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.
>From The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. Copyright by Philip Roth 2004. All rights reserved.
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