This week, Allison Amend wrote about old Western general stores and Jews in odd places. She is the author of the novel Stations West. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.
I’m currently attending my brother’s wedding. It’s a destination wedding (in Hawaii, where the bride is from), and is therefore small. Only the couple’s closest friends and family are invited. Everyone attending the wedding has flown in, and we are all staying in beach-side bungalows. We are, in effect, forming our own community.
My mother mentioned that one of the themes she found most interesting in Stations West was the formation of family. As immigrants, the characters in the novel are starting from scratch, without the benefit of (or the burden of, depending on your family) relations. What I found interesting about the characters was that, in the absence of blood relations, they created their own family, with ties every bit as strong.
As much as Judaism stresses family, we have been forced so many times to create ad hoc families and communities. In nascent Oklahoma, the small communities of people who decided to call themselves Jews (there were others who lived lives unattached to the ethnicity and religion—Oklahoma history, as elsewhere, is unsure where to categorize these people) often lacked a religious leader. Several communities would share a rabbi; some went without. The rites and rituals were observed as people remembered them, and were sometimes a hodge-podge of various locational variations. When a rabbi did come to town, several ceremonies were performed at the same time. A bar mitzvah/wedding/Shavuot celebration would not have been strange. And because these communities were so small, people of disparate levels of dedication to the faith, different countries of origin, and different levels of education were forced to worship together.
“Shylocks of Oklahoma City Have State by the Throat.” The Guthrie Daily Leader. 1 Nov. 1912: 1. The Jews of Oklahoma. Henry J. Tobias. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980. 59. Print.
The community formed in Oklahoma was large enough, in some places, such as Tulsa and Oklahoma City, as to be significant segment of the larger society. Especially between world wars, the Oklahoma Jewish community served as a rich voting block. Politicians courted Jewish votes and businesses actively advertised in Jewish papers. This, more than anything else to me, proves a level of assimilation into the culture of the Southwest: the existence of such a community as evidenced by its own source of news, with enough souls to command political clout.
The Daily Oklahoman. 27 Mar. 1921: 4. The Jews of Oklahoma. Henry J. Tobias. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980. 59. Print.
My brother gets married on Saturday. The ceremony will be secular, officiated by one of their friends, and a new community of immigrants (although temporary) will be there to witness and wish them well.
On Monday, Allison Amend wrote about Jews in odd places. She is the author of the novel Stations West. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.
My aunt, Jackie Cohen, put together a history of my relatives. In the only picture of my great grandfather Joe, he is standing proudly in his grocery store, apron wrapped around his prodigious middle, goods stacked to the rafters all around him. Like most people of his generation, he doesn’t smile (when did smiling in pictures start?).
It was this image I had in mind when I created Haurowitz/Harris’ Goods and Sundries in my novel, Stations West:
Moshe looks around the store. They have built rows of shelves and ordered glass cases. There are stacks of Indian blankets and pipes, hot water bottles and cloth. There are huge vats of pecans, hides of various provenances hanging from the walls, metal goods such as pots, pans, teakettles, and flour grinders. There are small bottles of tonics, large glass jars of spices, salt and pepper, and Mason jars for canning. There is wire for chicken coops and fishing line. There are chisels and lathes and knives and china, tin silverware, salt-back pork, chicory, and tobacco. There are old newspapers, and a part of the store that can be roped off with curtains when the photographer comes to town. A sign outside says HAUROWITZ SUNDRY in large gold-painted letters.
One small observation I was interested in exploring in my novel was the idea that Jews cannot farm. Obviously, that is not particularly true, yet the stereotype stands. It is true that most Jewish immigrants in this country became salesmen and tradespeople, owning stores, or becoming tailors or importers. Why is that? I looked for an answer and could not find one. It’s not a function of education, for after the initial wave of German immigrants, most of the Jews that came to America were uneducated.
My characters initially try to farm but are stymied by the nature of the soil in Oklahoma (which gets quickly exhausted by cotton). A store seems like a logical extension of someone used to deferential behavior and used to providing a service. Is that why other Jews seemed to open stores rather than farm?
Since I’ve been touring with Stations West, there are invariably one or two people who approach me after each reading, telling me that their ancestors are from equally
as improbable places: North Dakota, New Mexico, etc. What does this mean? That these are not such improbable places after all. Like other religions and ethnicities, we Jews settled everywhere, bringing our culture, tradition (and usually our peddling wagons or dry good stores) with us.
I’ve been a Jew in an unlikely place, too. I spent a year in high school living in Barcelona, Spain, which has not had a meaningful Jewish community since 1492 (though a small Sephardic community thrives still). I spent a weekend in a tiny town by the name of Olot in the Pyrenees. This was during the first Gulf War, and the U.S. Consulate recommended we not divulge our status as Americans, and warned us against telling strangers if we were Jewish. After a few days of avoiding the topic with my teenage hostess (“My family doesn’t really go to church that often,” “I guess Americans write down the family tree in the Bible,” “No, I didn’t get confirmed”.) I revealed that I was Jewish. My hostess, who, after half-jokingly (I think) asking if I had horns, thought it was the coolest thing about me, and proceeded to show me off to all her friends as a Jew. Her friends were equally as delighted by the revelation; they had always wondered what Jew would be like. Her little sister kept petting my hair and calling me “Pretty girl” in Catalan. It was an odd weekend.
More recently, I was a Jew in Lyons, France, where I taught high school. Coincidentally, I taught at the only school in the city that had no Saturday classes, and was therefore the Jewish school by default. One of my students, upon finding out I was Jewish, invited me over for Hanukkah dinner, where his Sephardic family was so different from my Ashkenazi one that I might as well have been dining on the moon. I remember thinking their tunes were all wrong.
They told me a story, which I fictionalized in my short story collection Things that Pass for Love, about their experiences during the Second World War (Lyons was in occupied France). The grandfather hid in the cabinet for the duration of the war. In 1996, the little girl’s Jewish day school was bombed, avoiding killing children only by accident. I realized, then, how lucky I was to be free of the fear of persecution that plagued them constantly.
I found out five years later that one of my best friends in France was the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, who lost his first family in the camps. She had never thought to mention it.