Friday, February 19, 2021

Similar Experiences, Different Results

You can discover lots of interesting tidbits by reading obituaries—no, I do not read them to see if my absence on the page means I am still alive, as the old joke goes.

I was particularly attracted to the recent New York Times obituary of Abraham Twerski, a 90 year old, white bearded rabbi, a descendant of several Hassidic dynasties, pictured wearing a tie. Nothing unusual there, except the tie was Snoopy-themed. Turns out Rabbi Twerski, a practicing psychiatrist and authority on addiction, had a working collaboration with Charles M. Schulz, creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip. They partnered on a series of self-help books. 

All very fascinating in their own right, but what truly drew my attention was the following paragraph from Rabbi Twerski’s childhood in Milwaukee:

“Abraham was the third of five brothers, each of whom became a rabbi but was given an advanced secular education as well, earning college and graduate degrees, something very few Hasidim strive for. He attended public schools in Milwaukee, and in second grade acted in a Christmas play. When his mother visited the school, the principal thought she was there to complain; instead, she told the principal that if her son’s Jewish upbringing was not strong enough to weather a second-grade play, it was his family that had failed him (

You see, one of my wife Gilda’s strongest memories of her early life in Saratoga Springs in the 1950s paralleled Rabbi Twerski’s. She, too, was given a part in a Christmas pageant. She was supposed to bow down to the baby Jesus.

From an Orthodox household, though not strictly observant herself, Gilda’s mother objected to her daughter’s submissive role. Wouldn’t be kosher for a Jewish girl. How about a part in the ensemble, just standing around, she suggested.

The teacher thought otherwise. Kneel or be gone with you. Gilda’s stage debut was thus postponed, indefinitely as far as I know. Her vivid memories of the incident include being designated as different, required to sit by herself in the auditorium as her classmates rehearsed their parts for a month. 

Saratoga was not the most welcoming of hamlets to Jews back then. During winter, children would throw snowballs packed with stones at Jewish students exiting a school bus on their way to classes at the synagogue. Rather than  ruffle feathers with the locals, the rabbi advised quickening their pace as they got off the bus. 

Antipathy toward Jews, anti-Semitism, had a long history in Saratoga. In 1877, the manager of the Grand Union Hotel, the largest hotel in the world, denied a room to a Jewish businessman because gentile customers did not like sharing the hotel with “Israelites.” The refusal, according to Wikipedia, created a “nationwide controversy. It was the first antisemitic incident of its kind in the United States to achieve widespread publicity.”

Some 67 years later, the Grand Union Hotel was bought by a syndicate of Jewish investors, Tikvah Associates, Inc., of New York City. Gilda’s father, Irving Barasch, was president of Tikvah Associates. 

Even though Irving’s family owned two hotels in Saratoga, the Empire and the Brooklyn where kosher food was served to Jewish clientele, anti-Semitism still ran strong in the village. Within months, civic pressure forced Irving and his partners to sell the Grand Union. 

Within a handful of years the Grand Union was demolished. Ironically, part of its footprint became the site of a unit of a supermarket chain, coincidentally named Grand Union. It, too, has vanished from Saratoga.