Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies



Volunteering for this project is simple. Writing about my life in a small town is not easy. The "not easy" explains the time delay between acceptance and performance. I, an only child, was born May 10, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois. Sometime around 1933, my parents and I moved to Marion, Indiana. During most of my growing years, Marion had a total population of 20-25,000. Of that number, maybe 100 to 150 were Jews.

Somehow my maternal grandfather bought a roofing and supply business in Marion. The time was around 1931 or 1932. Before this, he had been in the jewelry business in Chicago. Both he and his wife were from the Balkan area of Europe. My parents, both native born, joined my grandfather in the roofing business during the Depression years. My father had been working for a relative in Chicago and had no particular future there. My mother's sister and her brother-in-law also moved to Marion from Chicago Heights, Illinois. My uncle's clothing store failed during these very lean years. The roofing business, while never great, was able to provide enough income to support two family units and eventually send three kids to college.

Marion is the county seat of Grant County, Indiana. As I was growing up, Marion was the center of a farming community. Factories were also present and important. These industries were so diversified that a slowdown or closure of one had little effect on this small town economy. The end of natural gas production in this region had a greater impact on industry than any other of the economic changes. Most of the retail stores around and near the central courthouse square were Jewish-owned and operated. These stores sold women's and men's clothes, shoes, jewelry, auto parts, used clothing, newspapers and magazines, and we had our roofing and supply company. Farther from the center of town was the junk yard, also owned and operated by a Jewish family. There was one Jewish doctor, a general practitioner, until the late 1930s or early 1940s, when another Jewish doctor arrived. He was stationed at the local Veteran's Hospital. This doctor became part of the Jewish community but had no public practice.

Marion had, as I remember, three elementary schools, two junior highs, and one public high school. There also was a Catholic school, elementary through high school. Catholic students with disciplinary or other problems were sent to the public school system. I did not have other Jewish students in any of my classes until high school. Even then, there were on about six or seven of us in the entire school. Two of these students were my cousins.

Marion's Jewish community facility, Sinai Temple, grew from a rented home to its present site on the corner of 6th and Boots. This single-story building was dedicated March 14, 1937, as part of the Reform movement. In all these years, the temple has never had a permanent Rabbi.

Marion is less than 200 miles from Cincinnati, Ohio. Hebrew Union College furnished senior students as training rabbis. These men came to Marion beginning with the High Holidays and continued on an every other week basis until June. The next fall the cycle began again. New rabbis every year. Some have become well known in their own congregations in various communities throughout the United States.

As a youngster, I remember that the rabbis came by train to be picked up by a member of the congregation. Sometimes the rabbi stayed at someone's home. Otherwise, they were put up at the local hotel. Mea were provided by members of the congregation, from family to family. There were no kosher meals in those days. My dad's comment was always "You might as well eat. We're going to tell everyone that you did!" And they did.

Small as the congregation was, there were services every other Friday night. Sunday religious school was held weekly, even for seven or eight students. My mother was the religious school teacher for many years. Most of the children avoided Friday night services by choosing attendance at the high school football or basketball games. I played in the high school band. Many an argument between parent and children ensued over this attendance or lack of attendance. The rabbis would participate on Sundays at religious school before returning to Cincinnati. At one time there was a choir of members from the congregation. Later this choir became paid, and some non-Jewish professionals from the Gentile community joined.

The Temple had a Sisterhood and a B'nai B'rith chapter. The congr gation was very supportive of Israel. Right after the end of World War II, the B 'nai B'rith raised enough money to purchase a dump truck and a jet to send to Israel. The jeep was loaded onto the bed of the truck, and another young man and I rode the vehicle to the dock in New York City for shipment overseas.

All the Jewish-owned or managed businesses remained open on Saturday, even on the High Holidays. Most had enough Gentile employees that the owners felt secure in attending services. Making a living in a small town was probably more important than some religious beliefs or customs. Most businesses of any kind were closed on Sunday. Without income, one could not afford to be religious. On the High Holidays, the Temple was crowded. Jews from neighboring thowns flocked to our temple. In fact, for the High Holidays, those Jews who wanted a more Orthodox service rented the local Knights of Columbus Hall for their observances. Their prayers were led by knowledgeable men from the community. Members of the Reform Temple would go to the Knight's Hall at the completion of the Reform services to see old acquaintances that they might not have seen since the last High Holiday services.

Being a Jew in a small town wasn't so bad. Middle-class living was quite comfortable. There were only a few places that Jews couldn't go--the local country club and other similar spots. Most townspeople didn't seem to care one way or the other. I was called a "kike" only once as a kid. I can't even remember the circumstances. I know I had mixed feelings at Christmas time. The public schools always had pageants, plays, decorations, and singing of carols during assembly programs. In those days, there was no mention of Chanukah. Even Jewish homes did not have public displays indicating our holiday. Buying decorations meant going to the larger cities--Indianapolis, Chicago, etc. One of our Jewish girls sang on a special streetcar during this Christmas Season. The local transit company provided one car for the carolers during a few weeks preceding Christmas. The young lady was criticized by some, but she enjoyed singing and had a nice voice.

There were no Jewish youth activities for so few of us. I joined and became president of the local Hi-Y organization. This group had a dual affiliation-high school and YMCA. None of our members attributed any religious significance to the group. We treated the organization as a club. We ran most of the after high school game (football/basketball) dances at the YMCA gym. The only religion I encountered was at a State Hi-Y conference in Evansville. Only a few prayers were said before meetings and grace before meals.

I did develop an attitude which carried over into my working years and present life. Being a Jew is a personal thing. Jews are a minority. This, the United States, is a Christian country. If Jews wish to observe their holidays, rituals, and customs, then they must be prepared 'to pay the price. In a Christian country, we should not expect the same time off or salary our observances as the non-Jews receive, such as at Christmas and Easter. We should not expect retail stores, banks, and the like to operate on Sunday for our benefit. In my growing-up years, small-town businesses were open Saturday and closed Sunday. We can be observant at a price. That price is due to choice and pride in being a Jew. Equal opportunity applies to memberships, jobs, careers, neighborhoods, and communities.

Enough philosophizing. Our family was close-knit. My mother, father, uncle, and I lived with my grandmother. My aunt, uncle, and two cousins lived a few blocks away. Friday night dinners, all Jewish religious observances, and Thanksgiving meals were held in our home. We all rented homes until the coming of World War II. At that time it became more practical to purchase and own a home. The house we lived in before World War II had a rent increase from $35 a month to $65. When this happened, the family bought a home. My aunt and uncle did the same. Both of my parents and my two uncles worked in the store. My grandmother and my aunt were the homemakers. Both families had a once-a-week (black) cleaning lady. The lady at our home was with us for years.

Since this is to be Jewish history, I should mention my Bar Mitzvah. Fortunately, during the year before my thirteenth birthday, our Jewish community sponsored a German refugee family. The family consisted of a husband, wife, and son. The boy was about eight. The mother and son learned English quickly and with little accent. The man tried to learn English from a grammar book and had a heavy accent and difficulty in understanding American idioms. The man had been a scholar in Germany. His wife's family supported him as a permanent student. My parents contracted with him to prepare me for Bar Mitzvah. In that year, I learned to read Hebrew, the necessary prayers, and the appropriate Torah portion. Luckily for me, our home was near where this family lived. Almost daily, I would go to this teacher's house after dinner for instruction.

The Bar Mitzvah service was held in our temple. Everyone said I did fine. My parents held an open house at our home after the service for the whole Jewish community. Friends came from nearby towns, and most of our relatives from Chicago were there. My father had four sisters, a brother, and a father who all attended. Most of my cousins came. Their ages varied from pre-school to mid-twenties. I had a grand time in spite of the drudgery getting to this important time of my life.

I went on to graduate from Indiana University, serve in the Army during the Korean conflict, get married to a wonderful young Jewish lady, moved to Los Angeles, and built a life. I should mention that I had never dated a Jewish woman until I went away to college. My wife, Lee, also came from a slightly larger town in Indiana--East Chicago. (Didn't all small-town Jewish youths go to state universities to meet other Jews for marriage?) We have three daughters, all of whom graduated with at least B.A. degrees. One is now the mother of four and to my disappointment, very Orthodox. The youngest is the mother of one and struggling to make up for the years she and her husband unsuccessfully tried to make it on the stage. The oldest, probably more Conservative than Reform, is a CPA and administrator.

My wife and I have been members of a Reform Congregation for more than twenty-five years. At one time, my wife was on the Temple Board. In general, most of our friends are Jewish, an easy thing to accomplish in a large city like Los Angeles. We prefer to live in a mixed neighborhood in contrast to our one daughter, who lives in an almost completely Jewish neighborhood. Our religious beliefs are still Liberal Reform.





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