FROM THE CEO
By Daniel S. Mariaschin
B’nai B’rith Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer
In 1955, just before I entered the first grade, we moved from Englewood, New Jersey, to Swanzey, New Hampshire.
To go from the center of the Jewish universe–the New York metropolitan area–to a region with some 25 Jewish families, represented a major transition.
In New Jersey, we had Jewish neighbors on our block; in New Hampshire, there were but four Jewish families in our semi-rural town of about 3,000 people, just outside the small city of Keene. Kosher food? Readily accessible before we moved; but when we were in New England, my uncle in Boston sent a box of meat once a month on the bus from Boston, 85 miles away. Organized Jewish life? In New Jersey, the Jewish Community Center was a 15-minute walk from our house; in Keene, the small synagogue, housed in a grand, former house on a tree-lined street, was the center of activity for everything Jewish.
So why the move? My parents had an opportunity to purchase a women’s clothing store and a chance to run their own business. My mother, an immigrant from Lithuania in the early years of the last century, was raised in Maine, so the return to New England was not so difficult. My father, who emigrated from Russia, was raised in Brooklyn and always loved to vacation in Maine, with its rocky coastline and fresh air. And we had relatives in Boston, close enough to reach if need be.
To call our Jewish community a minority, would be an understatement. There were other small ethnic communities in our area, but they were all bound, in one way or another, religiously with the rest of the population. I was, for a time, the only Jewish student in my school, later to be joined by several others a bit younger than me.
School would no sooner open in September than I would be out for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Christmas/Chanukah season always presented the same dilemma: how to explain to my friends that I didn’t receive gifts under a decorated tree but around a menorah, which we lit for eight nights. In the third grade, my teacher asked me to present the story of the Maccabees to our class, which I did, notwithstanding my uneasiness at being front and center different than all my classmates.
Not too far removed from the Holocaust, I can recall telling my first-grade teacher that relatives of mine were killed by the Nazis. It was a revelation I was to make at various points during my schooling over the years.
As I look back, I realize that you can make a Jewish life wherever you are, and it need not be in the midst of a large urban environment. In our house, our table talk frequently revolved around Jewish subjects. My father would regale me with stories from his upbringing in the shtetl; my mother would do the same about her childhood in Bangor, Maine, where her father was president of the synagogue. Israel was always at the center of our conversations, made all the more relevant because of our relatives who lived there. During most of our years in Keene, we had a rabbi, and there was a small Hebrew school, and my bar mitzvah took place in that tiny synagogue.
My parents had to keep the store open on Friday nights, the biggest shopping day. But as soon as they came home, we lit candles and recited Kiddush. The store was closed on the high holidays, and my father made sure to keep me close by in our small sanctuary, lest I wander out to play ball on the synagogue’s front lawn.
My classmates and their parents and many of my teachers were open-minded, welcoming and supportive to the only Jewish kid in their midst. Those classmates, to this day, are still my closest friends. At one point, when our old synagogue was sold, my father taught Hebrew School classes in the Unitarian Church. And that year, we held High Holiday services (crosses covered) at the Salvation Army building.
We did encounter some anti-Semitism; I’d hear taunts sometimes in the hallways or on the playground, and my parents might hear an occasional comment in the store. As I look back, I think much of it came from stereotypes passed down over generations and from the fact that, for many people, our family or the few others in town were the first Jews they had ever actually encountered.
My grade school principal occasionally stopped for a cup of coffee at a drug store fountain near our shop (owned, by the only Jewish pharmacist in town) where my parents also went for an afternoon coffee. Upon hearing from my mother about one such playground incident, he assured her he wouldn’t tolerate it. And he didn’t.
I like to think of my family’s story as unique, but as I look around, it was repeated in many corners of the United States. A look at a listing of B’nai B’rith lodges in the 1950s shows Jews in places like Gonzalez, Texas, Fremont, Neb., and Corry, Pa. Jewish life in small-town America centered around the synagogue and the dinner table (and, if the community was bigger than ours, perhaps a B’nai B’rith lodge) but those two anchors were often more than enough to sustain one’s identity in the midst of a much broader world.
Demographic patterns have brought many Jewish newcomers to our town in the decades since we left, attracted by the environment and the quality of life. Our synagogue now has over 100 members, four times what it was in 1955.
Like thousands of other Jews, I left the small town for opportunities and a career elsewhere. Notwithstanding everything since, those formative Jewish years gave me a perspective on the world that informs me to this day.