We used to have sort of a mystery in my family. For some reason, when asked about our ethnicity my older sister and I would say “Jewish.” My two younger brothers would say “German.” My brothers would express confusion when my sister and I said Jewish.
When I was little, my father was active in the Presbyterian church we belonged to. My maternal grandparents didn’t belong to a church and were agnostic, though my mother had rebelled by becoming Episcopalian when she was a teenager. My parents (who grew up in different small towns in southern Indiana) met at a Presbyterian church camp when they were teenagers in the ‘30s.
It all doesn’t look very Jewish, does it.
My counter-intuitive identification comes from my paternal grandfather’s family. Yes, I know that means I have no legitimate reason to identify as Jewish. My connection is not matrilineal. My paternal grandmother was a committed Methodist, but she married a Jewish boy.
Grandpa would have told you he was agnostic, if you’d asked him. Or, more likely, he would have told you it was none of your business. But when he wanted to run someone down when they were standing right there, he’d speak Yiddish. Just about nobody else (except my Aunt Lil — but more about her later) in Columbus, Indiana, spoke Yiddish.
Grandpa, Ike as he was known around town, was one of 11 children. In adulthood, those eleven split between those who hung on to their Jewish heritage and those who assimilated into the very Christian town they lived in.
Columbus in the early years of the 20th Century was a company town. It was dominated by Irwin Miller, who insisted his employees attend church every Sunday or face termination. He was a philanthropist who, in his later years, donated a lot of money to the architecture of the town, which earned Columbus the title of “Athens of the Midwest.”
Ike never worked for Miller, and I remember his sarcasm when he described Miller’s architectural projects. But he was a businessman, and as such, didn’t want to antagonize potential customers by emphasizing his non-Christian-ness. In my lifetime, Grandpa didn’t do religion.
Grandma did, though. When I was a child, when we visited, Grandma would always offer to take us children with her to church. Grandpa had a standing offer to take us to the Bob-O-Link restaurant (a diner much like Denny’s) for blueberry pancakes. As far as I remember, I always took the pancakes.
Ike started out as a milliner – he apprenticed in the New York garment district around 1912 (yes, he was there at the time of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire). That’s where he learned Yiddish. His father (my great-grandfather) was an immigrant and insisted that his children never heard anything but English at home. In New York, Ike learned about making hats and being Jewish.
Ike came back to Columbus and opened a hat shop. My grandmother bought the franchise for Victrola records and worked out of his shop. They fell in love and married.
My dad came along in 1922, their only child. Maybe the small family was a reaction to Grandpa’s crowded upbringing, but more likely it was because both Ike and Annabelle always worked at “The Store,” which was the center of their lives. Sometime in the late 1940s, the hat shop turned into a women’s clothing store, because styles had changed, and hats alone were no longer a living.
You may still be wondering now, where my Jewish identification comes from. The answer is Aunt Lil, my grandfather’s younger sister.
When many of her older brothers and sisters were drifting away from the faith, Lillian held on fiercely. Her mother was exhausted after 11 children and by the time she was old enough to cook and clean, Lillian had taken over the duties of “mother” to the clan. She raised her younger brothers Harry and Ray. And she made sure Harry and Ray were among those who stayed with the faith. There was no congregation in Columbus back then. There was no minyan. The closest congregation was in Indianapolis – a considerable journey back around the turn of the 20th century. But Lillian stuck with it. A rabbi from that Indianapolis congregation spoke at her funeral in 1971.
Lillian never married. Nobody living knows whether she ever had a boyfriend or lover. She left Columbus for a while when she was around 20, when she went to Montreal and learned the retail business working at Eaton’s. She returned to Columbus after just a few years.
Lillian remained Harry and Ray’s mother. When Harry was of age, she went to Indianapolis and found him a wife, the daughter of a kosher butcher.
As the ‘30s wore on, through her contacts in the congregation, Lillian learned of what was happening in Germany. She knew of cousins who were still there. The depression was still on, but despite the scarcity of money, she went to the family and moved heaven and earth to raise what was necessary to bring Cousin Albert to the United States. She hired the lawyer to get him through immigration (which was not easy in the 1930s), she paid his fare. It was not a small sum she raised in those days. She did everything nobody expected from a woman. Albert escaped the Nazis and every Christmas until he died of old age, he sent my Aunt Lil a package of Lebkuchen, a symbol of life. Lillian literally saved his life.
My family may have been part Jewish, but they were never shy about celebrating Christmas. I’m sure my Methodist grandmother had something to do with that. There was always a Christmas tree in my grandfather’s house.
I got to know my grandfather’s generation in the 1950s. Some of the original 11 were already gone. But Lillian was still going strong. She worked at “The Store” with Grandpa and Grandma, and she was very interested in connecting with my sister and me.
I don’t know whether it was because we were girls, or because by the time my brothers were old enough to interact with her, she was getting old and starting her slide into dementia. They don’t remember her the way I do.
I remember a woman who was full of silly jokes and who loved to perform for her grandnieces.
Lillian loved playing the piano. When she was a child, she desperately wanted to learn to play. The story goes, she drew a keyboard on a windowsill and practiced playing by tapping the “keys” with her fingers and humming the tune. Her older brothers got together, pooled their resources and bought her a used piano. The family was poor and it was a huge gift for a child. She taught herself to play and in the 1920s she played in the silent movie theater in town.
She had just a little bit of Jerry Lee Lewis in her. I remember her sitting on the floor under the keyboard of her piano and playing backwards over her head to impress us.
I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that she also indoctrinated my sister and me in Judaism. It wasn’t anything overt. It was just a bit of “This means… “ or “When this happens we…” She always referred to the family as being Jewish.
As I was finishing high school, the light was fading from Lillian’s world. I was living (with my family) in Michigan. I wasn’t seeing her often until I went away to college at Indiana University, in Bloomington, Indiana. The dementia crept up slowly, until she couldn’t speak a coherent sentence or take care of herself. The house she lived in her entire life, the same house where the 11 brothers and sisters grew up, was torn down for the extension of an Interstate Highway.
Aunt Bess (the bride Lillian arranged for her little brother, Harry) took care of her for her last couple of years. Finally, when her care was more than Bess could manage, she went to a nursing home. She died in 1971. I was in school in Bloomington, just a short drive away, so I was able to attend the funeral, where Lillian had one more surprise for the family.
A young rabbi from the congregation in Indianapolis spoke. He said (in part): “I never had the opportunity to meet Miss __________, however we have carried on a lively correspondence ever since I came to this congregation.”
The rabbi had received coherent, philosophical letters from Lillian up until about a month before she died. When the family thought Lillian was already gone, she was still there, trapped inside, but living her intellectual life without despair until the very end.
Aunt Lil’s larger than life persona is undoubtedly why I ended up thinking of myself as Jewish, even though I’ve never attended a service and I very much do not have a Jewish mother. As a woman with no children, I think she saw my sister and me as receptacles to hand down her heritage.
I don’t think of Aunt Lil as the “woman who raised me.” That was my very secular mother. We lived in Michigan, Aunt Lil and the grandparents lived in southern Indiana. We saw them frequently, but not continuously. Even in small doses, you couldn’t be exposed to Lillian without getting some of her in you.
I think about Lillian now when I think about religious freedom, when I think of feminism and when I think about women who defy everything that works against them to achieve what they set out to do. She managed to be fiercely Jewish in a town that was decidedly Christian. She protected the people she loved like a Valkyrie. And if Aunt Lil wanted something to happen, you better believe it was going to happen.
I think of myself as a secular humanist who is agnostic on the whole religion thing.
I don’t know how she would have reacted if she had lived in the age we’re in now. But I’m sure she would have had some choice Yiddish phrases for Trump.