My Southern Jewish Grandma

Today’s tale of Southern Jewish family, history, and a meaningful road trip comes to us from our summer history intern, Gabe Weinstein, in the last of our “summer intern” series of posts. Thanks, Gabe, and all of our interns for the wonderful work and great reflections!

My Grandma Ethel lived in Cleveland, Ohio for over 50 years, but she never lost her Alabama drawl.

ethelThe drawl was her trademark. Her thing. Ethel immediately left the South after she graduated college in 1946. and never lived beneath the Mason Dixon line again. But a part of her heart always remained in northeastern Alabama.

There are over 250 Jewish communities in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. Grandma’s hometown, Piedmont, Alabama is not one of them. It’s easy to see why when you drive down Center Avenue. The storefronts that once housed dry goods stores and clothing stores sit empty, waiting patiently for new tenants that will never arrive.

Grandma Ethel’s family ended up in Piedmont for the same reasons thousands of Jewish families landed in small towns across the south. My great-grandfather George Kass had the opportunity to run a dry goods store. After a failed stint as a jewelry salesman in New York, George packed up the family and moved to Piedmont in the mid-1920s. The move made sense: prior to the New York stint, George had run a dry goods store in Cartersville, Georgia, and his wife Kate had family in Atlanta.

Grandma and my Aunt Louise never felt alienated growing up as Jews in Piedmont. Their friends always came over to socialize and they were always welcomed in their friend’s homes. There was one other Jewish family in town, the Steinbergs, who owned a clothing store next to my great-grandfather’s store and had been in town since 1912. But they were close with their non-Jewish neighbors, too: up until her death in August 2011, Grandma Ethel kept in touch with one of her closest childhood friends from Piedmont, Elizabeth Ellen, AKA “Sis.”

The hubs of Jewish life near Piedmont were Anniston and Gadsden, which both had synagogues. On Sundays the Kass family would head to the Rubinstein’s hotel in Anniston to meet up with other Jewish families from Anniston, Gadsden, Jacksonville and other small towns around the area. But Grandma’s Jewish oasis was 85 miles away in Atlanta at Ahavath Achim synagogue. She didn’t mind the three hour ride through country roads on Sunday mornings to religious school. It was a highlight of her week. Grandma was known for spending hours combing through the Ahavith Achim directory connecting with old friends and relatives when she would visit her daughter, my Aunt Sherry, decades later on trips to Atlanta.

Piedmont had been good to Grandma. It provided her father with a nice living and gave her the social and academic skills she would later use to thrive at the University of Alabama. But when graduation rolled around, Grandma knew she would not return to Piedmont. The mill was still churning out yarn, sales at Kass’s store were still strong and Center Street was still crowded with merchants, but there were few opportunities for an aspiring dietitian set on marrying a nice Jewish boy. So Grandma did what thousands of Southern Jews in small towns have done and continue to do. She left her small town for the big city. After an internship at a hospital in Chicago, she earned her master’s in public health at Western Reserve University in Cleveland. She met my Grandpa Larry in a neighborhood near campus and lived in Cleveland the rest of her life.

Grandma made a point of hanging on her to Southern identity. She never lost her southern accent and proudly wore a University of Alabama baseball cap around town. Grandma loved to tell people she was from Piedmont. Whenever she went to visit my aunt and her family in Atlanta she always tried to squeeze in a trip to Piedmont to see Sis, and soak in the views of the Appalachian foothills, something she missed living in suburbia. She spent countless hours calling friends and family in Atlanta, Alabama, Memphis, Arkansas and Georgia.

Though I had memorized many of Grandma Ethel’s tales about Alabama, I realized in the years after her death that I knew surprisingly little about the broader context of her story. It never occurred to me that Grandma was one of thousands of Jews who had grown up in Southern hamlets stretching from the Mississippi Delta all the way up to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.  This interest led me to apply for a history internship with the ISJL.

I noticed my first day at the ISJL that there was no entry for Piedmont in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. It became my summer side project to learn more about Piedmont. Aunt Louise helped fill in blanks and a member of the extended Steinberg clan, Ralph Daniels, provided a summary of Jewish life in Piedmont since the Kass family left. Ralph and his family, like Grandma and Aunt Louise, enjoyed growing up in Piedmont. He and his brother were standout athletes and they occasionally went to the Reform synagogue in Gadsden. The Daniels also had a close relationship with Sis. Their family ended up purchasing the Kass Store building and connecting it with their adjacent store. Their store, the Fair Store, closed in 1994. Members of the Daniels family lived in Piedmont up until a few years ago. Ralph’s 90 year old mother,  Martha Wisebram Daniels, still maintains her home in Piedmont, and spends a great deal of time in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where her daughter Robyn lives.

Gabe, Brother and Cousin in front of sign

I never made it to Piedmont while Grandma Ethel was alive. My family visited for the first time shortly after her death. On my road trip down to Mississippi, I spontaneously suggested to my cousin that after leaving Atlanta we stop in Piedmont on the way to my next destination, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The next day my brother, cousin and I spent the day looking at Grandma and Aunt Louise’s high school graduation photos and pictures of the Kass Store and chatting with the town’s historian.

Growing up I thought Grandma Ethel’s experience was unique. I thought she kept her accent to let everyone know how unique she was. But after having spent the summer studying Jewish history in the south I realize Grandma Ethel was well aware that her experience growing up Jewish in Piedmont, Alabama was not abnormal. I now understand that she wore her University of Alabama hat and constantly regaled her grandchildren with stories from her childhood to make us aware and proud of our Southern Jewish heritage.

Images: Grandma Ethel at her Piedmont High graduation in 1942; the author, his brother, and their cousin in Piedmont this summer.

Posted on August 23, 2013

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