Growing Up Jewish in the South

by Jerome Massey (Fairfax , VA)

Interviewed by Rick Black (Arlington, VA)

(Rick Black and Jerome Massey met through Olam Tikvah, their shul in Fairfax, Virginia. This is the first of a two-part interview.)

RB: What was your bringing up like being Jewish in the South?

JM: I was born in Norfolk, VA, 27th of July 1922. My mother, Mollie Leibowitz, came from Latvia when she was maybe 10 years old. My father was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1900 and they got married in Norfolk, Virginia, probably around 1918-1919.

My Dad was apprenticed to a tinsmith when he was, I think, maybe 12,13,14 years old and when he was 16 years old, he finished his apprenticeship and was considered a mechanic. He claimed that he was the youngest tinsmith-mechanic on the Atlantic coast. He stayed in that kind of work til the 1920s and then he went to several other businesses.

The economic times in the early 1920s – things were good and things were bad; people made fortunes and lost fortunes. He ended up in the shoe business and worked for Hofeimer’s – that was a chain of shoe stores. He worked for them for a while and then he came up to Washington and worked for Hahn’s Shoe Company and another shoe company and then he went into business for himself.

My mother and he broke up, he remarried to Henrietta Driefus over in Alexandria, and my sister and I spent part of the year in Alexandria and part of the year in Norfolk – that went on for quite a few years. My mother remarried to Joseph Hecht, who was a watchmaker and jeweler, so I was raised by several different families. I was raised by an Orthodox family, a Conservative family and a German Jewish family.

RB: Was your mother the Orthodox side of the family?

JM: Yes, my mother came from an Orthodox family and my father’s family was Conservative. But I guess I might be what they call a universalist. I believe that all religions are basically the same and they all teach you to be a good person. And if you follow the Bible, the Pentateuch or the Koran, they are all teaching tools to teach you to be a good person. And to teach you that we’re all human. We all make mistakes but we’re all human and God put us on the earth to take care of it and make it a better place.

RB: Did being in the military influence your faith at all?

JM: I guess so. You have some very, very bad experiences and then you wonder why you’re still here and then you finally come to one conclusion: that God puts everybody on earth for a reason, to accomplish something, and when you’ve accomplished that, it’ll just be time for you to leave. That’s more or less my thoughts on that.

RB: Did you used to have family seders?

JM: Oh, of course, we had seders all of Pesach, the first and second seder and the last seder at my grandfather’s house. All the big family was there, all my aunts and uncles and all their children. It went on from sunset to midnight. And my grandfather made his own wine. He had two kinds: he had some for the children and women and he had some for the men. I don’t know what he put in the men’s but it was much stronger than what he gave the children and the women.

RB: Did you ever help him make the wine?

JM: A little bit. He had these five gallon jugs – you know, these big five gallon jugs? – he used them. But there was never a shortage of bronfen at my grandfather’s house.

RB: What’s bronfen?

JM: You don’t know what bronfen is?

RB: No. Is that Yiddish?

JM: Bronfen is . . .

RB: Liquor?

JM: Yes.

RB: I never heard that term.

JM: It’s rye. Rye whiskey. There was never a shortage. When I was little I lived across the street from my grandmother and grandfather, so I would go across the street to their apartment and go with him to shul and he was the hazzan at the shul. I was the only grandson that went with him to shul. The other grandchildren didn’t live close by. Every Shabbas I went with him – Friday night, Saturday morning. I’d spend Friday night with him and then at the services on Saturday morning, they called him in, he would sit at this long table and discuss – I guess they were discussing the parsha of the week – I don’t know; I didn’t understand what they were talking about.

RB: In Yiddish or English?

JM: Yiddish.

RB: Did you understand Yiddish?

JM: Yes. It’s mostly gone now but at sundown, well, after services you would go back home and rest, and after sundown we would walk down to his store which was maybe eight blocks away, and open up his store, his grocery store. And he would keep that open, I guess, til 10 o’clock at night.

RB: On Saturday?

JM: Yes. You know, after sundown you can open . . .

RB: Yes.

JM: He sold live chickens and he had a shochet in the back – you know, to kill the chickens – and he had people in the back to take the feathers and everything off the chickens. You know, it smelled bad back there. And the shochet, I don’t know, I think the shochet charged him twenty-five cents or whatever it was. But that was normal in those days.

And my mother remarried to Joseph Hecht – a fine gentleman, my stepfather. He was very mechanically inclined and so he taught me how to use all kinds of tools. He said, ‘You could do anything you want to do and if you don’t do it right the first time, do it over again and eventually you’ll do it right.’ So, he would work on automobile engines or a watch – it didn’t make any difference, he could work on anything – and I learned how to do all these things. So, I was spending part of my time in Norfolk – my sister and I – we spent part of our time in Norfolk and part of our time in Alexandria.

RB: Was it much different up in Alexandria?

JM: It was entirely different because you went from more or less Ashkenazic, Russian or Latvian Jews to German Jews who had been in this country since, oh, some of ’em prior to the Civil War and right after the Civil War. So, you had – I think the word is nouveau riche – you had the rich German Jews and you had the people that had just come over from Russia. I guess just like the wetbacks who come up from Mexico, just finding their way around. So, you had two different civilizations, you might say. When you had dinner with the people up in Alexandria, always white linen tablecloths, white linen napkins, beautiful silverware, glassware and someone to serve the food to you. And your table manners had to be perfect; everything had to be perfect cause that’s the way they were. While the people down South – you might say almost, well, they weren’t peasants but there was a difference in their whole outlook. The people up in Alexandria were bridge players; the people in Norfolk were poker players. I mean, you’ve got different stratums of society.

RB: Would you go to shul up in Alexandria, too?

JM: In Alexandria, we went to the Beth El Temple. They had a rabbi that they had brought over from Germany while in Norfolk we had both the Conservative and the Orthodox shuls. We went to both of them, or all of them, and it was strange. When I went up to Alexandria, I’d never tasted bacon. I didn’t know what bacon was. Didn’t know from pork or bacon or anything like that. And they served bacon for breakfast. I didn’t even know what it was. It was an entirely different lifestyle.

RB: Did you like it?

JM: No. But it was just an illustration.

RB: But, I mean, were you aware it was kosher or not?

JM: I didn’t know. You take a six or seven year old boy and you don’t know. It was just a whole different culture. So, as I said, I grew up and eventually I went to grammar and junior high school in Norfolk, and then my father bought a house over in Chevy Chase, DC, and my sister and I came up here and we went to high school here.

We went to the best high school in the Washington area. In those days – in the 30s and 40s – people in Virginia and Maryland, a lot of them sent their children to school over in Washington because the schools in the District of Columbia were way superior to those in Virginia or Maryland. So, my sister Shirley and I both graduated high school in Washington, DC.

RB: Did you get Bar Mitzvahed?

JM: No, I never got Bar Mitzvahed. I didn’t but – well, it depends what terminology you mean. I went to Beth El temple and the rabbi handed me a great big Torah on one Sabbath that would have been my Bar Mitzvah Sabbath. He made me hold the Torah for the whole service, which I did. But as far as . . . I can’t remember reading anything. He made me hold the Torah that day, that Sabbath. When I got back home that day, my mother handed me a prayer book, which I still have in my library. She gave me [that prayer book] on my 13th birthday. It’s a little worse for wear, but I still have it.

Lt. Col. U.S. Army (Ret.) Jerome L. Massey won numerous commendations in his service during World War II and in subsequent years. He will be 93-years-old in July.

Rick Black is a prize-winning poet and former journalist for The New York Times who owns a poetry and fine art press in Arlington, VA. You can see his work at www.turtlelightpress.com

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity

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