Jewish Holidays, Families, Groucho
My parents were children of immigrants and if there was a family ideology, it was
To Become American.
No one liked to talk much about the past, although even as a child I would interview them as best as I could. Both grandfathers had died by the time I was born. One grandmother was Yiddish speaking and quiet, the other was not but she preferred to discuss her life at the moment: who she saw and where she went. And Rosemary Clooney’s mother, her next door neighbor in her LA apartment. What talent that family has, my grandmother often said.
The Jewish Holidays were important to all of them for many reasons.
My father’s father, Oscar Cohen, came from Lithuania, then South Africa, and finally, the small town where we lived in Connecticut. He was one of the founders of the local synagogue. The story was that he was learned, and read many books. I don’t know what books he read – maybe they were all Jewish, maybe not. My cousin Alan said Oscar came to America to marry a woman he knew, who became my grandmother. I never learned if that was true, and I don’t even know how happy they were.
There’s no one left to tell me. My guess is theirs was a practical marriage. What they believed in was success, though it’s hard to say exactly what succeeding actually meant.
I’ve written often about my other grandmother because I completely loved her, because she was a fabulist, and because she liked to laugh and often did. So many people on TV made her laugh, like Jack Benny and the Marx brothers and Jimmy Durante. She especially loved You Bet Your Life. She could never get over the miracle of television. She thought anything was possible in the United States.
On the holidays, our family went, the way we did very often, to the same synagogue my grandfather helped to start, to the Beth Israel Synagogue Center in Derby, Connecticut. We knew everyone there, and they all knew us. It was an appealing group of people who laughed a lot, kvetched a lot, and stood up for one another at all the points in life where we need each other nearby: Friday nights and Saturday mornings and weddings and funerals and countless bar and bas mitzvahs. They were not especially good looking or good natured but they were talkative and present and a certainty in our life.
I left all that so long ago, for what I believed was a bigger better world: a world of politics and differences, where who I knew weren’t mirrors of me, and where I was free to discard my history – as though that were possible – and to create an identity from whole cloth, modeled, in part, on Hannah Arendt, Emma Goldman, Mick Jagger, Etta James, Josephine Baker, Alice Neel, William Carlos Williams, and a few other people I worshiped indiscriminately.
Now so many years later, I have lived fully and openly, emulating heroines as often as I could.
And still, there comes a time, the Jewish Holidays, for instance, where I miss the familiarity, wish I didn’t have to reinvent what holidays are, what holidays can be. Wish we could celebrate, the way we always did, at The Beth Israel Synagogue Center, where some people were kind and everyone was familiar.
This year, for Kol Nidre, which I usually listen to, somehow, I tuned in on Zoom to the Reform Temple in Catskill, New York, similar in some ways to my childhood home. The opposite of one of those big professional synagogues like Central, where the cantors could be Broadway singers and thousands of people attend.
Sixty three people who all looked familiar enough and mostly knew one another talked happily
before the service began – in the How’s Morty way. They were glad to be together. And I was glad to be there too. At least one night a year.
ALTE is holding a fall Zoom gathering on Sunday October 3rd at 7 pm. We’d like to have a topic this time, namely, the topic of our current print issue of ALTE, at the printer and will hopefully be in your mailbox before October 3. The topic is “The Future.” Please write to firstname.lastname@example.org to receive an invitation to the Zoom.