewhat ill-treated. And at the age of twelve, my dad was in the forests of Lithuania chopping shingles. Came from a large family, as they all did, and got to the States—maybe 1900, somewhere around that date. Came in through Boston and worked for a year in Boston. I don’t know what he did there. But because all the foreigners moved on because of landsmen [fellow countrymen], because of paisans [Italian: fellow countrymen], whatever, he knew of successful Jews in Kansas City. So, he felt that his future and fortune lay there. He got to Kansas City somewhere around 1900. Settled in the West Bottoms of Kansas City, Kansas, which housed the packing houses, the railyards, the stockyards, all that, in Kansas City, and started a junkyard. And he went out with a pony—he called it a pony—a horse and a wagon and collected junk. And by the time I came around, he owned the whole block of shacks and tin roofs. It was across the street from Armour’s packing house. So, I lived there until I was in the second grade, approximately seven. And I was daily dazzled by the packing house workers in white coats covered with blood, the sound of the animals being driven over about a half mile away from the railyards into the packing house.”

Ed Asner on Growing Up Working in a Junkyard across from the Packinghouses in Kansas City

“My father was introduced to my mother, and she wasn’t crazy about him in the beginning . . . And perhaps, I guess, my mother finally warmed up to him. He was sleeping down with his dog in the Bottoms, tending his own junkyard with his dog. And I guess one of her first activities in marriage was to pick the fleas off of him . . . The first house was above the junkyard. It was a railroad flat across from the packing house . . . hot Kansas summers. Those were the summers of the ’30s. And it was a scorcher, I can remember. In the Bottoms -- which was near the river, of course—about the only tree was the ailanthus tree, called the tree-of-heaven, and it grows—it's the tree that grows in Brooklyn. And it’s where nothing else grows. It’s a beautiful tree. I could remember, as I got older—and working in the junkyard, waiting and waiting and waiting for the rain to come. And when it finally came, you’d look down at the dirt that you were standing on—never grass—and as the first drops fell, it looked like they were about that long. And they’d hit the dirt and you almost felt that the dirt was reaching up like that to grab the water. I’ll never forget that feeling. So, spent my first seven years there...Well, you’re always aware of anti-Semitism: He Jewed me down, he Jewed me down. But I call that gentle discrimination. It’s nothing fervid like other towns, other intensities. Much lower heat. So, you did what you could. You said you were a Jew and you kind of apologized for it when you said it, but you still finished your task. This is what God dealt you. And besides, they had Blacks to pick on and Mexicans in great number. So, it was—they had church school in my public school, and kids were released Wednesday afternoons to go to their church and take lessons. Naturally, as a Jew, I stayed and went to kheyder after school. So, I always felt like a pariah because of that.”

“It Probably Turned Me into an Actor”: Ed Asner’s Bar Mitzvah Story

"Every day after public school, I’d take the streetcar and a bus and I’d go to kheyder. Four days a week. And finally, the time came where I was the only kid that day in school. Nobody else was there. And I knew my buddies were out playing football, basketball, whatever, and I wasn’t doing any of that, learning any of that. So, I was very saddened and bitter and told the rabbi about it. And he said that he had great hopes for me to be a Yiddish scholar . . . I accepted my lot because of my father. I knew I couldn’t talk him out of what the rabbi would like . . . the time for my bar mitzvah came. And not only was I going to learn my—the brokhes [blessings] and the haftorah, but I was going to lead the Saturday morning service and do the speech, of course. But he said he was going to be taking a long vacation with his wife, so that we only had six weeks to prepare. That turned me into a worrywart. I became self-defeating. I studied and practiced and studied and practiced. The day of my bar mitzvah came and I invited some of my Christian school friends. And I started my haftorah. And my hands were clasped behind my back and my dad came along at one point and he brushed them, slapped them aside and said, “Kik nisht git” [“Doesn’t look good”]. I said, “Yeah, yeah, you're right, yeah”—but in the middle of my performance. Then, I went on and I got into a very high tenor and -- reciting very fast. And either my uncle came along or my dad and said, “Tsu shnel, tsu shnel” [“Too fast, too fast”]. So, I did it all. It was a harrowing experience. We had the big lunch afterwards where the gifts were bestowed and everybody had lunch in the basement of the shul. And then, as we prepared to go home and I'm loading up all the gifts in a big, huge cardboard box—and I turned to my dad and said, “Dad, look at all the gifts I got!” And he said, “You son of a bitch.” And he cursed me. And I realized I had failed. The prized pupil had failed. The stigma was intense. I finished packing the gifts and brought them home. But I think it probably turned me into an actor . . . Having failed my first performance, I was determined to make better. I guess I'm still trying."

Ed Asner’s Parents’ Reactions to His Acting

Christa Whitney (CPW): Was it something you aspired to as a kid, to act?

Ed Asner (EA): No, I loved to get up on stage and do the religious plays. Judas, Judah Maccabee, Samson, whatever. And always felt triumphant. I loved that; I loved being chosen for plays in public school. You never volunteered at the time, of course, ’cause you'd be considered a sissy. So, you’re always delighted when they chose you. Then you didn’t have to apologize.

CPW: What did your parents think of your—of acting, of theater?

EA: At one point, when I called home and said, “I’ve dropped out of school and I’ll be coming home but I’m gonna stay here and do this play first”—and my father sent, through my sister, who was on the line—saying, “Well, tell him that if he didn’t make it as a success as a student, he’s not gonna make it as a success as an actor.” And so, my simple response was, “I’ll be the judge of that.” So, I stayed on and I did my role. They never said another thing about it until finally I was in the army, came back, went back to Chicago a week after I was home and immediately began acting in Chicago. And I always wanted them to come see me. So, I waited until we did The Dybbuk. And I played Rabbi Azriel. So, they came up. My mom baked a chicken, which she brought with her ’cause my dad wouldn’t eat in hotels. They came to the theater and they were brought up the back way, I guess. I don’t know. I was in charge of clean-up for our company. My dad said to me, “Listen, you’re in charge of the clean-up.” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, that banister was dirty. It was dusty.” He said, “You got to get that cleaned up.” And I said, “Oh, okay then. I will. I’ll see to it that it's done.” Okay, so I made sure to—I cleaned that goddamn banister, that's for sure. So, they saw the show, with me as Azriel. And two young girls were sitting next to my mother. And I guess they were very excited at seeing the show. And my mother said, “It’s my son.” “Oh, my!” [whistles] My dad never said anything. Later on, I heard that when he came home—’cause I played Azriel as being ninety or something like that—and he said, “He was so old, I wanted to get up on that stage and help him.” But that was his being impressed by my performance: “So old." So, it came off well.

Ed Asner on His Love of Yiddish

Christa Whitney (CPW): What were the languages in your home?

Ed Asner (EA): Well, while the first four were being raisedd—there’s fourteen years difference between my oldest brother and me. So, I guess they spoke Yiddish until my siblings began to learn more and more of it. By the time I came along, they reduced the Yiddish and reverted back to Russian. And it was a constant ritual where my father, being a Litvak, would come home. And I guess my mother would say, “Nu?” [“Well?”] And he’d say, “Ni, puter” [butter] and “piter,” that type of thing . . .

CPW: And how do you feel about Yiddish?

EA:  I love it. I love it. I’m sorry I’m not a master of it.

CPW: How much Yiddish do you know?

EA:  Genug [enough] . . . Yeah, I can’t form sentences as I should. But I certainly know enough of it . . .

CPW: Where do you see Yiddish in the world today? What’s its role or status?

EA:  It can never die . . . as I gave you the instance of my mother and my father—nu, ni, piter, paterpiter, puter—I'm sure it will continue to thrive with that kind of inflection going on . . . I think it’s a wonderfully interesting language.

Watch the full interview.