Born a Rhode Islander of two parents who were first generation Americans, I always felt very American, but also very something else. Both sets of my grandparents came from Russia as immigrants, as did thousands and thousands of Jews at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Yiddish was used often in both families at home, usually in an attempt to hide something from the kinder. All of my grandparents had died by the time I was five or six, but great aunt Fanny would often speak Yiddish with my mother who often said “Fanny, English, Irene doesn’t understand!” As I got older and the eldest family members died, it was used less and less. When my mother died at 91 in 2008, it had probably been three decades since she had held a conversation in Yiddish. When she was in her sixties, she had a job as a sales person in a boutique and often took the owner’s small poodle to lunch with her. Bubala, the poodle, listened for the sound of my mother’s conversation with her boss to hear the magic words “I think I’ll take the dog with me”. Once the pup heard those words, she would start jumping up and down so much that it was hard to get the leash on her collar. My mother thought that if she said it in Yiddish the dog would not get so excited; that worked for a couple of weeks and then Bubala figured it out. My mother got mileage out of the story about the little poodle who could understand Yiddish.
Growing up Jewish in Rhode Island was probably no different than growing up Jewish in the fifties and sixties any where else in the United States. Rhode Island had, and still has, a majority Roman Catholic population with a vibrant Jewish presence. When I was a kid, I really did not know many Protestants and thought there were only Jews and Catholics in little Rhody. Even with many Jews visible in the community, my parents were part of a generation that wanted assimilation. I remember overhearing my dad once making a dinner reservation for he and my mother; he used the name Roberts to make the reservation. When I asked my mother about it, she said it was because Rabinowitz was too hard for people to spell. Even at ten years old, I knew this to be a dodge and that for them, having such a Jewish name was difficult.
There was no discussion about the Holocaust in my household, even though for a few years in the late fifties or early sixties we lived next door to a survivor. She kept to herself mostly, but was very kind when the inevitable ball landed in her yard or, when I was in my early teens, transistor radios blasted and loud laughter was the norm. She once got upset on the Fourth of July when a marching band with loud drums went by on the main street two blocks away. When I asked my mother about why the neighbor was upset, I was told because she had bad things happen to her in Europe. I was probably no older than eight at the time.
There are memories of my parents and friends or family talking about the war and what happened to Jews, but they are confused in my memory with so many other things. When the Rosenbergs were executed in 1953, I was five years old. Somehow in my mind, I had them jumbled up with Jews being killed in Europe and remember being afraid that all Jews were going to be killed. I never spoke with my parents or older brother about those thoughts; those might not have been words that would come easy to a five year old. We did know about Israel, from Hebrew school, and I began to wonder why we all were not just moving there since if the Rosenbergs could be executed in the US, if Jews could be killed in Europe, then we were all at risk. Naive, yes, but it still feels as unsafe to me as it did when I was very little and did not even understand what had happened. As a youngster, I fantasized about going to Israel, planting trees, living on a kibbutz. We sang Hatikvah in Hebrew school. After my dad died when I was 14, I knew that it would be a dream deferred. It made perfect sense to dream about a place where Jews were in control. If Birthright had existed then, it might have been possible.
My mother and I spoke about a lot of things before she died in 2008. She always was very protective of us and admitted that she wanted to shield her kids from knowing about horrible things that happened to Jews. When I was married to a child of survivors, I remember a Thanksgiving in the Bronx when she and my then father-in-law, both widowed by then, spoke non-stop about a a range of life experiences. Their worlds were so different. While he was in a camp or on a forced march near the end of the war, my mother was a young mom living in Rhode Island with a baby boy on the path to the American dream. American Jews have always had a wide range of experiences and differences in their expressions of Judaism. The one thing I believe we have all had in common is denial of our collective vulnerability that flies in the face of reason but protects us from living in fear.
I remember long pot-infused discussions with other young Jews about whether we are a religion, a nation, a racial group, a whatever. Are we Americans first, or Jews first? Most of us never figured it out. But I have. Jew first. From my first visit to my dad’s old Orthodox shul in Providence and then a visit to the posh Reform synagogue across town, I knew that we had class distinctions, religious differences, and all the other issues that separate us from truly being a nation. And we still do. From wealthy synagogues in the United States that sell memberships and high holiday tickets, to the Chabad Lubavitchers (who have a spirit filled with love), to the Women of the Wall and those who throw things at them, to Women for the Wall (who I admire for their steadfastness in faith), to those who believe that Israel is too rigid, to those who believe as I do: that Israel is our sole defense against what has happened in the past for thousands of years. We have differences, but we are all Jews and Israel is our home, no matter where we choose to live.
My joke for many years is that there are two things all American Jews need: a passport and a gun. No gun in my possession, but the passport is ready to go. And it shall, back to Israel where no one has ever said their name is Roberts when it really is Rabinowitz.