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.
The 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.” Continue reading
At the little public library in Hartshorne, Oklahoma, I see a man wearing a camouflage-patterned Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. baseball cap and a beat-up t-shirt. This is James Kurilko, and he is about to become our guide. Hearing Stuart, the ISJL historian, asking for scrolls of microfilm, Jim headed our way.
Jim’s the local genealogist, it turns out, born and raised in Hartshorne, a descendent of coal miners who settled in the area about a century ago. His people were Lemkos, not quite Polish and not quite Russian, who fled Galicia because they didn’t fit. His grandparents “came here because they were running from the law;” coal mining is not the kind of work a person chooses.
“They were a minority within a minority,” he said.
Maybe that’s why he was so interested in our work. When we told him we were looking to learn about the Jews of Hartshorne, he started pulling books from the shelves, rattling off names, and dialing the local historian, seemingly all at once.
But there was one thing we couldn’t get at the library: a Jewish star, carved in stone. Abby, the other history intern, and I hopped—okay, scrambled—into the rental car and followed Jim’s pick-up truck to the cemetery. Just past the graves of his grandparents, Asafatha and Rosie Kurilko, and amid Orthodox crosses marked by an extra slash, was the grave of a World War II veteran with the unlikely name Domingo C Lazoya—but the Jewish star was unmistakable.
On the way back to the library Jim took us by the storefront that used to house The New York Store, a name often used by Jewish merchants to evoke urban high fashion, and the house where Rosenbergs, a prominent Jewish family, used to live. Even riddled with rotting boards and peeling paint, the gingerbread fallen, the porch was somehow grand. “There’s a hallway running north-south through the center of the house,” Jim said, “Called a dog-walk. Lots of southern homes have them, to let the wind through in the summertime and keep the house cool.”
A woman walked out onto the porch, face impassive, staring us down. Though we were close enough to hear her, she didn’t move to speak, only waited until we had gone. Strangers stopping in the street to talk over the place where you live, to photograph it, doesn’t happen much in Hartshorne. It’s a city of 2,000 people, so even one strange face is noticeable.
We got back in our cars and returned to the air-conditioned hum of the library, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the woman on the porch. Her physical presence meant nothing to the historical context that had overlayed the house as I looked at it, and she had no way of knowing that I wasn’t peering in at her life, but at what had been. The house’s history was evident in the sag of the porch, and knowing the name of the family who had lived there made it easier for me not to see the people who do now. Jim kept talking about Lemkos—the word is even in his email address—because he’s afraid they’ll be forgotten in the easy melt of history.
That’s what the ISJL’s encyclopedia project is about, of course. Though I’m researching the history of the Southern Jews, the fact is that the lives of Jews have always intersected with those of their neighbors. I’m not part of this place’s history—my people settled up North and stayed there—which makes it easier to forget its present. Peering into people’s lives can look too much like snooping while they’re still alive. When interviewing one family, Stuart, Abby, and I learned things we’d never expected about the loss of their child and great present pain.
For me, the human stories—the vignettes—are what make history readable and compelling, but that family’s story is something I’d never put in the town’s Jewish history. At the same time, I can’t wait to tell about the merchants who lived gloomy, reclusive lives in a hotel room in Ada, or the wife and daughter who were trapped in Russia by the outbreak of World War II. Where’s the distinction? It’s too easy to miss it, to give in to the writer’s or historian’s impulse to value stories above the people who tell them. But the truth is that I’m as foreign to the emotional landscapes of others as I am to the plains of Oklahoma—which even to most Southerners wouldn’t qualify as home— though I can tell you that at least one lies in the liminal space between South and Midwest, history and present.
When we pulled out of the library parking lot in Hartshorne, racing to an interview in another Oklahoma town, Wilburton, Jim shook our hands, urging us to look him up if we ever made it back to Southeastern Oklahoma. I hope I’ll have the chance, though I can’t say it’s likely. But if storytelling is as close to history as I think it to be, I hope telling what he offered is a kind of acceptance; if I could write the story differently, I’d be there right now.
This blog was written by Diana Clarke, who spent this summer as an intern at the ISJL, working in our History Department. Alongside fellow History Intern Abby Klionsky (who took the photographs featured in this blog, other than the one Stuart snapped here of the two of them enjoying some Braum’s ice cream while on the road), she assisted Dr. Stuart Rockoff in researching and writing histories on Jewish communities in Oklahoma. This fall, Diana begins her senior year of studies at Columbia University in New York.