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My father liked to bellow his melancholy Yiddish songs as he bathed, his rich baritone entertaining our Protestant  neighbors who had barely recovered from his noisy Ford pickup. My Polish immigrant dad taught me his favorites—- “My Cousin The Greenhorn” and a “Letter to My Momma” –both melodies remembering the exodus of Eastern European Jews in the early 20th century.

Only five Jewish families lived in Santa Maria, CA when we settled there in 1937, when I was five. We were sort of like The Joads, moving from Bakersfield, my birthplace, to Sacramento, to Salinas, Willy, my 45-year-old uneducated dad, a very smart peddler; and  Annabelle, my mother, 40, proud that she had been a bookkeeper at one of New York City’s finest department stores, B Altman’s. But those were Depression years and the only work my dad knew was buying and selling hides and wool, and metals. So– with my mother’s money — they finally bought the Santa Maria Pipe and Salvage Co. on Main Street.

For many years I thought Yiddish was our trio’s private language. My parents worked together where my mother donned her respectable smock, answered the telephone, and kept the books.  Only she and Donna Mae’s mother were working women. I often wished my mom stayed at home to bake cookies, and that my dad wore a white shirt and tie like Chester Adams, my friend Lois’s father, who was the respectable manager of Santa Maria’s PG&E.

All my folks’ business talk– and arguments — sounded doubly angry in Yiddish. In our small kitchen they used their best creative vocabulary! I covered my ears as the pitch swelled and drew circles in my mashed potatoes, waiting for peace. After dinner my dad and I played casino, with his Yiddish asides informing my mother that he had to cheat to win as my card-playing improved.

When my mom and I took the Greyhound bus to Los Angeles, it was a different story. Especially when we visited Venice and Santa Monica where our Jewish friends would flee Bakersfield’s outrageous summer heat. Yiddish speakers promenaded the boardwalks overlooking the Pacific; they cracked rich and playful innuendos I had heard at home, and, feeling part of the pack, I joined the laughter of my extended family; no matter I didn’t get the whole story.

My dad loved L.A . and the live entertainment at the Orpheum Theatre! Bawdy and zaftig Sophie Tucker was his true love, especially when she shimmied, singing “Meine Yiddische Mame.”  Oy Vey! My mother would shake her grey head as she watched his delight.

Since he was illiterate in English, dad’s news came from the Santa Maria Theatre’s “March of Time,” F.D.R.’s radio talks, and from my mom and me reading aloud from the local daily. Although my mother loved the Reader’s Digest (abridged version), her real desire — movie magazines — cluttered our front room. We were first in line at the drug stores when Ginger and Fred and Tony Martin and Cyd Charisse arrived. Although Hollywood was a slow 200-mile trip south on the 101, our New York relatives thought MGM was next door, so dutifully we piled into our respectable Buick to visit the stars and eat smoked white fish at Yiddish delis.

****

Without much drama a young woman in sombre gray, carrying a battered satchel, walks on stage. When the music begins, she puts down her suitcase, and starts to sing:  Only a few notes and I recognize her melody: my father’s “Di Grine Cuzine” —-”My Cousin the Greenhorn.”

My tears flow: I have never heard anyone but my dad sing this song, and never with such distress;  but I learn the singer has a right to cry: her cousin arrived in America like many immigrants believing the streets were paved with gold, but not for her! In this version of the song several years later, worn out and penniless, she is ready to return home.

As I sit in one of the historic Eastside Yiddish theatres not far from New York’s Tenement Museum, I wish my father were my seat-mate, and that he and I could join in a duet. He worked very hard – seven days a week – to achieve financial success in the United States. To this day I have not forgotten that, thanks to my parents, I, too, am part of the American Dream.

Fortunately, with my computer I have reconnected with my father and his Yiddish songs. Sophie Tucker, the Andrew Sisters with their WWII popular “Bei Mir Bist du Shein” ; klezmer, chassidic, and tango versions of “Di Grine Cuzine” resound throughout my apartment. And if you want a real treat, there’s Billie Holiday’s 1956 rendition of “Meine Yiddische Mame.”

©Ruby Bernstein, 2013

Ruby Bernstein, BAWP ‘74 and ’83, lives in Oakland, CA. where she serves on the city’s Library Advisory Commission.

One Response to “Legacy by Ruby Bernstein”

  1. Audrey Fielding Says:

    Thank you Ruby. The old family stories are so wonderful as we reach an age when we can see them more clearly…or at least get a better sense of what they mean in the grand scheme of things. I enjoyed this bit of memoir.

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