THE MUSEUM OF FAMILY HISTORY presents

 

Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies

South Carolina


 

JUNE V. GROSS--NEWBERRY, SOUTH CAROLINA
 

Both my maternal and paternal grandparents were born in Poland. My father was born in Poland also, and emigrated to this country with his family in 1905.

My father's family settled in Savannah, Georgia for two years. My grandfather worked as a peddler and was able to buy a small clothing store in Newberry, South Carolina and moved his family there in 1907.

Because my father was thirteen when he came to this country, he was never in a position to have much formal education here. He took American history, English, and some other courses in night school, but he spoke with a decided accent and his grammar left much to be desired. He read a lotalways non-fiction--and he was very good at math. He was always very anxious for my brother and myself to have the best possible education.

My mother was born in Philadelphia and moved to Brooklyn as a small child. She graduated from high school there and went to law school. She had completed two years of law school when she met and married my father. They met when he was in New York on a business trip.

Moving from Brooklyn to Newberry was a tremendous change for my mother. They were forty miles by dirt road from shopping, hospitals, and a synagogue. Looking back, it's surprising that she made it through those first few years of marriage.

Newberry had a population of about 7,500 people. Cotton mills were the chief industry there, and there was much farming in the area. In the years that I lived in Newberry there were only four Jewish families. My brother was born when I was nine. One family with two sons moved away when I was eleven, and another Jewish boy moved to Newberry as a teenager, but my classmates and friends were Christian for the most part.

I was always very aware that I was Jewish, but neither my brother nor I had any formal Jewish education. My parents suggested several times that they would hire someone to drive me to Columbia, South Carolina for religious school classes, but I knew no children in Columbia, so I resisted and they did not pursue it.

My parents opened a fairly large department store when I was born and they both worked very hard--six days a week. When I was twelve and my brother was three, my father had a severe heart attack, so little thought was given to a Jewish education for my brother either.

Since there was no hospital in Newberry, my mother went to Brooklyn to give birth to me, and we went back to New York to visit her parents every summer. When I was four and a half, my mother's sister married a man from Laurens, South Carolina --thirty miles from Newberry--and she and my maternal grandparents moved to Laurens. They had a clothing store there.

I grew up during the Depression in Newberry, and I knew that my parents worried about money, but we always had plenty of food, nice clothes, a comfortable home, servants, medical care, etc.; I never felt financially deprived. In fact, I felt that I had more than most of my classmates.

Life was easy in Newberry in that our house was within walking distance of our store. I could ride a bike to school, dance classes, the city pool, and the movies. All activities were nearby. Our major outings were to Columbia. There were no restaurants in Newberry, to speak of, so we even went to Columbia to eat out.

My father's parents both came from large families in Poland. Some emigrated to the United States, but most stayed behind. My father would send boxes of clothing from time to time. When World War II started, my father would listen intently to the news each evening, and all correspondence from Poland stopped, but it was not until the war was over and the prisoners were released from the concentration camps that he realized the full horror of the Holocaust.

In spite of this, my father had very ambivalent feelings about the founding of Israel--a Jewish country. He was very patriotic and very proud to be an American. He somehow felt that to be "pro-Israel" would connote divided loyalties. I think part of this was because he was American by "adoption," and part was because he had settled in a small town and had drifted away from his Jewish roots. Once when he was very ill, he sent for a rabbi and a Lutheran minister!

My maternal grandmother and my father's parents were quite religious. My mother's mother died when I was seven, so I mainly remember having Passover Seder with my father's parents. We belonged to an Orthodox synagogue in Augusta. (My father's parents were buried there.) We also belonged to a Conservative synagogue in Columbia (my mother's parents and my parents were buried there).

When I was sixteen we went to Charleston, South Carolina, to a Reform temple for one of the Jewish holidays. A rabbi whom my father had known when he was in the army had a pulpit there. I was so taken with the service that my parents joined the Reform temple in Columbia so that I could attend the services!

My childhood in Newberry was quite sheltered. I had many friends and, while they were all Christian, I was included, and there were very few anti-Semitic incidents. I still have many close friends in Newberry. I was a good student and active in organizational work. Since there were few Jewish boys around, I was allowed to date Christians, with the understanding that I would start dating Jewish boys when I went off to college. It was also made clear that I was expected to marry a Jewish man.

My mother even kept kosher until I was fifteen. It was not out of conviction, but out of respect for my grandparents. My brother and I received many mixed signals. We had a tree and gifts at Christmas time, however the tree had to be small enough for my mother to hide if she saw my paternal grandmother coming! We were also told not to hang laundry out on Sunday or do anything to offend our Christian neighbors. "You're the only Jewish children in a small town--don't make waves!"

Newberry had only eleven years of school when I graduated, so I was only seventeen when I went off to college. I attended Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. I think my transition to Duke must have been similar to my mother's transition to Newberry!

In those days, Duke--and most private universities--had a strict quota system. They allowed only eight Jewish girls to enter each year. Those who dropped out were not replaced. We could only join one sororityAlpha Epsilon Phi--the Jewish one. A Jewish girl could not room with a Christian girl without permission from both sets of parents.

A lot of the Jewish girls at Duke were from the larger, more metropolitan areas. They had grown up with Jewish friends, Jewish education, and were much more sophisticated than I.

The freshmen came early for orientation week, and we were placed in groups of eight. The other seven girls in my group were all in my dorm and were all Christian. We ate together and clung to one another for dear life. When the upperclassmen arrived, I was informed by one of the Jewish girls that if I didn't make an effort to become more friendly toward them, I wouldn't be asked to join the Jewish sorority! I wanted to say that it was fine with me, but my mother insisted that I shape up and make sororityand I did.

That first year away from Newberry was very painful for me. I did well scholastically, but I felt different from the Christian students and from the Jewish students. To further confuse me, my parents were annoyed when I came home because I was acquiring Jewish expressions and mannerisms!

I left Newberry when I married in 1951. I lived for twelve years in Asheville, North Carolina; seven years in Charlotte, North Carolina; eleven years in Morristown, New Jersey; and I have been here in Ft. Lauderdale for ten years.

My husband and I always belonged to a Reform temple. It was very important to me that my children have a Jewish education. My sons each had Bar Mitzvahs and my daughters Bat Mitzvahs. I took Hebrew classes and taught fourth grade in religious school. I learned along with my students! I am not an extremely observant Jew, but I have strong feelings about my Judaism, and I am very comfortable about being Jewish.

In retrospect, I wish that I had more exposure to Jewish children and Jewish education when I was growing up, but it was a small price to pay for the secure and easy lifestyle I had in Newberry and for the many good friends I still have there.

 

 


 

 

 

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