Written for the 100th birthday of my mother.
It was the fall of 1937. Nineteen-year-old Rita Weiss walked into an employment office, wearing a fresh navy blue suit, crisp white blouse and carrying high hopes in her heart. After two years of college and having a Catherine Gibbs certificate, Rita, intelligent and pretty, knew she had the skills for a good job. Her father, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, was a well-known dentist. Her maternal grandfather had been the editor of a Philadelphia newspaper. Rita was on her way.
The secretary gave her a form to fill in. Birth, address, height, weight, race, religion, education. Her hand paused over the line religion. Her family was Jewish, belonged to a Reform congregation although rarely attended, celebrated Christmas (no tree – her mother put her foot down there), had formal Sunday dinners. Still, all her friends were Jewish, and she dated only Jewish guys. Her pencil wrote, “Jewish.”
The employment firm’s manager came into the room. “We need a secretary for a firm at Rockefeller Center,” he said. “Stand if you’re interested.” Rita stood with seven other women. The manager took the employment forms from the standing women, nodding as he went through them.
He glanced down at her form and looked up. “Rita Weiss?” She nodded, her heart rate up a bit. Was she going to be lucky with this first job?
“We don’t hire Jews.”
Where was she? Berlin, Paris, Warsaw? Nope – right in New York City.
Rita Weiss, my mother, remembers that moment with utmost clarity. Her eyes went down, she couldn’t look at the other applicants or the manager. Not even pulled aside, she was humiliated publicly.
“I felt a second-class citizen, mortified, helpless. And there was nothing I could do. I walked out the office and never went back to another employment agency.”
I asked how she found her first job if some employment agencies didn’t hire Jews.
“I looked in the want ads and didn’t apply for ones that read, ‘Christians only’ or ‘No Jews need apply.’” She was lucky and was hired the next week in the office of a large jewelry firm.
More questions ran through my head. “After you left the employment agency, did you complain to your parents or friends?”
She shook her head. “This was the status quo. We all knew it and accepted it.”
I persisted. “Did you write to your representative or to President Roosevelt? Did you protest?”
“I didn’t write to anyone. There were no laws to protect me like there are today. I accepted my second-class status – that’s just how it was. At the time, I didn’t think protesting would help. I knew things were worse in Europe for Jews, although not until after the war did we learn the extent of the horrors.”
“When did this helpless feeling change for you?” I asked, knowing this wasn’t the mother of my childhood.
“In 1948, when Israel became a state. There was a place I could go if need be, a place that wanted me. I saw Jews fight against their enemies and win. I was proud to be a Jew. As you know, after WWII, I become a strong Zionist and advocated for Israel on the regional and national level from 1945 until just recently.”
She continued, “American anti-Semitism was not a new story. It was one all of us knew very well who lived then. We expected it – it was part of the American culture.” Studies bear this out. Polls from the mid-1930’s and through the war showed that between 30-50% of Americans held negative stereotypes about Jews.
My mom had no problem with future jobs. With a tip from a friend in 1941, she showed up at the Army Corps of Engineers’ employment office. The young officer in charge asked her which job she was applying for. Two years after being told no Jews need apply, she’d learned to speak up a bit.
“The one that pays the most,” she answered boldly.
“Fine,” he nodded. “Report as office manager tomorrow at 8:00.”
My mom laughed as she told me about that incident.
“You know, after Israel, we became prouder, didn’t hide our Judaism and we publicly worked for Jewish causes. My friends felt the same way. With Israel, we were no longer second-class citizens – we were as good as anyone else.”
“For us, it seemed like God had intervened. There was an outpouring from American Jews. My cousin helped collect guns for the Haganah. Many gave money. Right after the war, your father’s salary was $200 a month. Our studio’s monthly rent, Murphy bed included, was $37.50 and monthly food budget was $100. And of course we had other expenses. And yet, we set aside $2 a week to send to Israel.”
Like many others, my mom joined Jewish organizations to help Jewish refugees, supported Israel and backed politicians who did the same. She visited Israel many times.
And she did something her parents had not. She and my dad took us to synagogue, celebrated Jewish holidays and talked about Israel. We read books by and about Jews. We knew Jewish history. I was sent to a Zionist camp and to Israel.
As my mother says, “Born during WWI, I have lived through a great deal and learned that it is important to speak out. Today, I am proud to be Jewish and a lover of Israel.”