Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies



I was born in Dallas, Texas in 1925. I moved with my parents, an elder brother, and younger sister to Shawnee, Oklahoma in 1932. My father came from Dabjoren, a shtetl located on the Baltic Seas, which, at his birth, was part of White Russia. My mother was born in Patriagna which is in the same area, but was part of Germany and now Lithuania. My father was born in 1889 and my mother in 1891. They were second cousins. My fraternal grandparents were bakers. My maternal grandparents had large land and business holdings. My father attended several yeshivot and wrote a journal of his experiences, which I have had translated from Yiddish.

My father came to Galveston, Texas when he was sixteen to live with uncles who had come as part of the Russian immigration diverted to Texas. They provided him a horse and wagon and notions and yardage and suggested he go to Oklahoma, which was just admitted to the Union as a state. He peddled his goods, taught himself English and, when he reached Shawnee, he found there was no dry goods store, so he opened one. After my mother joined him as a bride in 1921, they sold the store and moved to Dallas because my mother's uncles were there. They operated a furniture store but, because of family disputes, they returned to Shawnee where my father's brother and family lived, and together they opened a store.

Shawnee had a population of 25,000. Most were Baptists and there were a lot of Evangelists. There were seven Jewish families; two owned jewelry stores, two owned clothing stores, two were junk dealers, and my parents sold their part of the store to my uncle and operated a mattress and upholstering shop. Jewish families moved in briefly. My family lived in a single family dwelling area across the street from the shop. We lived in a rather poor area; the other Jews lived near downtown. I am still close with the girl who lived across the street. Her dad worked at the flour mill; a barber lived nearby, as did a plumber. No professionals lived in Shawnee, and I never had a Jewish friend.

All of the businesses were downtown except for a grocery store owned by an Iranian. I liked the freedom and the safety of the neighborhood. But what was unique was experience with African-Americans. My parents were the only ones who were willing to hire them and to repair their furniture and mattresses. Oklahoma was segregated, so all of the African-Americans lived in "South Town" where they had their own hotel (which my parents furnished with mattresses) and schools. My mother struck up a relationship with the African-American shop teacher in the high school, and he would send her very fine helpers. One became her very good friend and befriended her and watched over her because my father had to travel to look for business. I had little contact with the other Jewish families except that I worked in their offices or went in their stores to buy something.

My cousins had family in Oklahoma City (thirty miles away), and we had little contact with them. My parents also employed Indians and disabled people. So very early in my life I was exposed to people who were poor and struggling. My mother brought the thirty or more Jewish families in the area together for an annual Seder. We removed all of the furniture from our house and set up sawhorses and boards for tables. My mother and our family prepared all of the food. I had no formal Jewish education, and it was not until 1948 that I had any idea of what was in a Haggadah because our Seders were conducted in Hebrew, and I was busy serving. For Rosh Hoshonah, we hired a room above the skating rink and a Mr. Slutsky came from Oklahoma City to conduct the service. My uncle owned a Torah and brought it there. Most of the families went to Oklahoma City, but we could not afford it so my mother would persuade the Jews from the other areas to come and support our service.

My life centered around home and school. I went with my friends to church. I was active in the Women's Temperance Group, and I never said the Lord's Prayer or took communion. When Hyman Appleman, a convert, would come to town to conduct a Ten Prayer meeting, parents of my friends would always invite me, but I never went.

We lived in an area where "poor white trash" lived, and when some of them were employed by my parents, they would become disgruntled and call out, "Christ killer." Working in this shop were two non-affiliated non-Jewish women. They made us clothes, invited us to eat (not meat or shrimp), and extended a lasting friendship to our family and particularly my mother, who had come from an elegant, large family and was really alone in town. I recall she was invited to lunch by the postmaster's wife and was served tuna fish. It was the first time she had ever tasted canned fish.

I enjoyed acting and was always in the Christmas play, but my teachers understood that I could never play the part of Mary. My time was spent in study and helping at home and in the shop, but every Sunday after church I would go with a girl friend to the movies. Our family did indeed gathe around the radio and listen to "One Man's Family" (my parents thought i taught good moral and spiritual values) as well as with Eddie Cantor and others. My neighbor was a Jehovah's Witness, and when she attendee church I kept her two children.

Three years ago I attended, for the first time, a high school reunion. I was flattered by the number of people who remembered me. One former classmate told me a story I had forgotten. He said he came to the door to get me to go to a banquet. He said that when we got in his car I said that I could go to this Honor Society banquet but could not marry him since I was Jewish. Many of my classmates are now clergy, and I have the feeling that they liked the experience of having a close association with a Jew and that it played a special part in their lives. One of my classmates told me that he had made a family tree and discovered one of his grandparents was Jewish. I think he was disappointed when I explained the mainstream Jewish emphasis on matrilineal descent to be considered Jewish. I am pleased that I still receive Rosh Hoshonah and Chanukah greetings yearly from at least four classmates.

The important memories related to Jewish life were Passover and the High Holidays. We had a Menorah and lit orange candles (I thought the color was a part of the ritual and only recently have begun to use the multi­colored one). My mother did prepare traditional foods. In retrospect, my mother would have nurtured the holidays and Shabbat in our home, but most of her time was spent in the shop and meeting the financial demands required to operate it.

Because many of the townspeople used our factory to provide mattresses, furniture, and carpeting for their homes, my mother established warm relationships with the wives of the doctors, attorneys, and bankers and she particularly nurtured her contacts with the teachers and the principals in our schools. My mother remained in the shop while my father went to the homes to pick up and deliver merchandise and to show materials. He too established a rapport with the community leaders.

I think my brother experienced anti-Semitism in school. He spoke out about the injustices in high school and printed graffiti on the walls of the school. He did this to protest one of the history teachers being fired because he spoke positively about socialism and communism.

One important memory is that I received an award from the Veterans of Foreign Wars for an oration I wrote on "Why I Love America." I could receive money or an American Flag. After much discussion at home, I decided to accept the flag, and much to my overwhelming surprise and my parent's pride, the flag was presented to me by Eleanor Roosevelt, who had come to Shawnee to speak. Every morning thereafter for many years that flag flew over the door of our factory.

I later discovered that my father was educated (in the best of the yeshivot in the Baltic areas) until he was fifteen years old. I do recall seeing a Gomorrah which my mother said belonged to him, but he was not interested in encouraging us to study or learn about Judaism. Our observance was gastronomical. We had chickens in our yard, and periodically my father took the chickens to Oklahoma City for kosher slaughtering. When a frozen food locker plant opened we were finally able to have beef products, which we purchased from Oklahoma City. My father would trade a cow for some furniture work, take it to Oklahoma City and, after the cow was slaughtered according to Jewish law, he would sell the hind part and take the other half to the kosher butcher, who prepared the various cuts. When traveling rabbis came to town to solicit money for yeshivot, Mama was always so pleased to serve them a kosher meat meal.

In later years we went to Oklahoma City for the High Holidays. I still had no idea of their meaning except that on Yom Kippur we fasted and, at a certain point, all of the young people left to gather outside because of some prayer our parents would say. It was not until 1948 that I understood that they were saying Yizkor. This was the only time both of my parents went to the synagogue. In the years after 1940, my older brother became very interested in Judaism (my father was fearful that he would become a rabbi), and he organized the area Jewish children within a twenty-mile radius and conducted a school in our home.

A representative from B'nai B'rith encouraged my mother to gather the Jews in the area to form a chapter. The women formed the Shawnee, Seminole, and Wewoka B'nai B'rith Lodge, which met in our home because my mother was willing to bake and prepare the food. Eventually they built a meeting house in Seminole, Oklahoma. I am convinced that my mother, through these efforts, felt she was educating us about Judaism and our obligations to the community. I think she was pained because neither my uncle nor any of the other Jews offered to take us to Oklahoma City to attend Sunday School. My parents spoke Yiddish but made no effort to teach us. My mother lived until she was ninety-seven and was surprised that I knew so little Yiddish and had so little understanding of the prayers.

Our family emphasized education--especially for my father, who felt being an American was so very important. He taught himself to spell and often would add an extra letter to a word. When I asked why he did that, he replied that in America it's extra good, so I add an extra letter. I never understood how meaningful that phrase was until I read his account of his miserable, impoverished, and scary childhood in the European yeshivot. He felt he had accomplished a great deal because his three children received university educations and higher degrees. My brother is a Professor Emeritus in Special Education in New Jersey. I retired as an Administrator in Speech and Language and Special Education in the Los Angeles School District. My sister received a degree in Social Work.

I don't know exactly how my brother came in contact with the Zionist Youth Commission, which provided camperships to Brandeis Camp Institute in Pennsylvania for Jewish youth ages eighteen to twenty-one. I think that he became aware of it because he spoke with the Jewish junk dealers from Oklahoma City and Tulsa. He did attend this camp and was greatly influenced by the camp director, Dr. Shlomo Bardin, who transmitted to the campers what he had learned about Judaism, Yiddishkeit, Zionism and all the network of Jewish organizations in the United 'States and Europe. I became active in Hillel and IZFA when I attended the University of Oklahoma. I also attended the Brandeis Camp Institute in Pennsylvania and worked for Habonim in the sum­mer. It became my intent to make aliyah when I graduated from the university in 1948. You must understand that I still didn't have any Jewish education, and I saw Judaism as a religion and a way of life that fought for injustice and equality and the right of Jews to go to Palestine. I learned my Judaism from Hillel directors, from outstanding Brandeis Camp directors, from youth conventions, and from my brother. As I learned about the holidays and Shabbat, we began to observe them with my mother's help. The Sabbath now meant lighting candles on Friday evening, but we still worked on Saturday.

As I was planning to go to Israel with a Habonim group, my brother suggested that maybe I ought to get some more Jewish education and go to the seminary in New York. I could not afford that so I continued with my plans. My father wanted me to stay in Shawnee and help with the business. A letter arrived from Dr. Bardin asking me to join his staff at Brandeis Camp Institute in California. I went to California and was greeted by the Assistant Director of the camp who was well educated (Columbia and Jewish Theological Seminary graduate). He and his parents spoke Hebrew, and his family were among the early settlers of Nahalal, a moshav in Israel. We were married at the end of the camp season, and I remained in California. Our wedding was held at my home in Shawnee. My mother and her women friends from the shop made the chuppah that my sister used, and then we gave it to the Hillel House in Norman, Oklahoma for weddings which were held there for students. I think my mother hoped it would encourage Jewish students to marry other Jewish students.

None of the original Jewish families live in Shawnee. There are about four or five Jewish women (widows of businessmen) who still live there. They get together for lunch or dinner but go to their families for holidays and, especially, Passover. Shawnee has undergone many changes. I do regret some of these changes. I always wanted to live in a small town because of its warmth and friendliness but, of course, now I would want it to have a synagogue and an active Jewish community.

Shawnee offered me many good and many bad experiences. I remember that we fed homeless men who came to our door daily. My mother's instructions were to never turn anyone away and to call her on the phone so she could tell me what to serve. I am quite convinced that as soon as the man finished his meal, he would hurry down to the train station to report on our hospitality, and then the next man would appear. The men marked our house in some way so that others would know it was a friendly house.

My mother left her parents, a sister, and six brothers, and their families in the area of Memel (now called Kleipeda), Lithuania. She never saw them after she left in 1921. They did write, and she told us all about her wonderful childhood days and her experiences during World War I and her brave, strong Mother. She repeated German poetry and spoke so lovingly of her early life in Europe. She displayed the photos of her family, so we were very familiar with her roots. She brought engraved silver sets and Shabbat candlesticks with her from Europe. Her family sent her money so that she could purchase mildig and fleishig dishes for every day and Passover. I recall her listening to Hitler's speeches and her calls to Dallas relatives asking them to help her with her family.

My mother sent word throughout the Shawnee non-Jewish community that her family was in Germany, and she had lost contact with them. As soon as someone's son went overseas, a mother would call and ask my mother about her family, their names, their addresses and all wrote their sons to be alert to locate my mother's family. So all those years that my mother nurtured her relations with the townspeople were of great value because they were very sensitive to my mother's distress, and the banker's wife and other leading citizens called her and offered her comfort when the war news was so dismal.

In 1941 all of the family members were moved from Memel to the Kovno Ghetto. Two of my uncles were sent to Dachau, and one cousin was hidden by a Lithuanian family, and one escaped to Palestine, and one survived a death march from Stutthof. My mother did not hear from any family member from 1939 until one day in May 1945. I can still see my mother standing in the middle of the office in our factory. The mailman had jus brought the mail, and she opened a thin overseas envelope, and out fell two letters. One was from the son of a woman who lived in Shawnee. He was a captain in the Army. And the other was a short note written in Yiddish from my mother's older brother. She let out a terrifying scream and fell to the floor. Later we read the letter from the American soldier 0f Shawnee. He had met my uncles in Dachau, and they wrote the letter so that he could mail it by the Army post. Later my uncles came to visit my parents in Shawnee, and the newspaper gave this wonderful event wide coverage with pictures so that all of the community felt they had a part in that reunion. My father never spoke about his family although he had a picture of his parents. He once purchased a ready-made painting of a grass-covered cottage with a woman drawing water from a well. He said it reminded him of his home and his mother. He too had left family in Europe.

Looking back, growing up in a small town had many advantages: a lot of sharing and caring and civic pride. I now realize how much a synagogue and a Jewish community meant to my mother and how important it is for me. And, of course, I feel that I was cheated in my early years because I had no educational exposure other than association with relatives, kashrut, Yiddish, stories my parents told us. and some semblance of celebration of the holidays. I think the Gentiles in Shawnee thought we were acceptable and smart, even if we were Jewish, and our family was different from other Jews in town. We lived among the poorer people, and I think the anti-Semitic clichés were not applied to us, but I suspect they were to the other families. I felt the same way about some of them. I think the businessmen tried to cooperate with my parents, who were struggling so hard to make a living. If my mother and father could read this story they would be disappointed. They never thought of us as poor because there were others who really were without food and clothing. They wanted us to be proud of our accomplishments, climb every mountain, and carry ourselves with grace and dignity.





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