Finding A Place for Myself

by Charlotte Herman (Lincolnwood, IL)

Our apartment on Chicago’s West Side (also known as the “Great Vest Side”) in the 1940’s was where the relatives congregated.

The men sat in the front room smoking cigarettes, and the women drank tea in the dining room. The older ones drank from glasses and sipped the tea through sugar cubes held between their teeth. The younger, more “modern” ones drank from teacups and used spoons to stir in sugar from the sugar bowl.

All the relatives spoke Yiddish, or English with Yiddish accents. I would go from room to room trying to find a place for myself. A place where I belonged.

I sat with the women, watching and listening. My grandmother and older aunts always wore flowered housedresses, thick black shoes, and elastic stockings to cover up their varicose veins. I listened to their conversations and studied the way they dressed.

And I worried.

When I grow old will I suddenly start speaking with a Yiddish accent? Will I have to wear flowered housedresses and elastic stockings and thick black shoes?

I couldn’t bear the thought. So off I’d go into the smoke-filled front room where I watched and listened some more.

The men spoke about business, the war, and President Roosevelt and whether or not he was “good for the Jews.” And while they were trying to settle the problems of the world, they took turns pinching my cheeks. I’d rub my cheeks and go back to sit with the women. And worry.

During Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the relatives went to Anshe Kanesses Israel Congregation (aka the “Russische shul”) on Douglas Boulevard. The men sat downstairs, and the women were up in the balcony. Here, too, I tried to find a place where I belonged.

Up and down the stairs I’d go, from one section to the other.

I sat with my mother in the ladies’ section, fascinated by their hats, with feathers and flowers and G-d knows what growing out of them.

Then I’d go down to sit with my father who’d wrap his tallis around me and I’d braid the fringes. When I grew tired of sitting with the men, it was time to climb up the stairs again to be with the women.

On Passover the relatives crowded together in the dining room for the Seder. My mother always presented a beautiful table, and my grandmother would exclaim her approval with “Hoo ha.”

Gefilte fish. “Hoo ha.”

Chicken soup and knaidlach.. “Hoo ha.”

Chopped liver. “Hoo ha.”

Being the youngest, I sang the Four Questions, using the latest melody I’d learned at Hebrew school. And I was the one who would open the door to invite Elijah the Prophet to come in and drink from his special cup of wine.

How excited I was when I ran back to the table and looked inside the cup. Elijah had taken a sip!

One night I discovered why I was given the honor of opening the door. Standing there at the doorway, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted my father pouring some wine out of the special cup. It was my father who was Elijah. I never told anyone that I caught on. And when my children were growing up, we played that same game, with my husband becoming Elijah.

Many years have passed since those days in the old neighborhood. My mother and father and most of the relatives are gone. But I can still see them. Still hear their voices.

I don’t speak with a Yiddish accent or wear flowered housedresses or elastic stockings or thick black shoes.

But when one of my daughters sets a lovely table, or a grandchild paints a pretty picture, I have been known to let out an occasional “Hoo ha.”

Charlotte Herman’s most recent children’s novel, My Chocolate Year, takes place in Chicago in the 1940’s — the setting of many of her books. You can visit her website at: www.charlotteherman.com

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity

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