THE MUSEUM OF FAMILY HISTORY presents

 

Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies

California




PENNY JANSEN--EL MONTE, CALIFORNIA


I was born in Elmhurst, Illinois. My father was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and my mother was born in Chicago, Illinois. My paternal grandfather was born in Indianapolis, Indiana and my paternal grandmother was born in Denmark or Sweden. My maternal grandfather was born in England and his entire family perished in the Holocaust, as they were living in Germany. My maternal grandmother, was born in Jerusalem. Here entire family perished in the Holocaust, as they were living in Kovno, Russia.

El Monte was a small bedroom community of mostly blue-collar workers. We had a temple with about fifty families. The temple was about five miles away and only one other Jewish family lived near us. They did not attend services although they did keep kosher and the Sabbath. I remember the mother telling  me how awful it was that we did not keep a kosher home. We attended services most of the time; my brothers and sisters all attended Hebrew school. I always felt detached, less worthy, unaccepted; it wasn't until years later that I found out why. My father was not a doctor, lawyer, etc., and we did not pay a membership fee to the temple. Later, in my married/widowed life we were very active with our temple. I'm sorry that I wasn't able as a child to have experienced the warmth of temple life as I have as an adult. My parents felt that temple was not that important (an economic burden) since we (my siblings and I) were subjected to anti-Semitic slurs at school. They felt that if they broke away from the temple we would stop being harassed. Our close neighbors knew we were Jewish, just not practicing Jews. We lit Hanukkah candles and had a Hanukkah bush, which gave us mixed signals as kids but helped us "fit in."

My parents grew up in the Depression and didn't want us to do without anything. Our neighborhood was a melting pot of all ethnic backgrounds. There were small grocery stores nearby but no kosher markets and no industry. We rode a bus to school. I started in kindergarten and graduated high school there. Most of my friends I had known since preschool age.

We were a close-knit family with five children, and most of our activities involved the family. My father worked long hours and my mother was a homemaker. Some of our relatives lived in the Chicago area. Others lived in Israel and Sweden; the family from Europe was lost in the Holocaust.

I remember my aunt telling me that I must never forget that most of our relatives were killed in the Holocaust--that entire families were wiped out--mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins. It was so hard to comprehend. I did not know these people/relatives and what World War II or Holocaust meant. We celebrated all major Jewish holidays but not to the extent that I celebrated as a parent with my children. We seemed to always celebrate "quietly."

When I married, we moved to a larger Jewish community (200 families) but we felt like outsiders. I wasn't knowledgeable enough and felt left out of the services. My husband rebelled from having too much religion as a child and we dropped out of temple life. Upon his death, I again moved to a small community (where I live now--35,000 people) with no Jewish community. We (the kids and I) joined a Reform temple in Riverside, California, that welcomed us with open arms. The temple is twelve miles away, and it was a problem going back and forth for religious school, Hebrew school, and temple life, but well worth the drive...we made time.

My sons' Bar Mitzvahs were at The Wall in Jerusalem. Just walking down the streets where my grandparents had walked were wonderful. I felt a closeness I had never felt--a kinship I have experienced each time I have returned to Israel.

As a child, being called a Jew/Jesus Killer was the worst memory I had. The biggest impact the Holocaust had on me was not having all my relatives and hearing my parents talk about their loved ones who had perished.

I tried to give my family a Jewish upbringing with Jewish values and teachings. We learned together. The have all remained in small towns. My oldest son went into the Army and even helped conduct Sabbath services on the base. All my children have opted to marry only Jews. A Jewish mother's dream come true!!

It has been my experience that Gentiles eye us with suspicion and worry. World War II is still very fresh and, unfortunately, there are still many people who think the Holocaust did not happen.

I would have loved growing up in a larger Jewish community, the likes of Los Angeles, the closeness and openness of being Jewish would have been wonderful. As an adult I'm proud to tell the world that I am Jewish; to have an Israeli flag flying next to my American flag in the time of crisis. I wear my Star of David with pride and gladly give my time and money to Jewish causes around the world.


Harry Gottfried, Orinda, California >>
 


 

 

 

Copyright 2009. Museum of Family History.  All rights reserved.  Image Use Policy.