I grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore, the granddaughter of Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust and came to this country with nothing. My father grew up and worked in the same bakery where his Dad worked. His Mom was a seamstress.
My Mom’s side was also working-class but slightly better off. Her dad, Pop Pop, was a union printer, and Mema raised the kids and had a home-based invitation business. My great-grandparents came from Russia escaping pogroms. I joke that my parents didn’t really live through the 60s, but it’s kind of true; they were very focused on education and career.
Mom helped put Dad through medical school, and he served in the Air Force for four years for a scholarship. During that period, they benefited from a growing economy, government programs, and a tight knit Jewish community.
When I was little, we lived in apartments and then a small house. We moved to a huge house out in the wealthier part of the suburbs when I was 7-years-old, and I had to switch schools. I don’t remember really thinking or talking about class, just snippets. I remember wanting name brand jeans, but having to get the cheaper ones. My parents were frugal, but we definitely did nice things as a family and took some beach vacations.
Some things I suspect were class-related in our upbringing. My mom and all of my aunts bottle-fed their children, in the 70s and 80s when, I think, it was considered “lower-class” to breastfeed. Now it’s coming back into fashion, so some of my siblings and cousins have decided to breastfeed just a generation later. This is a piece of our assimilation into suburban American culture of packaged foods. My Mom is always very well-dressed and manicured, and I like to dress well too. I have heard my Mom describe people as, “flashy,” and I think she wants to appear nicely put together but not be associated with the nouveau riche.
From Ethnic to American
Intersecting with this class story is a racial one. My father wasn’t considered white when he was young, with an accent and olive skin. He was discriminated against as Jewish, not white. Today, he is considered white – a common story of many American Jews who were able to climb the class ladder and “became white.”
My parents were able to pay for all four of us kids to go to college. As a family we had a huge shift from working-class to middle or upper-class. I am the radical queer one, who decided to live in a collective with fruit trees and gardens, which I’m not earning equity from. Their house now in the suburbs looks so big to me, with a lovely pool out back, compared to where I live.
I don’t remember really thinking or talking about class, just snippets.”
My parents are proudly Jewish, and tried hard to pass on their beliefs to us kids. None of us keep strictly kosher, but my other three siblings all did marry someone Jewish. We were forbidden from dating non-Jews when we were teens, though most of us did in secret. At the same time as being taught and following many Jewish rituals and traditions, we weren’t taught Yiddish, and we assimilated to celebrate also the “American” holidays like Valentine’s Day and Halloween. We each have a Hebrew name, after a family member who has passed away, that we only ever used in Hebrew school classes, almost seemed like a joke and sounded so funny and old country.
I imagine that some of my ancestors who spoke Yiddish were involved in socialist activism or workers organizing, but I have no evidence, no names, no connection, but I hear radical klezmer music and I wonder. Pieces of this history I yearn to recover, and I try to recreate as I make latkes for Hanukkah, shredding the potatoes by hand, from scratch, not a box, imagining my great grandmothers doing the same.