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Keywords: 1910s; 1920s; 1930s; Abraham Reisen; Aliza Greenblatt; Arlo Guthrie; artists retreat; Avrom Reyzen; bohemian; Brighton Beach; Camp Kinderwelt; Der Tog; labor Zionism; literary community; literature; poem; poetry; publishing; puppeteer; puppets; The Day; translation; Unser Camp; writing; Yiddish music; Yiddish writer; Zuni Maud
DIANA BREGMAN FELD ORAL HISTORY
LESLEY YALEN:This is Lesley Yalen, and today is July 19th, 2011. I'm here at theYiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts with Diana Bregman Feld. And we are going to record an interview as part of the Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project. Diana, do I have your permission to record this interview?
DIANA BREGMAN FELD:Yes.
LY:Thank you. So, I thought we could just jump right in, and I'd ask you to tellme about your mother, Edith Kaplan Bregman. Where was she born? Where did her ancestors come from?
DBF:Well, she was born in a shtetl [small town in Eastern Europe with a Jewishcommunity], which was then Russia, Talachyn in Belarus. And she was the middle 1:00of six children and had a very wonderful -- a loving life and a good upbringing. Of course, they spoke Yiddish in the house. She knew Russian, but they very rarely spoke it. And my mother was a poetess, and the book that I put out of her poetry -- there are many poems that she recalls her life and talks about what went on in the shtetl. Various things with the family and the neighbors and her father and her mother. And then, of course, when they left Europe to come to the United States in 1913, she didn't know what was going to happen in Europe afterwards. So, in the book, I have -- which is done chronologically -- I have 2:00her life in the shtetl, and then, following that, I have all her poems about the Holocaust. And can I read one of them?
DBF:Oh, it's this -- I should have had a page in here -- looking for it. Okay.I'll read the English translation.
LY:Can you read both, or --
DBF:I -- let's see. It's called "Der vayse tsigele," "The Little White Goat,"from "Rozhinkes mit mandlen [Raisins with almonds]." This was dedicated to the children of Talachyn, who were murdered by the Nazis in August of 1941. This is the English translation. "At evening time in the shtetl, carrying raisins and almonds, the little white goat drags himself and searches, beating away at 3:00thresholds in his wanderings. Strange children and strange mothers live in stolen Jewish homes. Dreams of Torah and almonds are no longer spun at Jewish cradles. Gone are the Jewish melodies heard in the bustling streets at twilight. Jews now rot in their graves, their songs sealed on their lips. In these graves, mothers rock their children closer, making their deaths easier with lullabies. Loo, loo, loo. The little white goat is orphaned. The Jewish children are in their graves." Even though she wasn't in Europe for such a long time, she still had the feelings of home, as most Jews that emigrated did. And --
LY:So, that was about her shtetl?
DBF:That was about the children in her shtetl.
DBF:In fact, this is one of the poems I struggled with, because the person who4:00translated the poem didn't quite get the essence of it. And it took me almost two and a half weeks with two dictionaries and a thesaurus to figure out how to put the words in correctly. That was -- yeah, yeah.
LY:So, in her poems about life in the shtetl, what are some of the stories that-- I mean, or even from having heard from her throughout your life, what is your picture of the shtetl?
DBF:The shtetl -- well, the picture I get from her poems and from her talkingabout life in the shtetl -- it was a happy life. My grandfather was a khosid [follower of Hasidism]. He was a cabinet maker. So, they lived in a beautiful house, because he built a house. Whenever there was a modern innovation, he would put it in the house. They were the first ones in the shtetl to bring water into the house -- that they didn't have to go out to the well. And, of course, 5:00she told me the stories about the pogroms. They had a trap door in the kitchen, which they would go into when a pogrom was coming. And somehow, they pulled a -- a rug over the trap door. But mostly it was -- she talks about her brothers, who had doves in a cage at the top of their house, on the roof, and they would let the -- and then, one day, they left the door open and they waited for weeks for the doves come back. They never did. She talks about her baby sister running around with her little golden curls bopping up and down, playing pranks and going into the priest's yard that was not too far from where they lived. And they were always very afraid when she did that. And it was mainly about the poverty. But yet, the love of the sabbath, the love of learning that was very uppermost in her mind. And it's very hard to put everything into words into such 6:00a short time, when there are so many different theories. And she spoke about her mother being the midwife. Her mother was the comedian and the midwife in the town.
LY:The comedian and the midwife?
DBF:The comedian. My grandmother had a tremendous sense of humor. And one of thethings that she's really -- reading -- writing about -- my grandmother -- oh, I --
LY:Can I interrupt you for one second?
LY:The problem with holding the book is that you're -- while you're telling thestory, you're not looking --
LY:So, maybe --
LY:I love hearing the poems, but maybe you can tell the story and then look forthe poem?
DBF:All right. I found the poem. Let me --
DBF:-- read the poem. (laughter) It's called "Grandmother," and this is about mygrandmother -- (reading) "Di bobe -- fun mayn shtetele telkhan, lebn pinsk [My grandmother -- from my town of Telchan, near Pinsk]." "'Child, why are you crying?' the anxious mother asks. 'The Evil Eye must have found you.' 'That is probably so.' Grandmother kisses the child's head and quietly murmurs the 7:00incantation and quickly wards off the Evil Eye. The child has fallen, got a bump on his head. Grandmother comes quickly, no need for thought. Be it the head or the forehead, the method is standard. She takes the flat of a dull knife and presses it hard against the swelling. The child has cut himself. Be it a foot or a hand, grandma grabs a cobweb from a corner of the wall and stretches it tightly to cover the wound. 'This should heal you, my child, make you all well.' And wherever anyone lies ill, dear, kind grandma comes running to the bedside. It doesn't matter to her if the illness is serious or only a mild attack. She immediately places bankes [cupping glasses]" -- cups -- "on the ailing patient's back." (laughs) So, my family, my heritage is quite (laughs) varied. 8:00
LY:So, your grandmother was a midwife.
DBF:And she loved telling jokes. She was always the life of the party.
LY:So, how old was your mother when they came to New York?
DBF:My mother was thirteen -- no, fourteen, thirteen. They come on the"Lusitania," which was sunk a few years later. And they came into Ellis Island. And my grandfather had come ahead, with my mother's oldest sister, and set up the house. And he came back and forth for quite a few years, and that's when he brought all the innovations that he found in the New World into the house in Europe. And the whole family came together with loads of cousins and relatives, and they settled in New York. And I think my mother was born before her time. 9:00She was a bohemian, and started to read, voraciously, all the books that she never saw before in Europe. And she found that she had a talent for writing. I found a journal that -- she was seventeen years old when she wrote in this journal, a Yiddish journal. Everything was always written in Yiddish -- where she actually critiqued a -- Avrom Reyzen poetry, but nicely. And she loved his poetry. And -- but she also gave her feelings and her reactions to his poem. Later on in life, she met him, and he took to her very quickly and he became her personal mentor. He would always, at various times, sit with her and help her with her poetry. But she became very involved with the literary people and got to know them quite well, go away for weekends at Maud's -- Zuni Maud's summeray 10:00[summer place] in Callicoon, which he took me to when I was about seven or eight years old, just to show me where she spent a good part of her child-- her youth.
LY:And what is that? What is --
DBF:That is a place in Callicoon, New York. Zuni Maud was an artist and apuppeteer. And the thing that I remember about going into the main room where they had all their social contact was all the paintings. Things that were painted on the wall. And young people would gather there. My mother taught herself the mandolin. She taught her -- she would walk back and forth from work to save her pennies to buy a piano. She taught herself to play the piano. And she would come with the mandolin and with all her friends, and they would put on shows and just have a grand old time. In fact, she told me quite a number of stories of -- when Avrom Reyzen was there. And it was a happy -- a happy time for her.
LY:So, was she writing -- was she getting involved in this literary scene in her11:00late teens, early twenties?
DBF:Well, as I said, the first writings I have of hers -- is 1917. And she wroteall through the teens and the '20s and the '30s. She wasn't published until 1939, when the "Tog, morgen-zhurnal" had a contest. And the question was, "How do parents bring up" -- "How should parents bring up their children?" And she never really had faith in her writing, although she was always encouraged by her friends and the people that she knew. And I think the fact that that was printed and she won the prize -- it's in the book -- gave her impetus to seek elsewhere. And since it was written -- printed in the "Tog," she got in touch with Glanz 12:00Leyeles, who was the editor of "Der krumer shpigl," "The crooked mirror," which was the poetry corner, and also the president of the PEN Club, which was a literary club. And she sent him a letter and he had her come in, and she came with her poetry. And in the book, I have translations of his letters to her to please come in and send more, and he would sit with her and help her put out a book of poems. And she never had enough confidence in herself, because she never finished -- she was never finished with a poem. As soon as it came out in the book or in the paper, I found clippings -- old, faded clippings where she crossed out and she already was revising. She did that until the day she died. She died ninety-nine years young. And her last poem was written in 1997. And then, I have in the book, also, when she started sending poetry to the "Tog," it 13:00was printed. And her poems were also printed in various magazines. She became very friendly with [Issa Tolish?], because -- started out as a poet sending something to an editor, and through the years they became very good friends.
LY:Is he -- who is he?
DBF:He -- he was a -- a -- a writer. In fact, I went to the Labor Zionist Camp,which was a Yiddish-speaking camp. Camp Kinderwelt. And Unser Camp was the adult camp. And I was in the same bunk with his daughter. I was also in the same bunk with Betty Rumshinsky, Joseph Rumshinsky's daughter. He was very, very famous on Second Avenue. Composer and conductor, yeah.
LY:So, your mother had all of these somewhat well-known artists and writers inher life and coming into the -- did they come to your house and -- 14:00
DBF:No, no, they didn't come to the house. But we lived in Brighton Beach, andAliza Greenblatt, who at one point -- I don't know if they still have a real name for her, but in Amherst, they did -- who happens to be Arlo Guthrie's grandmother, by the way -- my daughter worked for Arlo Guthrie, and we took my mother to meet Arlo. And she walked into the -- what is -- Alice's -- called Alice's Church, it's now the Guthrie Center. And there's a picture of Aliza and Arlo's mother, Marjorie, who was a famous dancer. In fact, I think I took dancing lessons from her in Sheepshead Bay. And she -- she was stunned, because every Sunday, Aliza Greenblatt used to have -- she lived in the other end of -- where -- from -- I lived in. She lived in Seagate -- would have an open house for writers, just to read and bounce off their ideas for one another. And every once in a while, my mother would go. So, she knew Aliza very well. And at that 15:00time, I had given many, many of my mother's personally autographed books to the center. But I kept a few for myself, one being one of Aliza's because there was music in it. And I love Yiddish and Hebrew music. And I mentioned it to my mother and she said, "Let's translate all the Yiddish into English and give it to Arlo so he could understand his grandmother's poetry." And we did, and so that --
DBF:And it was [Issa Tolish?] that suggested to my mother that she take coursesat the Jewish Teacher's Seminary. So, she took courses with Jacob Glatstein, Opatoshu, and I can't remember some of the names. I have memory problems sometimes. (laughs)
LY:Was she politically involved? Did she have a sort of affiliation in her early years?16:00
DBF:Well, not politically involved in the sense of today's being politicallyinvolved. Jewish-wise she was politically involved. She was a Zionist. She saved her money and she always wanted to go to Palestine to be a chalutzah [Hebrew: person who immigrates to Israel, lit. "pioneer"]. And as soon as she got her naturalization papers, following month, she left for Palestine. And she was involved -- she was the first sec-- she was the first secretary of the Yiddish Speaking Club in Manhattan. And she gave the minutes from that club to YIVO. And she mentions Forman, who was the owner of WEVD in New York was a member. Her friend -- oh, I can't remember her name -- who was the founder of the Pioneer Women, who is now -- which is now called Na'amat. My parents both belonged to -- 17:00well, this was before my father came here. But she was very active Jewish-ly.
LY:So, she went to Palestine, and did she stay there for --
DBF:Yes, she went to Palestine and she stayed at Ramat Rachel -- Rachel being --years later, she visited her in Israel, and Rachel was Ben-Zvi's -- President Ben-Zvi's wife. And she went to visit her friend from Europe, who was living with her brother, which turned out to be -- was going to be my father. (laughs) And they met and married in Palestine, and -- except the fact that she got ill, and Hadassah was not well-equipped in the '20s, the early '20s -- they told her to go back to the United States for better care. Otherwise, I might have been a sabra [Jew born and raised in Palestine/Israel], not being -- not giving this interview. (laughs) 18:00
LY:What did she -- what did both of your parents do there? I mean, were they --
DBF:Well, my father went -- had belonged to the Po'ale Tsiyon in Russia. And heemigrated to Palestine, right from Russia. He helped found the Pinsker Kibbutz Tsfat. He also helped lay the water pipes in Jerusalem, under the aegis of the labor boss, who was David Ben-Gurion at that time. And those same pipes were the ones that were blown up by the Arabs during the War of Independence. And when I went to Israel in 1949 to be a student at Hebrew University, we lived in the gimnazye, in the high school in Talpiot. And they didn't have showers, because they never expected a school -- high school to be a residence. So, they put a 19:00burlap covering outside, and that's where we took our shower. We had cold water if it was cold, we had hot water if the sun hit the (laughs) -- the pipes. And being Americans, we always let the water run. So, we had rationing within rationing, because Jerusalem had water rationing and because we used up some -- because of the pipes being blown up that my father helped lay, we had rationing. And many times, we got stuck under the -- (laughs) there with water -- with soap all over us, 'cause we didn't have -- we didn't take care to get out in time. But I'm -- and I had a book this fat, visiting all my mother's and father's friends when I was in Pal-- in Israel.
LY:So, then they settled back in Brooklyn because --
DBF:Yeah, they --
LY:-- your mother's health had --
DBF:Yeah, no, they lived in the Bronx. My whole family lived in the Bronx. Mymother was a renegade. She always was. She moved to Brooklyn. (laughs) And my 20:00father had gotten what I would call -- similar to -- he went to school -- that's why my mother never knew him in Europe. I think he would have, like, an engineering degree from MIT, you know? And it was very hard to get into the schools. And he was in a business -- at that time, there were only three such businesses in the United States. They made reels and cases when -- for the motion picture industry. That was before everything was digital. And he was the inside man. He designed the tools and the dyes and everything else. And his -- eventually, he became a partner, and his partner was the outside man. But they belonged to the Arbeter Farband, the Labor Zionist group from which Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion came from, with -- always with the thought of going back to Pal-- to Israel. It was -- at that time, it was still Palestine. And someone 21:00approached my father and asked if he would entertain the idea of being in charge of the very first refrigeration plant in Palestine. And he said yes, even though it meant taking courses for two years, which he took and he passed. And we were all ready and set to go back to Palestine when September 1st, 1939, we were at the World's Fair in Flushing and the lights went down in the Polish building. And they knew World War II had started. So, we never went. That negated all the plans, and -- but he was still very active, and I remember in the -- we never had a telephone. The telephone was in the lobby if somebody was nice enough to pick up when someone was ringing. And they'd say, "And who would you want?" They would push three times for us to come down, we had a phone call. We would get telegrams. In the middle of the day, in the middle of the night, come to 22:00such-and-such a pier in New Jersey, bring cash. My father went very often with money, which was used for ships, for illegal -- in quotes -- arms for the Haganah and so forth. So, they were very active that way. And my mother belonged to the Pioneer Women. And as a kid, I belonged to Habonim, which was the youth group, the Zionist youth group, with thoughts of going to Palestine at the time.
LY:Did you have family still in Europe that you were --
LY:-- concerned about as the --
DBF:Yes, and a cousin of mine and myself started doing a genealogy -- my motherstarted us off, believe it or not, with close to two hundred names. She was the one in the family that kept in contact with everybody, all over the world. And we now have over five hundred names. But there were certain people we could not find until finally I found the Yizkor book from our town. And because I'm 23:00fortunate enough to read Yiddish, I went down the list. And I called my cousin and I'd say I found so-and-so, I found so-and-so. They were all killed. They were all killed. But --
LY:So, how did you -- did you sort of feel your parents' anxiety about that whenthat was happening?
DBF:We talked about it.
LY:You talked --
DBF:We used to go to rallies. I remember going to rallies with my -- with myparents about the white paper against Palesti-- against -- negating the Balfour Declaration in Palestine, which had said that there will be a homeland in Palestine for the Jews. And that was completely negated during the war, and they didn't allow the Jews in. I remember going to many, many rallies in Union Square and all over the city, protesting and so forth. And, of course, my Yiddish 24:00upbringing was very important to me. My parents spoke Yiddish in the house. I went to the Dovid Pinski yidishe shule [secular Yiddish school] and -- five days a week. And we had a little bit of a smattering of Hebrew. And I came home and I said, "Okay, I'd like to learn Hebrew." My parents knew Hebrew because they had lived in Palestine. So, I went to Talmud Torah. And then, I remember I took Hebrew in high school, I took Hebrew in college. And I remember coming home in 1949, the spring of 1949, and I said, "You know, very interesting." With no thoughts in my mind about anything -- I never asked for anything, although I got everything I wanted. I was an only child. (laughs) "The -- very interesting poster, when -- I saw in the classroom today. There is a group of young people going to Israel to study at Hebrew University." So, my father looked at my 25:00mother. My mother looked at my father. And they both nodded and they both said to me, Would you like to go? I nearly fell off my chair. I mean, we weren't wealthy or anything like that. But my mother said -- (laughs) she -- every week, some insurance man used to come to the house. And I think she said she gave him a quarter. Now, in those days -- I mean, it's laughable, a quarter. But in those days, a quarter was a -- awful lot of money. Years later, my first teaching job brought me $2,800 for the year. So, in '49, a quarter was a lot. And I went. I went.
LY:How long did you stay?
DBF:I -- quite a number of months. I came home with a field certificate of overa hundred and ninety field hours, plus all my studies with the professors of 26:00Hebrew University. Of course, you couldn't get to Hebrew University in those days. It was in Arab hands. And so, in the gimnazye where we lived in Rehavia -- that was right across the street, also, from the Sochnut, the Jewish Agency -- we had a classroom. So, we'd fall out of bed in the morning and we would trudge over to the other end of Jerusalem, where the Alice Seligsberg School, which was a Hadassah school, would give us our meals. That's where we went for meals. And we had a ration card, 'cause certain things were rationed, like eggs and meat and -- and poultry and so forth. And we would -- they would punch the ration card, then we would trudge back. The lazy-heads never went to meals. They just fell out of bed into the big lecture hall in the school. And then we went on tiulim, the -- on hikes, and various other things by bus. And the professors from the Hebrew University came with us. And they -- each one would talk to us 27:00about their specialty in the area we were at the time. And then, after a while, the buses would stop and they would change buses. So, by the end of whatever trip we were taking, we had a full understanding of what was going on. And I remember one professor saying, "You're wondering how so-and-so in the Bible could get from here to there to there." He says, "They're only about ten feet apart. So, it wasn't such a big distance for them to travel." But we got the feeling of what was going on politically with the Arabs and with the various sects of the Jews that did not agree, because even in those days, many of the Jews and one of the religious sects, they petitioned Jordan for Jordanian citizenship, because they felt that Israel cannot be until the moshiach [Hebrew: the Messiah] comes. But it was very, very interesting. And after that, I was 28:00very much interested in the young people, and I was asked to lead youth groups in the various synagogues. And, okay, you have a question.
LY:Can I ask you to put your glasses -- yeah, okay, 'cause I can hear -- so,while you were there, were you studying teaching, education?
DBF:I was tea-- I was studying -- actually, I started out as a music major inschool. I went to Brooklyn College. By the way, when I started to talk about the twenty-five cents -- my parents had saved, over the years, for me to go to college. And in those days, college was not that expensive relative to today. But in those days, it was, for whatever they charged. And I happened to get into Brooklyn College. So, my education did not cost me anything. And they had this little fund already set aside, and that's what sent me to Israel, although I was subsidized by IZFA, which was the International Zionist Federation of America 29:00and the Jewish Agency. And I was at a ZOA meeting, and one of my former teachers from high school happened to look into where I was at in an executive board meeting and he called me out. He said, "What are you doing here?" And I told him that I belonged to the organization, I was leading a choir. And he said, "Would you like a job?" I said, "A job? Sure!" He said, "You'd -- would you like to be a youth leader?" I said, "Sure," 'cause I -- I'd -- had quite a good background. He says, "I'll pay you four dollars an hour." Well, four dollars an hour, my God! "I'll take it! (laughs) I'll take it!" And that got me involved with a lot of youth groups in various synagogues, and that's when I decided to go into Jewish education. And I studied -- yeah, I studied at Hebrew Union College, at the satellite school in Rockville Center in Long Island. 30:00
LY:Going back to Palestine for one moment -- I think you mentioned before theinterview started that speaking Yiddish there was quite interesting.
DBF:It was non-existent in public. And I remember I didn't know Hebrew that -- Iknew Hebrew, but the -- I'd start off in Hebrew. What I didn't know in Hebrew, I said in Yiddish. And what I didn't know in Yiddish, I said in English. One of my mother's friends, every time I came to visit, would gather all her neighbors to listen to the meshugene American speak. But every time I tried to use Yiddish -- and I didn't realize this when I -- before I went -- people on the street would give me looks like drop dead, something like that. They wanted to do away with the feeling of galut [Diaspora], the feeling of the Holocaust. You had to be Israeli, you had to speak Hebrew. But they didn't realize that when my father came over and the original pioneers came over and they all came -- those that 31:00came from Eastern Europe, their first language there was Yiddish. Because, at home, they never really spoke the language of the country. It was Yiddish that they spoke. That's what kept the Jews together all these years. I remember when I came back from Palestine -- oh, I got myself in Palestine! When I came back from Israel and we stopped in France on the way back, we were sponsored by a Jewish youth group. And the only way -- and we went to a movie one night, an Italian movie, and I had the fella sitting next to me translating the Italian into Yiddish, and I was translating the Yiddish into English to the person next to me. I waited for the movies to come to the United States to figure out if I was right or not. (laughs) But it was very, very difficult. They just did not want Yiddish. And I think they -- they really lost the tam, the feeling of -- of the Jewish people that were -- that was wiped out, because they took that all away from the people who had it to bring with them. 32:00
LY:It sounds like you had a lot of that in your home growing up. You had thatfeeling, that --
LY:-- the culture, the --
LY:-- music, the --
DBF:Yes. My parents sang. My mother had a lovely voice. My father had a lovelyvoice. And I know we always sang Avrom Reyzen songs because my mother was so close to Avrom Reyzen. A lot of his poetry was set to music. When it came to Passover, we always attended the third seder, which was done in Yiddish, and Sidor Belarsky used to do all the singing. So, we --
LY:Where was that?
DBF:Some -- I don't remember the hotel, but some hotel in New York. All theorganizations would get together, Yiddish-speaking organizations would get together for the third seder. And after a while, he didn't do it, but I can't remember the name of the woman that took -- that started after him. But it was always a feeling of warmth, of being close to your roots, of appreciating what 33:00went before and hoping that it would be better for years to come. And I grew to love the Yiddish and Hebrew music. And the year after I was in Israel, I had a scholarship to the Brandeis Hebrew-run institute in California. And I studied with Max Helfman. And some people may not know his name, others might if they're in the field of music. [Shlomo Rivzovsky?] who was the foremost teacher of cantillation at Hebrew University at that time -- Hebrew -- not Hebrew University. Hebrew Union College. Some of the -- I can't think of the names now. My age is catching up to me. But some of the greatest as far as who wrote music, I sang their music. And I still entertain to this day. I can sing anything from blues to opera. Opera I won't touch anymore. I'm too old. But I specialize in 34:00the Hebrew and the Yiddish.
LY:Will you sing one of your favorite Yiddish songs?
DBF:I'll do better.
DBF:I'm going to have to -- need -- I need this.
DBF:My mother -- when my mother moved from New Hyde Park, when we -- she livedwith us for the first seventeen years my husband and I were married. When she moved to Florida -- because a lot of her sisters and brothers -- and we had loads of family on the east coast in Florida -- she moved to Miami Beach. She joined the choir, whose conductor was [Mordecai Ordainey?], a very well-known Israeli composer and choir conductor. And she was always -- you know, I was surprised when she told me she showed him some of the poetry. And he asked her if he could set one of her poems to music. And she said, "Sure, under one condition. You set it in a key my daughter can sing." (laughs) And so, he said, 35:00"Okay." So, she called me up and she said, "Diana, what's your voice range?" And I told her. And I got the song, after he composed it. It was done in five flats. (laughs) I'm a singer, I'm not a pianist. And when I had to practice, it was murder for me. Fortunately, a friend of mine's son was a musician and -- with the computer, he took it down one tone, which made no flats and no sharps. Made it very easy to me. I'd like to read -- all right, I should have had this marked. I didn't know I was --
DBF:-- going to be -- I'd like to --
DBF:-- sing one of the songs. This song is -- here it is. This song is called"Ikh benk zikh," "I Am Longing," and she wrote this when she was in the United States. And --
LY:And Diana --
DBF:Oh, I'm sorry.
DBF:It says, "I am longing now for those bygone Friday nights. Our home shone so36:00brightly with splendor divine, and piously the candles in their candlesticks twinkle, all the preparations aglow with the sabbath's special charms. There's a sweet scene in the air of wine and of fish. The table's bedecked with a cloth white as snow. Two beautiful fresh challahs grace the head of the table, braided with love by my mother's own hand. Each of us listens to our father with wonder as he intones the blessings o'er the sweet sabbath wine. We all feel embraced by the holy old faith that flutters in our hearts like the wings of a dove, that flutters in our hearts like the wings of a dove." I'll just sing the first -- first stanza. (singing) "Es benk zikh mir itst nokhn fraytik tsu nakht. Di shtub 37:00iz tseblizt mit heylike prakht, un frumen di laykhter es finklendik likht mit khon far di shabes iz alts tsugeglit."
DBF:That's one stanza.
LY:How does it feel to sing your mother's words like that?
DBF:Well, no matter what I sing, I feel I'm singing her words because of thebackground she gave me and so forth. And the understanding -- I mean, I have an awful lot to thank her and my father for. My father played a big part, although 38:00he -- my mother played more of a part, 'cause he was -- worked very hard. He used to work twelve hours a day sometimes. He didn't come home in the beginning because he was in the shop. And I'll never forget, when I was in Europe, I was in Munich with my husband when he was in the army. I was there to stay with him, and I got a telegram that my father had passed away, to please come home. As an only child -- my mother was alone and I felt she needed me. She had a business to sell and so forth. And I remember sitting in the shop, getting calls to place people for work. And every -- when the woman who called from the employment agency spoke to me and I told her my father had passed away, I heard her start to cry. And I said to her, "Why are you crying?" She says, "I've never met your father in person." She spent all these years on the phone. "He was a prince of a 39:00man." His shop was not unionized for many, many, many years. And when the -- someone from the union final-- got a job in the shop and started to unionize the shops, the men didn't want to be unionized, 'cause my father was very good to them. In fact, I found a piece of jewelry they gave my father in 1939 that said, "To A.B., Aaron Bregman, with love from the boys." From the men in the shop. He gave -- once the shop became unionized, they lost privileges. My father went beyond. And during the war, he -- my -- essence -- my father dealt with steel. He could have made a fortune in the black market. Even though we struggled, he said, "Absolutely no." He says, "This country's been very good to me. I will not do that." And in the struggle -- of course, I had to -- had her -- have to have her singing lessons and her dancing lessons, go to yidishe shule, take her piano lessons and so forth -- we started out living in a three-and-a-half room 40:00apartment. So, in order to save money to give me all these things, we moved to a two-room ap-- two-and-a-half room apartment. And whatever -- when my mother -- whatever she saved, she continued to give me all the things she felt I needed. And I'll never forget the time I rebelled. "I don't want to take these lessons anymore! I want to be free! I want to play with my friends!" My mother said to me, "Sit down, Danile. Let's have a little shmues," you know, have a little talk. She says, "What are you going to remember in ten years from now? What will stay with you? The fact that you hit another ball? Or you played in these -- on you-- on your tummy in the -- in the gutter with the boys?" I -- I was a tomboy. She said, "You think about it and you let me know." And we had a long -- and after reading the translation of the letter that she answered -- and one with in the "Tog," I can understand why she won me over and how -- how do you deal with children? I said to her, "You're right, mom. I'll take the lessons." (laughs) 41:00And I have a lot to be thankful for, 'cause if she let me slide by and have my way, my whole life might have been different. My whole feelings of life might have been different.
LY:So, what else do you remember about her as a mother, as a -- sounds like shewas -- she talked to you, she was very --
DBF:Yeah, I remember one time getting very angry at her. And she loved herhouse. She -- I mean, she wasn't a house nut, but she loved her house. She was very artistic. In fact, I have pictures in here of her paintings, of her shell work. I mean, she just didn't put a shell outline on a frame. She created flowers out of shells. I remember when we came to Florida and we would take her to the beach to pick up the shells -- she'd come home with hundreds of shells, wash them and set them out on a table, discard half of them. And she would keep the ones with colors, so that if she made a flower it was natural color. She'd 42:00-- but one petal of a flower could have about six shells, because she made it three -- beautiful, absolutely beautiful, and her paintings would be beautiful. But I remember the worst thing I could do to her was take all the pillows and throw 'em on the floor. So, she went over and she says, "Oh, let's have some fun!" And she started throwing the pillows on the floor with me. And I said that's not going to work. It's not getting her mad. (laughs) I mean, she always had a way of talking to me and winning me over. But that didn't always mean she got her way and it didn't always mean I got my way. (laughs) You know, growing up, you want your independence and so forth. But in retrospect, she kept me on the straight and narrow. And not only that, she cut the apron strings very early. People are very surprised when they find out I'm an only child. I went into New York City from Brooklyn, by myself, and got off the train. I was ten. 43:00Before that, when I went to yidishe shule, there was a contest in the shule. We were each handed a blue and white Keren Kayemeth box to collect money for the JNF for the trees. I said to my mother -- I must have been about nine at the time. I said, "I want to go on the subway and collect money. That's the best place to find people." She says, "Go!" 'Cause then -- the subways in those days were safe. You didn't -- when I went home at night, when I got older, never had to look over my shoulder when I walked home. And I would -- I had a whole speech made out, and we had little flowers to hand out. And I collected quite a bit of money. And when I took the box to the shule and they found dollar bills -- and remember, dollar bills in those days, when you got on the subway for a nickel, was a lot of money -- I won. I still have the little round copper pin of the chalutz holding a hoe on his shoulder with a KK -- you know, Keren Kayemeth 44:00LeIsrael written around it. So, she cut her strings. When I went to Israel, I didn't know a soul on that trip. I was eighteen and a ha-- no. Yeah, I was eighteen and a half. Eighteen -- no, maybe nineteen. I don't remember.
LY:So, she encouraged independence?
DBF:She encouraged me.
DBF:And, as a result, I've encouraged my own children. My younger daughterbecame very involved with Judaism. When I was teaching, I was appointed a master teacher by Hebrew Union -- by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Board of Jewish Education in New York City, and I trained faculties on how to incorporate music, dance, and art in the classroom curriculum if you didn't have a specialist. And I also trained not only faculties but student teachers. And as a result, right here in Great Barrington, at Camp Eisner, we used to come up 45:00with some of the prof-- rabbis from Hebrew Union College during the Thanksgiving vacation, the Christmas vacation, and then -- of course, for us, it was Hanukkah. Whether it was early or late, it was always Hanukkah. And we'd come up during the spring vacation, which was Pesach. And I remember shlepping the ditto -- old ditto machine with the purple ink -- where the students would make their own Haggadahs, at -- I mean, everything was creative and everything had the Jewish tam to it. And I just lost my train of thought. Was -- you -- what was your question? (laughs)
LY:I've lost it, too. (laughter)
DBF:Okay. No, that she was -- yeah, okay, that was it.
LY:But, I mean, it sounds like you got from your mother this --
DBF:Oh, I remember what I was --
DBF:-- just going to say. (laughter) When my younger daughter --
DBF:-- Kay -- my -- one of my perks for teaching up there, which I did not getpaid for. I volun-- I volunteer for everything. Everybody thinks I'm crazy, but 46:00I volunteer for every -- all the programs I do for Federation in the Berkshires, I will not take any money. I mean, this is my contribution, for what I've been given in my lifetime. So, my -- one of my perks was having my family up there. And my younger daughter took to Israeli dancing. And she danced with the Fred Berk Israeli folk dance festival at Alice Tully Hall for a number of years. She danced in the Israeli Day Parade down Fifth Avenue and conked out for three days. (laughs) She couldn't move afterwards. And I remember it -- her -- promising her a trip to Israel when she -- and she also taught -- taught folk dancing at -- she started to learn at eleven. By eleven and a half, she was teaching folk dancing at one of the synagogues I was teaching at. I promised her a trip to Israel. And she came to me in her junior high school year and she said, "You know, mom? I figured out my schedule for next year. I can graduate in 47:00three and a half, in January. I want to go to Israel." And she did. She was in Israel that whole semester, last semester plus the summer, and then she traveled in Europe. And I made her promise -- I said, "When -- you must come home to start college." Because my mother said to me, when I went, she knew the lure of the land. She said, "You must come home and finish college." If I had not promised, I would not have come home. My daughter said if she had not promised, she would not have come home. Now, she began teaching in religious school, and my granddaughter was an aid in religious school. She started traveling at age eleven. She was tapped by People to People, which was a group that President Eisenhower formed, saying that the young people are the best ambassadors in the world. She's very bright -- and you have to be invited. So, at age eleven, she 48:00studied all winter long about England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales and went with the group. The foll-- at eleven. At twelve, she went to Australia and New Zealand. At thirteen, they wanted her to go to the Mediterranean. She says, "No, I want to go to a Jewish camp." So, she was very active, teaching Hebrew all those years in the temple. She started -- and she landed up, also, getting paid as she got older. And she said, "You know what? I want to go to Israel the first half of my junior year." And she did.
LY:This is your granddaughter?
DBF:She was there the first half of her junior year. She loved it. And I sat herdown one day and I said, "Erica, you're a smart young lady. If you can read Hebrew, you're going to read Yiddish." And I showed her the very small difference between reading Yiddish and Hebrew was the dots and dashes. In 49:00Yiddish, you have letters. She could read Yiddish. And I've started to try to teach her words in Yiddish and so forth. I'm hoping someday she'll come here, (laughs) you know, as an intern, and -- now, she just graduated high school and she's going to college. But --
DBF:-- and then, the other -- and my daughter, also, I -- would -- when she wasin college, she said, "Oh, they have a wonderful trip in the fall, to England, but I can't go because I will be an undergraduate." I said, "Lindaleh darling, drop a course. You won't graduate." And that's what she did. And she went to England. She lived in England for a year. I almost didn't get her back that time, 'cause I didn't make her promise. If she could have gotten a job, she would've stayed in England. (laughs) But --
LY:So, was this important to you, when you were raising your kids, to kind ofpass on the tam, the Jewish culture --
LY:-- that you felt you got?
LY:And how did you do that, and --
DBF:Well, first of all, my mother lived with us the first seventeen years, so --and we had what we called a mother-daughter house. The upstairs was my mother's apartment. So, she had her own kitchen. My mother was very smart. She says, "Two women in one house will never get along with one kitchen." So, we made -- we got variances and so forth. We made up an apartment for her upstairs. All the holidays were spent upstairs. The girls went and cooked with my mother for all the holidays. And she, of course, gave them the tam [taste], also. When my aunts and uncles came to visit, they marched upstairs. "You want to visit with us? Come to your mother's" -- up there. The kids would run, you know. And they -- we celebrated all the holidays together. I had all the family to the house for all the holidays, for Pesach and so forth. Hanukkah. Purim. And we went to various places to celebrate. And they got the feeling. I taught religious school for 51:00twenty years. They -- and my younger daughter's favorite wish was, "Oh, I'm going to be in my mother's class!" And I kind of did her dirty, because I got tapped that year to lead the music program. (laughs) So, she never had me as a teacher. (laughs)
LY:Do you have any specific memories of those holidays spent together orfavorite moments from --
DBF:Yes. There were a couple of uncles in my husband's family that never wantedto come to family functions. And I kind of prevailed upon them, "Give it a try. You might like it." And believe it or not, they used to come every Pesach to the house and participated and so forth. And it was nice getting together. And so, I was brought up with a very, very close family on my mother's side. My father had 52:00very little family. So, the fact that I was able to have my husband's family to the house was very meaningful for me and my girls. My family was so large that we used to hire a hall when I was a kid, I remember, in the Lower East Side. And we had a family club that got together once a month. And every month, my mother had to reintroduce me to some of my cousins. But we -- those of us who were still alive -- the first cousins and the second cousins and the third, (laughs) you kn-- still very close. Like, when I put the book out, I did it for family. Never in a million years had thoughts of doing it for public consumption. I did copyright it, because my mother always wanted her stuff in a book, copyrighted. So, I did that for her, not to sell. But I did it for the family and I -- that's why, in the book that I have now, there are loads and loads of family pictures. 53:00There's loads and loads of little stories about the family. And I sent it to my first cousin. I started getting phone calls. Their children had seen it. "Do you have one to send to so-and-so? Do you have" -- after that, their children wanted copies. So, I made a few more copies and I sent it out to the entire family. And I said, "You know what? If it's that meaningful to the family, maybe somebody else would enjoy it." I started giving lectures on the book. And after every lecture, people want to buy the book. I said, "I'm sorry. I don't have a book to sell." I hope someday to have this book edited to the point where the nuts and the bolts and the kitchen sink -- everything that I threw in that doesn't belong in a book for public consumption is out. And a lot of the pictures. And maybe -- you know, let somebody else have pleasure. 'Cause I have some friends and some cousins who tell me they have the book right by their bed at night, and they'll 54:00go to the book -- the section in the book. The -- and, of course, everything is categorized according to a topic. They'll go to the topic in the book that has meaning for them that day and read some of the poetry.
LY:Was it a goal of your mother's to have a published book?
DBF:She always wanted a published book. But as -- as I said, she was aperfectionist. She was always crossing out and revising. I don't think she threw out a shred of paper, because she must have had a premonition she was gonna pass away. Unfortunately, she had premonitions all her life, and those premonitions always came through. She took me into her room and she said, "You see the books and all the peklekh [packages] and then -- oh, everything. The suitcases, she says, "That's all my writings." She says, "Gather them together when I die. Keep them together." And when I came home and then I started looking -- I always knew 55:00she wrote. I always read her poetry, even before she sent it in. She wrote English poetry, too, which I used to help her with, with spelling and stuff like that. 'Cause she never finished school, by the way. She was pulled out at -- sixth grade, in order to work for the family. So, she always felt a lack of schooling. She would have been outstanding had she had the schooling, 'cause she was outstanding without it. When I got home and I looked at all of this -- and for one poem, I would have something like this. Crossings out, ripped things out, revisions. And see -- and when I did the book, I didn't know what you put -- I put in everything. My translator would send me back something and say to me, "This is not for publication. This is not for publication." But when I finally did it, I said, "Everything's for publication." It's her thoughts, it's for publication. And it's only for family and friends, and that's why -- the book is over three hundred pages, (laughs) with loads of pictures.
LY:So, that must have been quite a process, going through these suitcases and --56:00
DBF:And the thing is, fortunately for me, her handwriting is so clear. Becauseif I had a problem reading her handwriting -- not -- I mean, the things that were printed in the newspapers and the magazines -- I mean, that's a no-brainer. But the individual handwriting -- sometimes, I can't even read English handwriting. To be able to read her Yiddish handwriting made it much easier for me. And there are many, many things that are still not translated. Especially her diaries. A good part of letters that she has. Like, I have translations of Yiddish letters from various writers in the book, encouraging her and so forth. If it weren't for the fact that I could read her handwriting, it never would have been done. And I said, My God, this treasure trove -- and the depth in 57:00which she thought, for someone who -- she considered herself uneducated -- she was very well-educated. I had a cousin -- he's not living anymore -- who was the president of the National Psychoanalytical Society -- Freudian Society. And I remember even growing up in Brighton, everybody in the family had a key to our house. Friday night, we'd hear the lock go. Who's coming for the weekend, especially in the summer? He would call her, even as a kid, to have discussions about literature. She read voraciously. And as an adult, he would send her -- everything he published to her. So, even though she didn't consider herself educated, she was very well self-educated. Anything she wanted to know, too -- she went to school. I remember when we bought a house in Manhattan Beach, four-family house, a corner house with loads and loads of ground, she instinctively thought the gardener didn't know what he was doing. So, she went 58:00to Brooklyn College and took a botany course. Fired the gardener. (laughs) Luckily for me, when she lived with us, she was my gardener. (laughs) But --
LY:So, who did she read? Who -- what authors do you think were influential to her?
DBF:Oh, Dreiser. Dostoyevsky. The greats. Shakespeare. The Yiddish writers. Igave loads of books to the Yiddish Book Center. She read all the Yiddish writers. In fact, when she came to visit us for the summer, I'll never forget, I brought her here, to the Book Center. And she met Aaron. I don't know if Aaron will remember her, but she had a conversation with him about the authors that -- he was so amazed. He says, "Half of the people around here don't even know who they are." But she knew them, or she knew of them -- not personally, but through 59:00their writings. And she read very much. And, of course, she was encouraged by all the Yiddish writers who wanted her to write to read more and more of the Yiddish writers, to get an idea of different cadences, of different thoughts and how you put things together -- but to retain her own individuality. And I don't know if I told you this story: when we came and you were -- was it the -- Holyoke, with the -- and the books were up on the top floor in the warehouse. Oh, excuse me. (laughs) The -- on the top floor of the warehouse, and there was a little sign at the bottom of the floor, Tokyo was X thousands of miles away, and then Russia thousands of miles away, and this and that, I think. He says, "But we're only four flights up, so take the -- take the walk." And in the second landing, there was a big, soft chair. And I said, "Ma, you want to rest?" She says, "No, I want to go upstairs." And she wouldn't even take the elevator. 60:00She was in her eighties at the time. And we went up there and we spoke to Aaron. And he spoke to her a few times. And the second summer that you had here at the Center, there was a summer school for about a week or two weeks or something like that -- mother came. She was the oldest one here, and she said it made her so happy to be here to see all the young people, so that the Jewish language would carry on. There was a future for the Jewish language. And I remember, when I was in camp, in Kinderwelt, on visiting day, my mother and father would come to visit. So, Stanley and I made the trip, in the middle of the week, (laughs) from Lee to visit her at camp. (laughs) The camp -- the National Yiddish Book Center. And we came just in time for one of Adrienne Cooper's classes. (laughs) So, my mother was in the front, singing, and when we came in, she went like 61:00this. She says, "You know the song! Come sing with me!" (laughs) I did. (laughs) And then --
LY:So, she was involved with the book center early on.
DBF:She sent me a notice she saw in the Pioneer Women's magazine --
DBF:-- about the Book Center wanting books. And she was already in Florida. Andshe had left all her precious books -- she had no room for them. She just took a few of her very, very favorites, and the rest she left with me. She says, "I want you" -- she says, "Find out how far it is from you in Massachusetts, and I want you to give them the books." And that's what we did. And that was the -- our first introduction to the Center was at the school in Amherst, which they rented, I think, for a dollar for that one year. I don't know how many years they were there. And they immediately took out of the pack a book by Sholem -- no, by Avrom Reyzen, a children's book. And they had a children's place for 62:00children to play and whatever when the -- while the people, the parents, looked around. They put it under glass, so it must have been precious, yeah.
LY:So, let me ask you one more question about your mother, just -- I'm wonderingif you have memories of how and when she wrote when you were a kid? Did she have a desk that she sat at? Was it whenever the inspiration struck her? How often was she writing?
DBF:She was continuously writing. That's why everything is on scraps of paper.She -- if a thought came to her at the table, she'd write on the napkin. If a thought came to her where we -- at a play or something -- they took me to the Yiddish theater. I think I spent every Saturday and Saturday morning at the Yiddish theater. Sometimes we took a lunch, sometimes we didn't. She would write, continuously. And that's why she had variations of various poems, which I find in this book. A number of things are very redundant. But there's a 63:00different thought, there's a different twist. Whether she would have eventually taken the different things and put them together had she lived to two hundred (laughs) -- she was -- she was remarkable. She had her faculty 'til the day she went into the hospital. She took her daily constitution, she read "The New York Times" -- went into the hospital and passed away in nineteen days. She had pancreatic cancer. Never said a word about how she felt that whole year. Not a word. We were ready to come up to Massachusetts and my mother said to me, "You know, before you leave, I'd like you to take me to the doctor." And that's when we found out and they put her into the hospital immediately. She was never a burden. When she lived with us, my husband said he saw less of her living with us than he saw of his own mother, who didn't live with us. (laughs) She kept to herself. She never wanted to intrude. And I'll never forget, when Stanley first came home from the army, I had a big party for all my friends and some of my 64:00cousins, whom I -- were friends. And I invited my mother. And she says, "No." I said, "What do you mean, no?" She said, "If I lived up the block or in another community, would you invite me? Tell me the truth." I said, "Frankly, no." She said, "So, why? Because I'm in the house? I'm your mother. I'm not your -- I'm your -- I'm a friend and I'm your mother. But you have to have time with your own friends. I will not intrude." And that's why she always had the family come up to her. Very independent.
DBF:Very independent. And I just hope I did a mitzvah by this. I -- can I showyou what she looked like?
DBF:This is her. She's in her eighties. I know it's making noise.
DBF:And this is her --
DBF:-- in her twenties.
LY:Beautiful. I definitely think you did a mitzvah with that book, and we65:00definitely want to have a copy here --
LY:-- to read through it slowly and get to read each --
DBF:And please forgive me for all the mistakes that I made, 'cause it never wasreally edited. I found something in here that I said, "gerotn fin der bobe [takes after his grandmother]" -- I crossed it out and put "di bobe [his grandmother, with feminine article]," you know, because I -- there were some times in the book where I showed where each of us in the family was very much like my mother. Yeah.
LY:So, we've been talking about your mother and some about your childhood. Let'sjust switch gears for a minute. And I want to ask you to give me kind of a snapshot of your life today. Where do you live, who do you -- who's in your family? What do you do?
DBF:My life today. Well, Stanley and I divide the year between Boynton Beach,Florida, and Lee, Massachusetts. We happen to love the activities up here. There's so much more for us to do, culturally and otherwise. I am fortunate I 66:00have a daughter who lives in Lenox. My younger daughter lives in Florida with the family and the two grandchildren. We are volunteers. We believe in giving back to the community for all the joy that it gives to us. We volunteer in nine different theaters. We volunteer in the gift shop at Tanglewood. I volunteer for Federation through my programs. We attend every lecture, everything we can in the Berkshires. I know I'm making noise, but I can't help it. In the Berkshires, this is what is put out. The Berkshire Jewish calendar for the whole summer. They also have a magazine called the Jewish -- "Berkshire Jewish Voice," and I'm leaving with you an article about myself and my husband and a blurb about the 67:00concert I'm giving in -- a Yiddish concert in August, with -- immigration to the United States, with beautiful songs and -- lot of which people know. And not only do we volunteer, but we belong to every single -- we donate to every single one of the organizations we volunteer for. It's our way of saying thank you. We belong to the National Yiddish Book Center. I can't give you -- I'm not gonna give you a list of everything else we belong to. Even the ones we don't volunteer to -- we belong to all the maga-- we belong to all the museums. In fact, we even belong to the one in Boston, because we enjoy -- we try to enjoy life. Life is short. And I like to -- and I like to pass this on to the people I'm with. I enjoy singing. I've sung ever since I was a kid. When I graduated elementary school, I got the music medal. When I graduated high school, I got the Brooklyn Eagle Scholastic Press Award, because I didn't know whether I was 68:00going to be a writer or a singer. I turned -- and, of course, I can do both, and I'm in education. I'm in Jewish education for twenty years. I had a parallel career in the New York City School System. I worked with disabled children in special education, and I also taught music. I find I've had a very full life. And I wouldn't give it up for anything.
LY:So, you're so involved with music, theater, performance. And you said youbelonged to museums and the arts seem to be very central to your family. And I'm just wondering, what is it about the creative arts that you find so important and compelling?
DBF:Well, with all the meshugaas that's going on in the world today, it givesyou a sense of relief, a sense of warmth, a sense of appreciation for what other 69:00people can do constructively and beautifully. I find there's very little I can watch on television, because I'm tired of seeing bodies chopped up. And unfortunately, this is what our kids get to see. I feel a lot of creativeness in our kids are being stolen from them, because they're constantly being shown what to do on the computer. I mean, I remember, as a kid, growing up with radio, before television, and listening to some of these marvelous programs, and hearing the sound effects. And I'll never forget the first time my father took me to my first radio program. We went to see "The Shadow Knows," Lamont Cranston. I cried. I mean, the people walking were a block of sticks. The sizzling in the kitchen was cellophane paper. But I began to appreciate the ingenuity you have to have to give these ideas over the air for people to enjoy. 70:00And I think the fact that my parents were creative, and they loved music -- my mother always took me to the Brooklyn Museum. We couldn't afford to really go into -- to shows, except, of course, the Yiddish theater. And we -- I lived in the Brooklyn Museum. I saw my first ballet in the Brooklyn Museum -- although, later on, mother used to take me to the ballet at the old Metropolitan Opera. I was very fortunate. I don't know where my mother had the gumption and the guts to do this, but my first ballet teacher was Michel Fokine, the great Russian choreographer. He had a studio in Riverside Drive in New York. And she used to take me as a four or a five-year-old to him, because I was always heavy. And my mother said, "All right, if this is her nature, to be heavy, she's not going to be a klutz. She's going to learn to be grate-- graceful." And I do happen to 71:00have an instep of a dancer. And I don't remember this. This is what my mother tells me, so I take it with a grain of salt. She said after every session, he would pick me up, put me on the piano, and kiss my instep. I said, "Ma! Please!" She said, "It's truth, and it's" -- and this -- but it might -- but it must have been worthwhile, because I remember when I was in Kinderwelt, and Joseph Rumshinsky was the music director in the adult camp one year, Sholom Secunda was the music director another year. Lazar Weiner was the music director another year. These are great names. We used to -- in Kinderwelt, we used to put on a show for the adults on Friday night. And I was in a show, and I came out to dance. And my mother says -- she always told me this story, and she was hysterical, if she -- she said there was a couple sitting in back. And I was heavy. And the man saw us walk out and he says, "Ah, kukh oys af d'grob yung -- 72:00d'grob yung, kukes oys [look at the fat child -- the fat child, look]!" My mother didn't turn around, she didn't say anything. At the end of the performance, she heard him say to his wife, "D'grob yung! Zi iz nisht azoy shlekht. [The fat child! She isn't so bad.]" (laughs) She's not so bad. So, the dancing lessons paid off. And I love to dance today. I'm a folk dancer, I'm a square dancer. (laughs) I've taught folk dancing. And I just love to dance. My -- you know, social dancing and so forth. Even danced on the stage of Jacob's Pillow one year, for a week.
DBF:Yeah. Liz Lerman came with a -- intergenerational group, and she called forpeople in the community to try out. I tried out. I was accepted. And I danced! (laughs)
LY:That's so funny.
DBF:I said, "If mama could only see me now." (laughs)
DBF:She was alive at the time, but she wasn't there.
LY:Wow. Tell me a little bit more about your teaching, your -- just career73:00outside of performing, your teaching in the New York Public Schools and --
DBF:I was -- I started teaching in 1952. And I was a first-grade teacher. Imarried my husband, and he was being sent overseas. And he was sent to Munich, Germany. And I said, "Oh my God, of all the countries, I'm not going to Germany." I went. The -- I was only there three weeks and I had already had an interview to teach in one of the schools for officers' children. I had already made up with the chaplain. I was going to give a course in Jewish music. I had already sent home for all my materials that I needed that I had not taken with 74:00me when I got a phone call that my father passed away. So, I went back to the United States and I picked up on my teaching in another elementary school in the district. And second grade this time, and I stayed until I gave birth to my first child, Amy. She's the one that lives in Lenox. But I missed working with children. But I wanted -- I didn't want to go back. I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. But I -- and a friend of mine whose daughter was having a problem with Hebrew said to me, "Diana, could you help my daughter?" I said, "Sure." And I started to teach her. But teaching a language -- teaching a child to read who knows the language is half the battle. Teaching a child who doesn't know the language how to read and then learn the language is very difficult. And I didn't feel I was giving my best. And I had a friend who was teaching a religious school. And she kept saying to me, "Teach, Diana. Teach." I said, 75:00"Leave me alone." "Teach, Diana." "Leave me alone." She was taking Hebrew at the HUC satellite school in Rockville Center. And I asked her if I could come and speak to her Hebrew teacher. She said, "Sure." So, I came and I sat in the room, and all the things that I had missed in the years since I had been in Israel and gotten away from it came flooding back. And I spoke to the teacher and I said, "Is it too late for me to register for this class?" She said, "No, but you won't get credit." I said, "That's okay." And I came to the class, and a funny -- of course, this was the basic beginner's class. Whenever she was out, she'd call me and say, "Could you take the class for me?" And I had a -- I had a lot of fun doing that. And one of the fellas in the class said to me, "Diana, why don't you teach?" I said, "Leave me alone." But then, I took a course in Basic Judaism, 76:00which was a -- Comparative Judaism, which was comparing Orthodoxy, Conservatism, Reform, and Reconstructionist. I didn't know where the heck I belonged. I mean, I had Conservative feelings, and yet I felt I couldn't be a Conservative, because I couldn't follow everything all the way through. So, I took that course to find out what kind of Jew I am. And it was a very interesting course, and they should give that course more often. You took a basic law or tenet -- first, you discuss the philosophy of each of the four groups, so you knew where you were coming from when you took a law apart: why the Orthodox feel this way, why the Conservative, why the Reconstructionist, and why the Reform. I found out I was a Reform Jew. But -- and then, I took one other course in Reform Judaism. I 77:00wanted to know what Reform Judaism was. And this fella used to come to my house. And these courses I was taking, by the way, for credit at that point. I was taking other courses. And he would come to my house, we would study together. He'd bring his laundry, there was (laughs) laundry and we would study. And I finally -- to get him off my back, I said, "Bill, where do you teach?" He said, "I teach at Temple Emanuel in Great Neck, New York." I said, "Okay, I will go for an interview. Who do I get in touch with?" And the name of the man who was in charge was Alan Bennet. And I went. But while -- before I went, I wrote to the board of Jewish education in New York to find out what courses did I lack in order to become a teacher? Because in the Reform movement, you must be certified. And I sent my certificate from Israel, all my background, my Yiddish shule, the Talmud Torah, and so I got back -- the only course I had to take was 78:00one in Reform Judaism. So, I went to see him and I was totally prepared to say no. Well, the man mesmerized me. Number one, this was not his avocation. This was his vocation, being a religious school teacher. And I just wanted to work for him. And I said, "Okay." He says, "You're lucky that we didn't have the interview last week," he said, "because now I have an -- I have a position to offer you." And he offered me the position. I said, "I'll take it." And we shook hands, I got up to walk out, and he says to me, "Diana?" I said, "What?" He says, "Don't you want to know what your salary is?" I wanted to work for him so much, I didn't even ask. And unfortunately, for me, fortunately for him, he got a marvelous job somewhere out in Cincinnati and he left. But it -- and so, I was there for twenty years. But the thing is, as a master teacher, I used to flit 79:00around from synagogue to synagogue giving workshops and training teachers. And I worked at various different synagogues because I missed the kids. And I could do that while my kids were in school. Because, number one, my mother was home, and number two, my husband was home -- when they came back, you know, from teaching. And I was there all day.
LY:Sounds like the perfect mix of your desire to be around children and arts andmusic and Jewish tam in one --
LY:-- career. (laughs)
DBF:Yeah. I mean, we used -- in fact, another friend of mine and I used to run-- for Temple Sinai in Roslyn -- we ran art, music, and dance workshop. The time I did art with these children -- and it was all Judaic art, and we did win a couple of prizes for our work. She would do the dance -- when she did the art, I 80:00did the music. And then, we would put on a comb-- a festival at the end of the year.
LY:So, let's wrap up with a few questions sort of reflecting back. I was -- Ijust wanted to ask you what you think that your mother's legacy has been for you? What has she left you with?
DBF:She's left me with all my Yiddishkayt. So has my father. She's left me withunderstanding that you work from people's strengths, not their weaknesses. I have found in life -- because of her philosophy, I have made some of my weaknesses my strengths, because I've worked on them -- that weaknesses 81:00sometimes are worth working on. She's left me with a feeling of warmth, a feeling of connection to my people. And it all comes from the home. It comes from the home. It comes from the shule. But it basically begins in the home. If you don't have that will at the home to impart this, the going to shule means nothing, because the parent probably wouldn't even send you to shule. And it's made me want to stay in touch. And I still do. I still give lectures. As I said, I get a -- in the temple I belong to in Florida, I've given lectures on Israel. I've given lectures on Hanukkah. Opened up a few eyes about (laughs) -- about Hanukkah. And I find I'm not wrong in -- I was amazed to find that the 82:00beginnings of -- the meanings of Hanukkah, because I'd heard some of the rabbis give the same stories. I won't give them here, because you might have a lot of flak. No, that -- that Hanukkah was really a continuation of the celebration of Shavuot. The -- no, Sukko-- excuse me. Excuse me. It's Sukkot. The fighting started around Sukkot, and when they came to the temple, they hang -- they hung up their spears. And the spears were the -- and this is all documented, and I gave it with all the documentation and so forth at the temple. And then, I heard Rabbi Goldwasser give the -- practically the same -- who was in North Adams -- give the same approach. So, it's very fascinating, because the more you read, the more you learn. And we had a big Hanukkah celebration. I just enjoy it.
LY:So, did your mother talk -- or your father talk to you explicitly about the83:00importance of Yiddiskhayt and staying connected to your people? Or was it just implicit?
DBF:I think I talked more about that to my children than my mother talked to me.First of all, I had the language. The language facility. I had the Yiddish theater. I had the Yiddish music. With my children, sometimes I felt I was, like, on a soap opera -- a soapbox, because I didn't -- I wanted them to have the same feelings I had. But the home was different. I mean, I was first in the -- first generation American. I came -- I grew up in an immigrant home, which makes a big difference. What I -- it stayed with them. I mean, my daughter would not have wanted to go to Israel, or my granddaughter. They wouldn't have taught in the religious school. And, in fact, my daughter was one of the founders of 84:00her temple. So, I think it has stayed with me. It certainly has stayed with me, and through me, I hope, with my children. I hope with my grandchil-- and with my grandchildren. I hope with my great-grandchildren. That's gonna be the test. (laughs) That's going to be the test, yeah.
LY:How does the language itself, Yiddish -- how do you feel when you get to hearit and speak it today?
DBF:You mean the mame-loshn [mother tongue]? (laughs)
DBF:At home. At home and at peace. And it -- you just hear Yiddish and itconjures up all sorts of memories. It's not like speaking English. I mean, you speak English, you're speaking English. You sit down and you think about your memories. But when you speak Yiddish, the memories are there. It's a part of you. And I bless Aaron. I bless the Center. I bless you for being here. And I 85:00hope that the Yiddish rubs off on all the young people that come here, and someday they could have the same -- the same feelings that us oldsters have. (laughs)
LY:Do you have any advice for young people who want to stay connected to theJewish or Yiddish culture today, or --
DBF:Well, you have to get yourself involved. And you have to get yourselfinvolved with other people. You can't do it on your own. You have to come to the center, take some of the courses here. If you don't live next to the center, take courses elsewhere. I belong to a Yiddish-speaking group in Florida, and I love it. In fact, I got roped into leading a Yiddish-speaking group a couple of years ago in Pittsfield, because our group had lost its leader. But, it was too much for me with all the volunteering and so forth, and I couldn't get anyone to help me. You know, it -- sometimes, it's the case of wanting to do and not being able to do. But I enjoyed it. And Federation was very good to us. I had spoken 86:00to them and they gave me a huge conference room, for which they did not charge. So, I charged everybody a dollar a session, and whatever we picked up during the sessions, I donated back to Federation for the room. And when Arlene, who's in charge of -- Arlene Schiff, who's in charge of Federation, asked if we were having another group the following year and I said, "No, I can't get any help," she was just of sorry, she said, because she never heard so much laughter. We laughed from the minute we walked into that room to the minute we walked out. And we had a large group. We were about twenty people. So, it -- the proof is in the pudding.
LY:Getting involved, doing things --
DBF:Yes, getting involved.
DBF:You have to get involved. You have to come to the -- go to see films. We sawa very funny film last night. There's a Yiddish film festival in Pittsfield, in Lenox. Two different films every Monday for the entire summer. And we saw 87:00something called "Yankles" last night. It's about a yeshiva group having a baseball team. It was hilarious. And you got that Yiddish feeling, of course, with the singing and the dancing and -- and the -- it was funny as could be. Funny. I suggest that the Center, you know, you show that film. (laughs) You could edit that out. (laughter)
LY:Do you have any specific stories that you want to tell that I haven't coveredthat you want to talk about before we close for the day?
DBF:Well, I don't know what to think.
LY:I'm sure there are --
DBF:There are, but I just (laughter) can't think -- I didn't -- I should've hada list of notes in front of me. It's just marvelous to see the young people today. It really is. That's my faith in the furtherance of Yiddish. It's a -- do 88:00we have much time?
LY:About ten minutes.
DBF:Oh, could I look in the book?
LY:Sure. Yeah, do you want to maybe end with a poem or something --
DBF:All right, this is --
DBF:Oh, I had given you these poems. Well, you want me to -- I could read thepoem about the Yiddish books.
LY:Oh, that'd be great.
DBF:My mother sent a letter to Aaron, and enclosed this poem. I'll read it in English.
LY:Can you read it --
DBF:The reason I'm doing it is English -- because -- a lot of people don'tunderstand Yiddish.
LY:Why don't you read it -- both? I think that would be wonderful. Or if youonly feel comfortable reading a little bit in Yiddish --
DBF:All right, let me do the English first.
DBF:Called "Yidishe bikher," "Yiddish Books" -- (takes out glasses) my secondpair of eyes. Okay. "I read a small ad in the paper urging people to send Yiddish books to a special address, a place being called the National Book Center -- Yiddish Book Center. It made me think of famous writers whose books 89:00stand proudly on my shelves. They have been standing there so long, infused with lofty thoughts. For many, many years, I selected and I collected, read these Yiddish books. Re-read them, sharpening my memory. But it's quite a long time now. Those books have not been opened. It's time to let others be delighted by these famous literary names. But as I think those thoughts, my heart and soul start grieving. These are my last remnants. My treasures. To whom can I leave them? I sit down and begin to read, swallowing the songs and stories, and I'm overwhelmed with a healing of my soul. Then the parting becomes easier. I'm ready to pass my books to a new generation, who will be tied to Yiddish to weave the continuity of our culture." Mother was eighty-two when she wrote this poem. 90:00And the poem that made me put the book together, "My Poems." "Sometimes, I wonder what will happen, what will be, to all my poetry? I gave birth to these poems. They grew from within me. From my body and my mind, each one came to be. I will pass on, become silent. Who will gather all my songs for me? Who will spread them wide, like the branches of a tree?" "Mayne lider [My poems]." "A mol, trakht zikh, vos vet zayn, vos vet zayn mit mayne lider? Fun eygn leyb geborn, fun makh, fun mayne glider? Ikh vel fargeyn, un shvaygn. Vet ver di 91:00lider tsuzamen klaybn, un tsevorfn zey, vi oyf di beymer tsvaygn." And mother was seventy-seven when she wrote this poem. And it was this poem, as I explain in the book, that said the book has to be done, no matter how long it takes. And I have to say, the first person to help me with the translations is someone that used to work here at the Center, Paula Parsky. But -- she did a beautiful job. But she was not retired. She had a klezmer band of her own. She worked here at the Center. She did other things. And I would have loved to have continued using her. But I don't think the -- you know, it would have taken a long time. I found someone who was a daughter of a very famous Yiddish teacher and who was a translator at YIVO and who had the time. 92:00
LY:Who is that?
DBF:Her name is -- I want to get the name -- her middle name right. ShulamisLevin Friedman. Levin was her father, who lived right near me, so I could go over to her house and we would just sit and converse and talk about the poems and so forth. And then, she would translate them and send them to me.
DBF:And that was it.
LY:Wonderful. I think that's a lovely place to stop and --
[END OF INTERVIEW]