The single drawback was that because Union, like Hillside, was
a Gentile working-class town, my father would most likely be the
only Jew in an office of some thirty-five people, my mother the
only Jewish woman on our street, and Sandy and I the only Jewish
kids in our school.
On the Saturday after my father was offered the promotiona
promotion that, above all, would answer a Depression family's
yearning for a tiny margin of financial securitythe four of us
headed off after lunch to look around Union. But once we were
there and driving up and down the residential streets peering out
at the two-story housesnot quite identical but each, nonetheless,
with a screened front porch and a mown lawn and a piece of
shrubbery and a cinder drive leading to a one-car garage, very
modest houses but still roomier than our two-bedroom flat and
looking a lot like the little white houses in the movies about smalltown
salt-of-the-earth Americaonce we were there our innocent
buoyancy about the family ascent into the home-owning class was
supplanted, predictably enough, by our anxieties about the scope
of Christian charity. My ordinarily energetic mother responded to
my father's "What do you think, Bess?" with enthusiasm that even
a child understood to be feigned. And young as I was, I was able to
surmise why: because she was thinking, "Ours will be the house 'where the Jews live.' It'll be Elizabeth all over again."
Elizabeth, New Jersey, when my mother was being raised there
in a flat over her father's grocery store, was an industrial port a
quarter the size of Newark, dominated by the Irish working class
and their politicians and the tightly knit parish life that revolved
around the town's many churches, and though I never heard her
complain of having been pointedly ill-treated in Elizabeth as a girl,
it was not until she married and moved to Newark's new Jewish
neighborhood that she discovered the confidence that led her to
become first a PTA "grade mother," then a PTA vice president in
charge of establishing a Kindergarten Mothers' Club, and finally
the PTA president, who, after attending a conference in Trenton on
infantile paralysis, proposed an annual March of Dimes dance on
January 30President Roosevelt's birthdaythat was accepted by
most Newark schools. In the spring of 1939 she was in her second
successful year as a leader with progressive ideasalready supporting
a young social studies teacher keen on bringing "visual education"
into Chancellor's classroomsand now she couldn't help
but envision herself bereft of all that had been achieved by her becoming
a wife and a mother on Summit Avenue. Should we have
the good fortune to buy and move into a house on any of the
Union streets we were seeing at their springtime best, not only
would her status slip back to what it had been when she was growing
up the daughter of a Jewish immigrant grocer in Irish Catholic
Elizabeth, but, worse than that, Sandy and I would be obliged to relive
her own circumscribed youth as a neighborhood outsider.
Despite my mother's mood, my father did everything he could
to keep up our spirits, remarking on how clean and well-kept
everything looked, reminding Sandy and me that living in one of
these houses the two of us would no longer have to share a small
bedroom and a single closet, and explaining the benefits to be derived
from paying off a mortgage rather than paying rent, a lesson
in elementary economics that abruptly ended when it was necessary
for him to stop the car at a red light beside a parklike drinking
establishment dominating one corner of the intersection.
There were green picnic tables set out beneath the shade trees full
with foliage, and on this sunny weekend afternoon there were waiters
in braided white coats moving swiftly about, balancing trays
laden with bottles and pitchers and plates, and men of every age
gathered at each of the tables, smoking cigarettes and pipes and cigars
and drinking deeply from tall beakers and earthenware mugs.
There was music, tooan accordion being played by a stout little
man in short pants and high socks who wore a hat ornamented
with a long feather.
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