Legacies Project Oral History: Benita Kaimowitz
Wed, 01/15/2020 - 9:43am
Benita Kaimowitz was born in 1935 and grew up in Pascagoula, Mississippi, where her father ran a general store. When she was 11, her family moved to Nashville, Tennessee. After graduating from college at the University of Hawaii, she got her master’s at Sarah Lawrence College. Kaimowitz helped register voters in Louisiana as a volunteer for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). She was a teacher and a longtime employee of Borders Bookstore in Ann Arbor. She and her first husband Gabe lived in a collective house for over two decades.
Benita Kaimowitz was interviewed by students from Skyline High School in Ann Arbor as part of the Legacies Project.
- [00:00:09.53] SPEAKER 1: OK. So the guys hooked up with an organization that used their legal skills to bail people out of jail. And my friend, Ann, and I, were volunteering with CORE. And I don't know what to say about that, except that it changed my life, way more than anything, that we contributed to what was going on.
- [00:00:40.14] Because I'd never been-- well, first of all, we get down there. And they put us up in an all black hotel, which was a whole new scene for me. And then there were parties, and people were serious about what they were doing, and had fun at night. And again, it was one of these situations.
- [00:01:02.13] I had gone back to graduate school after being a wife and mother, and all. So I was older than a lot of the people that I was with. So again, I was learning from younger people. And that changed my teaching, totally, because then I wanted to teach in what they called an inner-city school, and read everything I could read. And Sarah Lawrence College was just marvelous about accommodating me, and saying, well, if that's what you want to learn, this is what you have to read and do.
- [00:01:45.10] We were just always an activist family after that. It changed everything. We weren't just watching on television, we were doing stuff.
- [00:01:54.66] SPEAKER 2: What kind of things do you do in the corps?
- [00:01:58.84] SPEAKER 1: Working for core? It's not a corps, it's C-O-R-E, acronym. It's the Congress of Racial Equality. They were preparing for possible lawsuits, and Leander Perez was like the king Plaquemines Parish. And Plaquemines Parish hangs down below New Orleans. The Mississippi River runs right through it. There's a road on this side of the river, and a road on that side of the river. And we were supposed to go down, and talk to people who had tried to register to vote, or had registered to vote.
- [00:02:42.46] And just get evidence, anecdotal interview evidence for this lawsuit that they might do. And my guide for going down into Plaquemines Parish was an amazing woman. Her name was Mary Hamilton. We were about the same color, but she was she was black and I was white. Go figure.
- [00:03:08.68] And she was important for me to know, also, because she had her own lawsuit. She had been arrested for I don't know what, civil rights activities, and they kept calling her Mary. And she says, I'm not going to answer. You call the white people Ms this, and Ms that, or Mrs, or Ms, whatever it was at the time. So I'm not going to answer until you call me Ms too.
- [00:03:34.29] It was a big, big civil rights case to show the same respect for-- and I was just awed by her. And we're driving down this one road in Plaquemines Parish to talk to people along the way, and these were incredible people. Their churches had been burned down, they'd been arrested trying to vote in USA.
- [00:03:56.20] And there was no other way to get out, except to go back the way you came, because of these two roads going down the river. And a cop car came up behind us, and I just froze. I was so scared. I thought, this is it. And Mary was calm, and they didn't bother us. And nothing happened, except that was the only time--
- [00:04:25.24] I mean, the office we were working out of was bombed after we left. And that was the same year that Goodman, Schwerner, and Cheney were killed. But that one time when the cop car pulled up behind us was the only time I was scared. And this cool lady, Ms Mary Hamilton, just talked me down. Amazing people. That's what I keep saying.
- [00:04:53.23] In my family, and people my age, they, oh you went and you did all the civil rights work. And it doesn't feel like that, because what did I know, except to soak up impressions from all these people.
- [00:05:15.49] SPEAKER 2: What was your primary field of employment?
- [00:05:21.72] SPEAKER 1: I would say teaching. Because even when I wasn't teaching anymore, I was a trainer at Borders, and then as Borders started to expand, I was the trainer trainer, so I would get teams of 7 trainers, and send them out to open a new store.
- [00:05:40.92] SPEAKER 2: Describe the steps of the process involved in your job from start to finish. What's involved?
- [00:05:48.43] SPEAKER 1: Oh dear. Trying to think whether I want it to be the teaching jobs, or the Borders jobs.
- [00:06:02.78] SPEAKER 2: Whichever one you want. Or you can do both, too, whatever you feel.
- [00:06:09.41] SPEAKER 1: Well, we can start with Borders. Your first step is learning. You're learning your customers, you're learning your stock. They would give us free copies of the New York Review of Books, and the Times book review section, and you're supposed to read those.
- [00:06:33.71] And each of us, at the beginning, before Borders went crazy and corporate, each of us would have our own section that we would be expert at. So that customers and other staff could rely on us to know what was there. And then, the second part was hauling books up and downstairs, and moving them around. And I didn't realize at the time, but it was a very, very healthy job. Because I was working physically and mentally at the same job.
- [00:07:06.73] And then, the third step was-- and the most important in many ways-- was working with customers, seeing who needed what. It was fun, I loved that job.
- [00:07:17.17] SPEAKER 2: What specific training or skills were required for your job?
- [00:07:23.40] SPEAKER 1: Literacy. For a long time, Borders had a test that you took to be employed there, about authors, and books, and all that kind of thing. And then, one of the big problems when it went corporate was, it dropped the test, which was a source of pride, because we didn't get paid very much. But people relied on us, and we were respected in a way.
- [00:07:56.43] And people coming, moving to Ann Arbor, would always be toured around the store, and saying, see her? I bet she knows the answer to this. Ask her any question about a book. And so, there was pride, rather than money, and we were working with colleagues who were similar. So that was great.
- [00:08:22.20] SPEAKER 2: What technology changes occurred during your working years?
- [00:08:25.52] SPEAKER 1: Oh my gosh. Total, total, total. I'll give you an example. OK, first of all, computers. When I first started at Borders, they had little cards that slipped into a book. And when one book was sold, the guys would order a new book. And the next thing was Louis Borders inventing this great system.
- [00:08:50.76] SPEAKER 2: And very positive. Like, just--
- [00:08:53.07] All right, you can just keep talking about the technology.
- [00:08:54.47] SPEAKER 1: OK. And then, the big, big change, of course, was with computers. And Louis Borders was kind of a genius. Because instead of having them order a book after it was sold, he had a system where you could predict ahead of time. He knew, for example, that the mass market books, the mysteries and things like that, sales would be huge when they first came out, and people were waiting for the next thing by that author.
- [00:09:22.83] And then they would drop, and then nothing would happen until that came out in paperback. But academic books would just sell very slowly at first, and then slowly build up. He put all that into the computer. And so, it was just way ahead. And the technology enabled it to predict what was going to sell, and be ready.
- [00:09:47.46] And then, of course, for those of us working there, another example. When I first started training, people would come in-- we used computers in the store-- but new people would come in. And the trainers would have this thing, they would get the new person to exercise the mouse. Get the mouse to turn to the right, turn to the left, go up, go down. And then, after a while, I'd say, trainers are you still doing that? Oh no, nobody needs that anymore. Everybody has a computer.
- [00:10:20.34] And it just changed everything. And eventually, of course, it changed the whole book business when Amazon came out. And people ordered from there, used Amazon reviews. And then we all had cell phones. The world changed.
- [00:10:41.62] SPEAKER 2: What is the biggest difference in your primary field of employment, from the time you started, until now?
- [00:10:54.01] SPEAKER 1: Again, I would have to say, the computer. You know, there was a time when I was teaching in New York. And I had a class of pretty much illiterate kids. And they had something called the Talking Typewriter. And we would take the class on a bus to go to this special place, and it was a computer.
- [00:11:19.15] And the whole point was that the kids could look at a word, and try to type it. Or look at a picture, but be immediately reinforced, nobody judging. And it was miraculous, then. This is-- when is this-- mid 60s. And, of course, that kind of thing, now, is ancient. And computers are very, very useful in so many ways in teaching.
- [00:11:51.91] SPEAKER 2: How do you judge excellence with your field? What makes someone respected in that field?
- [00:12:02.35] SPEAKER 1: Well, I'm calling all of it teaching and learning. And my own personal excellence would be teachers, whether they're in a classroom, or training, teachers who want to learn. Because that keeps the teaching fresh. Teachers who think of it as teaching and learning, not just teaching. Yeah, that would be by definition for excellence.
- [00:12:38.05] SPEAKER 2: What do you value most about what you did for a living? Why?
- [00:12:49.36] SPEAKER 1: I value the teaching and the learning. The exposure to people different for myself, people similar from myself. The other teachers that I really, really respected. The other people working at Borders, for sure. There was a time, for example, when Borders was getting crazily corporate, and the trainers started to complain. And I said, wait a minute. You still respect your staff, your peers, you respect your customers. Don't look up, you'll be fine.
- [00:13:30.63] SPEAKER 2: Tell me about any moves you made your working years and retirement, prior to your decision to move to your current residence.
- [00:13:43.09] SPEAKER 1: We moved to Ann Arbor as a family in 1970. In 1971, we formed a collective house. And that house taught us a great deal. Those were the years when we had endless house meetings, and everybody cooked, and everybody cleaned. And we were all experimenting, and the kids had the same duties as everybody else.
- [00:14:13.60] OK. When the house finally broke up in '96, I moved to a little house that was close to town. I could walk to work. It was small enough where I could imagine taking care of it when I was older. And that's where I live now, except Ed and I live here now. And we hadn't intended, when we got together, to live in my house, or his house. But it worked out, that given real estate in Ann Arbor, we couldn't have a small place, and a close in place that we could afford.
- [00:14:53.24] So, we have, mostly his things, his artwork, his furniture, a lot of it. And we just gave away a whole bunch of stuff to live together. And so, now it works for two people.
- [00:15:06.08] SPEAKER 2: How do you feel about your current living situation?
- [00:15:08.84] SPEAKER 1: Wonderful. I feel just wonderful. Our hope is that we can just stay there. Other friends who are downsizing, we're already small. And we don't have a yard. It's a piece of property that we just have ivy in the front and a patio in the back, so we can plant things, but not too much. We hope that as we have lessened-- I mean, right now, we do whatever needs to be done ourselves, except for cleaning the gutters and washing the outside windows.
- [00:15:48.92] And we hope we can just stay there, and get older, and older, and older there. Because it's fun.
- [00:16:00.89] All right, I'm supposed to be [INAUDIBLE] even though it's doing stuff over--
- [00:16:03.56] SPEAKER 3: What is your typical day in your life, currently?
- [00:16:07.22] SPEAKER 1: In my life currently? OK. We get up at 6:00-ish. My partner makes breakfast on weekdays, I make breakfast on weekends. We get the New York Times, we try to do the puzzle. Some days it's easier than other days. Three days a week, we go to the Y, to an old folks warm water exercise class. Which is really kind of neat for what you guys are doing, because if you look at that exercise class through the glass window at the Y, it looks like a bunch of old folks in the water.
- [00:16:46.43] But once you get to know everybody, which I do, it's amazing the lives that are accumulated in that little pool. And then, later, we come back and we eat lunch. And Ed takes a nap, and I try to get a few things done. And then, it depends what else is going on that day, for a typical day.
- [00:17:09.05] SPEAKER 3: What does your family enjoy doing together now?
- [00:17:12.95] SPEAKER 1: Oh, my family is spread out all over the place. There is a family reunion every June. And my son lives in Nicaragua, and his daughter lives in Costa Rica. And Ed and I like to go down there in February, and hear the news about what the temperature is in Ann Arbor while we're there.
- [00:17:39.92] SPEAKER 3: What are your personal favorite things to do for fun?
- [00:17:42.85] SPEAKER 1: Personal favorite things to do for fun? Be with friends, one thing. I like movies, now. I didn't like movies for a long time. But we're members of the Michigan Theater, and they have wonderful movies. We like just kind of hanging out if the weather's nice, like it has been, on our swing on the front porch, and watching the people go by, and saying hi.
- [00:18:14.03] SPEAKER 3: Are there any special days, events, or family traditions you especially enjoy at this time in your life?
- [00:18:22.66] SPEAKER 1: Yeah. I like it when-- we can't get together with the kids that often, they're really far away. But whenever we do, it's special. Often, right now, like, my niece is getting married in the spring. And we will all be in Nashville for that wedding. That'll be good.
- [00:18:48.24] SPEAKER 3: So, historical social events. When you're thinking about your life after retirement, and your kids left home up to the present, what important social or historical event were taking place, and how did they personally affect you or your family?
- [00:19:04.28] SPEAKER 1: Going into retirement?
- [00:19:06.97] SPEAKER 3: Yeah, up to the present.
- [00:19:10.14] SPEAKER 1: One of the big things that's affected me has been the whole situation in Israel-Palestine. I've been uncomfortable with it for a long time. And then, 13 years ago, a group of women got together. 12 women, a half Jewish, half Palestinian, to try to, not fix the situation, but to learn from each other.
- [00:19:39.06] And then, each of us would be better equipped to do whatever active participation we could. That's been really important in my life, because these women get together for dinner and an evening every other Wednesday. That's a lot, that's more than I see just about anybody. It's been wonderful.
- [00:20:06.81] SPEAKER 3: So when thinking back on your entire life, what important social historical event has the greatest impact?
- [00:20:16.47] SPEAKER 1: I'd have to say two. I'd have to say World War II, which was my grade school years. And the other would the efforts towards civil rights. Which would have been from my graduate student years to the present.
- [00:20:39.25] SPEAKER 3: Thinking back over your entire life, what are you most proud of?
- [00:20:42.79] SPEAKER 1: My kids, my grandkids. Not just for what they've accomplished, and because they're neat people, but I'm so happy that they have, each in their own way, they've continued with my values. I could tell you more, but they're each active citizens of the world.
- [00:21:11.27] SPEAKER 3: What would you say has changed most, from the time you were my age, to now?
- [00:21:15.54] SPEAKER 1: Oh my gosh. For me, personally, it's so funny, it's such a contradiction. Because I would say, intergroup relations, especially race, and some religion. I would say the role of women. And then, all my gadgets. And when we had to get rid of-- for space-- get rid of a bunch of books, we thought we should keep the reference books.
- [00:21:49.42] But we don't need reference books anymore. And then, obviously, group relations. Women's role. Amazing, just ama-- oh, something else. A tiny little thing that will give you an idea. When I was a kid, in Pascagoula, Mississippi, my telephone number was 383. And the number at my dad's store was 170. And that just seems silly to me right now, but there was this.
- [00:22:24.23] SPEAKER 3: That's crazy. What advice would you give to my generation?
- [00:22:33.75] SPEAKER 1: Advice, wow. I am kind of sick of hearing of your generation being people despairing about your generation. My sense is that every generation produces a certain number of kids who are bigger than themselves, and they're curious, and they want to reach out beyond. Get to know people that are a little different, that you can teach and learn from.
- [00:23:16.20] SPEAKER 3: Do you know any stories about your family name?
- [00:23:20.21] SPEAKER 1: My given name. My given name is really fun, because it's Benito. And my grandfather was named Benjamin. And they wanted a boy, expected a boy, and they were going to name me Benjamin, but I wasn't. And then, they got cute, and they made it Benita. And for a family that's East European Jewish on both sides, it always struck me as kind of silly.
- [00:23:46.02] But my daughter married a de la Huerga. My son married a Rodriguez. And now, with all of the Spanish and Latino, my Benita name absolutely fits. It's just kind of funny.
- [00:24:06.17] SPEAKER 3: Are there any naming traditions in your family?
- [00:24:11.81] SPEAKER 1: More in theory. In theory, Jews are supposed to name kids after somebody who's already dead, that they respect, or want to remember, or whatever. Like, my grandfather who I was supposed to be named for was the only grandparent who was no longer living. It's kind of an old tradition that goes back to a medieval belief. That the angel of death might get mixed up if there were two Benjamins, and take the wrong one.
- [00:24:46.91] But we've kind of gotten away from that. Like, my son, David, was really named because I like the name, and of couse, Kaimowitz was very, very long. And I wanted a name he didn't have to spell all the time. But we said, OK, my uncle Dave would be a good person to name him after.
- [00:25:09.31] SPEAKER 3: Why did your ancestors need to come to the United States?
- [00:25:12.93] SPEAKER 1: They left Russia around the early 1900s, with thousands, and thousands of other Jews, because there were pogroms going on in Russia at the time. The progroms being like raids on Jewish villages, and, also, attempts to put Jews in the army to defend people who were trying to kill them. Not a good idea.
- [00:25:40.71] But a whole bunch of people came at the same time as my grandparents, on both sides. My dad was not born here, but he was only three years old when he came. So, essentially, my parents were the first American generation.
- [00:25:59.40] SPEAKER 3: Do you know any stories about how your family first came to the United States, and where they first settled?
- [00:26:05.09] SPEAKER 1: Mm-hm. The story that I have found hardest to imagine. When my father's family came, my grandpa came first, which was typical, and tried to earn a little money so that he could call for my grandma and the kids. And when my grandma came with the kids, the oldest daughter was 12. And the next one was, I think, 9. And then there were a couple more after that.
- [00:26:35.65] But what amazed me was the 9-year-old at Ellis Island-- they examined them for health-- the 9-year-old had some sort of an eye disease, and the 12-year-old, without language-- I mean, all they spoke was the Yiddish. They had to take the 9-year-old back to Europe to get the eye disease treated, just the two little kids, and then come back on the boat. I don't know how they did that.
- [00:27:05.65] SPEAKER 3: How did they make a living, either in the old country, or in the United States?
- [00:27:10.60] SPEAKER 1: I'm not really sure, on my mom's side, how they made a living there. My paternal grandpa did something or other in a hotel, I'm not sure what. Except, they used that work in a hotel to explain to me how he knew many languages when he already came here. And when they got here, my mom's mom said that she worked in the garment industry in Chicago for a short time before she got married.
- [00:27:43.86] My father's family, they moved to the south, where they had some sort of a family friend connection. And they started, well, the way the way many, many Jews started in business. They would buy a pack of odds and ends, needles and thread, and odds and ends. And go travel around to try to sell things to people. And then, if they made enough money, they could get a horse, and then they could get a wagon. And then they opened a little store.
- [00:28:15.71] And all throughout the south, there would be a Jewish family that would have a general store, a dry goods store. Sort of like the way you think of Chinese immigrants having the laundries, or Greeks having restaurants. So many Jews of my family's generation would have a little store.
- [00:28:41.23] SPEAKER 3: Describe any family migration once they arrive in the United States, and how they came to live in this area.
- [00:28:49.20] SPEAKER 1: I've forgotten this story, but my grandfather knew somebody in Mississippi that got him there. And then, once he was there, all along the Gulf Coast, I had uncles. My dad had a store in Pascagoula, an uncle had a store in Biloxi, another uncle had a store in Gulfport.
- [00:29:14.44] And we'd get together as a family at somebody's house. My generation and my kids had been so much out in the bigger world that-- I thought it was normal when I was a kid-- but my parents really only socialized with family up and down the coast, with the brothers and the rest of the family.
- [00:29:42.84] SPEAKER 3: What possessions did they bring with them, and why?
- [00:29:46.22] SPEAKER 1: I don't know.
- [00:29:48.30] SPEAKER 3: Which family members came along or stayed behind?
- [00:29:54.22] SPEAKER 1: That's kind of interesting. Take my dad's mom. Wait, you said both sides. I've got family, and they valued family so much, they stayed in touch so we know about it. Some family came to the United States-- this is all from the Belarus area of Russia. Some family went to Israel to go back to Zion. The land they believed was promised to the Jews.
- [00:30:32.20] Some family couldn't get into the United States, and went to Mexico. There was a whole huge clan, hundreds of relatives there. Oh, and then there was a sister who stayed behind in the Soviet Union to make the revolution. Totally different belief, and politics and stuff. They eventually came to the United States, maybe 25 years ago, with another big wave of anti-Semitism in Russia.
- [00:31:08.86] SPEAKER 3: To your knowledge, did they make an effort to preserve any traditions or customs for their country of origin?
- [00:31:16.42] SPEAKER 1: Not Russian. Jewish, yes, but not Russian. On the other hand, when I think about it now, in retrospect, all the things that I regard as Jewish food, because they came from my grandparents, are really kind of Russian food. Yeah.
- [00:31:40.32] SPEAKER 3: Are there any traditions that you would have given up or change, and why?
- [00:31:44.82] SPEAKER 1: From what they brought?
- [00:31:48.88] SPEAKER 3: Just your family traditions.
- [00:31:51.79] SPEAKER 1: Well, it changes from generation to generation. For example, my dad's family, the ones who moved to the south, moved to New Orleans, they were orthodox. They kept strictly kosher. They had this incredible kitchen, where everything that related to meat dishes was in its own pantry, and everything that related to milk dishes was in its own pantry. I mean, including two refrigerators, two sets of pots and pans, two sets of dishes, two sets of dish towels. Everything totally separate.
- [00:32:38.12] My dad married my mom, and her family didn't keep any of those food traditions. They were much more to the left, politically. And so, they both compromised, which happens in a wedding. And then, we don't keep any of the kosher traditions. Very, very minimal traditions, but we still identify very strongly with Jewish values and the Jewish community.
- [00:33:11.19] SPEAKER 3: What stories have come down to you about your parents and grandparents, or more distant ancestors?
- [00:33:24.23] SPEAKER 1: The big ones have to do with education, I think. My dad, for example, out of eight kids, he was the one-- when they came here, they made an effort that he should get a college education. And he got beyond a BS degree. My mom, I didn't really know until her funeral what really was going on with her in that regard.
- [00:33:55.28] I know that because her dad died when she was a teenager, it was very important for him that she have the ability to make a living. And so, she went to a junior college. But at her funeral, we got a letter from her best friend in high school, saying, that momma was the brightest one in their high school class. And I really was unaware to that, because she deferred to my father as the smart one. Which tells you a lot about men and women's relationships.
- [00:34:36.11] But they both, they value people who they thought were both smart, and good, and not showy. None of them. Like, when my dad made enough money, just as some silly little example, to have afforded any car he wanted. It was important to him that he had a Buick, and not a Cadillac. For whatever that says about which car was considered show offy in his generation.
- [00:35:09.86] SPEAKER 3: Do you know any courtship stories? How did your parents, grandparents, and other relatives come to meet and marry?
- [00:35:18.29] SPEAKER 1: Well, my mom's sister married my dad's cousin in Chicago. And my mom and dad were at that wedding. And that's where they met. My mom was living in Chicago, daddy was living in New Orleans. And they met, and they courted by letters for, I forget how long, before they got married. That was the wonderful part, because they really were just an extraordinarily loving and demonstrative couple.
- [00:35:50.42] I was convinced that their respect for each other, and their sexual attraction was intact all through their lives. And until they died, they were touchy-huggy with each other. And daddy would say, hey, isn't she beautiful? And that kind of thing. But the sad part was, those love letters, during the times they were courting, my sister and I found them in the attic. And we read them, and we giggled.
- [00:36:23.47] And my mom was so embarrassed that she took that whole wonderful stack of letters, and burned them. And we don't have them anymore. But they were real sweeties.
- [00:36:39.49] SPEAKER 3: So, where did you grow up, and what is your strongest memories of that place?
- [00:36:44.15] SPEAKER 1: I grew up in Pascagoula, Mississippi, which is right on the Gulf of Mexico. It's a very southern part. It's halfway between New Orleans and Mobile. And we lived, from the time I was 4, we lived right on the water. There was our house, the yard, and the street, and then the beach and the water.
- [00:37:08.96] And, strongest memories, oh my gosh. So much. I mean, that was the second World War. So, everything about the war affected us. For example, the town is a shipbuilding town. So living right on the beach, there was always concern about German submarines coming to attack the shipyard. And so, like, there were houses, but there were empty lots between the houses. And they would set up antiaircraft artillery that would go off when they were practicing.
- [00:37:53.85] OK, second World War was from the time I was 6 to 10. So that's grade school. And we bought war bonds, and saving stamps, and everybody had somebody overseas. And my cousin Madeline lived with us. She was, I don't know, maybe 20, and her husband was in the army in Germany. So she lived with us for those years, and worked in my dad's store.
- [00:38:26.71] And that was really fun, because she was younger than my parents. And would do things with us, and make our Halloween stuff, and taught me to knit, and that kind of good stuff.
- [00:38:47.10] SPEAKER 3: How did your family come to live there?
- [00:38:51.27] SPEAKER 1: My dad grew up in New Orleans, and he went to Tulane. And he was in the middle of med school when he got pneumonia, and had to drop out for a while. And he helped his dad in the store, and my grandpa had a store in Pascagoula. And then, the way the med school was set up, my dad would have had to wait until the following September, because it was a one year, whole year, no semesters. And so, he just never went back. He kept the store, and married my mom, moved her down there. And she was horrified.
- [00:39:25.99] They would tell this story, she's from Chicago, and they would tell the story that one time he heard her screaming, and he got really scared that somebody had attacked her. But she had seen her first Mississippi Gulf Coast cockroach. It was very hard for her to move from Chicago to there.
- [00:39:48.72] SPEAKER 3: What was your house like?
- [00:39:50.96] SPEAKER 1: The little house we lived in until I was 4 was a little ramshackle place. And then, when I was 4-- not far from the store, like within block and a half of the store-- when I was 4, they built this house on the beach, which was their dream house, and it was made out of red brick. And it was designed-- this is way pre air conditioning-- It was designed so that the bedrooms were up a little higher, we call it a split level now, they have split levels.
- [00:40:25.47] But the bedrooms were a little bit higher than the ground floor, so it could have windows facing the Gulf to let cool air in. And we had, what, a Magnolia tree in the front, and a big live oak tree with moss hanging down on the side. And we would take the moss, and use it as furniture around the roots of the tree, which would be roots.
- [00:40:51.28] And in the back, we had pecan trees, and there was enough sidewalk I think, of in terms of what we could do. We could ride bikes, we could roller skate, we could jump rope. That kind of thing.
- [00:41:08.49] SPEAKER 3: How many people lived in your house with you when you were growing up, and what was their relation to you?
- [00:41:13.20] SPEAKER 1: My mom, my dad, my sister. And during the war years, my cousin Madeline.
- [00:41:21.49] SPEAKER 3: What languages were spoken in and around your household?
- [00:41:29.01] SPEAKER 1: My parents spoke only Yiddish until they went to school at home, and then they learned English. By the time we were born, their Yiddish was very iffy, but they could still use it for anything they didn't want us kids to understand. But we were brought up just with English, and 99% in the house was English.
- [00:41:53.77] SPEAKER 3: Were different languages spoken in different settings, such as at home, in the neighborhood, or at local stores?
- [00:41:59.86] SPEAKER 1: All English, except when we went to my grandparents' in New Orleans. And there, it was primarily Yiddish, because my grandma didn't know much English. She could smile, and kiss you, and cook for you.
- [00:42:15.20] SPEAKER 3: What was your family like when you were a child? Pretty broad.
- [00:42:21.04] SPEAKER 1: Yeah. In what respect? Help me. OK, I'll go this way with it. My family, when I was a child, was my mom, my dad-- OK, we are 4 of us. But I'm the oldest, 4 years later is my sister. By the time the two boys came along, one is 11 years younger than me, one is 19 years younger than me. So they weren't really my childhood, they were later.
- [00:42:51.52] So when I was a kid, family was our mom, dad, and sister. And then the aunts, and uncles, and cousins along the Gulf Coast in Biloxi, and Gulfport, and in New Orleans.
- [00:43:05.54] SPEAKER 3: What sort of work did your father and mother do?
- [00:43:09.32] SPEAKER 1: They had a store. They had a-- well, it changed. It was a general sort of a store, with men's, women's shoes, hats, you name it. And then they narrowed it down over time, until it was just a women's wear store. And they both worked in it, and mom kept the books. They treated it-- again, this is the sexism of their era-- they treated it like it was Daddy's store, but she worked as hard as he did, and as much as he did.
- [00:43:45.99] SPEAKER 3: What is your earliest memory?
- [00:43:49.41] SPEAKER 1: Earliest memory is playing in the first house. The ramshackle-y one until I was 4. I remember playing with a kid named Buck in our neighborhood. I just can picture him.
- [00:44:12.29] SPEAKER 3: So what was a typical day like for you in your preschool years?
- [00:44:17.87] SPEAKER 1: Oh gosh. I don't remember too much to say a typical day. I can give you some things I do remember. In that little house, we were just a block or two from the store, and there was a railroad track between the house and the store. And I do remember-- but I think it's cause my family told me so many times-- that when I was three years old, they let me walk by myself from the house to the store. And they would watch when I crossed the tracks to make sure I was doing exactly what they said, and looking this way, and looking this way, and listening to make sure there was no train. And when they were convinced that they could trust me, then I could walk, at 3-years-old, across the railroad tracks to get to the store.
- [00:45:07.38] Another memory. I had my hair black and straight. And it was cut like this, straight along down to here. And they would give me, I don't know how much money, but it was coins. It was not dollars. And I could go from the store to the barber to get my hair cut, all by myself.
- [00:45:32.05] And one time, I came back and my hair was cut. And I still had the change in my hand that they had given me for the haircut. What happened? They said the barber nicked my ear when he was cutting, just exactly like that. So he didn't charge for the haircut. And then, two doors down from my dad's store was an ice cream parlor.
- [00:45:58.07] Again, they would give me money, and I could go just two doors to get ice cream, and come back. But I had to pass the fire station. And I would look, and the fire guys-- the firemen, it was all men there-- were really cute, and they let me look at the truck and stuff. Funny things to remember.
- [00:46:23.04] SPEAKER 3: So what did you do for fun?
- [00:46:25.28] SPEAKER 1: As a kid?
- [00:46:25.91] SPEAKER 3: Yeah.
- [00:46:26.60] SPEAKER 1: Oh my gosh, everything. We were on the water. So we spent a lot of time just playing, and we were on the beach. And they trusted us. We couldn't go in one direction, because there was a canal that emptied in, and they said it was polluted and we shouldn't go that way. And we shouldn't go too far out, because the shipping canal was there.
- [00:46:55.63] But other than that, we played on the beach, we played hopscotch, jump rope, tag. And what else? Bicycles, roller skates, jump rope, kick the can. We made plays. The older kids in the neighborhood. A bunch of kids in the neighborhood, we were just always together. We made plays, and we showed them for the little kids. And we tried to scare the little kids.
- [00:47:28.93] SPEAKER 3: Did you have a favorite toy? Did you have a favorite toy?
- [00:47:34.09] SPEAKER 1: Yeah. Well, the very, very favorites were books. Always books. And that's what I'd ask for, for birthdays and stuff. But I remember a doll, it was a lady doll, not a baby doll. And I don't remember what happened to her hair, or what happened to her leg, but she was our hospital doll. We bandaged her head, and we bandaged what was left of her leg. And she was sick, and we took care of her. Oh, and paper dolls, oh my gosh.
- [00:48:07.67] SPEAKER 3: Did you have a favorite game you played?
- [00:48:10.72] SPEAKER 1: No, none of them. Oh, wait a minute. The high school aged brother of the family two doors down had made, out of wood, a very fancy Monopoly set. So that it was like a regular cash box, and you could put the hotels over here, and the ones here, and so forth. And we would play endless games of Monopoly. If we didn't finish, we'd come back and pick it up the next day. But that was only if it was raining. If it wasn't raining, we couldn't play in the house.
- [00:48:48.23] SPEAKER 3: Did you have a favorite book, or books, and where did you get them?
- [00:48:53.80] SPEAKER 1: Lots of favorite books. Well, for one thing, there was a school library. And it's a small town. So by the time I left in the 6th grade, I had read everything in the children's section of that small town's library. So that was one source. Another source was, my parents had book of the month club. And so, when I started to read adult type things, it would be off their shelf. But, mainly, my books were birthday presents.
- [00:49:31.56] We had the Book of Knowledge. And when they ordered the Book of Knowledge, they ordered two sets of books that came with it. And so, all the Gulliver's Travels, and all the classics of my generation came there. We had those two sets. And then, all the Louisa May Alcott books with a blue binding. I had those, and my grandfather gave me Bible stories for young people. All of them.
- [00:50:05.49] SPEAKER 3: Did you have any other favorite entertainment?
- [00:50:09.65] SPEAKER 1: We would go to the movies on Saturday afternoon. Cowboy movies.
- [00:50:15.91] SPEAKER 3: Were there any special days, events, or family traditions you remember from this time?
- [00:50:20.88] SPEAKER 1: Oh yeah. See, my dad came from a religious family. My mom, not so. But we lived near my dad's family in New Orleans. So for the Jewish holidays, we would go into New Orleans. And we would go to the their orthodox synagogue, and all the women and children were up in the balcony.
- [00:50:46.01] And my grandfather would be-- the men would be down on the first floor. And it was probably not that big a show, but I remember it, from a kid's point of view, up in the balcony. And then, on Yom Kippur, you're supposed to fast. That's the Day of Atonement, when you confess your sins, and God is hopefully going to forgive you.
- [00:51:07.73] You're supposed to fast, but my aunt Debbie would take me out for lunch. And then-- all the Jewish holidays were in my grandparents' house, which was just amazing. The upstairs there was closed off, because they had raised 8 kids there, and now they were just themselves. And so it was, it was a place to go be spooky. And my father's skeleton from med school was supposed to be up there. That kind of thing.
- [00:51:45.41] SPEAKER 2: OK. Did you go to kindergarten?
- [00:51:47.98] SPEAKER 1: Mm-hm.
- [00:51:49.45] SPEAKER 2: What do you remember about it, and where?
- [00:51:52.27] SPEAKER 1: We lived in Pascagoula, Mississippi. And there was no public kindergarten, the kindergarten was in the basement of one of the churches. I don't know which one. And as the only Jewish family in town, my folks had a big discussion about whether I should go, because it was in the church. But they let me go.
- [00:52:10.28] And I don't remember much about it, but I remember liking it.
- [00:52:15.71] SPEAKER 2: Did you go to elementary school?
- [00:52:17.50] SPEAKER 1: I went to an elementary school in that same town. I started first grade in 1941, which was when the US got into the second World War. And a lot of things had to do with the war. One negative thing I remember. There was a little girl in our class named Diane Schmidt, which is a German name. And the other kids picked on her.
- [00:52:41.77] As far as I knew, I mean, I was 6 years old, what'd I know? Her family had nothing to do with anything political, or Nazi, or anything. But somehow, the kids knew, even at that age, that it was a German name, and they picked on her. And my folks thought this was terrible. Even though, as Jews, the Germans weren't our friends, the Nazis.
- [00:53:09.16] But we did a lot of things for the war. Even as children, we were taken down to the office to buy saving stamps. We pasted them in our little books and we had so much of that you could get a savings bond. And there was rationing, we were very aware of that. Scarcities of meat.
- [00:53:32.36] We saved tin foil from chewing gum. It was part of the war effort. And the older people knitted things. We didn't have anybody in the war, because my family's been very fortunate that the wars have come in between our generations. But it permeated everything, school years. I also remember, they didn't have special ed, then. Or there, maybe they did in some places.
- [00:54:11.95] And so, my best friend, Lois Ann and I were put in charge of 2 kids. One was Tony [? Storence. ?] We were in 3rd grade, and he was 12. But he was a tough kid, and they kept him back, so they put two little girls in charge of Tony. And we did well. He was reading, and he paid attention to us, it was really kind of neat.
- [00:54:38.11] And there was another girl named Jackie Wilhite who was a Down syndrome child. Totally pleasant, warm, smiley. And they put us in charge of her, too. So that took care of three things. They didn't have to have special ed, and they didn't have any "gifted" classes. When Lois Ann and I would finish what we were doing, we had students of our own to take care of. I loved grade school. Everything was neat.
- [00:55:10.74] SPEAKER 2: Did you go to high school?
- [00:55:11.72] SPEAKER 1: Mm-hm.
- [00:55:13.18] SPEAKER 2: Where?
- [00:55:14.03] SPEAKER 1: By high school, the family had moved to Nashville. And I went to West End High School.
- [00:55:22.83] SPEAKER 2: What do you remember about it?
- [00:55:27.10] SPEAKER 1: I remember it being totally social for me. I had been a student student, a reading kid. Top of the class, the whole thing, all the way through grade school and up. And in high school, I don't remember reading one book. I cheated on my book reports, I just copied the book jackets and changed the words. And I was a good student, so they didn't even question me.
- [00:55:54.36] And it didn't occur to me until later that the good students get all the breaks. As a teacher I was more aware of that, and I didn't like the-- what did they call them in New York? They didn't call them gifted. Whatever. I liked the kids who were having more fun, and I had to work a little harder with them to teach them.
- [00:56:21.44] But high school was full of organizations, it was full of dances, it was full of all the social stuff. And therefore, I was totally unprepared for college. But that was OK, I learned a lot in college.
- [00:56:40.49] SPEAKER 2: Did you go to school or career training beyond high school?
- [00:56:43.10] SPEAKER 1: Mm-hm.
- [00:56:44.23] SPEAKER 2: Where did you go?
- [00:56:45.68] SPEAKER 1: Everywhere.
- [00:56:47.61] SPEAKER 2: What do you remember about it?
- [00:56:49.07] SPEAKER 1: I started at the University of Wisconsin. I loved it. That still may be my favorite place. In the middle of my sophomore year, I was going with a guy in Nashville. So I came back home, and was at Vanderbilt Peabody for half a year. Then I went to Columbia for a summer school, Barnard for my junior year. I got married after that, and my husband was assigned to Hawaii. Which was wonderful. I did my senior year there.
- [00:57:23.11] Then, when I was pregnant, I started grad school at the University of Illinois, because we were living near there. Then, when my two kids were able to go in nursery school and kindergarten, I got a masters degree at Sarah Lawrence. And then, I wanted to go into teaching, but I didn't want to take teaching classes. So I took all of the ed classes in one summer at Hunter College.
- [00:57:51.27] And then, we moved to Ann Arbor, and I took two classes at U of M to keep teaching certification transferred to Michigan. And I can never go back to school, because I couldn't ever get all those transcripts all together. To many. I should write a book about colleges, though.
- [00:58:13.66] SPEAKER 2: Please describe the popular music of your youth time.
- [00:58:18.51] SPEAKER 1: OK. As a child, it was war stuff. It was, "Don't Sit Under The Apple Tree" with anyone else but me, and "Coming In On A Wing And A Prayer," and love songs about my sweetheart just going to wait for me, kind of, to the end of the war.
- [00:58:46.82] In high school, it was, Jitterbug was starting to come in. I guess I was old enough to do it, rather than it was starting to come in. I don't know how to describe it.
- [00:59:09.20] SPEAKER 2: That's fine. Did the music have any particular dances associated with it?
- [00:59:13.70] SPEAKER 1: Yeah, that was the thing. In high school, it was Foxtrot and Jitterbug.
- [00:59:21.15] SPEAKER 2: What were the popular clothing or hairstyles of this time?
- [00:59:24.39] SPEAKER 1: High school?
- [00:59:25.02] SPEAKER 2: Yeah.
- [00:59:25.75] SPEAKER 1: OK. You were supposed to have a teeny tiny waist so that you could wear a skirt that was tight around here, and then went straight out in a circle. And it was about calf length for your skirts. The other option for a skirt-- I'm talking about girls-- What you guys wear in pants, like poured on, skin tight, our straight skirts were supposed to fit exactly-- you could barely walk in them.
- [00:59:59.46] Hairstyles were, what was hairstyles? I kept having permanents. But that was my mother's idea. Like a page boy was big in high school. Silly stuff. Although, my kids look at the pictures and is like, god, you look younger as an old lady than you did in high school.
- [01:00:23.17] SPEAKER 2: Can you describe any other fads or styles from this era?
- [01:00:31.12] SPEAKER 1: No.
- [01:00:33.04] SPEAKER 2: Were there any slang terms, phrases, or words used that are uncommon use today?
- [01:00:38.04] SPEAKER 1: I'm sure there were, but I don't know if I can think of any. Can't answer.
- [01:00:43.96] SPEAKER 2: That's fine. What was a typical day like for you in this time period?
- [01:00:48.17] SPEAKER 1: High school?
- [01:00:48.86] SPEAKER 2: Yeah, high school, elementary school, whatever.
- [01:00:55.93] SPEAKER 1: High school, two buses to high school, the neighborhood bus and then the city bus. Played around a lot in high school. Were horrible to teachers, there were two teachers in particular that we would just con into giving us a hall pass, and go sit in the lunchroom with our friends. And after school, one friend-- or even sometimes at lunch-- one friend had a car which was extremely dangerous, she wasn't a great driver.
- [01:01:33.48] A lot more driving around today than there was. After school would be meetings from various school organizations, or social organizations. Dinner at home, though, there was just so much more. I mean, breakfast was with the family, lunch was at school, dinner was with the family.
- [01:02:00.57] SPEAKER 2: Were there any special days, events, or family traditions that you remember from this time?
- [01:02:06.59] SPEAKER 1: Days, events, family traditions. Mostly having to do with the Jewish holidays, because we would go to my grandparents' in New Orleans for that. But with the whole family. With all the uncles, and aunts, and cousins, who were also along the coast. Because my dad had a store in Pascagoula, one of his brothers had a store in Biloxi, and the other brother in Gulfport. And my grandparents' house in New Orleans was the place for holidays.
- [01:02:40.81] SPEAKER 2: What did you typically do for fun?
- [01:02:46.24] SPEAKER 1: Depended on the age.
- [01:02:48.70] SPEAKER 2: High school, or, like, your youth years, your younger years.
- [01:02:56.29] SPEAKER 1: High school was, fun was anything social. It was getting together with the other kids. Whether it was at somebody's house, or a dance, or just hanging out. All had to do with social in high school. Was it on?
- [01:03:22.09] SPEAKER 2: No, but you can keep going. Keep talking.
- [01:03:24.67] SPEAKER 1: OK. When we moved to Ann Arbor, it was 1970. And those were-- everything that was going on. Women's Liberation, Civil Rights, back-to-the-land, music, all kinds of things. Ann Arbor was especially active. And we put together a group house, that was also something that was happening at that time.
- [01:03:57.51] And so, we were a bunch-- what were we? The first was like six adults, my two kids, one was in grade school, one was in junior high. And then, one of the other couples had a 16-year-old foster kid. And then, eventually, we had a-- how old was he then? A 17-year-old. He was gay, and his family wasn't accepting, so he lived with us.
- [01:04:35.13] Oh, and the kids founded Youth Liberation, which they published stuff in the attic. They crashed a conference in Washington on dealing with youth, because the youth weren't invited. So they crashed it. It was a very active, active time. And everybody grew during those years. We would have endless house meetings, for example.
- [01:05:10.96] The meetings would be from everything, like, who was going to cook which days? And we paired up the kids, and the men with women, so that everybody did it. It was everything from that, to how loud the phonograph could be. And it was just a wonderful thing. It was particularly good for me, as a mother, because I wasn't in charge of disciplining my children, or telling them to clean their room, or anything like that. The group was.
- [01:05:49.32] If they did anything that the group felt was not healthy for the group, then I didn't have to say, go to your room. Well, in Davy's case, the door had to be locked, because nobody wanted to look. That was just a really wonderful time for all of us. We grew, and it lasted way after the kids went away. The group didn't disband. We formed did in '71, the house finally broke up in '96. People changed.
- [01:06:29.23] But living together, it freed up everyone to do what we really wanted to do. For example, I could work at Borders, which I loved, on the floor with the books, and not make much money. Because they didn't pay much money, retail doesn't pay. But we didn't need much money, because we were sharing expenses.
- [01:06:54.82] The guy I said who was gay, he eventually founded a gay press, which you guys may have read some of his books. But at that time, he was really smart. And he could make enough money just-- he you could type really fast. When any of the printers got behind, he could go work a few hours and make enough money to pay his rent and stuff, anything he needed.
- [01:07:25.15] That surprises me, today, actually. There's such a hard time for kids, with college tuition being so high and everything. Why people don't get together more and share the expenses, and then get to do what they want to do.
- [01:07:49.63] SPEAKER 2: Did your family have any special sayings or expressions during your youth life?
- [01:07:56.52] SPEAKER 1: Nothing I can think of.
- [01:07:58.85] SPEAKER 2: Any changes in your family life during your school years?
- [01:08:05.75] SPEAKER 1: The move to Nashville was a big change. I was 11, my sister was 7, my brother Bernie had just been born, and Howard was born until-- That move was really a big thing. It was totally different for me from Pascagoula.
- [01:08:34.59] SPEAKER 2: Were there any special days, events, or family traditions your remember from this time?
- [01:08:40.97] SPEAKER 1: Well, instead of Jewish holidays at my grandparents' in New Orleans, we would have Seder at my grandma's sister's who lived in Nashville. Special days? Not so much. Well, wait. Because it was special days, but from the time I was born. Like, my mom was from Chicago, and we would go to Union Pier, Michigan, where my grandma would rent a cottage in the summer. That's when we would get my mom's family together.
- [01:09:29.15] So that was not a special day, but that was-- I was born in Chicago, even though I never lived there, because my mom wasn't going to let any Pascagoula doctor deliver her child. She went back to her mom. And they took me straight to Union Pier, and I was there with cousins and everybody every summer through my second year of college.
- [01:09:54.83] SPEAKER 2: Which holidays did your family celebrate?
- [01:10:03.20] SPEAKER 1: Mainly the Jewish holidays as a family. But it was funny. My partner's sister was on the phone last night, and she's blind now, and she's singing. And I said, well, sing something that you remember. She said, (SINGING) Jesus loves me, that I know, 'cause the Bible tells me so.
- [01:10:32.29] And she was very surprised that I knew the song. Of course I knew all the songs. She said, I don't know any Jewish songs. I said, well, if you were the only Christian girl in a Jewish school, you would know all those songs. So that's why I know all your songs. So all Christmas, Easter, those holidays were school holidays for me. The Jewish holidays were family holidays.
- [01:11:01.23] SPEAKER 2: How are holidays traditionally celebrated in your family?
- [01:11:10.16] SPEAKER 1: Mainly, it's about getting together. By the time I was in Nashville, and even before that, we would go to services. But the main thing was the family getting together.
- [01:11:25.43] SPEAKER 2: Has your family created its own traditions or celebrations?
- [01:11:32.23] SPEAKER 1: Well, during the years when we had the group situation, 1971 to '96, we had people who were a little of everything. So the holidays would start at Thanksgiving, and we would celebrate straight through until Valentine's Day, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year's, Kwanzaa, Valentine's. We celebrate everybody's holidays.
- [01:12:03.48] SPEAKER 2: What special food traditions does your family have?
- [01:12:13.56] SPEAKER 1: It used to be, when I was a kid, it was my father who grew up in an orthodox family. And my mom who didn't grow up with orthodox Jewish ritual foods. Trying to tell cooks, because they both worked, how to make southern food without using any pork, or any shellfish. So that was Pascagoula.
- [01:12:48.44] Later, it became a question of what you guys are doing now, everybody, in effect-- everybody is different. If you have vegetarians in a family, what are you going to cook for them? If you have vegans in a family, what are you going to cook for them? And you have all kinds of international foods that everybody wants. No special traditions. Oh, except, my grandma, the whole time I was in college, would send me strudel and teiglach. Little baked treats, in a shoe box, all wrapped up in foil, and tied with string. And those were my treats I would get all the time.
- [01:13:37.85] SPEAKER 2: Have any recipes been preserved or passed on in your family from generation to generation?
- [01:13:45.15] SPEAKER 1: Probably, but I'm not much of a cook, so. Leave that to other people in the family.
- [01:13:51.31] SPEAKER 2: Are there family stories connected to the preparation of special foods?
- [01:14:02.54] SPEAKER 1: My New Orleans grandparents, the ones who had the big house, and they were orthodox. They would make their own gefilte fish, which, I don't know if you guys even know what it is. But in the basement, he had one of these food grinders, and he would fish, and he would grind up the fish. And she would cook it, and spice it and everything. It was delicious, but nobody who's not Jewish likes it at all. It's like something else.
- [01:14:35.15] But they made their own wine. And the wine was for Sabbath and holidays, it was not just to drink for wine. And on my mother's side, it was the baked treats. The strudel and the teiglach that grandma baked. I think of cooking as something my grandparents did, not something my mom did, or I do.
- [01:15:05.57] SPEAKER 2: When thinking back on your school years, what important social or historical events were taking place at this time, and how did they personally affect you and your family?
- [01:15:19.79] SPEAKER 1: In grade school, it was the second World War. And then, it was all about me for high school. And then, by college-- no, after college, I guess, was all about civil rights, justice for everybody, the wars in Central America that my family was involved in. My son went down during the time the Sandinistas were taking over Nicaragua from the dictator Somoza. And my son went down, he was in grad school, and he worked for the minister of agriculture.
- [01:16:12.08] And my daughter was very nervous about him, and she went to visit, and her purpose of her trip was to say it's dangerous down there. You need to come home. And she came home and said, it was so wonderful to be down there and be for something. Because everybody here who's involved in politics is against something.
- [01:16:38.38] And that was really important to me, to hear her say that. I've always liked to be in things that were-- I mean, we had been against segregation, against the war in Vietnam, against male chauvinism, all that. And it was so much better. I learned a lot from my daughter, that it's better to be for something.
Copyright: Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
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Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)
Sarah Lawrence College
Civil Rights Activists
Borders Books & Music
Edward L. Vandenberg
Plaquemines Parish LA