ByJames Robert Smith
Ineed to say a few things up front, before I even start this story.
Mymom was what she liked to call ‘half Jewish‘. Yeah, I know. Some people saythat there’s no such thing. You either are a Jew, or you are a gentile. Thereis no half-measure to being a Jew. That said, it’s a common term and that’swhat she said about herself and that’s good enough for me.
Shewas proud of that part of her heritage, even if it was mainly denied to her.She was raised around her Jewish aunts, uncles, and cousins and took things inthrough osmosis and not through being a member of the tribe. Her father hadbeen raised in a very observant home, what some people refer to as an OrthodoxJew. But he lost a great deal of that identity when he married my gentilegrandmother and his parents sat shiva on him. (He never saw them again. Theywere as serious as death on that point.)
Stilland all, it was important to my mother and she loved her Jewish relatives and Ialways felt as if she was a person who really wanted to be Jewish. She seemed to be what I’ve heard some rabbis refer to as“a person with a Jewish soul”.
Mydad was a white working class man from the Deep South. Born and raised inGeorgia, mainly of Scots-Irish extraction. He was also an atheist since the ageof twelve and very early in his life was attracted to left-wing ideology. Hecame of age around 1930 and rode the rails out of the state and to pointsnorth, searching for the impending revolution which, somehow, never came.Because of his brand of politics he befriended many Jews. His favorite writersand political thinkers were all Jews.
Frankly,if I had to venture a guess, I think he ended up in New York City in a searchto find a Jewish wife. Instead, he discovered my mom and ended up with a half-Jewish wife. Eh.
So,now, forward many years. It was 1967. The FBI had come down like a ton ofBibles on the nascent American Leftist Revolution and my dad was a booksellerin Atlanta, Georgia. My mom was his business partner and a mother to theireight kids. By then, half of the children were gone, adults. So were almost allof my dad’s leftist thinker Jewish pals. They’d given up on the revolutionarymovement and had turned their sights elsewhere—mainly to the State of Israel.
Thisbugged the shit out of my dad. I mean, it grated on his every last nerve. Whyhad they all abandoned the struggle so that they could instead focus theirthoughts and efforts and donations on a country across the ocean in the Middle East?What kind of an American does that?He stewed.
Mydad always enjoyed talking to any of his customers who wanted to discusspolitics. Since the store was in a largely Jewish neighborhood, well, heconversed with a lot of Jews. He supported Palestine and those Jewish customerssupported Israel. The slow simmer that had been heating at my dad’s passionbegan to boil.
Therewere two particular customers—a couple of young Jewish engineering studentsfrom Georgia Tech–who enjoyed coming into my dad’s store to bait him. Theyliked plucking at this old Georgia man who was exceedingly well read, but whodidn’t even have a sixth-grade education, having left school before he was tenyears old. They would come by to aggravate him and my dad would argue, but henever lost his temper. He just debated with the two assholes who I’d watch asthey would team up on my old man and laugh at him.
Then:the Six Days War. The two kids—I saw them a few times and they couldn’t havebeen more than twenty years old—came in right after this event. They werebrimming with confidence and contempt for my dad and decided to drop in on himand rub it in. I’m not sure what they said to him, but he snapped. He didn’tbeat them senseless or anything, but they never came to his shop again. Thatwas it. They’d skated a tad too close to the edge and knew well enough to backoff.
Butit was that moment, I truly feel, that my dad became a Jew-hater.
I’mtalking full-bore hatred. As in they allneed to go. That kind of hatred.He brought that stuff home.
Tothat point my parents never argued. Never.In fact, in my admittedly brief eight years of life I had never seen themargue. Not once. But one night after closing the bookshop my dad came in andone thing led to another and he announced that he’d arrived at the logicalconclusion that all Jews were inherently evil. All of them. Without exception.
Ihad been listening to them debate from my bedroom where I had been dozing offfor the night. But the debate had turned into an argument. Their voices hadrisen to yells.
Itwas raining outside. I recall that vividly and I could hear the rain comingdown against my bedroom window as their argument became louder and louder. Itwas just muffled blasts of voices through the twin barriers of my door and theirs.
Andthen—BAM!—they were screaming at one another. I had never heard my mom yellthat way, her voice filled with complete and unrelenting rage. My dad was, ofcourse, implying that her uncles were evil. That her aunts and cousins werevile. That her father was inherently a monster. And that all of the millions ofJews remaining on Earth that Hitler had not killed were bad news for everyoneelse. She could not sit there and take that. I then had the impression thatsomething smashed against the floor or against the walls. But it wasn’t likethat. It was just my impression ofviolence between my parents who had never had a cross word in my presence.
Inshort order, however, I did hear the front door slam. And then silence.
Igot up and went out of my bedroom into the hall and entered the dining roomwhere the lights were on. My dad was standing there.
“Where’sMama?” I asked.
Mydad was a big man. Six-foot-two. With a huge beer gut, solid black hair. Helooked down at me.
“Butit’s raining,” I said. I had already started crying.
“Don’tworry,” he told me. “She just went out for a walk.”
Who walks in the rain? That made no damned sensewhatsoever.
“Whywould she do that? Why were you yelling at each other?”
“Wewere arguing. That’s all. We were just arguing.”
I could think of nothing they could argue about. I knew their store was doingwell and that they were making good money. We had nice things and lived in anice house and they drove a new car and they paid cash for that stuff. I didn’tknow any other kids whose parents paid cash for a car, but my parents did. Iwould tag along when my mom would go in to bargain for a car. It was brutal.Sometimes I would end up feeling sorry for the car salesmen, she drove such ahard bargain.
I was,of course, distressed. Here was my dad standing like an idiot in the diningroom doing nothing. My mom was out in the rain walking around. It was verydark. Of course I began to cry even harder.
Mydad told me not to cry and that she would come back soon. That she just went fora walk to think. I was worried sick. How could he stand there while my motherwas out in the rain? I headed toward the door and he told me not to go out andinsisted that she would return very soon. He told me to go back to bed, and Idid. Of course I could not sleep. I lay there and waited, listening.
Ina while—I don’t know how long, but it seemed like hours–I heard the front dooropen and I leaped out of bed and ran into the dining room. There was my mom.Soaked to the skin. Her hair—which had been white since before she wasthirty—was plastered to her skull. She looked horrible.
“Mama!”I yelled, relieved that she was home. I wanted to hug her but she told me to goback to bed. Again, I did as I was told.
Therest of the night was silent. I don’t think my parents spoke to one another. Ifthey did, it was after I fell asleep. They certainly did not argue.
Itwas a few days later before I found out what this was all about. My dad hated all Jews? This made nosense to me. My dad hated no one over their race or nationality. How could thisbe: my father who was for civil rights, human rights; against all racism? Why would he suddenly hate Jews? Mymother’s father had been a Jew. This made no sense to me whatsoever and I couldonly conclude that my dad had gone completely bats.
I’mnot sure how they dealt with this development, but my parents never arguedabout it again. For years it was something that was there, sometimes unspoken,but also bubbling up through a Jew-hating rant from my dad (when my mom was notaround).
Theyears passed. We moved and my parents opened more bookstores as they wentelsewhere looking for capitalist wealth. Sometimes they did well, sometimes notso good. Macon. Columbus. Athens. Chattanooga. Finally, Brunswick. It was 1975.I had recently graduated high school. While my mom was disassembling ourhousehold to move our furnishings from the mountains of Ellijay to theflatlands of Brunswick, I helped my dad transport his shelves and books fromone end of the state to the other. We worked and slept in the store—thebuilding which my parents owned–while we hammered the wood and stocked theshelves. For a while I was my dad’s closest friend and confidant. Nearing theend of his life he had to make do with a 17-year-old son to talk to and toexchange ideas. My mom was several hundred miles away packing the household forthe move. His friends were all gone. The bright book buyers whom he countedupon for intellectual inspiration were elsewhere.
Asfar as I knew—although we never spoke about it much—he still hated Jews. Ifigured he must, since I’d never heard him renounce it.
Oneday we were talking. The store had taken shape and was a day or two away fromopening. Brunswick was not the kind of town I figured as a successful locationfor a bookstore. All of the other towns where he’d found profits had beenlarger population centers. I was worried things would completely fall apart andmy parents would end up broke. But through all of this worry on my part wewould sit and talk when we weren’t hammering shelves together or alphabetizingbooks by author.
Thatday, for some reason, my dad had been talking about Oscar Levant. He reallyliked that guy. I recall interrupting him.
“OscarLevant? You like Oscar Levant?”
My dad nodded. “Yes.”
“Wait…he’sJewish.” Other than the name being a giveaway my mom was obsessed withinforming me if a successful person was a Jew. It was her secret way ofcountering my father’s propaganda, I have always assumed.
“Whywould you like him if he’s a Jew?”
“Theguy was funny. And smart. And witty. And talented.”
“Anda Jew,” I added. “How can you like him if he was a Jew?”
“Ijust told you why.”
Thepuzzle of my dad never ceased to confuse me. “You were talking about Edward G.Robinson yesterday. You told me you liked him, too. And I know he was a Jew,also. Why do you like him”
I’ll never forget my dad smiling, then. He didn’t smile a lot. “I figure anyguy that ugly who can become a major movie star has to be worth admiring.”
Wetalked about other things and that was that.
Acouple of weeks later, though, the subject came up again. The store was open.It was producing income. We had been eating some lunch in the shop and my dadhad begun to tell me of living in New York City when he had met my mom.
“Tellme something,” I said.
“Mama’sfather was a Jew. Was he inherently evil, too?” Charles Kurtz, I knew, had beena performer as a young man. In Vaudeville at one time, I was led to understand.He was an acrobat and worked with a partner. But he wasn’t just an acrobat—hewas a singing acrobat. They wouldwork their tumbling act and these two muscle-bound Jews would end theperformance by singing to the audience. After that, he’d opened a small grocerystore that he’d run before dying of cancer while still a relatively young man, leavingbehind a wife and seven kids. “How could an acrobat who became a grocer beevil?”
Mydad’s back stiffened. I’d been sitting behind him on a stool when I had said this. Hewas in a chair and he half turned toward me, the sandwich in his right hand.“Your mother’s father was a good man. He was very sweet. Don’t ever, ever sayanything bad about your grandfather.”
Mydad didn’t live a lot longer after that. He neglected his health terribly,having grown up in a time and place where you didn’t go to see a doctor unlessyou were about to die. And he was about to die, but he didn’t get a chance tosee a doctor before it happened. Hearts tend to fail like that, sometimes.
Butone day we were there again, in the store, our heads together conversing liketwo old pals. My dad had been telling me of a book he’d just finished aboutCharlie Chaplin and some of the good things Chaplin had done in his life.
“Ithought you didn’t like Chaplin,” I said. Chaplin apparently would often tellpeople he was a Jew, even though he wasn’t. Or the public would think it forsome reason or another, my dad included.
“Ididn’t like him for the past eight years because I thought he was a Jew,” mydad told me. “But he wasn’t a Jew, and I wasted eight years hating him becauseof that.”
Ijust stared at him. He sat there stoically looking down the long rows of hisbookstore—the last bookstore he would ever own.
“So, you don’t think Jews aren’t evil,” I said.
“No.”The silence of the store around us, the dust, the smell of old pulp. “No, I do not.”
|My mom’s parents. From what I understand, around this time my grandfather was a performing–apparently a singing!–acrobat. Wish I knew more about that act.|
Since our last move this is the only photo of my mom that is not packed away.
Same thing here. Photos of my mom’s sisters are all packed up except for these two sent to me via Internet some months ago from a wedding many decades ago (1930s?). Here, my mom’s sisters Florris, and Verna.