Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies



At the age of seventy, it is time to write my autobiography if I am ever going to write it. I do not know whether anyone will be interested in reading it, but I know that I would have been interested in reading my parents' and grandparents' if they had written their autobiographies.

I never knew my paternal grandparents in Lithuania. I remember hearing that my paternal grandmother died at thirty-five of tuberculosis, leaving my father and his sister while they were quite young. I was named "Pessa-Nedha" after my grandmother. My grandfather was a brick mason. My mother recalls that he was the tallest man in town. His brothers, David and Samuel, came to the United States. It was David Yonkelowitz who welcomed my father in Hoopeston to help with the junk business (now called scrap metal). Uncle David and Aunt Ethel left to live in Chicago. My father and mother were married in their home. Their wedding photograph is in the hallway.

My maternal grandparents were born and died in Lithuania. They came to the United States after World War I. I remember them praying morning, noon, and evening. They were of the Orthodox tradition. They were gentle people. My grandfather told stories about make-believe bears and their activities. My grandmother made wonderful coffee cakes, or bulkes and sahanoses which were like blintzes baked in the oven with sour cream. I called my grandmother Bubbe and my grandfather Zayde. I spoke fluent Yiddish with them.

My grandfather decided to return to Lithuania because he felt that his asthma was better there than in Chicago and that the burial custom was more traditional in Lithuania. My grandmother did not want to go back, but she did. Their three children, my mother, Aunt Essie and Uncle Ben, and their grandchildren missed them. I was nine when I saw them last. They came to stay in Hoopeston at the time my brother, Robert, was born in 1925. I remember walking down the hospital corridor with my grandmother to visit my mother. We were both frightened when we opened the wrong door and saw a practice "dummy" in a bathtub. Before she left, my grandmother gave me a white prayer book which I have cherished through the years.

My grandfather died first. I was twenty-five when I heard that my grandmother had died. Fortunately, they did not have to live through World War II. Most of the family remaining in Lithuania were killed by the Nazis and their Lithuanian cohorts.

My mother and father were born in Lithuania. According to the birth certificate, my mother was born in May of 1889. Her name was Sarah, or Chava Sorah, in Hebrew. My granddaughter, Tamara Sara, was named after her. My father, Reuben Yonkelowitz, was born in the same area of Kovna Gubernia. My grandson, Kitron, was named for my father and his paternal grandfather. My mother mentioned Regalia and the Babelas, but no one seems to know just where these towns are located.

My mother's parents, "Eite" and Shmuel Horvitz, were dairy farmers. Jill Elaine was named after my maternal grandmother. Jill's Hebrew name is Leah. Apparently, my grandparents owned a building that included offices. My mother recalled that she had her teeth cleaned by a woman dentist in the building. My mother had matrimonial opportunities in Lithuania, but she refused because she always wanted to come to the United States. Her sister, Aunt Essie, said that my mother liked to travel and that my mother visited cousins in Germany when she was quite young.

My mother's brother, Uncle Ben, came to the United States first. My mother arrived in the summer of 1913. There is a postcard in the family album written to Uncle Ben by Mother. In order to leave Lithuania, it was necessary to have a guide take you across the border at night. My mother told me that she had to carry her belongings on top of her head while she waded across a stream. She said that once you arrived in Germany, you were safe. From Germany, Mother traveled to the Netherlands, where she boarded the S.S. Rotterdam. Mother mentioned that she traveled first class. She felt sorry for the steerage passengers, so she used to toss down oranges to them.

My mother was met at Ellis Island by her Aunt Massie (Martha) and one of her cousins. Aunt Massie and Uncle Caspar Krones wanted to adopt my mother because they had lost their sixteen-year-old daughter in a street­car accident. One of the first surprises my mother had was when she saw black people for the first time. She was also astonished to see people chewing on something but never putting any food into their mouths. Bananas were new to her, too. She started to eat one without taking off the peeling.

My grandparents and their youngest daughter, Aunt Essie, came to the United States after World War I. They had lived through the terrible war times. Aunt Essie, who was very beautiful, had to hide in the cellar so the soldiers would not see her.

My father had been in the Russian army. He had seen my mother once while they were both in Lithuania. He arrived in Hoopeston with fifty cents in his pocket in 1905. After working very hard in the junk business and living in the junk shop, he was able to buy and furnish a house at 310 West Penn Street, Hoopeston, Illinois; the house where I was born and raised until I went away to Northwestern University at the age of eighteen.

My mother, who lived with her brother in the back of his butcher shop on Maxwell Street, worked for a while in a millinery factory. She was a very fast worker and the boss wanted to keep her, but she decided to keep house for her brother. My mother was an excellent cook and baker. My uncle was happy to have the whole butcher shop full of delicious aroma. Several young men wanted to marry my mother. During this time, my father used to take the train to visit my uncle. My father started to court my mother during this time. They were married in April 1913.

It took a great deal of courage for my mother to live in a small town in Middle America without speaking English. Fortunately, the neighbors were very helpful. One of the next-door neighbors, Mrs. Kavanaugh, could speak German. Between her German and my mother's Yiddish, they were able to communicate. She even taught my mother how to can foods. Other good neighbors, Mrs. Adsit, Mrs. Zook, and Mrs. Englesy, were good friends throughout the years.

My mother said that she really learned to speak English when my father had an emergency appendectomy. She was so concerned that she be able to question the surgeon.

Early Years

I was born in Hoopeston, Illinois, July 23,1916, in the early hours of the morning, to Ruby (Reuben) Yonkelowitz and Ida (Chaya Sarah) Gordon Horvitz. Years later, neighbor Ella Zook told me that it was a difficult labor lasting about three days and how sorry she was for my mother. Dr. Adsit, who lived two doors away, had to use forceps. My mother said that my father felt one child was enough because he did not want my mother to go through labor any more. However my brother, Maxwell (Martin), was born December 8,1921, and my brother, Robert, was born July 6,1925.

It seems to me that my earliest memory was when I started to walk at sixteen months. It was a sunny day because there was sunlight streaking across the living room rug. My mother was coaxing me to walk toward her. I can still feel that supreme effort I made to try to walk toward her. My mother felt that I was slow in walking because I was used to being in a baby walker.


Hoopeston was a town of about 6,000, 100 miles from Chicago. It was a good place to grow up in as a child. I played with my life-long friend, Mary Jane Adsit, who lived in a large home on the corner of the block. We played dolls most of the time. Her father, Dr. Adsit, had passed away when she was a few months old. It was an adventure to play in her play room, in the outdoor play house, and to look at the medical instruments Dr. Adsit had in his office which was in his home. I tasted peanut butter for the first time at Mary Jane's. My mother did not think it was a good food. My parents had tried to keep kosher, but it was too difficult. By the time meat arrived on the train from Chicago, it was spoiled. Neighbors and my Aunt Fannie Horvitz, who helped during the time my mother was recuperating from childbirth, were unable to keep the dairy and meat dishes separate. My Uncle Ben, Aunt Fannie, and cousin Sidney were living in Hoopeston at that time, but they soon left for Chicago. My Uncle Ben had a poultry store when he was in Hoopeston.

I remember the garden in the back yard: the smell of the earth being turned over before planting vegetables, the excitement of seeing the lettuce, radishes, and beans grow. In the summer, horse-drawn wagons moved along the street, bringing corn from the fields to the canning factories. Then there were the ice wagons delivering ice for the iceboxes. The ice­man always gave the children a piece of ice to chew on.

We always had indoor plumbing, but there were many who still had outhouses in the backyard. One man in town said, "Who wants a smelly toilet in the house?" Outhouses were much worse!

We did not have so many toys as children do today. I had a beautiful large doll whose eyes opened and closed. My mother made all of her clothes and crocheted bonnets and jackets. I had a buggy for the doll. I do not remember any other toys. Mary Jane had a hobby horse. Mary Jane and I played with gourds and miniature dishes in her play house. We enjoyed sitting on a blanket under an umbrella in the summer.

My parents gave us every opportunity. I had ballet, elocution, and piano lessons. In 1989, my elocution teacher came to visit me. She is ninety­two and still gives two book reviews a year. Remarkable! I took piano lessons for seven years and played in many recitals. Unfortunately, I did not continue playing after I left high school.

We lived four blocks from Lincoln Grade School. I walked to school except when there was a bad storm; then my father drove me to school in his truck. I do not remember my first day of school, but I do remember Miss Merritt hitting my hand with a ruler because I talked in class when I was not supposed to be talking. In those days we went into the first grade. Kindergarten did not exist.

We always had reading material at home because my father brought home magazines that other people sold to him. By the time I was in the second grade, I was reading fairy tales, which I loved. The third grade seemed to be difficult for me. All of my teachers were strict, especially the fifth grade teacher, Miss Jessie Hutchinson. Everyone was afraid of her but I ended up liking her. The eighth grade teacher, Miss Imo Cheney, was very strict. One day she shook a disobedient boy and banged his head against the blackboard.

It was very exciting when my father bought our first car. One year my father tried to teach my mother how to drive. The car ended up in a small ditch and my mother said she would never drive but when I was in 4-H Club work, she drove a group of us to Decatur. There was a small hill in Decatur. My mother did not know what to do when the car started to slide backwards. Fortunately, a kind man came over and told her to put on the brakes. Anyway, in later years my mother would drive to Chicago by herself to pick us up at the university. She never had an accident.

While I was in grade school, I worked one summer picking cucumbers on the Greenwood farm for ten cents a bushel. Cucumbers are very prickly. I was proud to bring home twenty cents, but my father told me to return it. He felt it was too much money for what I had done.

Although I was five, I remember when my brother Martin was born. It was December and the roads were icy. My mother decided to go to the hospital in Danville instead of having a home delivery. She had gone to see Dr. DeLee in Chicago, a famous obstetrician in his time. He told my mother that she did not need him, that any obstetrician could take care of her. Danville is twenty-three miles south of Hoopeston. It must have been difficult getting there in a car that was protected with covers over the sides to keep out the snow. My brother Marty cried a lot. My mother breast-fed all of her children, but she felt that she did not have enough milk for Martin because she was so worried about her parents in Europe. The 1920s after World War I were hard times for them.

An incident that happened while my grandparents were in Hoopeston remains vivid in my mind. My grandmother and I watched a parade of the Ku Klux Klan. They were dressed in white robes. Even at the age of nine, I had a strange feeling about it all. Later I heard that many prominent citizens, even the local pharmacist, belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. I never went into his store again. The year was 1925. My grandparents had come to stay with us while my mother was in the hospital for ten days after my brother Robert was born. My mother always said that he was the best and easiest baby to take care of.

It took a great deal of preparation and courage to drive to Chicago. My mother prepared the food to take along for the long drive. We started before dawn, and if we were lucky, we arrived on the west side of Chicago by noon. Aunt Essie, Uncle Isadore, and family lived on the west side. Uncle Ben, Aunt Fannie, and family lived on the north side. One time we had driven about twenty-five miles when we had an accident. It must have been in the summer of 1926 because my brother Robert was an infant. My father was driving the car and, for some reason, it went off the narrow two­lane road. My father turned the wheel too quickly to get back on the road, and the car turned over on its side. We all escaped serious injury because we were not going fast. My father had to have stitches on his forehead. I saw the doctor do the sewing, and I admired my father for taking it so well without a painkiller. My mother's ribs were bruised. Martin and I were not hurt. Our real scare was when we saw my brother Robert's clothing covered with a yellow color. My mother thought that she had squeezed him so tightly that everything came out of him, but we found out that the country fresh eggs we were taking to Aunt Essie had broken all over him. Fortunately, a kind soldier from Chanute Field stopped and took us to the nearest doctor. I remember praying to myself all the way to the doctor's office.

When I was ten or eleven I went to summer Bible class with my friends at the Methodist church. There was not much to do in summer, so my mother told me to go ahead and join my friends. My father did not think it was a good idea, but he conceded. Actually, most of the time was spent weaving baskets and listening to Bible stories from the Holy Scriptures (called the Old Testament by Christians). I learned about the Prophets, Moses, and the Ten Commandments. Then one day the minister came in to talk about Jesus. He said that the Jews killed Jesus. I felt sad and embarrassed and thought that my friends would hate me. Actually, if they hated me, they did not show it. There was one incident that occurred while I was walking to school. A boy said something derogatory to me about being Jewish. Sixty years later, I do not remember what it was that he said.

It was difficult observing the Jewish holidays in a small town. My father took the train to Chicago to go to the Orthodox synagogue for Rosh Hoshanah, Yom Kippur, and Yahrzeit for his parents. I did not go to school on the holidays. One time the truant officer came to look for me. My parents fasted on Yom Kippur. My parents waited until they saw three stars in the sky before they broke the fast. We always observed Passover. We had special Passover dishes. Aunt Essie sent all of the kosher Passover food from Chicago via train. We looked forward to Passover. When I was in high school, we went to the Reform temple in Danville. Since there was a shortage of teachers, I was asked to take a class of young children. I read Bible stories to them. There was no discipline problem.

When I was twelve, Mary Jane, her mother, and I saw the movie, Phantom of the Opera. We were very frightened. Summers were filled with reading until I joined 4-H Club. Then I had sewing, cooking, going to county, district, and state fairs. I was a member for seven years. In the sixth year, I won the county, state, and national prize, which was a trip to the shrines of American history on the East coast. All of the mementos of this exciting trip are in my albums. I modeled my wool outfit at all of the fairs. After the trip, I spoke to many school and civic groups. I think that this trip sparked my love for American history. I was sixteen at the time.

It was 1932 when I was sixteen, and a frightening time--the Depression. I remember when all the banks closed. President Roosevelt spoke via radio, and we felt better listening to him, During those years, it seemed as though every week a hobo would come to the back door asking for a meal. My mother always fed them.

One of the pastimes we enjoyed during the summer was parking the car uptown Saturday afternoon, walking back home, and returning to the car after dinner so that we could watch the people go by. The stores were open Saturday night and everyone tried to park close to the only ice cream parlor, the Ritz.

On Sundays, we would sometimes visit the only Jewish families in nearby towns of Milford and Paxton. My mother always had a meal ready for them when they came to visit us. In fact, during the grade school years, all the neighborhood children would stop by for cookies. My mother baked bread, too, and the fragrance wafted through the whole block.

I think I must have been about twelve when I learned that the local theater, called the Opera House, was sponsoring a talent contest. My friend, Winona Lane, and I went. She did not go up to the stage, but I did. I did the Charleston. The audience clapped if they liked what they saw. I won a lamp and groceries. My mother and father were surprised when I came home with so many prizes. Another time I won a week's free tickets to the movies for writing an article on how to get out of the Depression. My father and I went to the movies. One of them was the story of the Rothschild family.

As far as discipline was concerned, my folks used what is recommended today. They had me stand in the corner of the dining room. Now children are sent to their rooms. I remember the time my mother was making grape jelly. The grapes were hung in a cheesecloth bag over a large bowl. My mother told me not to touch the bag, but I did. For that, I was sent to the corner. I do not remember for how long. I never squeezed the grape bag again.

I think I was around twelve when one of my friends told me how babies are created. My parents did not tell me, and there was no sex education in school. It was quite a surprise. I had not given the subject any thought.

I remember when my mother and father were honored by the city of Hoopeston. Years later, the Hoopeston Chronicle-Herald had the following article in the paper:


Ruby Yonkelowitz


Hoopeston's town clock was destroyed by fire for the first time in 1905, the year that Ruby Yonkelowitz arrived in Hoopeston to work for his Uncle David Yonkelowitz. When his uncle moved to Chicago, Ruby continued in the business of scrap metal. For the next fifty-one years he contributed much to the life of the community. He was a member of the Hoopeston Chamber of Commerce, a charter member of the Hoopeston Lion's Club, a member of Star Lodge 709, the Scottish Rite of Danville, The Ansar Temple of Shrine of Springfield, and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. He was a member of the Board of Director's of the City National Bank for twenty years and a director of the Citizen's Town and Investment Company for many years. The town clock that burned in 1905 was rebuilt but burned a second time January 20, 1925. In 1928 a new town clock was donated to the city by Ruby as a symbol of his feeling of gratitude and affection for Hoopeston. The residents of Hoopeston returned this feeling of gratitude and affection by honoring Ruby and his wife, Ida, at a dinner and presenting them with a beautiful bouquet of roses. Ruby helped many a youngster get to see the Saturday afternoon movie by buying the child's worthless junk for the price of a movie ticket and some candy. Perhaps one of the finest compliments was published in a newspaper article during the scrap drives of World War II in a letter to the editor, when a person wrote, "For the past week or so we have been hauling scrap to the scrap yard in Hoopeston. We have sat in line with our truck and watched boys with coaster wagons loaded with iron get the same courteous consideration as a man with a five ton load." Ruby Yonkelowitz had a deep understanding of human nature and his motto for life was just as he lived: "Always make good with a promise!"

I still remember that night when my father and mother came home with the bouquet of roses. They were happy about it all and I was proud of them. Years later when my brother, Martin, was honored for all his community work, one of the bank presidents came up to me to tell me he still remembers my father's kindness to him when he was a child.

It was lonesome during the winter months, especially in February, the coldest month of the year. My mother and I liked to see whether the neighbors' lights were on next door. Even today, in 1988, I feel better seeing the - lights on at the neighbors and knowing that they are nearby.

Now to continue on through my school years. I remember wanting to write. A friend and I decided to write a school paper. Soon there were seven of us--four girls and three boys. My pen name was Ambassadress. One of the girls did the illustrating, one wrote poems, and another wrote stories. Most of my writing was about current events. One day, my friend and I were called into the Superintendent of Schools' office. We had posted our Students Unique magazine on the bulletin board. We were not told t0 stop, but at the end of the year we were no longer interested in continuing. In my junior year I worked very hard for the American History course.

Mr. Harold Silverthorn was my favorite teacher, and history was my favorite course. I also wanted to win the Daughters of the American Revolution's history medal. I was happy when the medal was presented to me. I remember one day when Mr. Silverthorn told us to watch out for drugs and not to take them. I did not know what he was talking about. Now, in 1988, drugs and alcohol are terrible problems. Jerry and I were thankful that Jill and Bobby did not become involved with them. I hope my grandchildren will be smart enough to stay away from them, too. Even at this age, I knew I would not drink alcohol or smoke. I also knew that I would only marry someone Jewish. My mother always said that we did not have to do what others are doing if we could get hurt doing it. She would say, "Would you jump off a roof just because someone tells you to do it?"

I was happy in high school. I do not remember having any adolescent problems which people today assume everyone has. As to dating, I only dated once. In my sophomore year I was invited to the junior-senior dance by James Corboy. My parents let me go but my father was worried about my going out with boys, so out of deference to him I decided I would not date. For my senior prom I invited my cousin, Meyer Lowitz, to accompany me, but his brother, Joe, came instead. We were told that we could only spend five dollars on our dresses. I wore the one I made for 4-H. It was a chiffon formal.

In my senior year, I wanted to be valedictorian, and I was, along with four of my friends. That was the only time in the history of John Greer High School that there were five valedictorians. Years later, when Jerry and I went back to Hoopeston for my fiftieth high school reunion, one of my classmates told me that everyone knew that I should have been the only one.


Going away to Northwestern was a big change. It must have been difficult for my parents to send me. I know my father had to borrow on his insurance. Both my father and mother worked very hard throughout the years.





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