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Keywords: 1930s; Asperger's syndrome; autism; Blue Hill Avenue; Boston, Massachusetts; brothers; Eastern Europe; family background; family history; father; grandfather; grandmother; grandparents; heritage; immigrants; immigration; kashrus; kashrut; kashruth; kosher; locksmith; Mattapan; migration; Minsk Gubernia; Minsk, Belarus; mother; Old Country; parents; roots; siblings; sisters; Vilnius, Lithuania; Yiddishkayt; Yiddishkeit; yidishkayt; yidishkeyt; Zaslaŭje, Belarus; Zaslawye, Belarus; Zaslov; Zasław, Belarus
Keywords: 1930s; 1940s; adolescence; Blue Hill Avenue; Boston, Massachusetts; childhood; Christmas; Dedham, Massachusetts; delicatessen; elementary schools; grade schools; Jewish holidays; Jewish neighborhood; public schools; Shabbat; Shabbos; shabes; teenage years; Yiddish language; Yiddish speakers; Yiddishkayt; Yiddishkeit; yidishkayt; yidishkeyt
ELAINE TREHUB ORAL HISTORY
SARA ISRAEL: This is Sara Israel, and today is January 20th, 2012. I'm here atthe Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., with Elaine Trehub, and we're going to record an interview as part of the Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project. Elaine, do I have your permission to record this interview?
ELAINE TREHUB: Yes.
SI:Thank you. So, to start out, can you tell me briefly what you know about yourfamily background?
ET:Oh, my family background. All right. Well, both my parents were immigrants.My father came from the area of Vilnius, and my mother came from -- (sighs) -- probably further northeast, around -- I'm sure it was Minsk Gubernia, what they 1:00called Minsk Gubernia. It was a little village. And I did find it on a map. I had no trouble finding my father's area on a map, and then -- because he said that they had gone to Vilnius, and after the -- the television program "Roots," when there were some instructions about how to look up your roots in Eastern Europe -- because my name was not -- my maiden name was Epstein, but that wasn't my name. I found that his name, which had been [Lachovistky?], was actually the name of a little village south of Vilnius. So, he -- it all fit. And my poor mother, we never believed anything she said. (laughs) And she said she came from a little place called Zasław. And eventually, in hunting bigger and bigger atlases, I found Zasław. So, I think he was about ten when they came here. I am not sure how old she was. And I am shocked that I never asked him what port they came into. That's a big gap that I don't know. I'm going to look at the 2:00immigration records one of these years. And so, they came here as small children. My father, I think, probably got the equivalent of a sixth-grade education, my mother perhaps less. And what else do you want to know? (laughs)
SI:Whatever you want to tell me.
SI:Did you know any of your grandparents?
ET:Oh yes, I did. As a matter of fact, my mother's father and mother lived withus. And that was a very important part of my growing up, because we -- well, when I heard you read that this was to record records of Jewish language and culture, I had no real formal Yiddish education, but the neighborhood that I grew up in was where my Yiddishkayt was rooted. And it was a neighborhood in Boston. It was called Mattapan. At that time, it was a wonderfully safe place for Jews, but it got shaken up very badly in the -- I guess in the '60s or '70s, 3:00and it's -- it's no longer really a safe area to live in. Let me see -- well, my grandfather was extremely observant, and so because of that, my father, who was not really observant (laughs) -- because of that, we, of course, kept -- my mother kept a kosher house. And I grew up knowing all these things, but nobody ever taught them to me. So, it was more -- I absorbed culture rather than language, okay? That's probably more accurate.
SI:So, can you tell me a little bit about your immediate family?
ET:Oh, sure. Do you want to know -- it's funny, when I came to write it down, Iwas writing about the neighborhood more than I was about my family. But my immediate family -- I was one of five children, and I came along long after the next ones. There was eleven years' difference, and I'm sure that I was quite a surprise. So, I had a sister, a brother, and twin sisters. And I was born on the 4:00eleventh birthday of my twin sisters. (laughs) And we lived in a three-decker, which was, you know, the iconic immigrant image of a place to live. And we were surrounded by family. We lived on one floor of the three-decker. In the beginning, my grandparents lived on another floor, but then when they got older, they moved into my mother's apartment. I had aunts across the street, aunts around the corner. Lots of cousins. And everybody in the neighborhood knew everyone else. It was more like a small town than it was a neighborhood. And -- let me see. Oh, for a time, my mother's brother lived with us. Because my family was faced with the challenge of raising five children in the Depression, and I remember it being extremely difficult, extremely hard. So, one of my mother's brothers lived with us, and he was a paid boarder. That was, I think, fairly 5:00common. And I don't know how she did it. She managed to cook for all of us and keep us all clothed and keep the house clean, but it must have been a monumental task. But my memories are -- you know, that it was -- it was sort of a sunny time, even though I was aware that my parents were struggling. But everybody was struggling, so -- you know (laughs) -- that was the way it went. What else would you like to know? My immediate siblings?
ET:I was very, very close to my sisters. I still have -- there is one twin whosurvives. My brother grew up in some way disabled. I think today we would know. And I suspect that it was autism, because I have a son -- our eldest son is -- was diagnosed very late in his life with Asperger's syndrome, and I'm sure that that was probably the same thing. But they didn't really know what to make of 6:00Eddie, and schools were not really equipped. So, I think it was very, very rough on my sisters, who sort of followed along after him. I didn't. It was like being born an only child, because they were all adult. And my sisters were thrilled to death with me. And my mother was tired. So, they came home from school, and it was like playing with a real doll that responded. And I remember them as just a very, very important part of my early life, and later on, too. My oldest -- the oldest in the family -- and there was fourteen years' difference between her and me -- she married when I was only seven and moved to Syracuse, New York. And she was more like an aunt, so it was a great privilege to go and visit her. And I was sent on my own on the train when I was about -- oh, well, she was -- I was seven when she married; I was probably around ten. And I used to visit her for a couple of weeks each summer. And I am very, very close to her oldest child, my 7:00niece, who is only eleven years younger than I am. So, the age gap -- it was very weird -- between her mother and me was greater than between her and myself. Yeah. (laughs)
SI:So, what did your parents do for work?
ET:Oh. Well, my mother stayed at home and took care of the family. My father wasa locksmith by trade. And he was a lovely guy. I mean, it was -- when I was writing this up and thinking what I would tell you, I think the neighborhood was really like an extended family. And there was -- oh, you probably know about Blue Hill Avenue if you're from the Boston area, but Blue Hill Avenue is a very, very long avenue that runs the whole length of the neighborhood and other neighborhoods, and it was very colorful. As I think about it now, it was like 8:00growing up in a foreign city, because it would close down for Shabbos, it would open for Saturday night with lights and stores open, and there was a very, very strong flavor to it of foreignness, actually. And I liked that. And as I thought about it as I was growing up, I liked it. I realized it was something unique -- which incidentally is the reason I volunteered for this. I thought if nobody from Mattapan has come and given you their impressions, you have to know about Boston. (laughs)
SI:So, can you close your eyes and describe Blue Hill Avenue for me?
ET:Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
ET:Can I read you what I wrote?
ET:Is that all right? Is that allowable or is it --
ET:Okay. Well -- just one short paragraph. I said, If there is anything -- ifthere is in my voice anything of Yiddishkayt at all, it is probably due to a mixture of isolated images and events from the first twenty years of my life, 9:00and the first thing that comes to mind is the neighborhood in which I grew up in Boston in the '30s and '40s. Blue Hill Avenue, a long avenue that ran through it, had the strongest voice of all. It was a voice that included the sound of streetcars, which ran along the avenue -- that's what we always called it -- as well as the voices of the people who lived in a maze of streets that ran off to the side. And the voices were always excited, but it wasn't always clear what they were excited about. But that's (laughs) -- that was probably a very important thing for me. And then, in addition to sounds, it was a rich neighborhood olfactorily. The stores -- little storefronts -- all specialized in one kind of food, so you had a cheese store and you had a chicken store, and you had a fish store, and the smells were wonderful. And the delicatessen -- yes, I grew up not very far from the famous G & G Delicatessen, which was the political 10:00gathering place for Ward Fourteen. So that, too, was colorful. And my memory of the smells of the avenue is mostly the pickle smells -- wonderful pickle smells -- because open barrels would stand outside. And then, there were colors -- it was very, very colorful. The food was colorful. You know, the smoked whitefish was gold and the lox was orange and everything sort of came in. It was a very stimulating sensory experience. And so, I said, The colors and the sounds and the smells of the avenue came to rest in my memory -- in my nose, behind my closed eyes -- and I can summon it up at any old time, that part of it. And the bakeries were very important. Very important. And of course, they smelled marvelous. And you not only had separate stores for separate kinds of food, but you went to one store for bagels, but you went to another store for rye bread, because the crust was better there. And it was really (laughs) -- you know. And 11:00people were very, very interested in food. And as I think about it now, the food was really very exotic. And then -- oh, this was important -- I was thinking about the colors, and how the light would change at the end of Shabbos when everything got lit up again and the stores opened up. And light was an important part, except at Christmas. There were never any lights at Christmas, for miles and miles around -- totally dark. In order to see the Christmas lights -- and this was another part I wanted to tell you about my father -- my father packed us into his car -- we always had an old car of one sort of another -- and he took us to these little towns like Amherst, where I now -- I mean, we went to Needham, and we went -- oh, I forget the names of some of the others -- oh, Dedham -- Dedham was very important. And he took us in the car because he wanted us to see how pretty they had made it for us, which was a very interesting way 12:00to present Christmas to a little Jewish girl. And my father's presence really augments the Yiddishkayt that surrounded me. It's interesting, because he never made his Yiddishness a focus of who he was. And at Christmas, we went to visit his German friends, the Weinbergens, so see how they celebrated Christmas. We went to the Latouries, who were a wild Italian crew, and we saw the color of Italian Christmases. And then, for Passover, we took matzah and wine to them. And at Rosh Hashanah, we took honey cake. So, my father managed to live the meaning of the word "ecumenical," and it wasn't part of his vocabulary. But that's the way I grew up. And then, the grade school -- do you want to know about the grade schools? They were very -- of course, very, very influential. They were all walking distance, and the (laughs) -- the kids were all Jewish and 13:00the teachers were all either Irish Catholic or white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, because we didn't have that word yet; we didn't call them WASP. But they loved teaching there. I think they found us very exotic. (laughs) And we were. (laughs) And they also loved the discipline situation, because they really didn't have to exert very much discipline. What I wrote here about that was, that the pupils were all Jewish, and the teachers were just as uniformly Irish or WASP. They were very pleased, because the discipline was supported so well in the homes. And there was absolutely no way that if you had any problems, there was no way that the teacher had any responsibility for your problems at all; you were the one that was responsible. So, that made a very nice teaching environment (laughs) for them, I'm sure. It couldn't be that -- the teachers were elevated because the parents were so concerned that we get into a position 14:00where we could take advantage of the riches of America. And the teacher was always a she. (laughs) But for that reason, because they wanted us so much to be American children, we were not initiated into Yiddish language. My grandparents spoke very broken English. My grandmother was a scream. I mean, it was -- some of the things that she would come up with were, like, the radio soap operas -- you know, like the Goldberg family -- her pronunciation. But they wouldn't speak Yiddish to us. And I absorbed it, and I got to understand it. (laughs) But I never got to speak it. And I still don't speak it. And I consider that a very, very big gap in my life. It was a very safe neighborhood. When I later went to college, I went as a commuter. I was -- went as a day student. If I studied late into the night and I wanted to go out and stretch my legs, I could go out, you know, at eleven o'clock at night. There was no danger at all. And -- let me see. 15:00Okay. I mean, that was sort of -- I got so lost in that that I didn't go beyond -- I was reliving it all again. (laughs)
SI:Thank you. (laughs) That's wonderful to hear.
ET:It was an interesting place. It was difficult to travel from it every day toHarvard Square. I mean, that was -- I literally went from one end of the subway line to the other. And -- I wrote this up for my fiftieth reunion -- it was living in two worlds at the same time. I was very much aware of it. I was also aware of the fact that it was where I came from, and even though it was so very different from what I was going to, that I -- I felt a great loyalty to it; I guess that's the word. Yeah. So, in spite of the fact that there was a lot of conflict in me and it was a kind of schitzy way to live, it must have given me a grounding of some sort. So, you know, so that was it. And I didn't go much 16:00beyond. I didn't know what you'd want to know about -- I've already said that the reason I came was mainly that neighborhood. I haven't read anything from Bostonians on the Wexler Project, but I haven't read all of the things. But I thought, Good heavens, you know, somebody should talk about Blue Hill Avenue. (laughs)
SI:So, was your family involved in organizations in the community, or --
ET:No. No. And my father, who was a wonderfully good man, didn't believe ininstitutionalized religion. But my grandfather -- oh, my grandfather, bless his dear heart. You know, he had more fast days during the year than Yom Kippur, and it was always a day when he was fasting. And because they lived with us, Shabbos at home was a very beautiful thing. I've never been able to make that for my children. It was just very, very lovely. And he was a very sweet man. He observed everything very, very strictly -- didn't carry money in his pockets on 17:00Shabbos; didn't tear toilet paper -- it all had to be pre-torn and ready for him. And (laughs) my grandmother, who was really a bit of an imp, was a smoker. And so, she and my sisters would retire to the living room and smoke. And he knew that. He was very, very -- but he was very -- I mean, he could live his life and we could live ours, which was really rather beautiful. So, he would say to them as they left the kitchen after supper -- and he would soon be going to bed -- he would say to them, "Kinderlekh, farmakht di tir [Children, close the door]." I don't know ho-- I mean, I don't know what the accent is supposed to be, but, "Close the door so that I don't see you." So, it's that kind of very, very -- permissive and accepting environment. We didn't have enough money for them to be members of any real -- there were a few big shuls, and if you looked at the book by Hillel Levine, I think that first view was from the shul, but -- the big shul, the rusishe [Russian] shul, where my grandmother -- her seats were 18:00purchased by my aunt, who had married a doctor, and so my grandmother always went to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur High Holiday services. My grandfather davened in little -- they weren't quite storefronts; some of them were first-floor rooms, first-floor apartments of houses. And at High Holidays, we would always go and visit her (laughs) in her upstairs -- the upstairs balcony, and we would go and see my zeyde [grandfather]. And we just accepted that's the way it was. (laughs)
SI:So, can you describe Shabbos for me, what that was like?
ET:Yeah. Shabbos was very, very nice. It was -- I don't know how my mother didit. I really don't. I mean, the table was always beautiful. She didn't -- she had a little bit of household cleaning help, but she had an awful lot to do. And I remember it -- mostly from the years they lived with us, because that was when it was most important. And she and my grandmother would cook for Shabbos. They 19:00would bake. They would make the challah. And we would wait -- we couldn't start to eat until my grandfather came home from shul. And everybody went crazy in the summer, because he would stay until (laughs) -- until all hours. (laughs) And then, when he came in, it was -- now had we eaten -- you know, we may have eaten before him, but his place was always pristine. And there were the candles, and there was -- and the challah, and he would do the brokhes [blessings] over the food, and we would stand around. And I remember it as, you know, sort of sparkly white tablecloths and pretty food and -- and candlelight. So, that's what -- it was very, very nice. But he was the one who observed it. There really wasn't anyone else in the house -- I eventually became sort of -- well, I loved him. He was awfully sweet. And he loved me. And later on, you know, I would fast for Yom 20:00Kippur with him. He thought that was wonderful -- (laughs) you know, that was just marvelous. (laughs) And when he would come home from shul on Saturday -- it's a wonder that they had any stomachs left. He used to eat grated horseradish with chicken fat -- and on black bread that he let get stale -- (laughs) because it wasn't as good if the bread wasn't stale. And I would sit there and eat that with him. I mean, it's (laughs) -- it's astonishing to me. (laughs) But it was all -- you know, there it was. It was all colorful. It was all -- and it was all comfortable. So, that was Shabbos and the holidays. The holidays were very important, but I never went to services, I never went to Sunday school. Whatever came, came from the culture all around me. And it was -- it was vast. It spread out in a lot of directions. And it was deep. It was a very deep culture. And, you know, while there were problems with growing up like that and then moving on 21:00-- there is always a problem when the first generation moves on like that -- my memories are basically pretty good memories. So (laughs) --
SI:So, you grew up in this very rich Jewish --
SI:Did you spend time in other parts of Boston as a child?
ET:That was one of the wonderful things about the safety of the streets. Yesindeed, we were just a short "streetcah" ride (laughs) -- or subway ride. And because the city was so safe, my girlfriends -- I had two very close girlfriends. There were five of us, but the three of us were closest. We would go into Boston -- my parents had no qualms about letting us go into Boston alone. So, we would go in almost every Saturday. You know, it was a big thing. We had this wonderful city. And my father adored Boston. And I adored Boston. I 22:00loved it. And he showed me the Boston that he loved, because by the time I came along, my mother was not so busy raising four small children, all of them the same age, and my brother with problems, so that my father took me to various parts of Boston. I'm trying to think -- yeah, that was -- and he took me to the ballgames. I mean, he thought he had died and gone to heaven because Boston had two baseball teams. He could have landed in any other city, but he landed in one with two baseball teams. And we went to visit his friends, wherever they were. But I knew Boston well. I knew it like the -- I mean, downtown -- like the back of my hand. Yeah. Okay, I had an aunt who lived in Holyoke. I don't remember much of that, which is kind of funny. I guess we didn't see aunt Sophie that often; she came to see us. And then, we had an aunt who lived in Lynn. And so, 23:00yes, wherever there were connections -- like -- and we had a car, which was very unusual. People much better off financially than we were didn't have cars, but my father was dependent on the car for his income, because he would go to -- wherever he was needed as a locksmith. He was a very good locksmith. (laughs) Later -- he was absolutely no businessman. I mean, he would fix things better than they had been when they were new, so there was (laughs) no chance to be called back. (laughs) And he had some very, very interesting customers. He had the New England Conservatory of Music. And he had a very big Catholic church in West Roxbury. And he was a great buddy with -- I forget what his name was, but he was a Monsignor, I think. And when my father would go to do work at the church, he would have my father stay for lunch. And I think the reason my father was so popular was, he went around -- this will interest you, considering 24:00people's work habits today -- he went around with a little dustpan and brush, so that if he -- you know, where he would have to fit locks, and he might have to take out some wood or something -- everything was all very neatly put together. And he did that in the church, too. But he fell over the Monsignor the first time that he went there, because he didn't know they stopped every once in a while in the aisle to genuflect at the stations (laughs) of the cross. (laughs) So, it was all (laughs) -- you know, it was fun. He was a fun man. I think if he had had the advantage of an education here, he would have made tremendously powerful use -- he had beautiful, beautiful handwriting. And I have terrible handwriting. And I was the only one of his children who went to college. And he used to marvel at it; he used to say, "I don't understand. Your sister Lee never went to college, your other sisters never went to college; look at the way Lee writes and look at the way you write." And I said, "Well, I know, you know, but 25:00what I am I gonna do (laughs) about it?" (laughs)
SI:So, how did you become the first one in your family to go to college?
ET:I was very good in school. I was a very good little girl. If I had any -- ifI had any problems during the day, I took them to bed with me and had stomach cramps at night. As my husband said, we had the stomach cramps; we didn't give them to our parents. That changed in a generation. How did I go to -- well, so I was always made much of by my teachers. And it was a very good public education system. I had teachers who did not have education degrees; they had subject degrees. And I didn't go to the elite school. I did not go to Girls' Latin; I went to Dorchester High for Girls. But I had teachers who had gone to Mount Holyoke and to Radcliffe, and a history teacher who had gone to BU. And I had a math teacher who had been the first woman accepted into the graduate program at 26:00BU. She took us all the way up to college calculus by the time we were seniors. These were remarkable women. And it was a women's -- did I say it was a girls' high school? It was an all-girls high school. And they were -- the teachers were very involved in our lives. Two of my very, very best friends were sisters who taught English. And one of them had gone to Simmons and one of them had gone to Radcliffe. And it was because of Lillian Smith that I went to Radcliffe. She made sure she took me to -- you know, bring your daughter to Radcliffe day, she took me. And she would take me out to Harv-- well, she took me out to Harvard Square a couple of times, but mostly, she really opened that up to me, and the possibility -- I'm not sure I -- well, it was possible, because we didn't have to pay to send me away to live in a dormitory, so I could go to any school (laughs) that was on the subway system, which was a pretty rich legacy, you have to admit. Of course, a lot of the men from our neighborhood went to Harvard; 27:00that was the big -- and on the streetcars -- and the ones that didn't go to Harvard went to BC, because it was such a -- it had such a good reputation. And so, there was never -- I applied only to Simmons and Radcliffe. And it broke my heart that Simmons put me on the waiting list, and that was my first interview. And I know now why they did it. Because it was fairly certain -- I had a very, very defensive interviewer, and she knew my record, and they didn't want to accept somebody who wasn't going to accept them. And I remember her saying to me -- I remember going out to Simmons and feeling, Well, yes, I'd be comfortable here, and having her say that if I wanted an all liberal arts college, that I didn't want them and they didn't want me, and I walked down Huntington Avenue crying. What a terrible thing to do! So then, I had my interview in Harvard Square, and I thought, This is gonna be a disaster. Because I was sure I'd be 28:00comfortable at Simmons -- I knew people who had gone to Simmons from Mattapan. I didn't know anyone -- I knew only boys who had gone to Harvard, but none of the girls that I knew went to Radcliffe. And so, I went for my interview at Radcliffe, and they were lovely. I mean, I thought I would feel very out of place. I went out to Harvard Square on the subway by myself, which was the first time I had ever done that, and I thought, you know, I mean, What am I doing here? And there were three of us for interviews. And one of them was a young girl who was even more modestly dressed than I was, and the other was a very lovely-looking sort of poised, debutante-ish -- girl with her own little fur coat, and she was going to interviews at all of -- she was doing the rounds everywhere. So, there were the three of us. And it didn't exactly reassure me. On the other hand, I thought, Well, you know, we're all different. And it was a very, very good interview. And I felt comfortable. So, that was my entrée into 29:00Harvard Square. Yeah. (laughs)
ET:"Oh" is right. (laughs)
SI:Such a different (laughs) --
ET:It was going to be an --
ET:-- adventure. It was clear that it was going to be an adventure. Right. (laughs)
SI:So, what was it like for you to be transitioning between Mattapan and HarvardSquare --
ET:It was crazy.
SI:-- every day?
ET:It was really crazy. It was -- you know Mattapan. Yeah. Right. And I mean,now, it's -- then, it was -- how can I describe it? It was a step up -- you know, immigrants would often settle in the West End, which has lost its character -- that's too bad -- or Chelsea. And in a way, Mattapan was a step up. And this will surprise you -- Roxbury was quite a step up, because there were these lovely, lovely apartment houses. Oh yes, and I had a favorite aunt who lived in one of them, and she didn't have children, and she and my uncle used to 30:00have me for supper. And she lived right near Franklin Park and right near the Rose Garden. And she and my mother were very close, so we would go to aunt Esther's. I've wandered and I lost the thread. (laughs)
SI:You were telling me about going -- traveling into Cambridge.
ET:Yes. Traveling into Cambridge. Well, I'm not gonna pick it up again. I cantell. I can tell. (pauses) It was two worlds, you know, and I was very much aware of two worlds. I would take a streetcar and go up to Mattapan Square and go to Ashmont Station, and Ashmont Station was at this end of the subway, and Harvard Square was at this. So, it really was -- and I would go through Boston. (laughs) So, it was my whole life there in front of me, sort of, every day. And I could get off at any point and find my way -- I mean, I knew Charles Street -- I don't know why I knew Charles Street. That was a strange place to know. But of course, Washington Street, where the stores were, where Filene's Basement was. 31:00And so, I was sort of in my element going out of my element. It was really -- as I think about it now, it was kind of odd. And dating was difficult, because I was very popular, and these poor guys didn't have cars, and they brought me home. You know, God knows how they got back to Cambridge. I don't know. I mean, if it was late, I don't know if the streetcars were even running. But I did move between those two worlds, and I had -- I still have -- I've had -- let me see, I graduated in '50, so that tells you how many years I've been out -- I still have close friends from those years. One of them was a commuter like myself, from Chelsea. The others -- one of my closest friends was a girl in the dorms; two of my closest friends were in the dormitories. My friends were -- yeah, they were 32:00largely Jewish -- at the beginning, not later. And it was very, very interesting. (laughs) It was interesting that I went to Hillel when I first started, and felt very out of place. Because the stress -- the emphasis on Jewishness as such was something I had -- I mean, I had lived it, but it had never been made such a point. And I remember -- oh, and those were the days -- let me see -- okay, '48 -- I started in '46 -- '48, the State of Israel. And especially the young men that I dated didn't know how I could possibly feel like a full citizen in this country, and I had never felt like anything else. So, it was all very strange. And I would go there to stuff envelopes, but eventually, I didn't go there anymore. It just wasn't the same as my identification. And it 33:00was threatening, in a way. It was very threatening. Other than that, I dated some non-Jewish boys. And I would go to the Harvard houses for lunch or dinner or whatever the devil it was. And it was probably a pretty normal experience, except that there were these two poles. (laughs) It was very, very strange.
SI:So, how do you think your American identity interacted with your Jewish identity?
ET:Positively. I never felt that I had to renounce my Jewishness, so it musthave been comfortable -- it must have been -- it really was. And I was very, very careful that I didn't -- I realized that I was very privileged, to be able to go back and forth to Harvard every day. And I really didn't want to look down 34:00on where I had come from. And it wasn't that easy. Because we didn't live -- it wasn't like Newton. You know, Mattapan was the beginning -- maybe a beginning rung on the immigrant ladder, and people who lived there in these -- street after street after street of three-deckers -- some of the apartments in three-decker were quite grand. Ours was not. But I didn't want to be ashamed. My father was not a person who was ashamed. My mother was, a little bit, and my sisters, unfortunately, didn't grow up -- my sisters had more problems integrating in the American world than I did, I think, or moving out of the Yiddish world. But I had my friends from school come home -- and one of my friends, who later moved into the dormitories, was the daughter of a physician 35:00in Braintree. And I used to go to Ricky's -- we looked alike -- everybody mistook us on campus for each other. We don't look alike anymore; she's kept very slim, I hate her. (laughs) And she, incidentally -- that's another interesting thing, because they had left Germany under Hitler, but they had not been Jewish for a couple of generations. So, she found me interesting because -- and her father was the one who was Jewish; her mother had come from a family that had a castle in Czechoslovakia, so that was quite a different marriage. They were lovely people. And her father would talk about Jewish things with me -- it was kind of interesting -- but with a very Germanic sense of superiority, because I had my roots in Russia. So, that was clear, too. (laughs) But I was very, very, very aware of all these distinctions. But they didn't threaten me. And I did think it was sort of interesting of me to have come from (laughs) what 36:00I came from. (laughs) And then, I was always accepted by Christians. My teachers, who were so important in my life -- they were darling. I went to them with a couple -- with them -- to a couple of services. They belonged to the Old South Church in Copley Square, which was one of the grand churches. And I went, you know, as Miss Epstein. (laughs) Just amazing. (laughs) So, I think my -- there wasn't really a conflict. Because when I came to Amherst and I found that the issue of the Christmas decorations on the Common was such an issue, I could not understand it. I mean, I knew it wasn't my holiday, but I didn't feel threatened by it. It was a challenge raising children as Jews, especially since I had no formal Jewish background. But I made an enormous thing out of Hanukkah 37:00for them. And I never -- it was not an important holiday. I remember early in my career here, in Amherst, I was listening to a rabbi who was talking about Hanukkah. And I thought, Who's that wonderful rabbi? Because he was saying it's not an important holiday, it's not one of the major ones. And it turned out to be Saul Perlmutter. (laughs) From (laughs) Hillel. But that was exactly the way we looked at it. But with my children, it was difficult, because their little friends on the street were all Christian. Christmas was an enormous thing. And I wanted them to see it as positive, but I couldn't make them part of it. So -- oh, you would laugh. You would really laugh. I invented a Hanukkah angel. And the Hanukkah angel used to -- and I also hate to wrap presents. So, it was three presents every night for eight nights, and I was ready to go out of my mind. And the Hanukkah angel would leave a poem under the menorah -- under the hanukiah or 38:00the menorah -- and that would be a clue to where the presents were, and they would take off. And I didn't wrap the presents; they were just waiting in these places. And their friends thought that was great. They thought that was the best thing. And I remember little Peter Fowler, who was my younger son's best friend. And Sally and I were very close friends, they lived two doors down. And Sally said, "Elaine, I've got a problem with you." She said, "Peter says it's more fun being a Jewish." (laughs) So, obviously, it was okay. I don't know about my children's Jewish identity. I think it was always problematic for my daughter. We lost our daughter when she was thirty-seven. And my son with Asperger's, he knows he's Jewish; the nature of his identity, I don't really know. My other son -- the one who went to McGill -- is -- you know, he's a cultural Jew and he's a 39:00secular Jew. But it's interesting that when he went to McGill as -- and he went intending to be a Russian major, which he was -- one of the first classes he took was in Yiddish, which I found interesting. And he was always very close to my father. And he knew that Vilna, as we called it, was a cultural center -- I mean, even as he was in his teens. So, he was very interested in my father's background. And he took Yiddish at McGill, and he learned to write in Yiddish. But -- you will love this -- eventually the clash was between Yiddish and Russian -- the courses were given at the same time. (laughs) And he was a Russian major. But he could write Yiddish, and I remember -- it was so moving. He came in to visit us once, and the only grandparent he knew on my husband's side was my mother-in-law, 'cause his father had been long dead, and he said something to my mother-in-law in Yiddish -- and she was a tiny, tiny woman -- 40:00and she looked up and she said to him, "How do you know that?" (laughs) It was quite delightful. And then, of course, he knew the Russian songs, which her husband had known. Apparently, Arnold's father was an intellectual. There weren't very many in the family on either side. And he played the guitar. And he sang. And so, we had Theodore Bikel's recording of Russian songs. And she just couldn't quite put that together, because I don't know that I was a comfortable fit for her as a daughter-in-law. (laughs) I had grown up in that neighborhood, but I wasn't like any of the other girls. So, it was all very strange. But she was puzzled and sort of -- but then, Arnold had always been different. Arnold was very different -- my husband is Arnold -- from his brother, so she had to accept the fact that he would find a different kind of girl, (laughs) even though she only grew up three blocks away. (laughs) We never met -- we never met until his cousin married a girlfriend of mine. (laughs) So, I felt that both 41:00were strengths. I felt that it was a strength that I had managed to get that education. As my son Aaron tells me, "That was the defining experience of your life, mom." And when my daughter died -- it was the year of my fiftieth reunion, and I hadn't gone to a lot of reunions -- I had gone to one or two -- and Arnold and I had made arrangements to go and stay in Cambridge in the dorms, and this was all going to be the big, big reunion. And she died in May, and the reunion was in June. And I said, "I don't think I can go." And it was Aaron who said, "That was your defining experience." He said, "You have to go." He said, "You'll only be a two-hour drive from home. If you don't like being there, you can come -- you and dad can come home." And it was a marvelous experience. My very close 42:00friends knew what had happened to us, but the women I was seeing in the reunion didn't necessarily know. And they were wonderful women. I mean, a lot of them, I felt, as students I had less of a connection than I did when we came back, because we had all -- we had all met our challenges in life, and I wasn't the only one. It was a completely marvelous experience. And it brought my husband to tears. Because I didn't know and he didn't know that the fiftieth reunion class marches into the Harvard commencement between the seniors. And he said -- he just stood there -- I'm -- I'm filling up (tears up) -- and he said he just stood there and he sort of -- he had tears in his eyes. He said it was just so wonderful. And my friends were wonderful, and they remain wonderful. It's been very, very, very nurturing for me, those friendships. Yeah. 43:00
SI:So, I want to ask you about -- as a Jewish woman in the '50s in -- what didyou think your options were?
ET:See, I didn't feel I was limited, because I had gotten the education I did. Iwas aware -- I never ran into real, clear anti-Semitism. Partly, I had that name, so people knew that I was Jewish and didn't make any missteps. But my husband's experience growing up in the same neighborhood was very different. Because at Easter -- each time -- the only church was about a mile and a half away, in a Catholic neighborhood. But at Easter especially, and also at the Jewish holidays, there would be gangs of boys who would come in to beat up the Jewish boys. And he had that experience. I never had anything remotely like that. I believed him, and I knew -- I knew it existed. But I just -- I felt my 44:00options were quite open. I felt they were quite open. I married right out of college, which I said I would never do. You know, I graduated in June and we were married in August. But interestingly enough -- I never thought about that until this minute -- we moved to Harvard Square. And we lived in Harvard Square for the four years that my husband was a graduate student at Boston University, and I worked at the Harvard archives. (laughs) So, I had my Harvard Square experience, but it was sort of twisted, and a little late. But that was an interesting thing to do. And it was a wonderful place to live, and I could walk to work at Widener, 'cause we lived up near the law school. And -- yeah. And I really -- I had been an English major, but I was a frustrated history major; I wanted to be a history major. I was afraid. I was afraid. Now, yeah, I mean, if I present this person who goes through life -- I was timid. I didn't look timid, 45:00I didn't act timid, but I didn't want to take any courses that I couldn't do well in. And in a sense, I had a small scholarship and I didn't want to jeopardize that. The rest of the money I made by -- I was able -- four hundred dollars a year for tuition, I was able to make it working at -- one summer I worked in Boston and then I didn't save any money because I had to go back and forth and dress for work, so the next two summers I worked as a waitress in big hotels. And -- (sighs) let me see. So, options. Options. No, I still felt that I could do what I wanted to do. I mean, the job at the Harvard archives -- I was back in Harvard Square. (laughs) It wasn't until I decided, after my children were growing, that I really wanted to have some work that I could go to, because I began to see that it was important. Of course, it was the women's movement -- 46:00the years of the women's movement -- but I did it mainly because I thought, We have three children to educate -- tuition was no longer four hundred dollars a year, and I thought, We can educate these children, but there'll be nothing left for us. My husband's a clinical psychologist, and he's now a neuroscientist who does brain research -- he's always been interested primarily in that. And so, I thought, Well, what do I want to do? You know, here I am sitting on the doorstep of the University of Massachusetts; I can get a master's in almost anything. And I thought of guidance, because -- I didn't do it -- because we had had so many problems with our son -- the son who has Asperger's. And we worked with the guidance counselors and the teachers, and we worked very, very well. And it was a wonderful -- you know, it was great that we could do that, because he had real, real problems adjusting. And I thought, I don't want to do that, because 47:00it will burn me out. If I run into a child like Craig and he doesn't have support at home, I would -- it would be very hard. So, I decided, Well, okay, you know, I have this emotionally charged family. What am I (laughs) gonna do? And I thought, Books. You know, I worked at the Harvard archives, and I thought, Well, I would like to work at another archives. And there really weren't any archives education programs. So the next thing was, with all the colleges -- five colleges in the area -- I wasn't going to go off and create a career -- I could certainly get a job in a library. (laughs) So, that's what I did. And I went to Simmons, finally. (laughs) I commuted to Simmons from -- again, I was a commuter -- from Amherst, I went in once a week, for three years. It was a long master's. (laughs) But that opened up -- that really opened up a whole world. Because my husband gave me very good advice, and he said, "Don't look for job 48:00ads and don't go to personnel offices. Go and talk to the librarians at the Five Colleges." And I did that. And I went to Mount Holyoke first, because I thought, That is such an intimidating -- it -- still -- still somewhat timid -- such an intimidating-looking place, with those big brownstone buildings. And I had never been on the campus. I mean, we were oriented to Northampton and Smith, to Amherst, but I never went to South Hadley. And so, I went over the Notch on a gorgeous fall day, and I walked onto that campus, which is beautiful, and I went into that library -- have you ever -- if you haven't seen the Mount Holyoke library reading room, you have to go. It's a replica of the -- of Westminster Hall and the Houses of Parliament, and it's gorgeous. And I walked in and I thought, This is pretty neat. You know? And then, I met this eccentric English woman who was the library director. And she was interested in me not for what I 49:00had done in library school, but she wanted to know how come I ended up at the Harvard archives and what did I do there. Turned out they didn't have an archivist, and their retired librarian -- she went as an undergraduate to Mount Holyoke, she was a librarian at Mount Holyoke, and when she retired, she volunteered to get the archives in shape, and she had been dead for ten years. And the archives were just enough in shape so that one could access them, but the reference staff went crazy. And she decided the time had come to bring someone in. And that was it. She called me. I went in October, and she called me in January and said -- in a wonderful British accent -- you know, "Are you still interested?" And then, they had me come out to interview. And they were quite amazing, because I would not work full-time, because I still had young children -- I waited until my daughter was in second grade, but I still had young children. And they said, Well, I suppose if you have young children, you -- she 50:00and the reference librarian interviewed me -- you would want to be home during school vacations. And, you know, all these things -- I mean, I said to Arnold when I went over there, "They're not gonna want me. I can't make a full-time commitment." He said, "Well, go and see." And they structured a year for me -- that -- I started work in '73, and I went full-time in '81. And I loved it. (laughs) There I was, in nineteenth-century women's history. I just didn't think there was anything more wonderful than that. And I loved my job. And so, that opened up -- I mean, and I -- it was very important for me to work. I didn't realize it at the time. I didn't go to work for me -- although I was going -- you know, and I would do my class preparation for Simmons at the university library and at the Amherst College library, because they had all the library 51:00tools that I needed, and I told them what I was doing, and so I could work through the week, but I still didn't think it was for me. And as I look back on it now, it was the most important thing. It was so important for me to have a job of my own. And raising our children was never easy. Craig, of course, had problems all the way through. Aaron was a rebel -- Aaron is now the prop of my old age. That's the one who went to McGill. And Lorna had many, many problems growing up. But, you know, I had my world. And I didn't -- I couldn't have arranged it better, but it -- I have to admit, it was accidental. I didn't plan it.
SI:Why do you think it was so important to have a job of your own?
ET:It was very important for the picture I had of myself. There are no grades52:00for parenting, and we had many, many problems parenting. And thank God we met them together. But it was not easy. I think this is a gender thing. I think women look, when some-- women of my -- not your -- of my generation looked, and if something went wrong, it was often a matter of, What did I do wrong? And I was very good at my work. I loved it. I really had the job of organizing the archives. I mean, little Bertha Blakely, who had been, you know, undergraduate librarian volunteer, she had pulled the materials together, but they weren't really arranged. And I had a difficult job, because -- you know, it seems to me I've always been marginal. I was a librarian approaching archives, but at that time, archivists were either librarians or historians, and I had to be a 53:00librarian. That was why I was hired -- because Anne Edmonds, who was the librarian -- the archivist was a librarian who would report to her. So, I had to create a hybrid organization. And I would go to archivists' meetings and they'd say, What? You're using LC for archives? It turned out she -- she was very wise, because it turned out that as life went on in the world of libraries and online resources came available and digitization became available, the Mount Holyoke library was organized in a basic library scheme, but with differences -- that I fought tooth and nail for, so I could do some archive-type things with it. And it was perfect. It was exactly what should have been done. But you have no idea the grief -- I mean, I was an officer in the New England Archivists organization, and, How can you possibly organize materials that way? How can you 54:00do this? How can you do that? It worked out beautifully. And I did a good job. The books didn't have psyches; I didn't have to say, (laughs) Was I doing the right thing by them? And so, it was very, very important for me to have that picture of myself. It was really -- and so much of it was accidental. I'm a planner and I'm not given to impulse, and all the things that worked out right for me had nothing to do with my impulses (laughs) and my planning. (laughs) So, it was -- and I loved being at a women's college. I mean, I had gone to a women's college. My best friend from Radcliffe and I fight to this day -- what are we out, sixty -- how many years? I don't know how many years. And she says, "What do you mean you went to Radcliffe to go to Radcliffe? Everybody went to go to Harvard." And I said, "I didn't." (laughs) I went there because Lillian Smith had gone there. (laughs) But it was very, very important. Yeah. But the job was important. That was also very, very important. And my husband was marvelously 55:00supportive, because I would go in once a week, and we had a sitter who came in to be there for the children. But it was -- it couldn't have been easy, you know? And we did it. We did it. It was okay. (laughs) It was all right. But I think the image of myself as someone who was succeeding in something. No one tells you that as a parent. You don't know. (laughs)
SI:So, I noticed that you went to Radcliffe, which is a women's college, andthen Simmons --
SI:-- which is also a women's college --
ET:That's right. (laughs)
SI:-- and then you worked at Mount Holyoke --
ET:Which is a women's college. (laughs)
SI:Is that a coincidence, or --
ET:It's a coincidence.
SI:-- do you think --
ET:It's a coincidence. I had to go to library school to a place that I couldcommute to easily from Amherst, and I knew the roads in Boston -- oh, and my mother was still living then, so if I hit bad weather, I could stay with her, which did happen a couple of times. And it was either Boston or Albany; I could 56:00get to either one. And I didn't know Albany. I thought, you know, if I end up lost in Boston, I won't be lost. And so, that was the reason for Simmons. And then, Mount Holyoke -- no, I really wanted to work at the university because it was so diverse, and they didn't have an archivist then, either. And I thought, What an interesting archives -- you know, for a state school that had a special role in the community. Well, I never did get to work at the university, but I was always very good friends with whoever did. And it was just a coincidence. I went over to Smith, and the Smith librarian told the Mount Holyoke librarian that they -- she had stolen me, but I don't remember that they seemed that impressed with me at Smith. Apparently, they thought of offering me the job there. It was just -- and I would have ended up at a women's college again. Amherst, I don't think was interested in me. Hampshire was just beginning, and 57:00they had a sort of unusual arrangement, and I don't think they had really thought too much about archives. So, no, it was -- it was a coincidence. Isn't that strange? (laughs)
SI:So, having been in the position of going to women's colleges in the '50s andthen working at women's colleges --
SI:-- until the '90s, what sort of changes did you see?
ET:Oh, I saw a lot of changes. I saw people at Mount Holyoke who were coming inwho were marginal, as I had been at Radcliffe, because there were black women coming for the first time in num-- well, they weren't coming for the first time -- Mount Holyoke's first black graduate was in 1898 -- but in numbers. And I saw a fit that wasn't completely comfortable for them. And by the time I left, that wasn't true any longer. But I had thought, Oh, well, you know, these are black women coming to a culture they're not familiar with. I know all about that. I 58:00was a Jew, you know, in a Christian culture. It was nothing like that. (laughs) To them, I was not someone they related to because of that. So, that was kind of intriguing for me. And -- what other changes did I see? There were a lot of them. Civil -- the women's movement. Whenever I would go anywhere, people would assume that I had gone out to work because of the women's movement, and I hadn't. But I stopped trying to explain it after a while. (laughs) (pauses) Women's education. Women's education is -- to me, is the fascinating thing. And Mount Holyoke was a very nurturing place; it is a very nurturing place. And I grew very fond of it. But I remember, I became very good friends with people in the administration and in the faculty. And the secretary of the college, who was a Mount Holyoke alum -- they were all Mount Holyoke alums -- said, "You know, 59:00Elaine, you fit in so well here; it's a shame you didn't come here." And I said, "I wouldn't have fit in here. I wouldn't have liked it." And she said to me, "I don't believe that." And I said, "No, I wouldn't have liked it." She said, "What wouldn't you have liked?" And I said, "I wouldn't have liked being so well known in the small campus." I wanted to be anonymous. And boy, at Harvard, you were anonymous. We had classes at Radcliffe in my freshman year, but after that, we moved over to the Harvard Yard and we had classes with Harvard students. And believe me, we were anonymous. And that was what I wanted. I don't know why I wanted it. But that was the way I felt. And yet, I loved Mount Holyoke. I felt part of it. It was very interesting. It was very interesting. All of the women's educations were so different at the schools. Smith was very different. Yeah. So (laughs) -- but I think I bumbled through most of it. You know, it just happened. I did reflect on it. I worked at the Amherst archives after I retired. 60:00Because the young woman who worked there said, "Great, now you can come and work for me." And I said, "No, we'll fight. We're two strong women. You don't want me in there with you." She said, "Yes, I do." So, I did work, and we did have a very good relationship. And it was fascinating to me to work in a culture that had been a male culture from the beginning. I was so glad I did it. It was so interesting. So, you know, it's -- (pauses) I guess being Jewish at Mount Holyoke -- I was the only Jew in the library, as a matter of fact. That was the other very interesting thing about moving into a Christian world. As somebody who didn't have Jewish formal education or Jewish institutional education, but I was approachable, and so people, if they had to go to a bar mitzvah, would ask me, What do you do at a bar mitzvah? What do you do -- what do the High Holidays mean? And they were my school, because it wasn't entirely comfortable being the 61:00only one they knew, but if they were getting the information from me, well, I darn well had to produce information that was accurate. And so, I -- and my parents used to come out and visit. My parents lived until I started at Simmons -- until 1970 -- so we had been here for close to twenty years, and they used to come out and visit. And my sisters always came to visit. But it was interesting. It was very, very interesting. And having to interpret Judaism, from the kind of Jew that I was, (laughs) was very interesting. And I think it was probably good for me. I didn't feel threatened by it, but I did feel a responsibility of being Jewish that I might not have felt otherwise. I think that's probably -- that, and how I could shape Hanukkah for my children were two very, very major things. Because we did do High Holidays, and my father used to come out and do the 62:00seder. He did one seder here, and he went back to Boston and did the second seder for my sisters. But I had to think about it. I had to think about a lot of these things. And so, in a sense, I was more conscious of my Jewishness than I might have been otherwise, maybe, in a totally Jewish environment. I don't know. It's very funny. It's very funny. My husband is Jewish. I think he's less of a Jew than I am. He says he's not, but I think he is. And we have always been members of the Jewish community. And we were in on the founding of that -- again, because we had children. And the first thing that started the JCA was a Sunday school, not a -- oh, you weren't supposed to mention God and you weren't supposed to mention anything religious, but we had to give our children some sort of education, and of course then it grew into, you know, a full-fledged, full-blooded Jewish community. But the beginnings were very different. 63:00
SI:So, how has the Jewish community in Amherst changed over time as you've been here?
ET:You know, the sad thing is, I don't really feel part of it. (laughs) I don'treally feel part of it. Of course, my generation is no longer really part of it. It's all new people. But there were -- okay, I -- here I'm a sunny, bright person -- there were negatives, because I was raising a child with special needs, and that was not a generation that really understood, and nobody understood. I mean, he was a bright kid, and nobody understood in school -- he had wonderful teachers, but nobody really knew what to do with him. And I didn't feel that he was accepted in the Jewish community. And while I worked very hard for it, and, you know, I prepared the flowers for -- oh, I was always in the kitchen -- and I prepared the flowers for High Holidays -- High Holidays at the chapel at Amherst College were really an experience, let me tell you. (laughs) 64:00We sat there -- my husband and I -- in the presence of all these -- these white men staring down at us (laughs) from the walls. It was really very funny. And, you know, we kept things going as a community. But the community now is not one that I know, partly because I think I never really felt part of the one that we had been, you know, the joint founders of. It was not easy raising a kid in an academic community, in a Jewish community, where children's achievements are so important. And this was my first child. I would say that it put some distance. It really -- and yet, I have very dear friends, you know. But it put some distance. When I retired, I thought that I would volunteer, and the first thing I thought of was the Jewish community. I figured, That's good. And I -- what was 65:00I? I was on the -- I was on a couple of committees, and I felt like a fish out of water. I wrote their manual for their kosher kitchen. You would love that. You would just love that. They had a kosher kitchen, and -- for the first time, and they wanted directions for it. Well, you know, a librarian does that kind of thing very well, so I said I would write the manual. And I went and followed the person around who was introducing people to the kosher kitchen, and I arranged things -- I don't know if they still have the manual or not. I didn't do it like a library thing; I did it like a very pragmatic thing. We had individual pages and dishes -- and washing dishes was "W" and -- and it was very, very easy to get at. I thought that was pretty funny, though. It was really funny. And I wrote -- I should look up the thing that I wrote for it where I talked about the role of food for Jews and how I was happy to be doing this. But I didn't -- that 66:00was already a different generation from the one that I got -- and I never really felt connected. The woman who ran the volunteer committee is just adorable, and she's a warm -- you know, very, very warm Jewish affect, and when I said I wasn't gonna volunteer anymore, she said, "Why?" And we talked about it. We talked about it. But I never did -- I never did do any more volunteer work. And I didn't do any volunteer work anyway because I got cancer, and that was the next big achievement. That was a year after I retired. And I've been very fortunate. So, we're members -- we're paying members. And we were High Holiday Jews (laughs) -- for the most part. For the most part. And the children never really connected, I don't think. So, that's sort of odd. Yeah.
SI:Do you think living in Amherst has changed the way you think about being Jewish?
ET:Oh, sure. I'm sure it has. Although I still retain the feeling that it was a67:00quaint, exotic, interesting thing to be. (laughs) But I feel very much a Jew. I could never be anything else. And -- yeah. So, maybe it has and it hasn't changed. And I think having to raise children and keep them -- or at least let them know what Jewishness was -- that was very important for my husband and me. But am I different as a Jew? Probably not a hell of a lot. (laughs)
SI:What do you think was the most important thing for you to transmit to yourchildren about Jewish identity?
ET:Positive. Positive. It's a very, very wonderful -- I'm sure -- I think --although I told you parents don't get grades, and you never know when you've succeeded -- but I was very, very pleased when Aaron chose to study Yiddish at 68:00McGill. I was so pleased -- because I don't speak Yiddish. I mean, they kept me from speaking Yiddish. And I was just so pleased that that meant that there were -- and he's the one who goes around, you know, "I'm a secular Jew, that's all I am." But he has a -- what is it, a Yiddish neshome [soul]? Is that the -- is that the term? Yes. Yes. And I just wanted them to feel that they didn't have to be anything different from what they were. Yeah, I think that was -- and that that was fine -- that they could be that, and be -- you know, move along in the community as they did. You know. Yeah, that was a challenge.
SI:So, how do you think the identity of younger generations of Jews is differentfrom yours?
ET:I think it's much more closely identified with formal institutions. And ithas to be. No one roams neighborhoods now the way we did when we were growing 69:00up, or even the way my children were free to do when they were growing up in Amherst. It has to be identified for them through institutions. I don't find that a negative, but it's just something that I can't really identify with. I'm always pleased, you know, when I see young Jewish people who -- but on the other hand, okay, the urban Jew is a problem for me after -- after living in Amherst and raising children in Amherst. The urban Jewish identity -- and that doesn't feel right to my kids, either. You know, when Aaron -- Aaron took one year at UMass before he went to McGill, which I told him wouldn't work for him, because he had taken courses at UMass as a high school student. I said, "Aaron, you've been too close to it." He said, "Are you a snob like all the others? Are you gonna tell me I have to apply to Harvard and Yale?" And I said, "Never." But I said, "It's not gonna be a new experience for you." And it wasn't. And so, he 70:00applied -- was lucky in a way, because he applied to McGill from his freshman year at UMass, and there was something about the -- the number of years -- something was different, and he qualified, all right, because he had had that extra year. But I -- I do see, you know, the identification is quite different. And I'm so glad it's working, because there is so much intermarriage, and yet still, there is a strong Jewish identity, often in the intermarriages, which is nice. You know, I think that's very ni-- Arnold had a cousin who married a Texan -- a tall, lanky Texan. She was in the Red Cross in World War II and she came home with this wonderful man. (laughs) And Arnold's aunt, who was -- I could do a whole session on Arnold's aunt Chavi. She was marvelous. Auntie Chavi was a Red Sox fan, a rabid Red Sox fan. And she welcomed him into the family so 71:00wholeheartedly -- and he didn't have to convert to be acceptable to her. But their three children were raised as Jews, and bar mitzvahed and bat mitzvahed. And Arnold's brother's children -- they live in West Hartford, and his brother's children married -- they all married Christians, and two of the Christians converted. So, it's interesting to see that. But their identity is quite different. I don't know where it comes from, but I think much more formal. Yeah. Is that what you meant? Does that -- that sort of thing? Okay. (laughs)
SI:So, how do you think language has influenced your sense of identity?
ET:Oh, not enough. I mean, I wish -- I wish that I spoke Yiddish. I wish that Ispoke Yiddish. I think it's beautiful. I have words and I have phrases, but I didn't realize how beautifully it could be spoken until one of the years that we 72:00went to Florida. I was sitting at the pool -- and we didn't go to Miami; we went to a place -- we went to Marco Island, which -- there weren't too many Jews on Marco Island, but there was another Jewish woman in the complex. She was from the Midwest. And she spotted me and knew that I was Jewish -- I don't know how, but she knew that I was Jewish. And she spoke the most beautiful Yiddish. It was grammatical Yiddish. And I said to her, "Pearl, where did you learn this?" And she said, "Well, my bobe [grandmother] lived with us." And I said, "Well, my bobe lived with us, too, but that didn't mean anything." And it was beautiful, it was grammatical, and I thought, Boy, what I've lost! You know, really too bad. I don't know if I could learn Yiddish. I don't know. And language is hard when you get older. I took a course trying to learn Hebrew so that I could at least read the prayers, but the beginner's level wasn't open, and so I went into 73:00the next level, and it was a disaster. I didn't have the background. And I couldn't get -- I mean, amazing, because I think probably -- my son Aaron has an ear for language, and he did become fluent in Russian and German and French, but I think I probably would have had the same ear, but it's very, very hard to get the basics of a language down when you're older, especially another alphabet. (laughs) French, okay, (laughs) but not Yiddish or Hebrew. I wish -- I really wish that I had had it. I think we were -- we were deprived. But they thought they were doing us a great favor. This helped the assimilation and the Americanization, and we were American children and we better not forget it, so -- okay. (laughs) My sisters don't speak it, either.
SI:So, did you think about speaking Yiddish when you were a child, or it was74:00just something later?
ET:I've always used Yiddish phrases. I have always peppered my language withYiddish phrases -- and interestingly enough, the more the older I get. That's very interesting to me -- that I will come up with the Yiddish and really -- although I'm a language person, basically really not be able to find a proper English equivalent and, you know, would have to grope for the meaning, which I find very funny. I think that's very funny. But it's a very rich language, and it's a wonderful language in the way it's nuanced, and of course it's that that I can't translate. I had an interesting experience -- I don't know, how are we running for time? I'm running on so --
SI:Oh, we have a little time.
ET:We have a little time?
ET:One of the times I was hospitalized for surgery, I came out of surgery and Iwas in a room with a woman who was raving -- essentially, she was raving from 75:00the anesthesia. And she was German. And I found myself saying to her in Yiddish, "Please be quiet." It was a very, very interesting experience. You know, I think I said, "Ikh bin krank" -- "I don't feel well" -- you know, "Sha [Quiet]." And I couldn't tell you now what I said, but I summoned something up. That was just a fascinating experience, that I knew she wouldn't understand me if I spoke in English. She clearly didn't have -- that was part of the reason the poor thing was raving; I think she felt terribly disoriented. But I knew I couldn't speak to her in English. And I came as close to it as I could. It was -- just interesting. I wish I had had the language. I really do. I really do. And I think that this place is very important for that. My niece that I said I was so 76:00close to -- the one who was the daughter of my oldest sister -- lives in New York, and oh, is she a New Yorker. She is an Upper West Side New Yorker like you've never met. And she came here, and I wanted to show her the Yiddish Book Center. And so, we came, and some of the students -- it was in the summer and they were presenting. She was enthralled. She was just absolutely thrilled to death. And brought back all the memories. She adored my parents, and so my sister used to come from Syracuse overnight on the train. She and Carol would come and have a sleeper, and then they would stay in Boston for two or three weeks. And my sister had made the step up -- you know, the marriage to the professional man, and the single home -- but Carol would come to the same three-decker that I had lived in, and those are her warmest memories. She just adored Mattapan. She adored all her aunties. And again, it was that culture -- 77:00reaching out, I think. There was still enough of it left. It vanished. It really vanished. I think my husband and I were the last generation to experience it fully. But that was an interesting day with Carol here. You know, she's so funny. (laughs) And she got very excited, because, of course, living on the West Side and living in New York City, she always wanted to get out of Syracuse, and she did, with a vengeance. She is very much aware of the Yiddish writers and the culture from that point of view, so she just loved it. I mean, we had this lively group that met with the summer interns. And it was wonderful. And then she said -- to one of the women, she said, "You talk like my aunt. Did you grow up in the -- where did you grow up in Boston?" And the woman had grown up in Dorchester. And Carol said, "See, I knew, and you didn't." (laughs) That was very funny. Once one is a Jew, it's pretty -- it stays. (laughs) But it has to 78:00be positive. 'Cause we saw, in an academic Jewish environment -- that's a very different one from the one that I knew, and it's not always a comfortable fit, I think, for some of the people who come here. So, that has been interesting, too. Yeah.
SI:So, just a few questions about Yiddish.
SI:A lot of people say that Yiddish is dead or dying. What do you think?
ET:Oh, no! (laughs) Oh, no. No. I think -- I have a very good command ofEnglish, as you can tell, and I never stop talking, but there are -- the Yiddish language is nuanced in a very special way. I wish I did speak another foreign language. I found when we traveled in -- in France, or was it Italy? I felt very 79:00comfortable in Italy. The Italians and I seemed to be very close. But there is something about the affect, and there is something about all the meanings of a single word -- I mean, if you get one word in English, you need to sum it up maybe four or five in Yiddish to get the full meaning of it. So, I don't see it -- I'm delighted -- I mean, I don't feel an identity with it, but I'm so glad to see it revived here and kept that way. Yeah. And it is rich.
SI:What do you think is the future of Yiddish?
ET:Well, I can't speak as an intellectual, as a Yiddish intellectual. The warmthand the affect -- but I'm -- now this is something I could do -- I could read more Yiddish writers in English. I haven't done so much of that, either. And their view of -- I think their view of being Yiddish is not as well known to me 80:00as it should be. So, I can't answer that. I should be able -- I should be able to dip into my readings, and I don't have that many readings (laughs) of Yiddish writers. Okay, I'll go from here with a mission. (laughs)
ET:Yeah. Yeah. And I don't know any -- are there -- there are Yiddish poets?There must be Yiddish poets. Poetry has always been an interest of mine. Well, I've got a little time left. I can direct myself (laughs) -- I can direct myself to some of that. See, you've done me a favor. (laughs)
SI:Well, I'm glad. Who knew? (laughs)
SI:So, I guess we're nearing the end of our time.
SI:But I have a couple more questions that I'd like to ask you.
ET:I'll try to be short.
SI:Okay. (laughs) You can take your time. We have -- you know, we have enough to-- for you to expand. So, (laughs) -- so the first is, do you have a favorite Yiddish word or phrase?
ET:(pauses) No. I mean, I love "gute neshome [good soul]." And -- there was a81:00Yiddish blessing that came to me. When Aaron graduated from McGill and we went up for his commencement, we stayed at a hotel, and he -- my father used to say to me in Yiddish -- oh, and I'm gonna wreck it, but you'll get it. You speak Yiddish? Yeah. As a child -- now, what would the word for "future" be? "Zayn mazl." "Zayn mazl zol zayn vi sheyne vi du bist." Now what have I said? I should say, "Your good fortune should be as beautiful as you are." And my father used to say that to me. And there was Aaron, out on Sherbrooke or something, summoning a cab -- you know, with his regalia -- going off to the commencement exercises. And were going to -- of course, to go later -- I mean, to the exercises; he was going to the early -- and I watched him, and my father's words 82:00came back to me. Just exactly. So, I would say that is a very favorite expression of mine. Yeah. Yeah. And my father had a way. He would have had a way with language. He was (laughs) -- he was very good. Yeah. But those warm and very, very complex meanings for feelings, I think -- I'm sorry I missed out on that. Yeah.
SI:That's a beautiful expression. Yeah.
ET:What -- "zayn --" had you heard it before --
ET:Isn't it beautiful?
ET: It is just beautiful. I mean, to be patted on the head and told that, youknow, you were just the nicest little kid. And I wasn't sure I knew what I -- what it meant when he said it to me. I did later, of course. I mean, I knew words. I knew words. But then, I couldn't find the grammar for it. I think that's the right grammar, but I'm not sure. You know. Yeah.
ET:I should have told that to Aaron. If I tell him now, he'll look at me as if83:00(laughs) -- he'll wonder where this is coming from. (laughs) And he's already fifty-two. (laughs) Oh my. People -- the -- I think the language is important; I think the people who use it are important. So, it has to be the combination. Aaron Lansky has done an amazing thing. I've never met him, but he's done an amazing thing. It's just astonishing. Yeah.
SI:Do you have any advice for future generations?
ET:Oh, no. (laughs) Oh, no. (laughs) No. (laughs) If I said I did, I'd be lying.(laughs) Yes, I do. Yes, I do. Of course. Just stay open. Stay open to possibility. If I hadn't stayed open to possibility, I would not have taken the job that I did at Mount Holyoke. 'Cause technically, it wasn't the one I was 84:00really trained for. So, that was very important to me. But that's all. Nothing more. (laughs) Don't think you ever have the answer is the other one; there is no one answer. There is no one answer. That's it. Yeah. (laughs) If you think you've got the answer, then you know you're wrong. You better go look someplace else. (laughs)
SI:Well, thank you very much for talking to me today. I really enjoyed it.
ET:Well, thank you for listening. My goodness, you know, all you have to do isgive me a chance to talk, and there's this spate -- (laughs) --
SI:(laughs) It's my pleasure.
[END OF INTERVIEW]