Tag Archives: Philadelphia

A Paris Odyssey

 

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

Suzanne’s parents had moved to Paris in the 1930s as a young married couple from Ukraine.  Mr. P. was a barber and opened a shop on a busy Paris street.  They wanted to start a new life away from the anti-Semitic fears in Ukraine.  Two daughters were born and the family lived in an apartment on the floor above the shop.

And then came the rise and popularity of Hitler.  And then the war.  And then the occupation of Paris by Germany.  The barber shop was shuttered and the family stayed in their apartment clandestinely to see if they could outlive the occupation.  Sarah, the younger daughter, then about to become a teenager, blonde and blue-eyed, became Suzanne as a way to fool anyone who stopped her as she was the one sent out to forage for food.

For four years they were able to avoid detection.  When Paris was freed, Mr. P.  decided not to attempt to reopen his shop, fearing that vestiges of the Vichy anti-Semitic regime remained.  Instead the family made plans to emigrate to the United States where Mrs. P. had cousins in Philadelphia.

My father was a barber and had operated his own shop for many years.  We lived behind the store in a two-story house.  When he needed another barber to work “the second chair,” the Barbers’ Union sent Mr. P, whose languages were French and Yiddish, but not English.  However, the South Philadelphia neighborhood where we lived was still primarily Jewish at that time, peopled with many immigrants, so speaking Yiddish worked fine.  After a few weeks Mr. P. said to my father, “I have a daughter exactly your daughter’s age.  She is miserable.  She won’t go to school until the fall and she doesn’t know any English or have any friends.  May I bring her to meet your daughter?”

The arrangement was made. I was not consulted, which increased my anxiety of meeting a girl my age who had undergone life experiences I could not imagine. The next day Mr. P. arrived with a pretty 17 year old who looked visibly intimidated.  We introduced ourselves and tried to find a way to talk.  My high school French had taught me “Open the window” and “The pen of my aunt.”  I didn’t think either phrase would help us communicate, but we discovered we were both fluent in Yiddish and that was our method of conversation for the next few months until Suzanne began her halting study of English.

Eventually, Suzanne married and moved to the suburbs with her family.  I did the same.  We lost touch but sometimes met at a Jewish film festival and were always glad to see each other.

Many years later I was a volunteer interviewer for the Gratz College Holocaust Oral History Project.  I decided to interview Suzanne, and in the intimacy of a two hour conversation I learned more about her years barricaded in the family apartment.  She shared emotions I had not heard before: the daily apprehension of being discovered, her inner trembling when she walked on the street to buy food, the tensions, even in a loving family, of spending four years locked together in one space, never knowing what had happened to their extended family.

I suddenly understood the seclusion and safety of the Jewish life I had led living in a Jewish neighborhood and the false sense of security this evoked in me.  The war had not been threatening to us and it was a while before we heard about the horror and devastation of concentration camps and could begin to understand the attempt to exterminate our people.  Leaving Suzanne’s house that day, I felt for myself the wrenching internal anxiety Jews had always felt throughout the world, throughout eternity.

Some time after that experience I wrote a memoir about growing up in Jewish South Philadelphia and sent it to Suzanne, certain it would evoke many shared memories.  She, in turn, sent me her memoir of those parallel years which she spent hidden in the Paris apartment and told of the loss of dear cousins and friends.  She thought she was lucky; I thought she was incredibly brave. It was not until I read her poignant memoir that I learned Suzanne had been Sarah.

Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free lance writer for national publications.

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Hebrew School Memories

by Jan Booker (Malibu, CA)

School meant public school.  Private school was for rich kids and we didn’t know any.  For South Philadelphia Jewish families, Hebrew School equaled in importance our secular education.

We didn’t go to Sunday School or religious school once or twice a week. Hebrew school was serious business: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, after regular school, for two and one half hours, plus the same amount of time on Sunday mornings.  If you subtract recess, assemblies, art, gym and music, the time spent in Hebrew School equaled our daily secular school time.

We had several subjects: Hebrew, of course, where we learned to read and write using the first five books of the Bible as our text. But this was before the establishment of the State  of Israel when Hebrew was rarely used as a conversational language, so to this day I can read Hebrew, but my conversational skills are limited to about thirty unconnected words.  Then there was literature, where we studied the literature of the Jews, concentrating on writers like Sholom Aleichem and Peretz.  History was as expected, a history of the Jewish people, from Biblical times through the Diaspora, up to what was the  present for us.  In the days before and during World War11, we studied shtetl life and European migrations of the Jews.  For those who went to Hebrew school after the war, studies must have had a very different focus.  We had written  tests and oral exams and homework.  Probably our classes in Hebrew school plus our secular school education equaled what is taught in any Jewish day school, except we spent double the time in classrooms combining public school and Hebrew school.

I attended JEC2, which meant Jewish Educational Center #2, part of a network of independent schools called, usually, a “Talmud Torah” or referred to in Yiddish as “Cheder.”  This institution was not synagogue- affiliated but part of a central education system.  Classes and offices were housed in a building at Marshall and Porter Streets, a typical school building with three floors and a wonderful auditorium.  The building was a kind of art deco- style.  Wide front steps led to a center hall and then to the large auditorium, where typical school-wide events were held: plays and holiday celebrations, religious observances and special events. Many years later, the building was utilized as a senior center operated by Philadelphia Jewish Community Centers.

Attendance at this Hebrew school almost mitigated the necessity of belonging to a synagogue.  There was no need for additional opportunity for worship.  We celebrated all holidays through the school, and the entire family was welcome to join any event.  The children were involved in all aspects of presentation or observance.

When I was about eight, studying Bible stories, I asked my teacher a question:  “Why,” I said, “if God knows everything, did He permit Eve to eat the apple.”  A curious look passed over the teacher’s face.  “Ask your mother,” was her answer.  It took quite a few years for me to understand why she didn’t want to deal with a reply.

We celebrated every holiday with a play to which parents and grandparents proudly lent their presence.  In my first year of Hebrew school I was in a Chanukah play.  Because so many of the parents, and all the grandparents, were immigrants whose English language skills were modest,  plays were presented in English and Yiddish.  My part was to run across the stage, stopping front and center, to announce in Yiddish, “Hannah is dead, Hannah has died, threw herself over the wharf and lies there with her seven children.”

When I think back to my seven years of Hebrew School, I am full of wonder at the quality of the teachers.  Mr. Blank taught Hebrew, a brilliant man who wrote fourteen novels in a language not yet used other than for worship.   Mr. Sankowsky taught us history.  I learned  years later that he was an accomplished artist whose work was exhibited throughout the city.  Dr. Levitsky, the principal, had a PhD, an impressive accomplishment in those days.  His wife, a striking exotic- looking brunette, taught us music and directed our dramatic productions.

We had no confirmation, no bat-mitzvah.  Those ceremonies were for more upscale neighborhoods.  Our parents thought them frivolous; it was the learning that mattered. In our South Philadelphia culture, boys were bar-mitzvahed but girls were also educated in Hebrew school in coed classes.

My memory is that there were no bar-mitzvah classes for the boys, who had to study with a Rabbi or Melamed (teacher.)  My brother was tutored by a special bar-mitzvah teacher who came to our house several days a week for a year.  My father, who lost no opportunity to increase the educational opportunities of his children, had Mr. Shafritz stay a little longer each session to teach me to read and write Yiddish.  So long as I knew the basic  Hebrew alphabet (Yiddish uses the same alphabet but substitutes letter vowels for the symbols used as vowels in Hebrew) he argued, it would be a simple matter.  It wasn’t, yet I can still work my way around large print in a Yiddish newspaper.  Book texts are somewhat harder and I give up easily.

Some families, eager to pass on their Socialist political leanings to their children, sent them to Jewish schools that de-emphasized the religious aspects of Judaism and focused on political and cultural issues.  I met many graduates of these schools several years later when I joined the Zionist youth group.

Janice L. Booker is the author of The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, Philly Firsts, and Across from the Alley Next Door to the Pool Room, from which this reminiscence is excerpted with permission of the authorFor more information about her work, visit: http://www.amazon.com/Janice-L.-Booker/e/B001KCCS8E

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Remembering Chanukah

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA )

I grew up in Philadelphia in the days preceding World War II when Chanukah was not nearly the celebration it is today.

The holiday was never mentioned in public school, despite the fact that the population of my elementary and junior high school was predominantly Jewish.

There was no expectation of equal coverage. Christmas was celebrated in the schools with a tree in every classroom and in assemblies where we sang Christmas carols weeks before the holiday.

An unwritten, unspoken agreement among the Jewish kids was that when we sang the carols, lustily and with pleasure, we kept our lips sealed when the name of Jesus Christ was mentioned. To my knowledge, no parent ever asked for this and no one discussed it; it just was.

I don’t remember feeling cheated or inferior. Christmas just didn’t belong to me, and Chanukah was no substitute. There were no decorations and no expectations of eight gifts.

Sometimes friends of my parents or relatives gave Chanukah “gelt,” a small offering of cash. A quarter was considered a windfall.

We did buy chocolate “coins,” but Chanukah was treated as a minor holiday, which it realistically is.

As Christmas has become the shopping extravaganza it is today, so Chanukah celebrations have proliferated proportionally.

I succumbed when my children were young and went into the one gift per night routine, which I still do with my grandchildren.

Janice L. Booker is the author of The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, Philly Firsts, and Across from the Alley Next Door to the Pool Room, from which this reminiscence is excerpted with permission of the author. For more information about her work, visit: http://www.amazon.com/Janice-L.-Booker/e/B001KCCS8E

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The Sabbath

by Sandra Yoffee (Sarasota, FL)

My visits with my grandparents were always treasured times, especially when it included the Sabbath.

This was a day joyfully observed each week since my Grandmother, Bubbe, and Grandfather, Zedeh, were devout Orthodox Jews.

On Friday evening before sunset, Zedeh would change from his shabby work clothes into his steel-grey wool suit and snowy white shirt accented with a muted maroon tie.  In his weathered black shoes, he then walked to the nearby synagogue to welcome the Sabbath with prayers.

Bubbe, who remained at home, would light the Sabbath candles and put the finishing touches on her day-long task of preparing the Sabbath meal.

“Come here, my child, and watch as I welcome the Sabbath by lighting the candles,” she said.

I watched as she circled her wrinkled hands around the flames of the candles. With her hands placed over her closed eyes, she sang the blessings for lighting the candles. The beautiful candelabra, etched in silver, resembled a small tree with branches that held six candles. When all the candles were lit, the room was bathed in the glow of their flames.

When Zedeh returned from shul, we sat down at the dining room table to enjoy a delicious Sabbath meal.

After the blessing over the wine and challah, we would feast on steaming chicken soup with feathery light kneidlach, succulent roast chicken, and luscious kugel.

After dinner Bubbe and I sat in the darkened living room on the brown mohair sofa with only the shimmering light of the Sabbath candles.

She told me stories from the old country, and, while the Yiddish flowed, I listened until my eyelids grew heavy and I fell asleep.

On Sabbath morning, we dressed in our finest clothes and walked to their synagogue, B’nai Moshe, on Fifth Street in South Philadelphia.

The synagogue was a beautiful building with many stained glass windows that, through their pictures, told the history of our Jewish heritage.

Bubbe took me upstairs to the balcony where we sat with all the women.  She introduced me to her friends and told them I was her “shaynah aynecal,” her beautiful granddaughter.

With the sound of the women’s whispered prayers in my ears, I leaned over the railing and watched my Zedeh pray in the sanctuary below.

The men, covered with prayer-shawls, swayed front to back as they prayed.

The melodies of their prayers still linger in my memory.

Whenever I go to synagogue today–if I listen quietly–I can hear echoes of those prayers.

The simplicity of their lives, intertwined with their religious practices, forever remains a beautiful part of my memory of them.

Thus my grandparents instilled in me my pride and joy of being Jewish.

Sandra Yoffee was born in Philadelphia, PA, and moved with her husband, A.G., in 2002 to Sarasota, FL, where she is a member of “The Six Pearls,” a writing group dedicated to memoir-writing.

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The Sacred, Secret World of Women

by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)

From early childhood, I was my grandmother’s frequent companion at the neighborhood public bath house whose clients were the Jewish immigrant women who had settled with their families in South Philadelphia. The place was known as “the shvitz” (Yiddish for “sweat”), and an evening spent at this working class imitation of today’s spa was comparable to dining out and theater entertainment for that tired, over-worked  community of women.  The baths constituted the Jewish equivalent of a Kiwanis convention, the Union League clubhouse, a beauty salon and an elite get-away spa, all under one roof.

The weary women who spent every Saturday night rejuvenating themselves at the shvitz spoke only in Yiddish, often unaware that I understood them. (Although English was the language of my home, Yiddish somehow imprinted on me, and, from my earliest speech, I was able to communicate with my grandparents in that colloquial and picturesque tongue.)  I was always the only child  at the baths, but it didn’t seem to bother my bubby, and I suppose it didn’t bother me either.

The building which housed the bathhouse was old and shabby on the outside, with faded paint and crumbling bricks, but the interior sparkled with white tile and shiny chrome, the air redolent with the purifying aromas of soap, antiseptics and cheap but powerful perfume.  As a teenager, before I understood the value of sisterhood, I would  recall the conversations that I overheard there as ordinary “woman talk.”  But as a child, barely understanding the references to  husbands and children, daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law, finances and bargains, recipes and illness, pregnancies and miscarriages, and the veiled sexual references that always drew a giggle or a nod, I knew somehow I was privy to information that  ordinarily would have been shielded from my young ears.

Many of the women who were part of this Saturday night at the shvitz were extended family.  Cousin Rose, the manicurist in her husband’s beauty salon, somehow found relaxation doing the same, without charge, for her sisters-in-law and cousins at the shvitz.  Cousin Eta, a diminutive redhead with a fiery personality, came late to the baths because she worked behind the deli counter in the small grocery store she and her husband ran in west Philadelphia.  And cousin Esther, of the same diminutive proportions as Eta, spent the day shampooing customers’ hair in her husband’s salon, but still had the energy to give pedicures to her relatives in the entrance hall of the shvitz.

Some years away from adolescence myself, I was intrigued by the femaleness of the carelessly draped bodies, the loving care of the long, often graying hair, the sighs of relaxation, the unaccustomed self-indulgence. All  hinted at inscrutable puzzles I could not understand.  But I was not upset by my lack of understanding.  I knew these were matters for grownups and my time would come.  It was enough to have been invited into this sacred, secret world of women.

Most of these women had been left behind when their husbands made the unknown journey to America to seek their fortunes. The women took care of children, parents, in-laws, and assorted relatives in what was to become a matriarchal society for a time, while husbands sought their future in the land of milk and honey, dealt with their disillusionment, sent money back to Eastern European countries to keep the family going in their absence, and then, finally, after reconciling the differences between their expectations and the reality, sent the necessary information for travel documents as well as passage money.

My grandmother was among that group.  She had been left behind with two small children to await her husband’s “success” and summons.  The summons came six years later. When my grandfather finally picked her up at the dock in New York, he discovered a diminished family.  Their daughter had died of an undisclosed ailment a few months before my grandmother and her younger child, my father, were to leave.  She decided to spare her husband this tragic news until their arrival, so he learned this when he greeted his wife and son after a six year separation.

But past lives were seldom the topic of conversation at the shvitz.  The present and future were more relevant.   By Saturday night the tired women were ready for some relaxation.  It was a time for pampering, a rare and unexpected treat.

The entrance hall, in addition to the manicuring facility, acted as gathering place and social hall. The oversized shower and bathing rooms gleamed with white tile, gracing both walls and floors, and randomly placed wooden benches were plentiful.  Drains were positioned along the floor so that when showers and faucets were open, the water ran in rivulets over the tile, negotiating its way to the nearest concave drain.  There were no shower or bath enclosures.  The shvitz was no place for modesty.

The sound of the ubiquitous running water, the smell of perfumed soap and shampoo mingled with lotions–all created a feeling of unfamiliar self-indulgence.  A massage corner baffled me. Why would people permit someone to pummel them mercilessly?  Another thing that puzzled me was the steam room, although I always felt compelled to thrust my face into that hot, humid cauldron for a moment and emerged gasping and ruddy from the steaminess that enveloped me.  I never understood how my grandmother and her friends could sit there for twenty or thirty minutes at a time, absorbing the intensity of the heat, continuing to laugh and talk and take pleasure in each other’s company in the midst of that boiler room.

When the women left the steam room, they stood under a cold shower to soak and refresh themselves.  There were large wooden buckets placed around the room.  My grandmother and I would drag one of them to “our bench.” After she washed my knotted hair with rancid-smelling brown soap, she filled one of the buckets with hot water and poured it over my head for a rinsing.  The soapy water cascaded into my eyes and nose, over my body and into the drain at my feet. No one could have been cleaner than she and I after those hours of soaking, sudsing and rinsing.

The bathing part completed, we were ready for phase two. We covered ourselves with white coarse dressing gowns, scratchy against my softened skin. I can still feel the shock of cold air as we exited through the swinging doors of the bathing room to walk upstairs to the resting room.  This scene–-now that I recall it through the layered backdrop of other experiences–-was more like a hospital recovery room.  We were all exhausted and purified.

This room sported rows of cots with mattresses. No sheets, no bedding–-just mattresses.  Behind each cot was a metal locker which held clothing and other belongings.  All the women lay down on the mattress ticking (without a pillow) and settled themselves for a rest. But first, each would reach into a brown paper bag and pull out an orange to restore the body after the fatigue of the bathing.  Somehow oranges were endowed with magical recuperative powers. They were supposed to replenish whatever nutrients and strength had been washed away with the soap and water. As the oranges were peeled and eaten, I lay on my bare mattress and listened to my grandmother and the other women recapture their week and share plans for the future.

Adjacent to the central gathering hall/pedicure salon was a small tea room furnished with linoleum-topped tables and wooden stools.  When the women felt sufficiently rested, they dressed, and before leaving for home, reluctant to relinquish their closeness and the difference from their daily lives,  they lingered in the tea room where each had a glass of tea and some home baked cookies.  Although there was a serving area that seemed capable of providing meals, I never saw anything eaten other than tea and cookies.

The women drank the tea Russian-style in a glass, swallowed through a sugar cube held in the teeth.  I have never recaptured that melting taste of poppy seed-filled cookies crunching in my mouth, washed down by overly sugared tea, as the women sat and talked, replenished and renewed by their bathing and conversation.

After our snack my grandmother began her protracted goodbyes and, with many pats on the head and blessings for me from her friends, we began our trek back to her house in the dark night.  The stars never seemed so bright, the streets so quiet, the bond so strong between us as we walked home from the shvitz, quietly holding hands.

Janice L. Booker is the author of The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths and Philly Firsts. She lives in Malibu, CA. This is an excerpt from her book, Across the Alley Next Door to the Pool Room, and it’s reprinted with the kind permission of the author. For more information about her work, visit: http://www.amazon.com/Janice-L.-Booker/e/B001KCCS8E/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0

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