THE MUSEUM OF FAMILY HISTORY presents

 

Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies

Ohio


 

ELAINE FRIEDLAND--KENT, OHIO
 

I was born in 1920 in Akron, Ohio. After World War I times were very bad, and my father had serious business reversals. We moved to Barberton, Ohio, and my father opened a shoe store. Barberton was very small but it had a Jewish population. We had a little Shul. This place of worship had once been a house. I went to Sunday school, and there were times that I went to services in the evening with my father. During the High Holidays, I ran around outside the building with the other kids. My friends were little Jewish girls, and I knew that I was a Jew.

Once a week we had meat delivered from Akron. I knew which dishes were to be used for meat and which were for milk. My folks spoke Yiddish to each other and I understood everything that they said. I never tried to speak it myself.

In 1929 we moved to Kent, Ohio. My father and brother opened a store there. At that time the population of Kent was about 13,000. The Jewish population was 10. There was another Jewish family there--the father ran a junkyard. There was a father, mother, son, and daughter. The daughter was my sister's age. We felt like one family and did most things together.

Our family consisted of Mother, Father, Sister (who was seven and one half years older than I), and me. I had three older brothers--one who lived in Kent with his wife and was in business with my father; the other two lived in Akron. Akron was twelve miles away from Kent. As time passed, my sister married and so did her girlfriend. They both married Jewish men. My sister and her husband opened a used furniture store in Kent. Her friend and husband had three boys--the Jewish population was getting larger.

My parents came to the United States in 1900. They came from Vilna in Lithuania. This was part of Russia, and they could hardly wait to get out. My father did not want to serve in the Russian army, and my mother hated the poverty and the pogroms.

My father was a quiet man who really enjoyed his store. He spoke English well, and he could read the printed word. He could sign his name, but he could not write anything else. Once on a train trip to California he had to write his order in the diner. He looked at the waiter and said, "I'm sorry, but I can only write French." The waiter wrote the order, and my father was not embarrassed.

My mother did not speak English very well. Her speech was a mixture of Yiddish and English--for a long time I thought that everyone spoke like that. For years I could not understand why my friends had trouble understanding my Mom.

Living in Kent was not a happy experience for my mother. She had bad memories from her home. She never trusted anyone who was not J ewish. She always thought that they would steal from us or hurt us in some way. She made friends with our neighbors and was always ready to help them, but she never forgot that they were Gentiles. She was a very bright woman but she should never have lived in Kent. She had spirit and often traveled by herself. This woman, who spoke a broken English and who could not read, went to the Mayo Clinic alone, traveled to Florida alone, and never seemed to have any trouble. I once asked her how she knew what bus to take. She would say, "All you need is a tongue." She was born in the wrong place and time. Kent was a prison for her.

Keeping a kosher home in Kent was a difficult job. In order to get kosher meat, one had to go into Akron (twelve miles away) or to Cleveland (thirty-six miles away). We had no car, and the only way that Mom got her kosher foods was to get a ride whenever someone else was driving to one of those cities. I loved those trips to Wooster Avenue. I liked seeing the live chickens, and I enjoyed watching the fish swim in the big tubs. Most of all I enjoyed the bakery. In Kent we could get only sliced white bread, which we hated. In Akron we got rye bread with a shiny top, and it was full of caraway seeds.

Because of the shortage of "good" bread, we got a treat each Sunday. Mom would bake bagels--they were outstanding. My brother always told her that she should package them and sell them. He was right--Lenders would have had real competition.

My sister and I liked to sleep late on Sunday, but the smell of bagels baking would bring us downstairs. Dunking a hot bagel in cold milk was a delight. Also on the table would be dozens of bagels, white bread, and a coffee cake. We would go on dunking and grinning as we enjoyed our treat. Mom, with pink cheeks from the heat, would smile at our happiness.

My sister and the daughter of the other Jewish family were about the same age, and they became very good friends. The seven-year difference in our ages left me on my own to find friends. The older girls would go into Akron to swim at the Jewish Center or to Cleveland to visit relatives. I managed to have friends of every religion--in the early years I did not know the difference, and I don't think that my friends did either.

Oh, there was a difference. It happened every December. I would go to a friend's house, and I am sure that my eyes almost bugged out of my head. These were days of the Depression, but there were gifts and wrappings all over the room. There were stockings bulging with oranges. I really did not envy my friends. I had socks and underwear, which seemed to be what they got, but an orange in a stocking seemed special even though we always had all kinds of fruit at our house all the time. Singing Christmas songs in school bothered me. In Sunday School we were told not to sing them, but I thought that they were beautiful. Opening prayers in school bothered me too. I didn't know what they meant, and I wasn't sure what I should do. It was very uncomfortable.

While my friends celebrated Christmas, we celebrated Chanukah, but we did not connect it to Christmas. We gave no gifts. I knew the story of the Maccabees, and I understood why we celebrated. It was a special time as we stood around to light those orange candles and hear our father say the prayers.

Getting our kosher meat became a problem as there was not always a ride into Akron. My mother would ride the bus into Akron and drag back her purchases. Later she had the meat sent on the bus, but they soon refused to do it any more. When my father became ill and she could not leave him, she bought her meat in Kent. It bothered her that her home was no longer kosher. Shortly before she died, she asked me if I thought that God would forgive her. I felt that God needed to be forgiven for making her life so hard.

The happiest time during my life in Kent was between the ages of nine and thirteen, and years later when I came back to teach at the University School. During those early years I went to school and played with the children in my neighborhood. Kent was a safe place, and we had freedom. During those years we laughed, shared secrets, and never talked about religion. We all belonged. No one had any money, as it was the Great Depression. Maybe our clothes were hand-me-downs, but they were clean, we had homes and food. People were worse off: men came  to our back door asking for food and my mother always fed them--because ofl her life in Vilna, she knew what it was to be hungry. My friends and I didn't know that we were poor. In the evenings we played tag, told stories, or caught fire flies while our families sat on the porch. It didn't matter that my mother spoke differently, or that June's mother was blind, 0r that Bobby's folks had more money. This was our way of life, and we all belonged and were happy.

When I became thirteen I suddenly didn't really belong anymore. I started to live in my own personal "no man's land." At thirteen I started going to Sunday School in Akron. I would take an early bus and wait at the bus station until it was time to go to the Jewish Center for school. After school I reversed my travels and went home. As I became friendly with the girls in my class, I would go into Akron on Friday and spend the weekend with my aunt. This gave me time to spend with my new Jewish friends. In 1933, we were too young to date so we went out to lunch, learned to dance with each other, and practiced with using make-up.

Monday I would pick up my Kent life, but it was different now. The Kent kids had parties on weekends, which I missed, and soon I didn't know what they were talking about. I felt that I lived two different lives. This was my "no man's land."

As a youngster I remembered that people said how rich my Dad was. I knew that we weren't rich. My folks did without many things to save pennies. When I asked my father why they called us rich he laughed and said, "It's better than saying that we are poor." But deep down I knew that they meant "the rich Jew." During my school years I was called a Jew only once--I never forgot it or forgave that boy.

Two years ago a few of my Jewish girl friends from Akron got together. We had little in common after all those years, yet there was still a warm feeling and a bond. Maybe because we were all Jewish. I did not have enough of a bond to go to my Kent High School thirtieth reunion.

We lived in Kent for 30 some years. During those years a few other Jews moved in, opened businesses--and often moved out. The newcomers were about the age of my sister, brother, and their spouses. Just being Jewish seemed to make a bond and they would get together for card games and mah-jongg. My parents and I did not fit into the age group--our social isolation continued.

During World War II my family was fortunate--the sons were too old to serve, and the grandsons were too young. Maybe not real fortunate--father's entire family in Vilna was killed during the Holocaust.

During the War my sister-in-law would invite the Jewish cadets stationed at Kent State University to her home for the Seders. She was the religious one. Even today she goes to services every Saturday and keeps a kosher home. Living in Kent must have been hard for her.

As far as religion went, we were Conservative Jews. My brothers had a religious education--but I really did not. My religious education came from my two years of Sunday School; I never learned to read Hebrew. I became a traditionalist. I enjoyed going to services, and I loved watching my mother light the Sabbath candles. I loved the smell of our house on Friday when Mom made the Sabbath foods. We had no kiddush, no blessings, but it was a special day of the week.

When I first came to Kent from Barberton, I wouldn't write or cut anything on Saturday. As time went on, and I saw my father and brother keep the store open on Saturday, I decided that keeping the Sabbath was not important for me either.

Often on Saturday my mother and I went into Akron to call on her "lady friends." I loved listening to the stories of Jews in Germany, England, and Russia. We had Seders which were a lot of work for my mother, but we all enjoyed them. The grandchildren were so much fun, and it was easy to sit through my father's snappy services.

When my brother's children were in their early teens, they moved to Akron so that the children would be around Jews. I was glad that they wouldn't live in a "no man's land." My parents celebrated their fiftieth anniversary, and my dad invited many ofthe Gentile merchants from Kent. They came to the Akron Jewish Center and enjoyed our simcha with us.

Near Kent there were small lakes. Brady Lake was an amusement park. Twin Lakes just had a place for picnics and swimming. In the summer on every nice Sunday we (the original ten Jews plus newly acquired husbands and children) would spend the day there. We took picnics--each family brought food, and we shared. Often our Cleveland cousins would come out to meet us there. Those were happy days, and we all enjoyed them.

There were other Jewish mothers like mine who wanted their children to be with Jews. A few mothers who had daughters going to the University would come to our house and beg my mother to let their daughters room at our house. Mother found it difficult to turn a Jewish mother away. She also felt that the extra money would be nice. My parents took a smaller room and gave the girls their room. Those were the years that my mother called her "college years." The Dean of Women was very strict. How she found out that a girl smoked or that she came in after ten o'clock, I'll never know. But she knew, and my mother would have to go to her office. I think that my mom and the Dean became well known to each other. Mother always stuck up for the girls. She would say that if their mothers didn't care that they smoked, she couldn't stop them, and that ten o'clock was very early to have to come in. The girls were fun, but they surely broke all the rules, and our boarding house years were short.

I entered Kent State College (it later became a University) in 1939. When I started, I wore a Jewish star. I did want to meet Jewish students, and I really looked Polish--so I wore my label. My mother had a tea for the sixty or so Jewish students. It was a lovely tea, but it missed the purpose for which Mom had made it. She wanted me to make Jewish friends but I was so shy it did not do much good. Perhaps living two lives caused me to be so shy. I found it hard to belong anywhere.

When I graduated I was ready to start teaching and to move away from Kent. I enrolled in the University placement office. Although my grades were high, I was the last elementary teacher hired that year (was it because I was Jewish?). My position was in a suburb of Cleveland. The school was out in the country. There was not a Jewish student or teacher there, but what nice people! After all these years I am still close friends with some of those teachers.

There was no place to live near the school, so I lived in Lakewood, Ohio, another suburb with very few Jews. I did not really care. I had an apartment--the attic of a house. It was like a religious United Nations. Our landlady and her family were Christian Scientists. One of my roommates was a very religious Lutheran, and the other was a devout Catholic. I went to sleep hearing the clack of her rosary beads as she said her prayers. I learned to eat fish on Friday and a big Sunday dinner. We lived together for seven special years.

When my mother heard that there were few Jews in Lakewood, she decided that she would find some for me. Without saying anything to me, this tough little old lady came to Lakewood on the bus--by "tongue." She walked around the business area until she found a Jewish furrier. She talked to him and discovered that he had a daughter my age. Because of Mom's search, I made a few lifelong friends.

For seven years I lived in my happy United Nations, and then I had to go back to Kent. My former superintendent had become the Director of the University School at Kent State. He wanted me to be a supervising teacher there, as I had just received a master's degree in that field. My father was very ill, so I said that I would come, but for one year only. That one year turned into eleven.

As soon as I came to Kent I bought a car. I knew that I had to have "wings of freedom" if I were to live there again. Kent surprised me this time. My fellow teachers were not Jewish, but we became close friends. About twelve of us had monthly dinner parties. They loved to come to my house when I made a Jewish meal.

The University Jewish teachers who had never said that they were Jewish started to come out of the closet, but most of them joined the Unitarian Church. The Jewish college girls came to me to help them start a sorority. We tried, but we had no luck. My Cleveland and Akron friends came to visit. We were all able to drive, so now Kent was no longer a prison for me.

When I retired in 1979, I followed my brother and sister and their spouses to a condominium in Florida. Now I live mostly around Jews. Most of them are from New York and, although they are Jewish, I often find them as different from me as my childhood friends were. I am a country person. I grow flowers on my terrace and even have a tomato plant. When they think of flowers, they think of cut flowers in a vase. When we talk about summer fun that we had as children, they don't understand picnics that we had every Sunday. They talk about camp; we did not need camps, we had an entire city in which to play. We have our High Holy days here at our auditorium and a Rabbi and Cantor is hired--some of the Jews resent the auditorium being hired for services.

In our family we have had some intermarriage. The intermarriages are in my niece and nephew's generation. One in our great nephew’s generation is a reverse. She went to lessons for a year and converted to Judaism. I feel a little embarrassed that she can read Hebrew and knows more about faith than I do, but I know that I am a Jew.
 

 


 

 

 

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