Do You Think of Yourself As Jewish?
I’m nine years old, alone in my elementary school classroom, reading a book at my desk. The other kids are in the Catholic religious training class. I’m the only Jewish student in the school, so I have to sit quietly and wait for them to come back. After an hour, I hear them shuffling down the hall. As they push open the door and head for their seats, one boy walks up to my desk and squints into my eyes. “You killed Christ,” he says.
I don’t say a word. I just sit there, waiting for him to go away. I don’t know if the teacher heard him. I try not to think about it. I never tell my parents.
It was a Friday evening in late August; the sun was beginning to sink behind the lake at the bottom of the hill. My daughter and son and I were walking up the path to the synagogue. We stopped in front of the grey clapboard building with its arched windows and square towers topped by Stars of David. Three concrete steps led to a plain wooden door where, when I was a child, I once saw the words “Dirty Jew” scrawled in white chalk.
The synagogue, Beth Joseph, the oldest in the Adirondacks, was built in 1905 by a handful of Jewish families who had immigrated to Tupper Lake from Eastern Europe. One of the founders was my grandfather – my father’s father – Peter Propp. He was so respected for his contributions to the village that when he died, in 1939 at 74, all the businesses in town were closed during his funeral service.
My son opened the synagogue door and the three of us entered the vestibule. Its pine-paneled walls were lined with old photographs, and facing us were framed portraits of my grandparents: My grandmother, Anna, with her high peasant cheekbones, looking more elegant than the short chunky woman, usually in a housedress and apron, that I remembered; and my grandfather, round spectacles, greying moustache, a kindly expression.
The pews were still empty, so we walked outside to wait for others to arrive for the service. A car pulled up to the curb and parked; a friendly-looking man with curly grey hair stepped out, walked over to greet us, and asked where we were from. I told him we lived in Westchester, but that I was born and grew up in Tupper Lake.
“My mom used to come to this synagogue,” my daughter said. “There are some pictures of her family in the vestibule.”
“I want to see them,” the man said, and the three of us followed him inside. He stopped before the photographs of my grandparents and exclaimed, “You’re a Propp!” Others who had begun arriving heard him and rushed over to introduce themselves. I felt both appreciative and unworthy.
Inside, the synagogue looked the same as it had so many years ago – the glowing dark wood of the walls, the rows of pews, the stained-glass window above the ark, the upstairs balcony where women and girls sat in the early days. When I was a child, women were allowed downstairs but had to sit on one side, men on the other. The Jewish population had grown so small by then that services were held only on the high holidays; an itinerant rabbi took the train to Tupper Lake to lead them.
My sisters and I are out of school for the Jewish holiday. I usually take a bus to the junior high school, but today, dressed in a plaid skirt and sweater with a beret tilted over my forehead, I’m following my mother up the steps to the synagogue. I turn my head when I hear the yellow school bus rumbling up the road, and as it passes I see my classmates’ faces pressed against the windows. A flush of embarrassment sweeps over me.
Women used to come to shul dressed in their best, wearing hats with veils and feathers that remained on closet shelves the rest of the year. Nestled among them, I’d be surrounded by the scent of their perfume mixed with the faint odor of mothballs, and the rustle of their silky dresses. Across the aisle I’d watch my father and the other men with prayer shawls draped over their suits, fascinated by the way they swayed back and forth as they prayed.
On this evening, years later, there were no silk dresses and dark suits. The congregants – a couple of dozen men and women, a few little girls – were wearing casual clothes. Most seemed to be summer people, not Tupper Lake residents.
As we waited for the service to begin, the chubby, grey-haired rabbi came shambling up the aisle, wishing everyone, “Shabbat Shalom.” When he stopped at our pew, I introduced myself and my daughter and son.
“What happened to you?” the rabbi asked when he heard my name.
His question confused me. Did he want to know about my life since I’d left Tupper Lake, or was he asking why I hadn’t returned to my childhood synagogue over the years, or even contributed to it, like – he informed me – my cousin Richard, the retired doctor from Albany?
I smiled and said nothing. I didn’t feel I had to explain myself: that I was on Beth Joseph’s mailing list, that I’d read about the summer’s Friday evening services, that I had the urge to return, and that two of my four grown children agreed to accompany me.
When the rabbi finished his stroll up and down the aisle and ascended the podium, his wife, a pleasant looking woman with a British accent, walked in my direction and stopped by my side.
“In honor of the Propp family,” she said, “we’d like you to light the candles.”
I didn’t know what that involved. Would I have to climb a few steps to reach the candelabra? What if I tripped? Was I supposed to say a prayer while lighting the candles? Although I was starting to panic, I followed her down the aisle. She handed me a match, and the lighting took less than a minute. I was relieved to be back in my seat.
Throughout the service, I was uncomfortably aware that I knew so little about Jewish rituals. When I was a child, the prayers were spoken in Hebrew, so I never understood exactly what was going on, and I didn’t remember our parents explaining our religion to my sisters and me. Since I left Tupper Lake, I’d rarely entered a synagogue. But my Jewish heritage had been the heart of my identity.
Growing up, I always knew I was Jewish. There were the services at the synagogue, the seders in my grandparents’ dining room, my mother’s matzo-ball soup, and the Yiddish words my parents used when they didn’t want us children to know what they were talking about.
My parents seemed to be treading a line between maintaining our Jewish identity and shielding us from feeling too much like outsiders. In the third grade, when I told my mother the teacher had asked about our nationalities, she said, “Just tell her you’re American.”
At Christmas, in the school choir, I was allowed to sing carols with the rest, but my mother told me I could only mouth the words “Jesus Christ.” We were given Christmas gifts, and we had a small decorated tree that my parents tucked into a corner of the living room so neighbors couldn’t see the lights through the window.
None of this concerned my Tupper Lake friends, all of whom were Catholic. I sometimes went with them to St. Alphonsus Church and waited in a pew in the back while they made a quick confession before we headed to a movie or party.
I’m in high school, 15 years old or so, and I’m walking over to my friend Kitty’s house. From there we plan to head for the library to do our homework. Kitty’s parents own a big hardware store in town. Her mother, who takes care of the ordering and bookkeeping, is a tall, severe woman who wears her hair in a flyaway bun. Her father is short, pudgy, and unfriendly, with a frog-like face.
When I arrive, the family is just finishing dinner, and Kitty asks me to wait in the living room. I’m sitting on the couch, leafing through a magazine, when I hear her father’s loud voice coming from the dining room.
“Is that Jew still here?” I feel a chill of fear.
“Tom, what are you talking about?” Kitty’s mother says.
“That Jew salesman. Is he still in town?”
I sit stiffly on the couch, hardly breathing, until Kitty comes in, books in her arms, and we walk out the front door. I don’t say anything about what happened, and neither does she.
Sometimes my father would take us on a drive to Lake Placid, a nearby resort town that was much fancier than Tupper Lake. Many Adirondack hotels at that time refused to admit Jews, using phrases in their ads like “socially undesirable” and “Jewish persons need not apply.” One of the most flagrant was the Lake Placid Club, a grand hotel overlooking a lake that was founded by Melvil Dewey, who created the Dewey Decimal System.
I have a black-and-white photograph of me as a teenager standing next to the giant stone pillar at the club’s entrance. My father had driven us around the lake and stopped the car to take the picture. In it, I’m resting one hand on the bottom of a huge bronze sign that reads “Lake Placid Club – Private” and smiling at the camera – my rebuke to Mr. Dewey.
During the winter of my senior year in high school, my parents decide to take us all to Florida for a vacation. My father drives us down in our big station wagon, and we find a place to rent in a town called Indian Rocks. The rental turns out to be a big log house surrounded by tall trees. There’s a garage, but we park in front of the house. We’re there for a week, spending every day at the beach and having a wonderful time.
When we’re packing up the station wagon to leave, my father realizes he needs a length of rope. For the first time during our stay, we enter the garage to see if we can find some. There’s no rope, but what we do discover is a white wooden sign on a stake designed to be stuck into the ground. In big black letters it reads “Restricted.” We’re tempted to call the owner and tell him a Jewish family has vacationed in his house.
For the most part I enjoyed my high school years. I was part of a group of popular girls, a cheerleader, and a good student. I was invited to proms, and I had several boyfriends – Buddy, Donald, Joe – who were unconcerned about my Jewishness. During the summer after graduation, I worked as a waitress at a local restaurant. In September I went off to college, where my parents must have been praying that I’d meet a nice Jewish boy.
It’s the beginning of my freshman year at Syracuse University. I’ve been spending time with a cute, dark-haired boy named Herbie. Someone tells me he’s very rich, but he never has his own cigarettes and he’s always bumming mine. We have fun together, and I know he likes me. He eventually decides to pledge the Jewish fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau.
Another friend, Bert, who’s also in ZBT, tells me the big fall dance is coming up. I’m sure Herbie will invite me, but he doesn’t, and he stops calling and stopping by. I ask Bert what went wrong and he says, “Herbie didn’t want to get too involved with a girl who isn’t Jewish.”
I’m not sure how to handle this. I don’t try to get in touch with Herbie, and he disappears from my life. I tell my mother about it in one of our weekly phone conversations, and not long after she sends me a package containing a silver Star of David on a thin chain. I feel uncomfortable wearing it, so I put it in a drawer, tucked under a pile of sweaters. I find other boyfriends. Some are Jewish, and I discover I don’t need the Star of David to attract them.
After finishing college I moved to New York City, where I found a job in an ad agency and shared an apartment with two other girls. My ex-college roommate’s boyfriend fixed me up with a young man who worked with him at Esquire magazine. He and I went to jazz clubs in the Village, took the subway to Coney Island, and had dinner in Italian restaurants at tables decorated with candles in Chianti bottles. My apartment mates, my ex-college roommate, and her boyfriend were all Jewish. My boyfriend was not.
My parents, who seemed to have become very Jewish overnight, were upset about my new relationship. I brought my boyfriend home for Thanksgiving so they and my sisters could get to know him. After dinner my father escaped to my grandmother’s house down the street, and my mother, struck by a migraine, lay in a darkened bedroom with a cold compress on her forehead.
Despite the drama, my boyfriend and I became engaged – he gave me an antique opal ring – and began planning our wedding. We were married in the summer by a justice of the peace in Mineola, on Long Island, and had a reception at the home of my new in-laws, who had given me the impression that they weren’t too happy about their son marrying a Jewish girl from the Adirondacks. My own parents resisted at first, but in the end they, with my sisters, came to our wedding and later apologized for their behavior. Once they got to know my husband, they became fond of him.
During our long marriage, my husband and I rarely encountered anti-Semitism. When we did, my husband stood up for me. Once, at a party, when a lawyer made a mild remark about a typical Jewish jury, my husband took him aside and admonished him.
Our four children think of themselves as Jewish, although the three who married did not choose Jewish mates. Our four grandchildren are scattered around the country. I don’t see them often, and I haven’t asked how they feel about their Jewish heritage. My mother and sisters have more complicated relationships with their identities.
I visited my sister Linda in California when she was in her early sixties. One day her boyfriend, Lou, was driving us around Los Angeles when he made a remark about wetbacks. I told him I found the term offensive. “That reminds me,” Linda said. “When I was a kid in Tupper Lake someone called me a four-eyed Christ killer.” She had never forgotten it.
In contrast, my other sister, Abby, seemed to have put aside her heritage. Once I was visiting at her new home in Grass Valley, California, sitting at the kitchen table and leafing through the local paper while she made breakfast. I noticed an article about a Jewish community center in town.
“I see that Grass Valley has a substantial Jewish population,” I said.
Abby turned to me. “Do you think of yourself as Jewish?”
“Our parents are Jewish, our grandparents were Jewish. How could I not?”
She continued stirring the eggs and didn’t respond.
In the vestibule of Beth Joseph synagogue, before the service began, my son and daughter and I looked around at the other photographs on display. One was a group photo of all the women in the congregation in the 1940s. Among them was my mother, young and pretty, a sweet smile on her face.
Several decades after that picture was taken, she and I were in Santa Monica, where she’d been living alone since my father died. We were having lunch with a close friend of hers, and I began to relate what I thought was a humorous story about spending a winter holiday with the family of my Jewish college boyfriend. Some relatives were coming to visit, so my boyfriend’s family had wrapped white sheets around a giant Christmas tree in the foyer, and everyone pretended not to notice it.
I was partway through the story when I sensed that my mother’s friend didn’t know we were Jewish. Later I asked my mother about this. She said when she and my father left Tupper Lake and moved to California, she embarked on a new life. She even changed her first name.
“Life is hard enough,” she said, “without telling people you’re Jewish.”
Joan Potter is a writer and teacher whose personal essays have appeared in anthologies and literary journals, and she has published articles in numerous magazines and newspapers. She is the author or coauthor of several nonfiction books, including Still Here Thinking of You: A Second Chance With Our Mothers. She lives in Mount Kisco, NY.