Editor’s Note: This is the eighth 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 seventh part, “A Boy From Nyack,”appeared as the front-page essay in the July 14 issue; part nine will appear in September.
For most people, getting married is an adventure. Blending two lives, learning to live with a spouse, adjusting to one another’s idiosyncrasies. But what happens when your first years of marriage become a different kind of adventure, one that involves frequent moves from state to state, sometimes hundreds of miles away from parents and family? What is it like for a traditional Jewish woman from New York City, now a young wife and new mother, to start out year after year in a new “out of town” Jewish community?
These were some of the challenges that faced my mother-in-law, Bernice Cohen Schwartz, during the 1950s in her first decade of married life.
For Jews in the United States, the 1950s were years of opportunity and challenge. Social anti-Semitism was becoming less prevalent and American Jews were experiencing an acceptance they had not felt before.
Simultaneously, postwar suburbanization had a great impact on Jews. Seeking to leave low-income neighborhoods in major cities, large numbers of them moved into newly developed areas where for the first time their Jewish identity was subject to challenges.
In the city, much of their identity had been rooted in encompassing Jewish neighborhoods. Now, in suburbia, they found themselves with many non-Jewish neighbors who viewed them as equals and even as friends. Acceptance was reciprocal and the result often was assimilation, a challenge that would vex American Jewry for the rest of the century and beyond.
Jewish organizations were not blind to these problems and created more synagogues/community centers to strengthen Jewish solidarity. Some solutions in this sphere were radical. While Orthodox synagogues could only draw on Jews living in a walking proximity, Conservative Jewry sought a means of strengthening synagogue participation.
In 1950 the Conservative movement permitted driving to synagogue on Shabbat if the alternative was not having an active connection with Judaism. This made Conservative Judaism the fastest growing synagogue movement at the time, although at the expense of normative Jewish tradition.
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Synagogues were not the only Jewish organizations concerned with migration to suburbia and the threat of assimilation. After the Second World War, Jewish Community Center officials throughout America realized they had to expand their activities to keep the younger Jewish population connected. Consequently, these centers sought out professionals – group workers – trained to interact with Jews of all ages.
While many of the challenges were purely theoretical to Bernice and Arthur Schwartz when they married in September 1950, within less than two years some became central to their lives.
For the first year and a half after their marriage Bernice continued to work at the Bronx Y while Arthur directed a youth division at a Y in the West Bronx. With the birth of their oldest son, Joshua, in June 1952, Bernice stopped working – as did many professionally trained women of her generation when they had children – and devoted herself to her family.
With just one household salary now, Arthur felt it was time to expand his work experience and began looking for a higher level, better paying position. The job market was glutted in New York City, so the search expanded to out of town.
“And in this case, ‘out of town’ was far out of town,” in Bernice’s words.
The result was a move of more than 230 miles to Lynn, Massachusetts, where Arthur became assistant director of the Jewish community center.
“It was a promotion,” said Bernice. “But we weren’t happy in Lynn.” Situated on the Atlantic Ocean, ten miles north of Boston, Lynn was an industrial town and a center of shoe manufacturing with a population topping 100,000. The Jewish population was close to 10,000 in the general area with 5,000 in Lynn itself.
Unlike the suburban areas near major cities, Lynn was not a newly developing town. Jewish benevolent organizations had already been established in Lynn during the late 1800s and the YMHA, later a Jewish Community Center, had been founded in 1911. Lynn’s Jewish population had grown during the early 20th century with the influx of Eastern European Jewish immigrants drawn to the job opportunities in the area, particularly in the shoe trade.
Arthur enjoyed his work and the young family made friends with some of his co-workers in the Jewish Community Center, particularly another couple from New York. The history-rich atmosphere of the area was fascinating, and every time Arthur had a free day from work they would bundle up Joshua, take their car, and explore the area.
“We visited Boston, college campuses like Brandeis when it opened, Plymouth Rock, Cape Cod, Hyannis Port where the Kennedys vacationed, and up to Augusta, Maine,” said Bernice.
But Bernice and Arthur found New Englanders cold (“they had their own culture, vocabulary, and language”) and during their seventeen months there, Bernice recalled, not a single member of the Orthodox shul Arthur attended (“I was home with the baby as there was no eruv”) ever invited the family to visit.
Bernice received her first sisterhood invitation by mail only after the family had already moved to Connecticut.
Life for Bernice in Lynn was spent trying to make their rooms in the two-family house they lived in habitable, taking care of Joshua, and going to visit the family in New York every six weeks where they also spent the Jewish holidays.
Was the Lynn Jewish community typical of “out of town” Jewish communities as that time, or just a reflection of the region? It’s hard to know, but based on the couple’s experiences in other towns, it seemed to be particular to New England.
The town boasted two Orthodox shuls, each serving a different area of the community. But despite the Eastern European origins of the Jewish population, by the 1950s, said Bernice, a good number had turned into reserved New England Yankees, not particularly welcoming to outsiders, including the group workers serving their community.
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After a year and a half in Lynn, Arthur and Bernice decided it was time for a move. The next position available to Arthur on the East Coast, which was also a promotion professionally, was in Norwalk, Connecticut, where he became the Jewish Community Center’s group work director. While Connecticut was technically New England, Norwalk was only 50 miles from New York and nothing like Lynn.
A Jewish community had existed in Norwalk since the mid-1700s, augmented by Eastern European Jews who came in the late 1800s. Norwalk was suburbia and a center for the new electronics industry and engineering. And, unlike Lynn, the proximity to New York facilitated more frequent family visits. Having found a large, comfortable, two-bedroom apartment, the young family began to settle in.
There was, however, an interesting catch. The Jewish Community Center had hired Arthur before it actually had the money to pay his salary. For a young couple with a small child and meager savings, it was a strange situation.
“For two weeks he didn’t get paid,” said Bernice, “until finally one of the organizers went to the local merchants and told them ‘you owe me so and so’ in order to raise the money for Arthur’s salary.”
As cold as Lynn had been to the Schwartzes, Norwalk, with its growing Jewish community, was warm and embracing. Bernice and Arthur soon became friendly with the other group workers and developed a social life with members of the Orthodox community.
As already noted, Bernice, like many middle-class women of her generation, was aghast at the thought of working full-time with young children, which was seen as an affront to a husband’s ability to support his family. But it was hard to live on one salary. So Bernice went to work one day a week at the Westport Reform Congregation nearby, “haven of the newly minted Jewish advertising fellows in the 1950s,” she recalled.
Teaching sixth grade at the congregation’s Sunday school was Bernice’s first close experience with Reform Judaism, and she found it strange that “committed Jews” held their Pesach Seder at the local treif seafood restaurant. When the Reform rabbi, who came from an Orthodox background, held case review meetings, non-kosher food would be served, and he warned Bernice in advance: “Eat breakfast at home; I’ll just give you coffee.”
While living in Norwalk the family experienced both joy and tragedy. In late summer 1955 Bernice returned to New York to give birth to their second son, Victor. Returning home to Norwalk, the family experienced the great flood of 1955. Over the weekend of October 14, torrential rains caused the Norwalk River to severely flood, breaking dams, sending walls of water downstream, and washing away entire streets.
Several lives were lost and millions of dollars’ worth of property was devastated. It was the worst flood in the area’s recorded history.
Bernice recalled: “It began to rain and it didn’t stop. We plugged up our windows and when our milkman arrived he said, ‘If you can get away, go, because Norwalk has washed away.’ ”
Bundling up the children, Bernice and Arthur drove two hours to her parents in the Bronx, with Arthur returning to work in Norwalk because the Jewish Community Center had been declared an evacuation center.
The waters subsided, but as Bernice was preparing to return home, her 54-year-old father suffered a stroke at a shul function and died that night. Bernice recalled: “I came from the flood and had to go to the levayah with what I was wearing all week, a skirt, sweater, and a pair of shoes.”
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A year later the family moved again, when Arthur was offered a job in Washington, D.C., as director of programming for the Jewish War Veterans of America. The programs included visiting Jewish VA hospital patients, fundraising, cemetery visits, and caring for Jewish families in need. The Schwartzes moved into a garden apartment in Hyattsville, Maryland, near the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, living in a compound with many military families.
As usual, most of Bernice’s time was spent at home. “We were all young families and reached out to each other. No one was a native of the area. I learned to drive and developed a babysitting commune as nobody had parents or grandparents around.
“When the kosher butcher delivered my meat, I would be sitting outside with the non-Jewish military wives, many from the Midwest. When they realized I was getting fresh chickens rather than frozen packages, all of a sudden the butcher got a new bunch of customers, none of them Jewish!”
Now they finally had friends and family in the vicinity. Arthur’s aunt Sonya, his father’s younger sister, and her family were nearby as well as a married girlfriend of Bernice’s from summer camp.
In addition, the family from New York visited constantly (“everyone decided to see the nation’s capital while we were there”). Arthur took little Joshua to President Eisenhower’s second inauguration parade (“in the rain, but they went”) and Joshua was enrolled in the kindergarten of the Hebrew Academy in Washington. Life was good but change was rapid.
Before the year was up, Arthur and Bernice realized it was time again to move. Arthur’s parents were aging and he was concerned about being so far away. Besides, Joshua and Victor were getting older, “and the time had come to get back to a really Jewish area.”
Arthur became director of programming at the Paterson, New Jersey Jewish Community Center. The apartment Bernice examined in Paterson fell through at the last moment “and our goods and life were already packed up and coming north on a moving van.” As a last resort she turned to her sister Elaine who was living with her family in Ridgefield, New Jersey. The result was a two-bedroom garden apartment in Ridgefield, a “temporary stopgap” that lasted nearly four years.
As in all their stops along the East Coast, during those years Bernice was home with the children and the family would return to the Bronx for the holidays. This time, their neighbors were FBI agents who occasionally disappeared for weeks at a time.
With Joshua attending Yavneh Academy in Paterson and Victor soon to follow – a third son, Seth, was born in 1959 – it was time for the Schwartzes to find a permanent domicile. The choice was the up and coming Jewish community of Teaneck, New Jersey, which would be their home for the next thirty-nine years. But that will be a story told next month.
This installment of The Bernice Chronicles is dedicated in honor of Bernice’s great-grandson Uriah Schwartz, whose birthday is 27 Av (Aug. 19 this year).