Tag Archives: nice Jewish girl

A Mixed Marriage in 1950

(This is the first of two short excerpts I’m including in this blog from my essay, First to Go: A Nice Jewish Girl Survives the Love of Her Life, about my parent’s marriage.)
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My Parents Sometime in the Mid-sixties

People wonder, and I’ve often asked myself: if my father was so involved with black culture, black politics, the survival and advancement of black people, then why did he marry a white woman?  He actually died before he could explain that in his memoir (believe me, I’ve scoured the various revisions) so I’ve had to come up with answers myself.  The best I can do is the following.  He didn’t marry a white woman; he married my mother.  He married someone who would be his student, his supporter and his best audience.  Not that she’d never challenge him, but I do believe that at first, and perhaps for many years, she hung on his every word.

Though he stood just five foot eight and always looked much younger than he was, my father carried himself with an air of great importance.  His deep voice, eloquence and measured way of speaking demanded respect.  When he made an entrance, strangers would rack their brains and snap their fingers, whispering: “Oh, that’s—that’s … who is that guy again?”

Of course he wasn’t famous, but everyone thought he was and he never disabused people of the notion.  I believe that my mother was the only woman—black, white or otherwise—who could have put up with all that.

In part, my mother’s tolerance was due to a childhood spent in the shadow of her own mother’s pathological narcissism.  My maternal grandmother had been the leading lady of her own world, her daughters, little more than stage-hands.  If ever my mother brought home a boy, my grandmother would flirt with him and later ask, Well?  What did he say about me?   Naturally, before meeting the guy, my grandmother would have asked the compulsory “is he Jewish?” which, prior to my dad, he always was.

My mother had been a very good girl all her life and had gotten no credit for it.  I imagine there was no better way to stick it to my grandmother than marrying a black man—completely unheard of for a nice Jewish girl in 1950.  She’d married my father for the rebellion of it, but also for the excitement.  She knew she was along for the ride of her life and therefore didn’t mind being off to the side while my father took center stage.

Their marriage wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was pretty good—all things considered—and lasted forty-five years, until the end of my dad’s life.

They married at the tender ages of twenty-three and twenty-six, in Chicago: a small wedding held in my paternal grandparents’ house.  In attendance were my father’s whole family, the younger members of my mother’s family, and their closest friends.  My father’s parents had embraced and accepted my mother from the beginning, though her parents would remain in the dark until the young couple had safely arrived in New York City—where they’d moved for my father’s political work.  My mother called her parents from Penn Station to announce her new marital status. (Oh and did I mention: he’s black?)  There had been no thought to invite them to the wedding, nor any possibility of bringing my father home in advance to meet his future in-laws.

My mother was thus cut off from her parents, informally disowned.  For the act of marrying such a man (a gentile as well as a schvartze), my mother got blamed for every evil that subsequently befell the family, including the death of her beloved Uncle Julius.  Somehow no one managed to connect the dots from his daily consumption of creamed soups to the clogging of his arteries and ultimate heart attack.  (Nah.  Must have been the black guy.)

So there she was, twenty-three years old, alone with her dynamic new husband in New York City—no family, no friends—far from everything familiar to her.

They found an apartment in Brooklyn.  My mother was the one who scoped out all their potential homes, for obvious reasons.  She’d meet each landlord, say her husband was at work, and get the tour of everything they could afford.  The landlord of the place she chose wouldn’t learn my father was black until moving day, and by then it was too late to reject them.  In any case, it took only a few weeks to recognize that my parents were a lovely young couple in every sense of the word, regardless of color.

That happened a lot with my father.  People who rejected his race flat out—who really believed blacks to be the scourge of this country—had a way of accepting my father as “one of the good ones.”  He was familiar with the comment “if all black people were like you …”  This never flattered or impressed my father; it just revealed the character of the person making the statement.  My father believed a racist was a racist.  Still, they needed a place to live.

My mother found a job teaching at the Brooklyn Community School where, gradually, she began to make her own friends.  Soon my parents were established in a community of their own.  Their friends were young, smart, black, Jewish or both.  Many of these friendships would last through the era of my childhood (which wouldn’t begin until the sixties).

So New York became less strange, more like home.  In some ways it was more comfortable than the Chicago my mother had known.  Being Jewish was safer, for example.  My mother was accustomed to being discreet about it, letting people think that Rosen (her maiden name) was German.  Growing up, she’d been chased and beaten up, called a “dirty Jew” on numerous occasions.  Part of her Jewish identity was—is—forever connected to the fear of being attacked.  She’d heaved a sigh of relief, I think, in taking my father’s name and becoming a Williamson.  It was less about shame than safety.  There was some pride in being Jewish, too.  My mother has described the feeling of surprise and delight at finding herself in an environment where you could say “knish” and other people would know what you were talking about.

So another piece of my parents’ bond was the experience of being hated, truly hated.  While my mother could hide, to a degree, among gentiles—the way my father could not among whites—they both knew what it was to be far outside the majority.  That feeling of paranoia, which isn’t paranoia at all because you’re not imagining it.

And once united, my parents shared the new experience of being an interracial couple—living with all that it meant to people who saw them together.  In Chicago, they’d been chased by thugs with baseball bats.  In New York, some frowned, some smiled in solidarity, some simply stared, but then went on with their own lives.

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Ruth Rosen’s Black Granddaughter

My maternal grandparents, Ruth and Ben Rosen, sometime in the 1930s

I usually tell the story of my grandmother with about as much emotion as I’d have making a grocery list.  People might say, That’s so awful!  (I’ll shrug.)  How could you not be hurt?   I’ll swear I wasn’t.  How can you miss something you’ve never had?

But one day, just as an exercise, I tried to write about Ruth Rosen—my mother’s mother—and was surprised to find myself awash in angry tears.  Maybe her total failure to acknowledge me, her only black grandchild, was a bigger deal than I’d thought.  I wasn’t in denial of the rejection, only of the fact that it did—does—hurt.

Growing up as an only child, I never wanted for adult attention.  My parents surrounded themselves with a family of friends, many of whom were older and saw me as their own grandchild.  I had five Bubbies (a term of affection for a Jewish grandmother).  They knitted me things, bought me fancy dresses, came to Grandparents’ day at my school, were at our home on Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Christmas, my dance recitals.

Three of my four actual grandparents—my dad’s parents and my mother’s father—were dead by the time I was born (sixteen years into my parents’ marriage).  As for Ruth, she met me just once, when I was a baby.

Though my grandmother was not the least bit religious—despite running a kosher restaurant and delicatessen—she sat shiva for my mother when she married my father.  It was 1950 and interracial marriage was still illegal in 30 states, though not Illinois, where they’d wed.  My mother was a nice Jewish girl who had never made a wave her whole life and now this.  Married a schvartze.  Ultimately, my mother and her mother would resume some form of a relationship—never a good one (it never had been), just enough to be on speaking terms.  So, when I was about a year old, Ruth came to visit when she knew my dad was at work.  A widow at the time, she’d brought along her latest beau, a septuagenarian named Henry.  Ruth had come to see my mother, but Henry was all over me:

“Ruth, you gotta come see.  This is a really cute baby!”

None for me thanks, approximated Ruth’s response.  She couldn’t look, let alone touch me.  It was too much.

Nevertheless, I grew up happy, without giving my grandmother much thought.  Who was she to me anyway?  But now and then it would occur to me—as the stand-in Bubbies and Zaidas took pictures at my birthday parties, applauded my impromptu puppet shows—that my grandmother was missing out on me.  If she met me, I thought, if she gave me a chance, I was sure I could win her over.  I was a cute baby, a pretty cute kid as well.  Who wouldn’t want to be my grandma?  I didn’t say this to my parents; I knew they’d start talking about racial prejudice and other things I had no interest in as a child, so I kept the idea to myself.

My grandmother died in 1987 when I was almost twenty-one.  I’d spoken to her on the telephone exactly once.  She was already dying by then and my mother had flown down to Florida to visit.  My father needed to speak with my mother one night when I was home visiting.

“You make the call,” Dad said, because he knew it wouldn’t do for Ruth to hear his voice.

I called.  My grandmother answered.  It was my mother’s voice only deeper, scratchier.  I knew it, though I’d never heard it before.

“This is Lisa.”  I said, sounding like a frightened ten year old.  “May I please speak to my mother?”  I didn’t realize I was shaking until I got off the phone.  When my father hung up, I burst into tears and then screamed at him for making me do it.

To Dad, my grandmother’s rejection of me was an extension of her rejection of him, nothing personal.  She’d never met either one of us, after all.  To my father, racism itself wasn’t personal; it was just a fact he’d known as long as he had been walking this earth.  But now, as he held his sobbing daughter, he got it.

The woman on the line with the voice like my mother’s may have been a monster, but she was still my grandmother.  All my life I’d been protected from her hatred, bathed in love and praise to compensate.  But at the same time, I’d been prevented from trying to reach her and make things right.  My parents knew it wouldn’t have worked, but I didn’t know.  Part of me still thinks I could have done it: gotten her to like me.  Of all her grandchildren, I’m the only one who took to the stage.  I was thin, occasionally glamorous, kind of crazy and a little narcissistic.  My grandmother was all of the above (except for taking to the stage).  She was even a flapper in her day: long cigarette holder, snappy Zelda Fitzgerald hair and all.  Maybe she would have liked me in spite of herself.

In any case, she’s my unfinished business, the origin of many of my hang-ups.  I am a tireless people pleaser; I am non-confrontational to a fault; I have a hard time standing up for myself and sometimes even for my children.  I’m a therapist too.  If I were my client I might surmise that these traits stem from my unresolved grandmother issues: without her elusive love, fully loving myself has been more of a challenge than it might have been otherwise.

Therapists go to therapy and I have.  It’s helped.  But writing has done more: transformed my feelings, replacing self-pity with self-knowledge.   That’s what writers do: untangle the tangles within, and hopefully do some untangling for readers along the way.