Editor’s Note: This is the twelfth and final monthly installment of a 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.
Time is a precious commodity. Sayings about time abound – “Time is money” (Benjamin Franklin); “time heals all wounds” (Chaucer), “time is an illusion” (Einstein).
But the one most commonly cited in my family when I was younger was that of Hillel from Pirkei Avot, which my father often paraphrased when encouraging me not to put something off: “Don’t say ‘I’ll do it when I have time,’ for you may never have enough time to do it.”
Many of us live our lives by putting things off for the future, relying on the unsubstantiated feeling that there always will be enough time. Sometimes we put off responsibilities, at other times pleasures, and – despite being exhorted “If a mitzvah comes your way, don’t miss out on fulfilling it; do it at once” (Exodus, Mechilta 12:7) – occasionally we postpone performing good deeds, thinking that an opportunity to fulfill them will always be there.
Sadly, that is not always the case. Certain mitzvot connected to particular hours of the day or days of the year are indeed time related, with a repeat opportunity to fulfill them the next day, the next month, or the next year. Others, however, are finite; they carry an “expiration date” and can be lost forever.
It was only after my mother, my final remaining parent, passed away four years ago that I truly realized that kibbud horim (honoring parents) is one of those finite mitzvot. Of course there are ways our sages say we can honor our parents after their death, but it isn’t the same. There is no feedback, no smile, no give and take.
Sometimes, though, life surprises us. For two months last year I had the unique opportunity of being able to fulfill a form of kibbud em (honoring one’s mother), which I never thought I would be able to do again.
It began when, out of the blue, my then 93-year-old mother-in-law, Bernice Cohen Schwartz, who lived in New York, informed us she would be returning to Israel with my husband after his trip to the U.S. and would be staying with us for two months, until after her latest great-grandchild would be born in Jerusalem.
Initially, we reacted with some surprise. There had been a thought that she might want to come for the birth and stay for the bris, as we knew the baby would be a boy. But for two months?
I truly love my mother-in-law, but how many daughters-in-law would react to such an announcement, coming from 6,000 miles away, with equanimity? How would we keep her occupied for all that time, especially as my teaching term had already begun? True, we had stayed with her in New York for a week here or there, but what would it be like living together in close quarters, often in rainy winter weather, for weeks on end?
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My mother-in-law has always been an unusual woman. Hers was not exactly the Jewish immigrant or Holocaust survivor background I was used to from my own family. Born in the early 1920s to American-Jewish parents of Eastern European extraction, on her mother’s side she was already a second-generation New Yorker, while her father had arrived at the turn of the century as a toddler and remembered nothing from Europe.
Raised in an English-speaking but traditional Jewish home in the Bronx, she experienced life in a four-generational household surrounded by extended family. At a time when my immigrant relatives were all Yiddish speakers, she only learned Yiddish – her grandparents’ “secret language” – in Hebrew school classes, with some further polishing later at university.
In addition to her secular studies, she graduated – in an era when few Jewish educational opportunities were open to girls and young women – from an afternoon Hebrew high school that taught not only Hebrew but also Bible, Jewish literature, Jewish philosophy and Jewish dance.
My mother-in-law was always an adventurer. When her family refused to let her join the army during the Second World War, she volunteered, during her break from Hunter College, as an agricultural worker in the Hudson River Valley through what was later called the Women’s Land Army.
Throughout her elementary, high school, and college years, her home-away-from-home was the nearby Bronx Y, where she eventually directed the Teenage Division. In 1949, while studying for a Master’s in public administration at NYU, she participated in the first American graduate study trip to the newborn state of Israel, spending six weeks touring the country and wondering whether it would be her future.
Returning to the Y to supervise graduate students in social work doing their required service hours there, her plans again changed when one of them, Arthur Schwartz, soon became her husband.
Belonging to the generation that believed a married woman should stay home and raise her children, she spent the first decade and a half of married life at home raising three sons. But home was a geographically changing location. During their early years as a family, the Schwartzes lived in temporary homes up and down the East Coast following Arthur’s professional development, meaning Bernice had to adapt to life in a number of very different Jewish environments.
When they ultimately moved to Teaneck, New Jersey, in order to be nearer to their aging parents, Bernice could finally enjoy a more permanent home and devote her time to being active in their shul and the boys’ schools, Yavneh Academy of Paterson and Moriah of Englewood.
But life has its twists. Arthur was unexpectedly offered a graduate fellowship in gerontology at Columbia Teachers College and Bernice returned to work to help support the family, ultimately directing therapeutic nurseries at Bronx Hospital and later at Einstein Hospital where Arthur, after completing his degree, became director of community and education.
Even after retiring, both my in-laws continued contributing to their community in Teaneck, and later to their new community of Riverdale, New York, through volunteer activities.
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Blessed with good health, sharp intelligence, and insatiable curiosity, Bernice Cohen Schwartz refused to let the fluctuations of life get her down. Having lost her husband of almost 66 years, my father-in-law, last spring, she repeated more than once that she wanted to look toward the future, not dwell on the past. It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I approached her with an idea soon after she arrived at our home in Israel.
During much of the previous year I had explored the history of my mother’s family, particularly that of my grandmother Freida Sima (Bertha) Eisenberg Kraus, as the basis for understanding the history of a generation of young Jewish immigrant women who had come to America during the late 19th and early 20th century.
The result of that exploration was initially a series of front-page essays published throughout the year in The Jewish Press. With the unending encouragement of my husband, Joshua Schwartz, and Jewish Press senior editor Jason Maoz, I decided to expand the articles and turn them into a book, which was released by Peter Lang Publishers in late 2016, titled My Name Is Freida Sima.
While writing the articles and later the book, I underwent a personal and family metamorphosis, discovering both new layers of my family’s history and an entire branch of my family I had never known.
Most of all, in writing the book I not only rediscovered my own family’s history but connected various family members who had not known of each other or of their common heritage, and reconnected others who had not been in contact for years.
It was an exhilarating, redeeming, and positive experience on all levels.
Now I was about to suggest to my mother-in-law, a very private person by nature, that she allow me to do the same for her own family. To use her very special life story and that of her family as a springboard to tell the story of the next generation, that of the American-born Jewish children (or on her mother’s side, grandchildren) of those immigrants, born in the 1920s, and the lives they led in America.
While she had originally agreed to let me write the story of the first American Israel Student and Professorial Workshop, her group’s study tour to Israel in 1949, a series (and possibly a book) based on her life experiences was a very different story.
Her initial reaction was distinctly not positive.
“Why in the world would anyone be interested in my experiences?” she asked. Painstakingly, I explained that a chronicle of her life and that of her extended family would not only be of interest to family and friends but also to a wider audience who could learn through it about American Jewish life during the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and onward. Older readers might be reminded of places and incidents from their past; younger readers would be exposed to a side of traditional Jewish life their parents or grandparents had possibly experienced but about which they had never heard of in detail.
“I’m not going to have patience for too many questions or stories,” she warned me more than once, often causing me to have second and third thoughts about the project. Nevertheless, she hadn’t vetoed the idea. Which gave me hope.
And so we began. At first I collected all her old e-mails to me that I had saved over the years with information about family. Then came the questions. Eventually I amassed more than 120 pages of notes that began with what she considered the important highlights of her experiences:
Getting a full scholarship to the University of Chicago and wanting to become a doctor (“Who wouldn’t let me go? Everyone!”); her relationship with her beloved father, who passed away at a young age (“He’d wanted a boy and took me every Sunday to see games at Yankee Stadium”); her summer experiences as a counselor at Camp Achva at Glen Spey (“That was when I met the famous Jewish educator everyone has forgotten, Dr. Samson Benderly”).
From there we went back in time, and I learned of her ancestors, particularly the grandparents and great-grandparents with whom she’d grown up. Some pieces were missing and I spent long hours pouring over the Ellis Island website, ship manifests, government documents, and the 1910, 1920, and 1930 census in order to fill in the gaps. And of course there was a good deal of old-fashioned research on the history of American Jewry in the 20th century.
Just as had happened when I was working on my grandmother’s book, here, too, previously unknown family members and those with whom my mother-in-law had lost touch suddenly emerged. Through them I found pictures of and documentation about her grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides, and a treasure trove of information about what happened to some of her relatives during the past fifty years.
At other times I faced the dilemma common to what I term “the compassionate historian.” When learning about an ancestor’s less positive side, how much of it should be described for posterity’s sake, what should be gently mentioned in brief, and what should be skipped over?
And what of those family members still alive? My mother-in-law read, often corrected, and ultimately approved the facts and descriptions appearing in each article. But it was not realistic to do so with every member of her contemporary family. Other than a discussion of my husband’s decision to make aliyah, closing the circle from my mother-in-law’s tentative desire after her 1949 trip to make her life in Israel, I decided to mention other family members only in brief. This has no bearing on my love for them or their centrality in the family, but was a tactical decision based on the practicalities of the historian’s craft.
I continued writing the articles while working against the clock, this time that of my mother-in-law’s return to New York City. By the time she returned home I had finished most of the articles and even received what was, from her, the ultimate compliment. Instead of sighing gently when I would approach her with questions, as she had at the onset, she would greet me almost every morning with the query: “So, do you have any more questions for me today?”
When I read her the last chapter, which I completed the day before she left, she turned to me and said, “You know, I’m actually quite enjoying this!” The wheel had come full circle. And Peter Lang has published my book based on these articles, titled A Very Special Life: The Bernice Chronicles.
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And so, dear readers, this series now comes to a close, although the real-life “Bernice Chronicles” will, b’ezrat hashem, continue ad meah ve-esrim – until 120. One branch of the family lives in America, while another has made its life in Israel. Bernice and Arthur’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of whom call her “Grandma,” go back and forth, and are as comfortable in her Riverdale apartment as they are in their own.
I thank The Jewish Press for having allowed me to share the story of my incredible mother-in-law, Bernice Cohen Schwartz, and I thank all of you who have joined us on this yearlong journey through her life and that of her family.
This installment of The Bernice Chronicles is dedicated in honor of Bernice’s great-grandson Eviatar Schwartz, whose birthday is 28 Kislev (which coincided with Dec. 16 this year).