THE MUSEUM OF FAMILY HISTORY presents

 

Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies

New Jersey


 

CONSTANCE SMITH--MILFORD, NEW JERSEY
 

I was born in Newark, New Jersey on May 3,1926, to Frieda and Charles Eisler, who emigrated from Hungary in the early part of the century. I learned after I was grown that my father suffered much prejudice in Europe and, in my opinion, felt that in America, in his field of engineering--and for personal recognition--it was better not to be identified as Jewish. I am sure fear was a big factor.

My mother read from her Hebrew to Hungarian to German worn, leather-bound prayer book only in bed at night! I never heard the word "Jewish" spoken in English, only in Hungarian. I had a deep sense that something was wrong or secret or hidden, but I didn't know what.

My two sisters and I went to a private girls' school, Miss Beard's School, through the twelfth grade. I learned long after I graduated that they would take all three of us only as a group. Times were hard and I think they needed the tuition. There were very few Jewish students, but there, as in college, I was drawn to them as if through some unspoken bond.

Daddy was very successful financially, and we moved from Newark to South Orange, when I was four (in 1930). Almost across the street was the Orange Lawn Tennis Club, where my father applied for membership. He was told that, while they were sure he had a very nice family, it was against their policy to admit Jews. As a result of this rejection, he bought several hundred acres of farmland about one-hour's drive from home. Here he made his own country club with a pool, horses, air-strip, cows, etc. It became our second home, where he allowed non-profit organizations to have large fund-raising picnics. Hungarian groups, usually church-oriented, frequented the farm on many occasions without any fee. I know he felt a kinship to all other Hungarians regardless of religion. He signed affidavits of support for literally hundreds of Hungarian refugees who wanted to come to America and work in a free society.

There was, at the time when I was a child, a very fashionable Jewish country club near South Orange, but we never joined it. I was invited there to dances as a teenager. I was also often invited to the restricted Orange Lawn Tennis Club, no longer restricted now, by schoolmates whose families were members. I was far more comfortable at the former.

At Christmas time, we always had a very large tree, beautifully decorated. I continued this practice for several years after I was married, mostly out of habit. My husband went along with this only to please me. The grounds of my parents' home were lavishly decorated at Christmas, to the extent that people from miles around came to see them.

When I made application to college, the forms asked for religious affiliation. This is no longer being done. My father told me to write Episcopalian. Who could spell it! I knew it wasn't right, but I listened to him anyway. My roommate delighted in saying that her boyfriend's name was Brandenburg, but he was not a Jew. I wanted to curl up and die!

At one point, a friend who was home on leave from service in World War II said, "I'll see you tomorrow night." It was to be Friday night and he quickly corrected himself and said, "Oops, I can't, I have to go to shul." I said, "You mean school." Of course, I got laughed at and felt very deprived that I didn't know more of my roots and heritage. As a matter of fact, I think it is a miracle that all three girls ended up marrying Jewish boys. My brother, Charles, Jr., did marry a Christian girl, converted, and raised their children as Christians.

It seems to me that, while my mother was patriotic, working for many national causes, and was basically a good person, she was not able to oppose my father's decision to hide our Jewishness. Therefore, we were raised without any Jewish religious education.

At one point, my brother's wife took us to her church's Sunday school where the teacher was the pastor who performed her marriage ceremony. This went on for several years--church and church school! I also went on several occasions to a Christian Science Sunday school with my best friend, Ethel.

 

I don't remember any blatant anti-Semitism directed at me, but I remember being very uncomfortable in certain circumstances. In high school I learned that the father of a girl friend, at whose home I attended a party, would have a "fit" if he knew there was a Jewess in his home. Once on a blind date, a boy in the Navy from Florida, having had a beer or two, said almost in disbelief, "Ha, ha--a red-headed Jewess!" Perhaps he had preconceived ideas. I apparently didn't fit them. I would have felt better about myself if I had been exposed to the history and traditions of my people. I have tried to instill some of this in my children. At least they know more than I did about Judaism. They all attended religious school at temples we helped found. We presently belong to a Conservative congregation in rural New Jersey and I belong to several civic philanthropic organizations, some Jewish and many non-Jewish, where I make a statement that I am Jewish, should any meetings fall on High Holy days.

It is very hard for me to observe and practice Judaism in a traditional manner. But I do support my local temple, contribute generously to Jewish causes, and my daughter plans to send her little son to religious school as soon as he is old enough.

My husband, who was raised in a more traditional Jewish home, is more of a secular Jew, attending services only occasionally. Nevertheless, he never fails to kindle the Yahrzeit candles for our parents and recite the appropriate prayers in Hebrew.

As a footnote, it may be of interest to tell you this anecdote. When my father-in-law came through Ellis Island in 1905, in nervousness he stuttered his name Schmied, when asked. The immigration officer wrote down Smith. With the name Smith, we are perhaps subject to more ethnic remarks than had our name been more Jewish-sounding.

Having lost the greater portion of our families (grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins) in the Holocaust, we strive to keep our values and those of our children and grandchild alive as Jews. Only in remembrance of those who have perished can we perpetuate our faith.

 

Anna Sutter, Mother-in-law of
Constance Smith of Milford, New Jersey,
taken in Atlantic City, 1937



 


 

 

 

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