Arts in New York City: Baruch College, Fall 2008, Professor Roslyn Bernstein
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An American Experience-Who She Was/Is


     Today, my grandmother, Jeannie lives in a condo in Florida. Most of her neighbors are originally from the New York area. Among her friends, there are many who also grew up on the Lower East Side and the Bronx.

       Jeannie was born on Feb. 21, 1933 on the Lower East Side. Her parents were both immigrants. Her mother, Tillie , came from Lizhensk, a village in Eastern Europe, and her father Joseph came from Russian controlled Poland. Jeannie spoke Yiddish at home, and only learned English once she went to public school. She also grew up with her maternal grandparents living in their apartment.  They were very religious people; Baba Raizl wore a wig, and Zeida Shmeil had a long beard. However, her grandmother did not think religion was as important for the younger generation; she felt there should not be that burden upon Jeannie and her two younger sisters, Sally and Sharon.

            Jeannie was the redheaded daughter of very traditional parents. Tillie went to work to make feather hats for a while, when money was tight. Neither Joseph nor Tillie had gone to high school. They were both forced to work to earn money for their families as soon as they finished eighth grade. Joseph worked as a furrier.

            After moving to the Bronx at thirteen years old, Jeannie attended Theodore Roosevelt High School on Fordham Road. “Both of my parents made a big fuss over the fact that I was going to be a high school girl.” This school was 75% Jewish, and the Bronx at this time had about 260 synagogues. Jeannie loved to stop at Howard Johnson’s after school to buy ice cream with her friends Anna Berger and Anne Millchin. This was one of the exciting things about high school, to gain some sense of independence from her very protective parents and grandparents. However, Jeannie knew what her parents expected from her, and she followed their rules.

            High school was not about fooling around. Miss Groman, as high school teachers referred to Jeannie, took a job-training curriculum. This program included courses such as bookkeeping, accounting, typing, and stenography. Tillie and Joseph fully expected this young girl to get a job straight out of high school.

            At her high school graduation, the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Rodgers and Hammerstein caused tears to well up in her father’s eyes. She graduated in 1951 at the young age of 17, and moved on to look for employment opportunities.

            The selection of which jobs Jeannie applied for was not her decision. Her father found ads in the newspapers and sent in resumes for her. He even went with her on the subway from the Bronx to Manhattan for job interviews. Joseph went up in the elevators of the prospective companies that Jeannie was interviewing for. He would sit outside in the hallway when she was talking to the interviewers. Eventually, he found her a job as an assistant bookkeeper in the garment center. Jeannie did not mind any of this, because she grew up with her father always being very protective of her. “I was an immature, naïve, and sheltered little girl.” 

            This company manufactured dresses for women. Jeannie, “a babyish girl” at the time, was asked to model one of the dresses. The bosses loved how she looked in it, so they began asking her to try on dresses in front of the buyers that would come to the showroom. She said,  “I was very sheltered, so this was very exciting to me.” She even got to keep the dresses she tried on. “I had quite a wardrobe,” she said Everyone in her apartment building in the Bronx would peek out of their windows in the mornings and whisper to each other about how nicely Jeannie
“goes dressed” to work. She would stop off at the Horn and Hardart’s Automat on her way to work and pick up a cheese danish and a coffee for just five cents.

            One night, her friend, Harriet Jacobs, called her and said that she met a nice guy in City Downtown, where she went to school. Harriet wanted Jeannie to come along on a double date with her. The boy Harriet knew had a friend named Herbie that Jeannie was set up with. They were also supposed to go out with another couple. At the last minute the girl got sick. Harriet called Jeannie and asked if she knew anyone who was free that evening to join Harold on a date. Jeannie called her friend Barbara Drogan and asked if she wanted to go out that night. Barbara said, “Sure I’ll come.”

            Right away, Jeannie noticed that Harold’s eyes were bright blue and she thought he was cute. The three couples rode together on the subway from the Bronx to Manhattan to see an off Broadway show. When they arrived at the theater they purchased tickets and made their way to their seats. First, Harriet and her date went in, and then Jeannie, but instead of Herbie her date following, Harold “accidently” ended up sitting next to her.

            Later that week, Harold called Jeannie to ask her if she would like to ride the subway with him to work, because they worked close to each other. Although Jeannie thought this was an unusual request, she agreed. They did this for a few days, and then they started meeting up for lunch, as well. Jeannie said, “I was just a kid, I didn’t know from liking and not liking.” She did not analyze her feelings, she just went along.

            A few months later the Korean War broke out. One by one, all of Jeannie’s friends were getting engaged to their boyfriends before they would leave for Korea. Harold wanted to get engaged to Jeannie as well, even though she was only 19 and he was 21. Jeannie’s father told her, “Wait till he comes back from the army and then get engaged, you’re too young.” Baba Raizl, on the other hand said, “ The best ones come along first.” Harold proposed to Jeannie in July after dating her for four months.

            After the wedding, Jeannie and Harold lived with his parents. A few months later, he was sent off to an army base in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. While he was there, Jeannie moved back into her parents’ apartment. She saw that all her friends were joining their husbands at army bases, and she wanted to be an army wife as well. However, she said,  “My parents thought Oklahoma was the wild west with cowboys and Indians. They thought there was shooting and horses there, like they saw on television.” Tillie was worried about sending her daughter across the country because ever since she came to America she had not left New York.

            Despite her parents’ concerns, Jeannie joined her husband at the army base. “I was kind of adventurous,” she said. Joseph worried about sending his daughter alone on a train, so he accompanied her to the station. Before Jeannie boarded the train, he asked a woman to keep an eye on her. For the entire three-day and two-night journey, Jeannie sat next to that woman.

            Jeannie lived in a very small house on the army base. During her stay, she met people that spoke differently than anyone she knew on the Lower East Side or the Bronx. One day, Jeannie was talking to another army wife who she became friendly with over the few months of living on the base. After a few minutes of conversing, the woman turned to Jeannie and asked, “Do you mind to show me your horns?” This woman believed that Jewish people have horns, and she wanted to know what they looked like. This really made an impression on Jeannie because she never realized that Jews would seem so strange to other people.

            Tillie sent Jeannie a jar of gefilte fish and a box of matzo so she would be able to eat this traditionally Jewish food even on an army base in Oklahoma. Jeannie loved being away from home. She gained some independence and learnt how to cook, do laundry, and wash dishes. All of these tasks had been taken care of by her mother and grandmother her whole life. This was the first time she had to make supper and take care of a home on her own. She also got to see a different America, a place away from New York City. She even took a day trip to Texas with her husband and loved it.

            After Harold’s basic training was over, he was sent to Korea. Before he left for Asia, he flew back to New York with a pregnant Jeannie on a 10-hour flight. Jeannie was excited about this because she never flew before. Her mother was worried and asked, “How will a plane stay up in the air so long?” Jeannie says about her mother,  “She did not know of such things.” When her husband was fighting in Korea, Jeannie lived with her parents, grandmother, and her two sisters. She gave birth to Steven, who did not see his father until he was a year old. Jeannie took care of her baby in the same environment she grew up in, and he had three mothers and two aunts taking care of him.

            After Harold came home, they rented an apartment around the corner from Jeannie’s parents. They lived there for a few years. In 1957, most of the young married couples began to move away from the Bronx. They no longer wanted to remain in the crowded apartment buildings where they had grown up. Harold and Jeannie moved to Bayside, Queens with Karen, their one-year-old daughter, and Steven, who was now four years old. Even though Tillie was worried about her daughter moving away, Jeannie wanted to move. She wanted to get out of the Bronx and move to a quieter neighborhood, to live in a street level, garden apartment, where she would not have to lug baby strollers up many steps.

            Jeannie’s experience in Oklahoma really shaped who she is today. She constantly thinks about this trip that she made, and the way she learned about the people living outside of New York.  This was the first real American experience she had in her life.

1 comment

1 Mary { 07.04.11 at 8:38 am }

I was only going to glance at this story but it really got my interest and I ended up reading right through. I have always found it interesting to hear about peoples lives as they were many years ago, just ordinary people. My grandmother used to tell me stories of the ‘olden days’ when i was little, I just loved to listen to her.