Editor’s Note: This is the second 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 first part (“Four Generations Under One Roof”) appeared as the front-page essay in the Jan. 20 issue; part three will appear in March.
“My father wanted me to be a boy,” my mother-in-law, Bernice Schwartz (née Cohen), now in her mid-90s, would often tell me.
“After all, it was 1923, we were a traditional family, and I was his firstborn. In those days, what firstborn was supposed to be a girl?”
But girl she was, as was her parent’s next child, her sister Elaine, born four years later. What kind of schooling does one give a girl whose father is raising her as if she were a boy? How does one balance her desire to study “boys’ subjects” with the constraints of those days? What about the Jewish education that her very religious grandfather and great-grandfather wanted her to receive? What of her mother who had left school after eighth grade and wished her daughters to get the education she had missed? And what of her mother’s desire, as an active Mizrachi Women’s member, to have her daughters exposed to Hebrew Zionist culture?
At a time when the yeshiva tuition crisis sparks ongoing discussions, it is difficult to fathom that fewer than three generations ago the problem was not just how to pay for a Jewish education but where to even find one.
In 1928, when Bernice began her formal studies, one could count the number of full-day elementary yeshivas and Jewish day schools in New York City on the fingers of one hand. And none of them accepted girls. Only later that year would the co-educational Yeshivah of Flatbush open in Brooklyn, followed in 1929 by the all-girls Shulamith School. Ramaz would open a decade later, and the first Beis Yaakov in America a decade after that.
Bernice lived in the Bronx, where no full-time Jewish education for girls was available. And with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, it’s unlikely her parents could have afforded such a luxury if it were available. Instead, she benefited from what she calls “the best the Bronx had to offer”: informal education received at home; formal secular education at PS 4 and Morris High School; and Jewish education at the Bronx YMHA’s Hebrew School and later the Florence Marshall Hebrew High School, known to everyone as “Marshaliah.”
Bernice’s informal education began earlier than any other and was at times contradictory. She recalled: “My Zeide Victor tried to teach me ladylike behavior, especially when I beat up my little sister, which was often. In despair he would repeat ‘es paast nisht’ – ‘that’s unacceptable behavior’ – until I stopped. My father, on the other hand, was an athlete and raised me like a boy. He taught me to swim when I was five, to row a boat, throw and hit a baseball, and play basketball.”
An avid Yankees fan, Sam Cohen took Bernice to every game he could. “Sun or not, we sat in the bleachers. I was probably the only Jewish girl in the Bronx who knew the batting averages of all the Yankees by the time I was seven.”
Dealing with illness and death as part of life was another lesson of her informal childhood education. When she was ten, her sister Elaine contracted polio, and Bernice was sent to her aunt until her sister recovered.
Several months later, at home with a winter cold, she and her grandmother were nursing the White Zeide, her great-grandfather who lived with them and whose nickname came from his long white beard. “Suddenly my grandmother says, ‘Bring me a mirror.’ And why did she want a mirror? To see whether he was breathing. Which he was not, and then my grandmother began to scream.”
Witnessing the entire process, ten-year-old Bernice saw the Chevra Kadishah (religious burial society) come to the house to prepare the White Zeide’s body for burial. “Nowadays they say ‘don’t take a child to a funeral,’ but it was not that unusual an event for me to see death. I not only saw it as a child, I took part in it, and knew not to be frightened by it.”
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Bernice belonged to the first generation of immigrants’ children, whose parents expected them to complete a full formal education. For her, that began at five with kindergarten at the local public school, PS 4.
She joined the other children at tables where they learned to use scissors, make paper chains, and recognize letters. In those days, “safety” had a different meaning, and children of five were allowed near implements reserved today for teenagers. “We even learned to use a coping saw,” she said, “and I made a blue giraffe out of plywood.”
Within a year playtime was over and, like many Jewish children of that time, the extremely bright little girl began skipping grades. “It didn’t bother me having new classmates every year. I loved school, was curious, and enjoyed learning everything I could.”
That curiosity would ultimately propel Bernice’s somewhat eclectic study choices, which her mother encouraged, from ceramics courses at the Henry Street Settlement (which provided social services, arts, and health care to New Yorkers) to her Hebrew afternoon high school, Marshaliah, which would shape her Zionist spirit.
“I had no chores around the house,” she recalled. “My job was to study, and so I did.”
In those days, boys studied shop while girls learned to sew on treadle machines, making their own cooking and graduation outfits. The distinction between boys’ and girls’ schooling bothered Bernice less than when she was younger, as girls were included in one of her favorite school activities: swimming. “We were the only school in the Bronx boasting a full-size pool and everyone learned to swim in sixth or seventh grade. There was one locker room, so boys and girls pursued that separately.”
Having already learned to swim at age five, Bernice became a junior lifeguard, honing water skills she still uses today in her nineties.
“But what about Jewish learning?” her zeides would ask. As we’ve seen, the Bronx of the 1930s offered girls no opportunities for full-time Jewish schooling. But for a dollar a month (“no small sum during the Depression, and if you didn’t have it they took you anyhow”), she was sent to the best alternative available: an intensive afternoon Hebrew School run at the Bronx Y by Oscar Divinsky.
Divinsky, a member of the Zionist-oriented Palestine Educational Committee, author of a children’s Hebrew textbook, and later founder of Akiba Hebrew Academy of Philadelphia, had innovative ideas about children’s schooling. Bernice recalled his conviction that Jewish learning shouldn’t stop during the summer.
“He said that one month’s vacation was more than enough for our brains, so we went to Hebrew school every morning throughout July. And we also learned Yiddish during the summer.”
Divinsky wanted the children to not only know how to speak Yiddish – the primary language spoken by most Jewish adults in the area – but also how to read and write it. Having grown up in an English-speaking home, this was a new experience for Bernice, who soon “learned to understand her grandparents’ and great-grandfather’s secret language,” much to their chagrin.