a literary review
My Uncle Sonny’s last meal was stuffed cabbage rolls. As a guy with a very Jewish stomach, I find that strangely comforting. My Uncle Sonny wasn’t even remotely Jewish. That morning he’d been transported home on the authority of his doctors who sensed the end and wanted him to exit the world on familiar ground. And he died later that night of a blood clot to the brain.
I didn’t know that doctors thought such things back in 1939. Maybe they were more compassionate—more realistic about their chances of keeping a doomed patient alive. Uncle Sonny had rheumatic fever and had contracted pneumonia that week. His poor heart couldn’t take the stress, and, of course, the brain clot finished him.
I can see my grandmother, in those last few hours, taking care of her only son, a college senior. My grandmother was a “doer,” and she would not have stood around a kitchen table or at a bedside fretting. She certainly would not have been immobilized by a fear of what she couldn’t control. I can see the path she surely wore on the hardwood floor between the kitchen and her Sonny’s bedroom. She covers him with blankets, making sure he’s warm enough. She brings him water, ginger ale, anything he wants. And in doing so, she passes by my mother, who is just six years old then. Maybe my grandmother doesn’t really see her little girl, focused as she is on her son who had hoped to graduate that spring.
I don’t know if my grandmother had the time or presence to wonder what my mother was seeing or thinking. But I do know what my mother remembers about the last day of her brother’s life:
“When he got home that day, my mother asked him what he wanted her to cook for him. Without hesitation, he said he wanted Ida Rosen to make stuffed cabbage rolls. He adored her stuffed cabbage. So my mother called Ida, who lived across the street, and she went to stuffing cabbage. He ate his last meal around 6:00 that evening.”
My grandmother didn’t cook much. She tended to supervise and leave the hands-on chores to my mother. My grandmother knew how to make coconut cakes, fruit cakes, fried chicken, and I see her now standing in our kitchen making sure that all the fruit is chopped just right—that the chicken is fried in proportionate amounts of Crisco. I’m sure she would have been glad to cook anything for Uncle Sonny, and I’ll always wonder whether she resented him, or Ida Rosen, for depriving her of this last chance. Of course, she never told me this story—never once described to me the death of the uncle I never knew.
I also wonder if my Methodist grandmother harbored any resentment toward Ida Rosen for being Jewish. But I think this is my own worry, my own fear that my grandmother might have been a bigot. I have no evidence of this. While my grandmother faithfully gave her time to her church, she never preached the Protestant gospel at anyone. She loved her church but didn’t seem to me to be particularly religious. In her waning years, she watched Sunday morning religious shows like “A Lamp Unto My Feet,” rather than attending morning service. I know, too, that her favorite hymn was “How Great Thou Art,” sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford.
But I don’t remember her ever saying anything negative about Jewish people, my father’s side of the family, or any other ethnic group. My grandmother offered her house for my parents’ wedding and even agreed without opposition to having them married by a Rabbi, a stipulation insisted upon by my other grandmother who refused to attend the ceremony otherwise. To see the wedding pictures of that occasion, with everyone smiling, you’d never dream that my father’s mother refused to attend all engagement parties and negotiated the wedding down to the last detail. If this bothered my mother’s mother, she never let on. And she welcomed my father into her home, literally, for this is where my parents spent forty-five of the forty-eight years of their marriage.
I remind my mother of Uncle Sonny, she says. He loved movies; he kept journals; he was the first in the family to attend college—the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He was a writer and a scholar—an artist and a would-be architect.
“Ida Rosen thought the world of him, too. After her daughters were born, she used to say that she wished they could have known my brother,” Mom says. “It was too bad. He was so sick and the doctors really couldn’t do any more for him.”
~ ~ ~
I’m amazed when I think of this place and time: Bessemer, Alabama, in the 1930’s. Bessemer was a mining town, a suburb of Birmingham surrounded by hills full of ore and limestone and nurtured economically by US Steel and TCI. Bessemer was dominated early on by Scotch-Irish immigrants, but if you check the city directories back in the twenties and thirties, you’ll find other names—many of which you might not expect or even be able to pronounce. Names like Boackle, Koikos, Contorno, Carnaggio.
Ida Rosen’s family owned I. Rosen, a fine clothing store on Bessemer’s most elite street, Second Avenue. There were other Jewish businesses nearby, like Erlich’s Department Store, Pizitz, Picard’s, and up the street, The Kartus Korner. Other Jewish families in town—the Sokols, the Leftkovits, the Cherners, the Sachs, the Greens, the Becks, and the Beckers—were enough to make up two religious congregations for many years. One of these, Temple Beth-El, lasted until the late 1960s, though services were conducted by lay leaders by then. The building still stands on Sixth Avenue and Seventeenth Street. Though the Holy Faith and Apostolic Temple now meets there, the recently-uncovered Hebrew letters reveal what it used to be.
I drove past the building last week as some sort of service was ending. When I was a kid, I knew that catty-cornered from the synagogue was St. Aloysius Catholic Church. I knew St. Aloysius was Catholic, too. But out of blindness or ignorance, I never saw the building catty-cornered from St. Aloysius. And I don’t know why.
Many of my friends attended St. Aloysius and were of Italian, Greek, and Lebanese descent. Though my father’s family was Jewish, I knew little-to-nothing about the Jewish faith or culture during my early life. No one told me about Bessemer’s Jewish synagogue, its Jewish life, until my mother, prompted by my question as to whether she and Dad had experienced any anti-Semitism in the city, surprised me with this knowledge just over fifteen years ago. When she began listing all the Jewish family names, I was even more stunned at my own ignorance and naivete. It never occurred to me that these people were Jewish. It never occurred to me to even consider that they were Jewish. Outside of my own father and grandmother, and a few other extended family members living in distant Birmingham, Jews for me were a lost, nonexistent tribe—until I left Bessemer and got far enough away to realize that the religion and culture were far richer and more widespread than I ever knew. Like so many literary Southerners, I had to leave home to appreciate the variety of my earlier life. Like so many young people who think they know their history, I had to incorporate humility into my perspective of my past.
“No, I never saw any anti-Semitism in Bessemer. People here treated the Jewish families well.”
“But how many Jews were there, Mom?”
And then she showed me. We drove around, and she pointed out Jews living all up and down the neighborhoods of Bessemer. I’d never known they existed.
Today as I see the uncovered Hebrew letters of the former Jewish house of worship, I wonder if Bessemer’s citizens know what they’re seeing, if they ever knew. Are my mother’s views on the minimal-to-non-existent anti-Semitism in Bessemer accurate? I hate to doubt her, but could she really have known what her friends and acquaintances said out of her presence? Could there really be no anti-Semitism in a city which, at least through the 1950s and maybe for a few years after, had posted along US Highway 11 (for decades, the main highway leading from Birmingham into Bessemer), a sign from the United Klans of America “welcoming” everyone to Bessemer? The sign was posted right by the ones from the Chamber of Commerce and Kiwanis Club.
In the late 1990s, I wrote an essay on Bessemer’s Jewish history and interviewed many of the town’s former Jewish residents. Their stories were funny and made me newly love and appreciate Bessemer. Arnold Lefkovits told of his father’s winning the annual Bessemer Jaycees Christmas Light display. Jackie Becker remembers his sister’s being on the cheerleading squad of Bessemer High School. Everyone I interviewed believed that, here, they were accepted as Jews.
I discovered some thought that they could never get as close to their friends as they wanted. One interviewee remembered that his family wanted to move into a certain part of Bessemer, but that neighborhood had a covenant restricting Jews from living there.
Literature and histories of the Southern-Jewish experience will explain how Jewish southerners coexisted with Blacks and Whites—how the Blacks might have trusted the Jews more than they did non-Jewish Whites because the Jews were “different.” As the documentary, Delta Jews, explains, many Jewish southerners embraced values associated with the Old Order of the South, believing that they had more in common with Christian southerners than they did with northern Jews. Which helps explain, I think, why I find this particular story so fascinating: the story of the Jewish engagement party that my mother, my grandmother, and Miss Ida Rosen gave for Miss Ida’s cousin and her Yankee-Jewish fiancée.
“So, Miss Ida calls my mother one day and tells her about this engagement party. That fifty or so New York relatives will be attending, not to mention all the Rosens from around here, and the other friends and neighbors whom she wants to invite. ‘Mrs. Terry,’ Ida says, ‘What kind of party should I throw to welcome everyone?’ So my mother thought for a minute. ‘Ida, let’s have a good old-fashioned Southern barbecue!’”
According to my mother—newly married herself (this was the early 1950s)—she and my grandmother began formulating the menu for this summer barbecue, which was eventually held on the grounds of the new Rosen estate on Clarendon Avenue. The mansion was a white, two-story Victorian that comprised two lots covering half of a city block.
They ran the menu by Miss Ida, who approved it all with gratitude and pride. I don’t know how religious any of these Jews were. I do know that the Bessemer’s synagogue was Conservative. Certainly not every Jew in town kept kosher; many attended the Reform temple in Birmingham. But for the engagement party, no dietary restrictions would be followed.
Pork spare ribs
Homemade peach ice cream
How you respond to this list is surely a test of whether you can be Southern and Jewish. Or at least it puts you on the road to reconciliation.
And now imagine this: a pastiche of black maids and white female socialites grilling and basting meat for hours in the hot, Alabama sun. Imagine the churning ice cream machine—hand-cranked—in the thick Alabama humidity.
“Everyone ate themselves silly, too,” my mother says today, her fondness for this memory as apparent as anything I’ve ever heard her say. “Those Yankees ate like they had never tasted anything so good before, and you know that they hadn’t either!”
A good old-fashioned Southern-Jewish barbecue, in 1950’s Bessemer, Alabama, co-hosted and planned by Miss Ida Rosen and my grandmother and mother.
“And your Daddy was there too, eating ribs and ice cream and helping to clean up after!”
According to my mother, my Dad was a welcome guest at the party. Though not a gregarious man by nature, he did possess the Southern gift of carrying on hearty conversation. And yes, he did eat pork ribs, and he ate baked ham too. He also relished a hot pastrami sandwich on rye. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, my father never shrank from being a Southerner, but then he never waved any Rebel flags either. He felt at home in Bessemer, but I think the one thing that transcended any potential problem with his Jewish-Southern identity was his dedication to and worship of the University of Alabama football team.
Just a year before this Southern-Jewish barbecue, my parents married on a mid-autumn Saturday night. On the afternoon of his wedding, my father was quite nervous, but not necessarily due to his rapidly-approaching nuptials. No, what caused his anxiety was the football game he was listening to on his bedroom radio; Alabama versus Virginia Tech. My mother, not a Crimson Tide fan at the time, nevertheless rejoiced that Alabama won that day. So maybe Alabama football was my Dad’s religion which, of course, made him like most Southern men of his age. Yet he also took his Judaism seriously. He and my mother attended temple services on at least two Friday evenings per month. He spent all day in temple on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, fasting for both. And during Passover, my bread-loving father substituted his daily matzoh, making sure to smear this “bread of affliction” with butter and grape jelly. So in the funny way that the reserved South does welcome, albeit often grudgingly, people of virtually all ethnic stripes, it maintained a home for my native-Southerner, Jewish father, with all his loves, for the entirety of his life.
As much as I get pleasure from hearing the story of the Southern-Jewish barbeque, I know the other Bessemer, too. I grew up in the civil rights era when schools were being desegregated, when boycotts of downtown businesses, public pools, and amusement parks left all of us tense and afraid. I remember when the swimming pool at Roosevelt Park where I had taken lessons the summer before was cemented over to prevent integrated swimming. And unless you were willing to drive to a public lake some ten miles away or belonged to a private club, that meant no swimming at all during Bessemer’s sweltering summers. It meant the swirling garden hose.
And yet, how does this tension and fear explain Norman Lefkovits’ award for the best Christmas lights display? That a “shochet” ritually slaughtered chickens in neighborhoods on Sixth and Clarendon Avenues? That the Bright Star, a James Beard-award-winning restaurant, started by a Greek family back in 1908, still thrives today? Or that a Cedars of Lebanon club existed within fifteen driving minutes from downtown Bessemer?
Bessemer’s Jews, and those in other parts of the South, were willing to remain in the public sphere during the civil rights era, but found that a small town could not hold the interest or supply enough jobs—not to mention provide enough eligible marriage partners—for the younger generation. So in the 1950s and 60s, many Jewish families moved out of Bessemer or watched their children go off to college and not return.
I wonder: at the time of this engagement party, did anyone outside the Jewish community know what was going on at the Rosen estate? That rich Jews and others were mixing religions? That if you casually drove by, you’d see white and black women serving together? I know that the Klan marched through Bessemer from time to time, but on this day, no marches occurred, no crosses were burned. It was a day of unity between Blacks and Jews in my hometown. But it was only a day. Everyone knew where they came from. When the party was over, the Yankees would go back North, the Jews would return to their enclave, the Black women would return to their side of town, and whatever had happened would become a memory.
I don’t know how many who attended this celebration are still alive. Nor do I know how many told this story, and who besides my mother remembers this day. The “Bessemer Section” of The Birmingham News reported the event. It is archived in Birmingham’s Public Library. Ancient history now, it makes me wonder at the openness of a world we usually think of as being so stratified, so closed to change. But just as I feel warm about that history, I feel the encroaching coldness of my own memory—the sense of never knowing just how extensive and rich Bessemer’s Jewish history is.
I never knew my father was Jewish until I was seven years old, being driven home from school by Mrs. Shaw whose family lived down the street. I see the moment vividly.
I’m sitting in the back seat of the Shaw’s ‘61 Ford with my friend Stevie. He’s in second grade, and I’m in first. School has been in session only a month, and I’m still nervous about my place there and my ability to please my family with successful endeavors in the phonics system of reading and in basic subtraction. To me, this is a normal day, an ordinary drive home. I’m thinking of the oatmeal cookies awaiting me in our kitchen and of my mother’s reassuring presence as I sort through my homework assignments. In the driver’s seat, Mrs. Shaw, in her seemingly sweet and even more seemingly innocuous way, turns to me and says, “Your Daddy didn’t go to work today. He’ll be coming home early, after temple. You know, today is the Jewish New Year.”
Just like that. I say nothing, unable to comprehend and never suspecting that Mrs. Shaw’s tone or intention might harbor darker meanings. Stumbling out of the car upon reaching my house, I run inside.
“Mom! Is Daddy a Jew?”
My mother is in the kitchen, and my shouting startles her. She’s chopping potatoes for the beef stew we’ll eat a few hours from now. With chopping knife in hand, she stares down at me. After a minute her gaze drifts toward and out the front screen door.
“Yes, sweetheart, your Daddy is Jewish.”
And with those words, she returns to her potatoes.
I don’t ask what this means for us. For my Dad. But I know that I’ve just had a secret uncovered for me, and I’m not sure why or what it means. When he comes home that evening, my Dad hugs me as usual, and we eat the beef stew that breaks his fast. I don’t ask him then about being Jewish until a few days later. Sitting in our breakfast room after school, I see some recent photographs left on the table. In one, my Dad stands in our front yard in white undershirt and slacks, his Saturday-summer attire. As I stare at the picture, I begin crying. My mother walks in at that moment:
“What’s the matter with you, Buddy?”
I can’t tell her, though, because I don’t really know. I know that I miss my Dad even though he’s only at work, as usual. I’m thinking of all the time that I don’t get to see him, and deep down in me, I’m thinking of all that I don’t know about him.
And what it means for him to be a Jew.
By the next fall’s High Holidays, my parents must have discussed my knowledge, for on the morning of Rosh Hashanah, Dad tells me about his upcoming day—his fasting and temple devotion. He doesn’t tell me to keep this knowledge to myself, but I choose to do so anyway. Maybe it was that look on my mother’s face when I surprised her with my question.
Or maybe it was the look on Mrs. Shaw’s face when she surprised me. She must have realized that I didn’t know my father was Jewish.
So like many towns, Bessemer kept its secrets. And even when it acknowledged certain truths about itself, it didn’t always do so publicly. Jews might be your neighbors; you just might not say so aloud.
I don’t know if any Jewish families still live in Bessemer. My father died twelve years ago. Mr. Buddy Sokol, the last Jewish man I knew of who lived in Bessemer, died just a few years later. The Beth-El cemetery between Bessemer and Hueytown will be perpetually maintained, or so I’ve heard. I suppose that gives me comfort. It also brings me back to my Uncle Sonny.
What made him want stuffed cabbage rolls for his last meal, and did he know that this would be his last? How did he develop such decidedly Jewish taste? Other than Ida’s, we never had the dish. Not even my Dad liked stuffed cabbage, at least to my knowledge, though I also know that in my lifetime, no one ever prepared that delicacy for him. My first taste of it was at New York’s Second Avenue Deli. I buy it frozen, too, at my local Publix market here in South Carolina, though they seem to carry it only at Passover.
Of course, someone else, when I ask for it, always prepares it for me: my mother-in-law, an Iranian immigrant. For years, I wondered how and why she knew to make this delicacy. Never a cook, she was formerly the Superintendent of Education for all of Tehran’s public schools. And yet one evening, while my wife and I were visiting, she served us stuffed cabbage rolls instead of the usual Persian rice-stews. If it hadn’t
tasted so delicious, it might have made me wonder more about this choice.
Years later, my Iranian sister-in-law announces her own discovery.
“Both of Mom’s parents were Jewish. Apparently everyone knew that the Moazed family was Jewish back then, and it seems that our great-grandfather was a rabbi!”
Of course, this both explains a lot and makes me deeply happy. And without talking about what it all means or exactly which laws we might be violating, my wife, her mother, my daughters, and I continue to relish good Southern barbecued pork ribs too. In fact, I prepared two slabs for all of us last night according to the same recipe my mother’s mother handed down to her.
I smile as I talk to my mother about these foodways. These memories are tinged with sadness and longing for what has passed—for all who’ve passed like my Uncle Sonny, a man, I’m told, I would have adored and who is very much like me. I think now of the briny cabbage, the peppery beef mixed with onions and garlic. What a taste to savor in your last moments.
The similarity to Uncle Sonny was clear even when I was a boy. We both developed tastes beyond my Southern home. On occasion, my grandmother would look at me closely and call me to her side. In her last years, I know that her memory was at times clouded, though she never totally lost her presence of mind. She’d call out to me and I’d come. Like everyone else in the family, she referred to me as “Buddy.” But I’d come to her even when she saw someone else. Even when she called me “Sonny.”
~ ~ ~
Terry Barr is a Professor of Modern Literature and Creative Writing at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, and lives in Greenville, SC, with his wife and two daughters. He has had Creative Nonfiction essays published in such journals as Orange Quarterly, The Montreal Review, American Literary Review, moonShine review,Marco Polo Arts Magazine, scissors and spackle, Prime Number, and Subliminal Interiors. He vows to learn how to make stuffed cabbage one day but has already mastered Borsht.