I was angry as I left my first meeting of the Jewish Professional Women’s Division of the Jewish Federation. As a Jewish psychotherapist, I certainly was qualified to be a member. But when the leader started asking new members, “Which temple do you belong to?” I stepped away, offended, and didn’t answer. Her question ignited an old conflict inside me. Yes, I’m Jewish, but I don’t belong to a temple—nor do I want to. My upbringing was vastly different from the women in the room, but Jewish nonetheless. I left, wondering if they’d accept me.
I return now to my childhood, the early 50’s, and to Die Kindershule of San Francisco, where each Sunday children from secular, labor-class, and Communist families joined together to learn about Jewish culture. At Die Kindershule, we spoke Yiddish, sang Israeli songs, and studied the history of Jews as an oppressed people—enslaved by the Pharaohs, coerced by Spanish Inquisitors, and exterminated by the Nazis. No religion was taught, no Hebrew prayers and no Torah. We did not celebrate Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, or even hear the ram’s horn. Instead, we celebrated holidays of political freedom and emancipation such as Purim and Chanukah. We also sang message-laden songs like the Communist Youth League’s World Youth Song that vowed to “bring peace to the earth.” I held tightly to the phrase “I think as I please” from Die gedanken sind Frei, a 19th century German song. I thought all Jewish children sang political songs. When Pete Seeger came to Die Kindershule with his banjo, we had a hootenanny. One song he taught us about striking miners fighting the capitalist owners still repeats in my head: “Which side are you on? Which side are you on?” To me, this was being a Jew. In Die Kindershule, we also studied American Negro history. We admired heroes like Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, and the Scottsboro Boys. The plight of oppressed Negroes became our cause. At an early age, we were politicized. In 1952, some Die Kindershule families campaigned for the Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, Vincent Hallinan. The Progressive Party was endorsed by the Communist Party and also attracted labor unionists, liberal Democrats, and secular Jews. The kids from these families were my friends. Like me, some of them came from Communist families. I remember us playing hide and seek while our parents organized a fund-raising bazaar for a Communist paper, People’s World. I was eight in 1952 when the great Paul Robeson came to sing. As a Communist, Robeson was barred from concert halls all over the country, so several of Die Kindershule parents located a church in the Oakland ghetto for his Bay Area concert. At the church, people overflowed onto the streets—Negroes, Whites, Latinos, longshoremen, Jews and Christians.
Once inside, I waited anxiously. As Robeson was introduced, I ran to the stage and proudly handed him the roses I had brought from my mother’s garden. As I listened to him sing I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill and Mary Don’t you Weep I was glad I had worn my best dress and my braids criss-crossed over my head, Russian-style.
I remember Sharon, my older sister, braiding my hair and telling me, “You are a member of an important tribe; ‘Levi’ is a name and heritage to be proud of.” She told me how my father changed his name from Leviton to Girard. Sharon was the one who told me pieces of my parents’ history, a history they tried to keep secret. As a 14-year-old student, my father came from Siberia to Seattle in 1924. When his visa expired, he disappeared, surfacing in San Francisco in 1932 with his alias and becoming a political activist. One of his radical friends introduced him to my mother, a nursing student at Mt. Zion Hospital and daughter of a Canadian socialist. My idealistic, charismatic father was the perfect partner.
Sharon also told me how my father spoke to crowds during the General Strike of 1934 when longshoremen closed down San Francisco, and how mother’s classmates insulted her when they saw my father’s photo on the front page of Survey Graphic, a Communist magazine. My mother ignored their name-calling and even demonstrated against high milk prices.
When the 1941 Alien Registration Act forced my Canadian mother to return to Canada with Sharon, then five years old, my father, stateless and a known radical, sought refuge in Mexico. Later, after my mother and Sharon had joined him, my mother became pregnant with me. To insure that I would be a U.S. citizen, she went to Los Angeles. Soon after my birth, when my father slipped across the border into California, he was arrested and sent to prison in Arizona. He was held for eight months and released into the U.S. Army, which is how he got his citizenship.
Discharged in 1946, my father came to live with us in a crowded San Francisco housing project for World War II veterans. Later on, we moved to a ranch-style house in the suburbs where my parents soon felt out of place. I remember my parents talking about the “bourgeoisie” with disdain. My little brother and I giggled at the word. “Bourgeoisie” sounded funny. But not to my parents. Our new surroundings in suburbia were “bourgeois,” and a serious moral question arose. My anti-capitalist parents felt conflicted about enjoying their new comforts. But I loved the new refrigerator, the polished hardwood floors, and the blue light inside the clothes washer. Why shouldn’t we have these things? My neighborhood burgeoned with families whose children had dogs, bicycles, skates, and Radio Flyer wagons. Just as Malvina Reynolds described in Little Boxes, the houses were “all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look[ed] just the same.” Each morning fathers commuted to work and aproned mothers packed lunch boxes.
On the school playground at lunchtime, Eddie, the red-haired kid who lived across the street (son of the Chief of Police) pulled Coca-Cola and a bologna-and mayonnaise sandwich on white Langendorf bread out of his Flash Gordon lunch box. For desert, he had Oreo cookies and potato chips wrapped like little presents in waxed paper. My brown sack produced deviled-egg-on- black-bread sandwiches, wet and soggy, oozing through their thin paper napkin wrappings. I drank milk. My desert was carrot sticks and fruit. I didn’t know then that my mother’s concern for nutrition came from a history of Jewish dietary laws. For me, it was just another mark of my difference. I really wanted those white bread and mayonnaise sandwiches.
After school I sat in my father’s overstuffed reading chair and stared at the bookcase. I saw authors such as Marx, Engels, Thomas Jefferson and Dante. These hard-bound volumes were unlike the Reader’s Digests which sat on the coffee tables in my classmates’ living rooms. While they and their parents watched the first black and white television sets, my father read Scientific American and my mother recited Walt Whitman. I read about suffering and injustice in Sacco and Vanzetti by Howard Fast, in Jews Without Money by Mike Gold and in Dine, Daughter of Man, by the Danish author Martin Andersen Nexo.
But school books bored me. I skimmed the frivolous stories and fabricated answers to the comprehension questions. In doing so, I performed poorly, confusing myself, my parents, and my teacher. How could Dick and Jane stories hold my interest compared to Sacco and Vanzetti? This was being a Jew.
Our public school system, touted as experimental, reflected the ’50’s. The windows were reinforced with chicken wire. I learned what that chicken wire was for during a bomb drill. My teacher explained that when the bomb was dropped we were quickly to climb under our desks with our backs to the windows. We’d know because we would hear a siren and then see a brilliant flash. The main hazard was flying glass, but the chicken wire would stop the Jagged shards. My teacher told us to cover our heads and necks with a book, a sweater, or a coat. She said covering up would protect our skin and eyes from the burning light. We were told that the great wind which would follow would gather everything into its wake, and even if we stayed on the ground, everything around us would be swirling. The kids asked, “Who drops these bombs?”
“The Russians. The Reds. The Commies!” I looked around me. Who were they accusing? Did they know my secret? With terror, I left the school yard to walk home. A car horn honked. There was my father, the Russian, the Communist, the Jew. Was he the enemy? Even so, I was glad to see him. Quietly I climbed into the front seat.
At times the fog on the San Francisco hills was so dense that headlights only reflected themselves. The way to travel was by creeping slowly behind the red taillights of the car ahead. On such an evening my family was returning from The California Labor School where my father taught anything from calculus to Leninist theory. We’d seen a Russian cartoon with English subtitles called The Firebird, and on the way home, I begged him to retell the story. Enveloped in the backseat by the warmth and hum of the old Buick, my brother and I snuggled and listened to the fairytale.
Suddenly, my father’s voice tensed. He -stopped the story and quietly asked my mother: “Should we stop and ask them who they are and what they want? Tell them that we know they’re following us? I’ll make this turn, you watch to see if their headlights turn with us. Since the fog is thick enough, maybe we’ll lose them on Twin Peaks.” I knew to be quiet. There was danger. My stomach knotted and I shrunk in closer to my brother. Being tailed by the FBI brought questions and fear. Over the years, I learned to spot the hat, the grey flannel suit, and the newspaper. The instructions not to talk to strangers and to refuse entry of anyone unknown into our house took on conspiratorial meaning. This was being a Jew.
We were always on alert, fear was great and tension constant. My father returned one
evening to tell mother that their one-armed friend. Bill, had been nabbed on the street and deported to Finland. As he was arrested, Bill screamed, “Call my wife.” That Sunday night my parents turned on KPFA, a new, member-sponsored radio station alleged to be operated by subversives. The commentator confirmed Bill’s deportation. I shivered and looked at my parents. Could this happen to them?
The tense scene repeated itself on another Sunday when my family was listening to the latest news about the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial. I imagined Sing Sing Prison and myself as one of the Rosenberg sons. I was walking down the long metal corridors with the locked gates clanging behind me, determined to see my mother. I felt cold. Echoes rattled the steel bars. Were they guilty? They were Jewish; they were accused of espionage and called Communists! How could my parents be criminals? What would the executioner do to them? They were going to die and who would take care of me? My mother wiped my tears. I asked, “Who will take care of the boys? Can we?” The news report terrified me. This was the Cold War. This was being a Jew.
Die Kindershule was a haven of familiarity and safety. As the music teacher accompanied us on her accordion, we stretched our arms to catch mayim in the desert; we danced for rain. We swayed to Sholom Alecheim and our hearts kept cadence with the Yiddish Vilna Ghetto Song, from the World War II Jewish resistance. We sang loudly, expecting to make the world free for all mankind.
We celebrated the moral of Purim: We bow down to no man. At our carnival, complete with games, contests, theater and costumes, we cheered Queen Esther and threw darts at Haman.
Passover came. Tall and proud we stand. Moses led us to freedom and, again, we bow down to no man. To emphasize dignity and emancipation. Die Kindershule parents wrote their own Haggadah. My father assigned each child a significant part. I still remember mine:
Cease your weeping and silence your laments. They died as free men and free men need no tears. They died that the world may know that the Jew is a mem among men, holding dignity and love as his birthright. I command ye, lament not but sing hosannas and songs of joy. For if a people, spat upon, cursed, and humiliated can stand up and fight knowing death to be their reward, they have found their strength…
My allegiance to Die Kindershule was strong—but so was my need to belong to the majority. My parents did not object when Wendy, my blond-haired classmate, invited me to join the Brownies. The Brownies were different from my Kindershule cadre. The purpose of being a Brownie was to be one of the group, to do good deeds, to collect badges, and to “flyup.” The purpose of Die Kindershule was to become a “thinker” and to “contribute to society.” That’s why the Brownie induction ceremony completely confused me. I was blindfolded, twirled around three times, and told to look into a decorated mirror lying on the floor. I was told I would see a monkey, but I saw only myself. Still, they gave me my Brownie Pin. Was I a Monkey? A Brownie? A Jew? and a Red? How did it fit? The refrain played “Which side are you on?”
From my tree house in the eucalyptus grove, I pondered the dilemma: To be alike was to be safe. To be different was to be called a traitor. But I was tough! Of the chosen I’d come. My name, from the Bible, meant “young tree, sprouting branches.” liana. No one else had a name of such proportion. It was a tall name, a strong name. The suburban kids could neither spell nor pronounce it. The teacher commented, “What a pretty name, is it Hawaiian?”
My allegiance wavered when Christmas smells suffused the neighborhood and my fourth-grade classmates chatted about Jesus and Mary. I too wanted twinkling lights, a tree, and presents. My parents succumbed and we decorated a Chanukah bush to celebrate the Winter Solstice, a compromise to assimilation and safety. This was being a Jew.
I knew to keep quiet about my father’s activities. We were not to tell neighbors, school chums, or teachers about our parents’ beliefs.
I remember the family living next door when I was nine. Their spotless house was full of elegant china and fancy Victorian furniture. I loved spending many hours helping Mrs. Bullard take care of her new baby. I liked to fold the diapers and polish her silver. One day I noticed she wasn’t so friendly. She was staring at me as I was kissing her baby’s toes. Abruptly she asked, “Is your father a Communist?” My brain worked fast. Nervously, I answered, “No, he’s a progressive.” Close to tears I ran to my sister and confessed I’d given away THE SECRET. Sharon tried to soothe me, saying we really didn’t know about our father’s politics.
Still, I waited for THE QUESTION. Classmates probed,
“What nationality are you?”
“But what nationality do you belong to?”
“You know, where are your parents from?”
The question was not childish curiosity. They were taking part in an American pastime—investigating who was “American-born,” who was a patriot, who was a traitor. In answer, I would feign ignorance or just plain lie.
And so, when I heard the leader at the Jewish Professional Women’s meeting ask, “Which temple do you belong to?,” my old fears resurfaced, as if once again classmates were testing me. But driving home, I got mad and rehearsed what I’d tell them at the next meeting: Women, I am Jewish. My history is unconventional, my experience is from outside the synagogue. But look at my life—it is based on Jewish principles and commitment. Is that not enough?
Ilana Gerard Singer is the Clinical Director, Women’ s Division, at the Center for Counter- Conditioning Therapy, a non-disease mental health clinic in Oakland, CA.