Editor’s Note: This is the sixth installment of a multipart series on the life and times of the author’s mother-in-law, whose experiences reflect the coming of age of the immigrant generation’s American-born children. The fifth part, “Israel Adventure, Summer 1949,” appeared as the front-page essay in the April 28 issue; part seven will appear in July.
“How did it all start, how did we find each other, how did we get together? He was from here, I was from there. There weren’t too many matchmakers. Either you met somebody or you didn’t. So as grandmas do, I’ll tell you the story of how it all began.”
With these words my mother-in-law began describing her courtship days. As with quite a few of the stories of her early years, it began when her mother, Daisy, made a decision. In this case, that it was time to find her eldest daughter a husband.
Today, when Jewish mothers dream of finding hedge-fund managers or high tech experts for their daughters, it is rare to come across a family actively seeking a rabbi, possibly impoverished, as a potential shidduch, or match. But that is exactly what went on in the Cohen household during the 1940s.
When the United States entered the Second World War in 1941, Bernice was a nineteen-year-old pre-social work major at Hunter College, living at home with her parents, sister, and grandparents. Until that time Bernice hadn’t really dated.
“When I was younger we all went out in groups, boys and girls,” she recalled. “Girls could hang out with boys and be perfectly respectable, enjoying the company without pressure. You only ‘went out’ if you were serious about someone, which at the time I wasn’t.”
With the war’s outbreak, many of Bernice’s male friends from the Bronx Y were drafted. “Life was in abeyance until they came home. I spent lots of time corresponding with them, and by the war’s end I had a chest full of their letters the size of a night table.”
Life was not in abeyance for Daisy Cohen, however. Married two days before her eighteenth birthday, she thought that at nineteen her daughter was old enough to find a husband. But Bernice was busy with her studies and with volunteering at the Bronx Y. Marriage was not on her agenda.
“When my mother decided I should get married, it was the farthest thing from my mind at the time. All I prayed for was that the boys I knew would come back safely from the war.”
* * * * *
What do traditional Jewish parents look for when seeking a spouse for their child? Which traits appear at the top of the list of qualities for a daughter’s future husband? How important are a candidate’s looks, earning potential, or family background? In the days when Bernice’s mother was looking for her daughter’s mate, no one yet asked whether a boy’s mother wore Shabbos robes or used plastic tablecloths.
But there were other qualifications most parents sought. Bernice recalled: “In those days a mother wanted her daughter to marry a businessman, maybe an accountant. No one spoke of doctors or lawyers, as in my time there weren’t so many Jewish doctors. Besides, mothers of sons wanted their boys to marry rich girls, and I wasn’t a rich girl.”
Daisy Cohen wanted something very different for her daughter. A rabbi. In her eyes, rabbis embodied the traits she was looking for: Jewish learning, honesty, knowledge, even yichus (pedigree). It was also something that was missing in her family.
Being active in the Mizrachi Women’s Organization (now called AMIT), she had a large group of friends with suggestions. Every mamma had a son, grandson, or nephew.
Daisy wanted marriage for Bernice sooner rather than later, and to a rabbi. Bernice was interested in neither. The result was a clash of wills between two strong personalities. Daisy had graduated from eighth grade, studied in secretarial school, and became a bookkeeper and later a notary public. Life had not been easy for her. She was caring for a sick husband and elderly parents while working full time in the family’s Judaica store in the Bronx.
Bernice described her mother as “smart, honest, and tough as nails” – a description not much different from that which Bernice’s children use for her. What happens, then, when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
Depending on the period in question, the results ranged from silence to chaos.
“My mother and I fought,” Bernice recalled. “Usually the fights were about whom I was going out with or not going out with. There were times I didn’t speak to her for two weeks. Today one would call it ‘control,’ but I was fighting for my independence.”
Finding it difficult to share her feelings, Daisy left long letters for her daughter in which she wrote what she was unable to tell her face to face. Meanwhile, the rest the Cohen household found it wise to stay out of the line of fire.
“My sister was only fifteen,” said Bernice. “My father was not involved in my mother’s social planning for me; he never spoke to me about getting married. My grandparents stayed out of it as well, particularly Zeide Victor, who didn’t like any conflict in the household. Bubbe Lena was probably as strong-willed as my mother, but to the best of my knowledge they never sat down and talked about my unmarried state.”
Unfazed by her daughter’s reaction, Daisy Cohen suggested names of candidates. Initially, Bernice dutifully went out with some of them.
“The young men were quite suitable, but not for me. Some were horrible. Some were a lot older than I was. A couple of them were wolves. There was nothing fun about those dates. They were just miserable.”
No less adamant than her mother, Bernice had her own idea of whom she would go out with.
Patriotism was at the top of her list: Any potential husband had to have served in the armed forces. “After all, there was a war on. It was unthinkable to me to go out with someone who hadn’t served.” Nearly all the rabbis and rabbinical students she was offered had been given 4-D classifications, deferments for ordained clerics or those engaged in religious studies. Bernice was not interested.
Another requirement was social: “To be a gentleman and have proper table manners. You couldn’t eat like an animal; you had to know how to use a knife and fork. Boy, did that get rid of a lot of them!”
* * * * *
A year passed, and then another, and Bernice remained unattached. After graduating from Hunter she started working in the personnel department of a Manhattan transformer company. Three years later, she began her graduate studies in public administration at NYU.
“Originally I wanted to study medicine but that was nixed by the family as not being a job for a traditional girl. Now I was encouraged by my professor of social legislation to study constitutional law.”
She was nearing her mid-twenties when her mother intensified the pressure to marry, but Bernice wanted to continue enjoying a tension-free social life.
“I didn’t care about my friends getting married. The girls in my life were my cousins – the older ones were long married, the younger ones too young to consider it, and so age-wise I got stuck in the middle. The pressure didn’t bother me; I was too busy doing what I was doing.”
But the pressure didn’t abate and now even Bubbe Lena had occasional comments about some of the boys she was dating.
“My grandmother had an eye for handsome young men, and there was this very good looking boy I was going out with. But then his sister married a non-Jewish Italian fellow and that was enough for Bubbe Lena to scratch my boyfriend off her list.”
Bernice decided to make the most of her dating years. She reminisced about an Orthodox dating culture that today sounds so distant and foreign.
“I just went out to enjoy. I loved the theatre and to dance, and in those days there were the big bands. You could go to the hotel and dance for the whole night and just order a glass of orange juice. We would go to the movies, and we would even walk across the George Washington Bridge, clear into New Jersey and back.”
Then there was eating out. “There weren’t many kosher places in those days but we went to all of them. Gluckstern’s on Broadway, Lou G. Seigel, Ratner’s – an old dairy place with funny waiters – Bernstein’s deli on Rivington Street, before he moved to Essex and started serving Chinese food, and a few delis in the Bronx.”
* * * * *
At age 26 and having completed her graduate studies, Bernice returned to the Bronx Y, this time in a paid professional capacity. As the newly appointed director of the Teenage Division she was responsible for children’s clubs for ten-to-fourteen year olds. In addition, she supervised the graduate students in her division who were putting in their hours of unpaid supervised work.
One of them was Arthur Schwartz, a tall, slim young man with curly hair, recently discharged from the United States Army. On paper he had all the right qualifications: a veteran, tall, handsome, athletic, impeccable manners, and from a traditional home. But he was four months younger than Bernice and still in university.
“A Columbia social work graduate student full of vim and vigor. Why would I pay attention to him? He was a student. I was a professional. However, there was a marvelous man, a porter in our building, Dave Linehard, who used to come into my office and say, ‘Miss Cohen, look at that fellow in the game room, he’s a million dollar kid! Don’t let him go.’ And I would say, ‘Dave, do me a favor and don’t bother me.’ But he would persist, ‘Miss Cohen, you can’t let him go.’ ”
At the time Bernice was going out with another Columbia group work student “but he wasn’t religious enough, and the romance soon ended. At that point Arthur Schwartz asked me out for a date. I figured, what could be the harm?”
Arthur and Bernice had one date before she left for her student trip to Israel (as detailed in last month’s chapter in this series, “Israel Adventure, Summer 1949”).
Upon her return Arthur asked her out again. “But I was busy, I had to get my program together. And he was still running around in the game room, working with his teenagers.”
Only in the spring of 1950, with Arthur nearing the end of his studies, did they begin dating seriously. (“Who had to date? We were with each other every day at work and besides, we didn’t have any money.”)
Her family’s reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Her father and grandfather saw him as an honest, hard-working man, and her mother was thrilled to see her daughter seriously dating a suitable fellow. True, he wasn’t a rabbi, but he was polite, had integrity, and, most important, he appeared to take Bernice’s forceful personality in stride.
Only later would she discover that he was descended from a long line of Lithuanian and Latvian rabbis and that his father, who had come to America in the early 1900s as a shochet, a ritual slaughterer, had been ordained in Europe.
As soon as Arthur was offered a job at the Bronx Y, he and Bernice began to talk about getting married. Around Purim time he took her to meet his parents in Nyack, New York, where his father was now a businessman and his mother a homemaker.
The Schwartzes liked what they saw, and were particularly taken by Bernice’s fluent command of Yiddish, the language the older Schwartzes felt most comfortable with. Not fully understanding what his son did as a social worker, his father had only one question: Kenst machen a leben? (“Can you make a living?”)
Reassured that Arthur could support a wife, his parents gave the couple their blessing.
The wedding, held in September 1950, was officiated by Rabbi Solomon Reichman, the Y’s resident rabbi and family friend. At the time, Bernice had no idea she was embarking on a new adventure that for the next few years would take her to various Jewish communities up and down the East Coast.
But that, as you can imagine, is a story worth its own installment.
This installment of the Bernice Chronicles is dedicated to the memory of Bernice’s sister Elaine Cohen Zimmerman (Elka Jana bas Draiza Genessa and Shalom Chaim), whose yahrzeit is 16 Sivan, which this year fell on June 10.