Yom Kippur Drosh 2009
If you grew up in Chicago or New York or another major city with a sizeable jewish population, you could take being Jewish for granted. Some of you have become Jews by choice, studied hard and know far more than I.. Still others of us grew up in cities where we were a tiny minority. This is where our family lived, and at least in my youth my peers didn’t know what a Jew was. I’m pretty sure they would have thought we had horns. This is where our family lived.
Our story of how we got to Jefferson City, Missouri is fairly typical. My father came to the United Sates when he was 13 with his mother and one sister. His father was already living in Springfield Illinois with another sister–this was in 1913. He attended school for only 1 year-probably to learn the language and then went to work. Our daughter commented that she doesn’t know why he never lost his accent. And I answered that he did not have an accent. Everyone laughs at me when I say this, but I never heard his accent. My Mother’s family was also in Springfield. She was born in the U.S., the oldest of 4 sisters, shortly after her parents immigrated. My father’s brother-in-law settled in Jefferson City with his wife to open a clothing store and in the early 20’s my father went there to work in the store with them..
After working with my uncle, he decided theat he did not like the way my uncle ran the business and went to the bank to get a loan to start his own business. The banker took a liking to my father and he got the backing and started a business in competition with my Uncle. If there were bad feelings at the beginning they certainly didn’t fester. We lived next door to them, played together and I remember the treats I would have at My aunt’s house. He of course wanted a family so went back to Springfield to get a bride. Before my mother would say yes she and her mother took a trip to Jeff to be sure he was telling them the truth. They married and my mother worked in the store from day one and didn’t stop until she was not well enough to continue.
I was the 4th of 5 children. We had live-in help until all of us were in school and by then my older siblings were able to take on many of the responsibilities. My parents had good business sense and they became respected business people in the community-a town of about 28,000. Because He and the banker got along well my father was often told of property that would be for sale and became a business partner with a developer and actually built the first McDonald’s in Jefferson City. He was not the franchisee just the owner of the property.
Bill and I lived in Jeff for a year of our married life and Bill worked in the store. Bill remembers how my dad and the man who worked with him for years in the men’s department would tell the customers what a nice schmata he would have for them. And of course there were other yiddish words too that were thrown in occasionally.
My parents were always supporters of Jewish causes and especially believed in Israeli bonds. They were able to take a trip to Israel on the 10th anniversary year and were able to see thier support in action..
Besides for our relatives there were few other Jews -about 10 families, including other merchants and business people..There was a Jewish presence in Jefferson City from at least the 1870’s. In 1883 Temple Beth -El was established It is the oldest synagouge west of the Mississippi still being used. In 1954 the Temple served as Missouri headquarters for the 300th anniversary of Judaism in America. In 2008 the congregation held a 125th anniversary celebration, for which we had a Missouri senator for a speaker. The Temple had a re-dedication at that time and my brothers and sisters-in law were honored for their work over the years. My brothers and their wives have raised their families in Jeff City and are pillars in the community as well as the Jewish community. They have been instrumental in maintaining the the Temple spiritually and physically.
There are many things my parents did to instill a Jewish life for us. We had no formal Jewish education but we did have a Jewish home. I know they tried to keep kosher in the early years of their marriage but it became too difficult to get kosher meat. We never did mix milk and meat and of course no pork products-even out- and who knew about shellfish. I know we never had catfish either and that might have been for the same reason, I’m not sure. We always had passover sedars at our house and I remember changing the dishes to keep kosher for the holiday. I’m sure others besides our immediate family were often invited. Of course passover was usually the week of Easter and in those days Easter was an important shopping time in a Christian community-especially Catholic so we had to plan our sedar around store hours. If the store was open late on a sedar night we started late. Because of my childhood memories of passover that is my favorite holiday.
For the high holy days we went to Springfield.I don’t remember much of the services but it was fun time as well as a religious one for us. Since both of my parents were from there we had many relatives there and still do. We went to many different houses at that time and got to know our grandparents–my fathers parents were still living-aunts and uncles and cousins.
Chanukah was never a major holiday for us. I’m sure we got a present or some gelt, but the store was open late through the Christmas season and of course this is the major business season of the year. As far as I know it never bothered any of us that we did not have a Christmas tree, it certainly didn’t bother me. But to this day I enjoy looking at the lights and commenting on what I would do if I were decorating. I was a member of the school band, I would not have been accepted into the choir and not because of being Jewish, and one of the highlights of the season was the Christmas program performed in the Capitol rotunda with the band and school choirs. If it bothered my parents I don’t know, but in those days especially if you were in business you wouldn’t even think of objecting. I have to admit that I really enjoyed that experience.
My Mother always lit the Sabath candles until the store started staying open on Friday night instead of Saturday, and then my older sisters took that responsibility when they weren’t working. All of us helped in the store as we got older.
We went to Friday night services every Friday evening. There was no Rabbi so members of the congregation -only the men- took turns conducting the services from the Union Prayer Book, and I’m sure there were times we did not have a minyon especially if you counted only men.
Another way my parents had of connecting us with being Jewish was sending us to a Jewish summer camp run by the St. Louis Federation–Camp Hawthorne at the Lake of the Ozarks, which was closer to us than the St. Louis campers. The bus would stop in Jefferson City and pick us up on the way there and dropped us off on the way back, where I can remember tearful good-byes.. Camp was where we learned many Jewish melodies and dances. We were able to experience shabat and connect with other Jewish children. Camp is where my sister met her husband, they were both counselors. It is also where one of my brothers studied for his Bar Mitzvah. He didn’t really learn the Hebrew, but he successfully completed the work and was bar mitzvahed in our small Temple in Jeff. It was an exciting time for us to celebrate that rite of passage there.
My other brother studied for his bar mitzvah in Springfield with a cousin who was his same age and they had a joint ceremony in Springfield. He didn’t learn much Hebrew either and said that he didnt do much. During the summers that he went there to study he stayed with my grandmother and was able to develop a relationship with her even though she spoke no English and he no yiddish Those are fond memories for him.
We knew we were Jewish and we felt that difference all through our Jeff City life. Going to school I felt especially different. My younger brother and I were the only two Jews in school. Every school assembly we ever had through high school ended with a prayer in Jesus’ name and I thought how I would have liked it if they could acknowledge the fact that there were Jews in the audience and omit the Jesus reference. I might add that at my 50th high school reunion I was asked to speak and talked about growing up Jewish there. Immediately after ,one of my classmates got up and gave the invocation in the name of Jesus. He still didn’t get the message. The teachers, had to have been aware of our religion because of our business standing and we had to have our absence excuses when we were gone because of the Jewish holidays. Of course we could never win the perfect attendance award. Outwardly my being Jewish didn’t seem to be an issue with my classmates. Only once do I remember being called a dirty Jew and I was smart enough to know that it came straight from his family. But my older brother and sisters remember being bullied and teased about being Jewish, probably my cousins too. Most of my peers probably didn’t know that being Jewish meant not accepting Christ as a Messiah. These particular memories have helped me be a tolerant person.
Whatever my parents did, and I don’t know what it was, all of us felt it important enough to want marry someone Jewish and have our children be Jewish. After I graduated from College and went into the real world I found out the big reason I went to college was to find a Jewish mate. I failed and as a result had to go to Springfield where my cousins knew Bill’s cousins and we went on a blind date. The rest is history.