A brilliant article by Phyllis Chesler brings me to this topic. “Nostalgia for the Slaughterhouse” talks about romanticization of the Jewish shtetls, via the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Chesler wonders why modern American Jews, particularly those coming from Eastern European backgrounds, fall in love with this sentimental picture of our ancestors’ lives, when the reality was poverty and persecution. She asks, “Are we repenting our own loss of faith by honoring Anatevka’s Jews for their loyalty to religious Judaism? Or is this our way to connect to the grandparents we never met—the ancestors whose faces we cannot even visualize (we have no paintings, no photographs), and whose names we may not even know?”
I can’t recommend Chesler’s article highly enough. Like her, I enjoyed Fiddler when the movie came out, and can still hear the music in my head. Back then I didn’t think about the questions she poses. Now, however, I want to add my own: Is it the unquestioning faith in religious Judaism that we miss, or what we imagine as a close-knit, supportive community? I have no regrets about abandoning religion for astronomy, archaeology, and evolution—which aren’t beliefs but sciences, that is, theories, compilations of facts, and methods of inquiry, and are always changing with new discoveries. As for supportive communities, I have an Orthodox friend who lives in a neighborhood of the faithful, in Brooklyn NY, and they do care for each other. It works for them. Many such enclaves exist in various parts of the U.S., mostly in the New York area but also one within the city limits of Portland, OR, where I live. I could join them if I were so inclined. But even before I left elementary school I knew that I didn’t fit in, and wanted out of what felt like a psychological ghetto. By sixth grade I was in love with another girl—and she was Black.
As for connecting with ancestors, I guess those who never met their grandparents or, more likely, their great-grandparents, might wax maudlin about the old country. Not me. My paternal grandparents came from Odessa (Ukraine) and Kishinev (Moldova). When I asked Grandpa Reuben about life in the old country, he replied, “Don’t ask!” My father told me that Reuben fled Kishinev during one of the horrific pogroms. He would have been 14 during the first one, in 1903. Forty-nine Jews were killed, and at least 600 Jewish women were raped. Reuben took his younger brother and swam across the river, saving both of them.
My maternal grandparents and my mother were from Nowy Dwor (Poland). Those grandparents didn’t speak much English, but Mom had quite a few stories, both of persecution by the gentile community and mean-spiritedness from fellow Jews. I recounted them in detail in a previous blog post. Briefly, her baby brother died in a pogrom. Gentile kids threw stones at her and called her “Christ-killer.” A murderer went free because the court would not accept testimony from a Jew. And after World War I, when the Allies opened a soup kitchen, fellow Jews wouldn’t let my four-year-old mother have any, wanting more for themselves. Mom had no good memories of life in the shtetl.
Forty years later the scars were still with her. One day she and I walked up Fordham Road in the Bronx, passing St. Nicholas of Tolentine church at around 3:00 when school was being let out. I remember seeing a couple of ruddy-faced boys in their parochial school uniforms. Mom stepped up her pace, anxious to get away from the potential stone-throwers as quickly as possible.
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Occasionally one of my straight cousins will forward a series of photos from the 1950s: girls in poodle skirts dancing with boys in cuffed trousers, or enjoying a sundae together at the soda shop, or going to a drive-in. They send pictures of juke boxes, cars with tail fins, and so on. I suppose my cousins are nostalgic for their youth. They did fit in with Jewish American life, maybe attached themselves to local synagogues but never became seriously religious–they were looking for community, and hopefully they found it. All of them married fairly young, moved to the suburbs, had kids, and now have grandkids. Perhaps their marriages weren’t as happy-ever-after as they’d been led to expect. Perhaps their problems weren’t as easily solved as one might see in a half hour sitcom like Father Knows Best. Such circumstances would cast a retrospective glow over the adolescent years of lindy hopping to Bill Haley and His Comets.
I loathed the 50s. For me that decade will always mean having to squish my hips into a girdle and cramp my poor feet into high heeled pointy-toed shoes. It means women confined to help wanted-female jobs, i.e., secretaries, elementary school teachers, and nurses, and always having to defer to men. It means segregation, and the lynching of Emmet Till and voting rights activists. It means McCarthyism, ruining people’s lives because someone accused them of having considered socialism—after all, wasn’t the capitalist system handed down at Mt. Sinai? Or even worse, being accused of loving a member of one’s own sex. In those years, more suspected gays were driven out of government jobs than suspected Communists.
Sure, I’d like the strength and energy of my younger body back. And I regret not having the time and resources to see more of the world, to learn more science, languages, and history. But nostalgia for a decade that celebrated conformity to stifling sex roles, or for a fictitious past in a happy shtetl that never was? You’ve got to be kidding!