THE MUSEUM OF FAMILY HISTORY presents

 

Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies

California




HARRY GOTTFRIED-ORINDA, CALIFORNIA


Although I grew up in a small town of 17,000, I did live in the San Francisco Bay Area in a town called Orinda. I received my complete elementary and high school education at Orinda schools. I was socialized in what many consider to be an upper-middle-class community where professional attainment was a paramount goal.

I think that the first time I realized the boys and girls of Glorietta Elementary School were not like me was when all my young pals would go and play in the after-school sports program, while my mother picked me up faithfully two or three times a week to attend Hebrew school in Oakland. I remember being embarrassed, making up stories about why I could play sports on some days, but not on others. I recall being very sensitive about anything having to do with Christmas, or any references my teacher would make to this "American" holiday. I ran home one day telling my mother how uncomfortable I was when I heard my teacher talk about Christmas. Believe me, I learned about the establishment clause of the First Amendment very early in life. My parents tried to make me understand that while the American public school system was not supposed to promote any kind of religion, and since I was in a clear minority position, I was too attentive to any breaches of what I believed to be a sacred code.

The High Holidays were also an uncomfortable time as a child since I would normally miss two days of school, often near my birthday. How could I explain to my classmates why I was gone? I remember lying or fudging on the reasons. Flatly, I was one of only two or three Jews in a school of one thousand. I wanted to fit in, and not to be labeled as anything different .from my friends. One very upsetting experience occurred in the fifth grade (I actually remember it quite well.) A classmate put an orange peel on my head and ridiculed me, saying something like "Here is your little Jewish yarmulke, you damn Jew!"

Despite the feelings I had about my Jewish identity in the early years, I did the things other kids my age also normally did. I did well in school. I was the captain of the traffic patrol. I was on the best basketball team. I was selected to be Governor William Bradford in our Thanksgiving celebration performance. I played the guitar in a school talent show and joined a rock band at an early age. To further my Jewish identity, however, my parents sent me to Camp Young Judaea. This was a Zionist camp sponsored by Hadassah where I met Jewish kids from all over the West. While my fellow classmates did the tennis camps or sailing camps, I had a very serious Zionist and religious experience. I understood clearly through my years at this camp that I was different and had a unique culture and identity which it would be both a pleasure and a challenge to maintain.

One of
the most traumatic aspects of my high school days was the relationship I had with many of my classmates and one teacher in particular. I was an extremely sensitive kid (still am). My classmates knew that they could get to me by teasing me about being Jewish since I was at once proud and defensive about my religion/identity. Once, during my Introduction to Business class (eleventh grade, I think), my teacher actually joined in the harassment. The kids had all sorts of names they called me; they would yell in a shrill voice "Jeeeeeew" many times. That day I was in no mood to grin and bear it, so I got very aggressive and tried to retaliate verbally. I called the guy in front of me Frankenstein. As the events continued, he tried to hit me and, of course, my teacher started to blame the whole disruption on me. I remember, in cold blood, what the teacher said next to me (and, by the way, to the whole class): "It's too bad that only six million were killed. So many problems would be taken care of." I'll never; forget that teacher. His memory burns inside me as the spark that propels me to be active for my people here and in Israel. I stormed out of the class, right to the principal's office, and reported exactly what happened. I was told that the principal would speak-to the teacher, and that a "black" mark would be inserted into his file. Eventually the teacher apologized, saying that he really loved my people and that he was very sorry for what he said. The damage was done and, frankly, I am a better person for it.

While I did grow up in a small town, mostly non-Jewish, and was deeply affected by my unique status, I am a stronger person, a deeply committed Zionist, and a great fan of the American political system. It allows us, more or less, to be who we want to be (except a flag burner, of course) in American society and culture.

I haven't even mentioned my parents and their profound effect upon  me and my ability to deal with where I grew up. They are both doctors; Dad is a pediatrician and Mom is a Ph.D. doing AIDS research. They are, together, the single greatest influence in my life.

 


 

 

 

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