Growing up Absurdist
For most Jewish kids, growing up meant growing up in a Jewish enclave, most of which were either in Brooklyn or the Bronx.
But not Liza.
There was no Jewish enclave in Greenwich Village, only scattered Jewish families surrounded on all sides by Catholics.
Liza how shocked some of those Christians were when she told them she had a Christmas tree.
“I thought you said you were Jewish, my friend’s mother said, and you have a tree?”
“Well, trees are,:” Liza answered, repeating what she had learned from a teacher in one of her progressive schools, “just an old winter solstice ritual to guarantee harvest.”
Liza seemed to recall the teacher calling it a pagan German ritual to insure a fertile crop the next year.
“If you’re so interested in harvest,” the woman said. “Why don’t you have a Succoth?”
She, referring to a Jewish harvest ritual usually held at the end of the summer or early fall
“We’re not religious,” Liza replied.
“Not religious? But you have a Christmas Tree. It’s disgusting.”
It was hard to be a practicing Jew in Greenwich where there were not enough Jewish families to support even one Kosher meat market, and the Hebrew school could not keep enough students in it..
Even holding synagogue was a chore, and mothers frequently yelled to the Jewish kids playing in the street to come back so that they could have the necessary number, kids who got mocked even as they put hankies on their heads and ran home.
Most of the Jews who lived in Greenwich Village during that time owned small shops and lived above or behind them – and since these were scattered throughout the 100 odd blocks of that part of down, they rarely gathered as a community. But they all knew each other, and the Jewish kids in public and private schools tended to excel, driven by some needs not evident in the rest of the population, a population of Italians and Irish, whose future prosperity lay more in the docks and warehouses, then in anything more ambitious.
The Jewish community for what it was centered on the synagogue, its sisterhood and the Hebrew school – though older Jewish boys and girls generally hung out together in each other’s homes, or went to Brooklyn or Bronx to parties with other Jews.
But was difficult to follow some of the traditions when there was no kosher butcher nearby and women had to go all the way to the East Side to purchase meat or keep the Sabbath when Saturday in a primarily Christian neighborhood was the busiest day of the week for local shopkeepers,
In the 1930s, many Jews in Greenwich Village gave up pretense of maintaining a Jewish house, many times bringing in non-Kosher meats, certainly giving up the traditions that required separate cooking pots during Passover.
While most families did their best to honor Jewish dietary laws, many families ceased to go to the temple on Sabbath.
None the less, these families continued to follow traditions of for birth, marriage, death and circumcision. Families were conscientious in making sure their boys had Bar Mitzvah.
Liza insisted on having a Christmas Tree.
“All hung with tinsel and home-made popcorn balls, little silvery glass birds and with tails that clip onto the branch-ends and drag it down with weight so that the tree is like a dropping candelabra,” Liza said.
“You can’t put that cross at the top,” her mother said. “I draw the line there.”
But Liza argued that it was so pretty with its bleeding heart.
“No,” her mother said. “A tree is a tree, but a cross is something else.”
Then, Liza started to sign a religious Christmas carol she apparently had heard on the street.
“What are you singing?” her mother asked.
Liza said seeing all the Santa Clauses out on the streets caused her a childhood schizophrenia, and she dragged her mother to midtown to see the department store Santa who was usually on the fifth floor.
“I had to haul my mother through lingerie and stockings, furs and ski clothes, house wares, towels and trash before we found him at the end of a line of children,” Liza recalled.
“There is no Santa Claus,” her mother said. “See for yourself. He is just one of the vast unemployed. See there, under his suit, you can see his hairy chest.”
Liza thought it was unfair, and would get swept into his lap and he would ask, “What do you want for Christmas, little girl?”
She said she didn’t care if there was no Santa Claus as long as she got the bicycle or doll or train or whatever else it was that she wanted.
The Greenwich Village to which Liza’s family moved in the 1930s was not the same place it had been prior to War World I when it had been a breeding ground and meeting place of anarchists and revolutionaries. After the influx of Italians early in the century, the population began to decline as families moved out. By the 1920s, public schools began to close.
The Red Scare of the early 1920s – in reaction to the Russian Revolution of 1917 – had rooted out many of the old guard, much in the same way as the McCarthy hearings which later got Liza’s father fired from his job at City College – would do in the 1950s..
Greenwich Village of the 1930s became something of a political graveyard for has-been radicals, a last refuge for Party faithful who because of the betrayal of Stalin, had no place else to go.
While the echo of old organizing songs still reverberated there, it had now to compete with the sound of a wrecking ball as the city began to demolish sections of the neighborhood – especially at its southerly end -- to make way for gentrification that would blossom fully some five decades later.
Greenwich Village didn’t lose its rebellious character, it simply evolved into something new after World War I, a gathering place for people fed up with traditional values and social control.
Most of those who came to the Village from outside came to escape their former communities, families or themselves, one source said.
But the new protest came in new forms, art and alcohol and a kind of inelastic world view that rejected other options, choosing to sit on the side lines and watch the world self destruct – but as would become evident when the Beats rose out of this social stew – the rebels, using art and Freud as cover – were self-destructing, too, through sex, gin and later drugs – into which Liza would wander in her own pursuit of art as a teen.
But as rebellious as some of its inhabitants were, there were some hold outs from the Village’s past when this has been an icon of American values. The turn of the century invasion of the Irish followed by the much more massive invasion of the Italians had made the village into a foreign land on American soil, one deeply entrenched in the Catholic faith.
Indeed, at the turn of the century, the blocks south of Washington Square such as Bleeker and McDougal – which would become the new Paris in America during the 1950s and the place that first attracted me as a boy – was largely a mass of tenements largely occupied by Italian immigrant families spilling into the streets.
The opening of the Holland Tunnel required the widening of roads leading to and from it, and these streets such as 7th Avenue opened up what had largely been for two centuries prior to that, a somewhat excluded hamlet.
Even then, the Village remained invisible to the masses of people who passed through it daily, going from far downtown financial district uptown to the shopping areas. Seventh Avenue was in fact like a highway filled with gas stations, repair shops, auto supply stores and food carts. The Hudson Tubes – later called the PATH – allowed access through the Village as did the ferries, trolley lines, elevated highways and subways. But this traffic largely spilt the village into unusual groups of blocks without fundamentally changing how life was lived there.
Gentrification began just about the time Liza’s family moved into the Village in the 1930s with the first sign of taller buildings rising as high as 15 to 18 stories, attracting a higher class of resident that from what was typical there. Lisa’s family, however, eventually settled into a grouping of better kept tenements on West 15th Street that had been constructed around the turn of the century to accommodate the flood of immigrants.
But not all of the newcomers wanted to live in high rise apartments.
Many saw the village as “quaint” and began to convert some of the existing buildings. Not all of these had money and were often seen as people with taste but not a lot of cash. This included artists and poorly paid professionals such as Liza’s parents, both of whom were teachers.
Liza saw her mother as both, once describing her as a ‘sometimes nursery teacher and a full time artist manqué.”
By the mid-1930s, the percentage of professionals and semi-professionals made up a large part of Greenwich Village’s population than any other part of Manhattan.
But the village was divided.
Tenement dwellers generally worked as truck or taxi drivers, longshoremen or craftsman. The women of these mostly Italian households tended to work in factories at the fringes of the village or elsewhere in the city.
The newcomers, however, brought new needs to the village and so attracted a different kind of business – mostly services – to meet those needs.
The village that Liza grew up in was a strange place, criss crossed with busy roads and demolition ongoing around its edges. Because many of the families had moved out, it was populated with many more men than women, men who mostly made their living off the ports as seamen or longshoremen.
Liza, on her way too or from school, would still see an occasional woman seated on the stoops to the tenements sewing paper flowers or carrying the boxes of completed flowers to local shops to sell. But like the beaded trinkets that hippies used to sell in the mid-1960s and which Liza herself sold at The Renaissance Faire in Los Angeles for several years – demand for the needle work done by these women – which had been prominent a decade earlier -- had waned. Most of garment work was being done in midtown in the newly formed garment district. A few of the shops still hired women do to work at home, but this was for more practical items such as stitching to men’s dress coats and embroidery. But even this was rare.
The influx of newcomers had also changed the nature of the village which like small towns elsewhere everybody knew everybody else. In the village Liza’s family moved into, people living on the same block or even the same building almost never saw each other, and liked it that way.
Liza claimed her parents sent her to expensive private schools as a girl where she learned concepts such as “justice” and the “right of individuality.”
As progressives, Alex and Hattie had no choice, since options in New York City were limited, and even more so in a Catholic-dominated Greenwich Village where many of the public schools were closing leaving Catholic schools as the only other option – and these were no place for a Jew where Italians barely tolerated Jews, and Irish hated them, and for a Jewish girl coming of age, both groups would have seen her as sexually available..
At that time, two thirds of children from Greenwich Village attended public schools – but only because their Catholic families could not afford the tuition and other fundraising necessities the Catholic schools required. And City Hall was suspected of closing some of the public schools in order to force these parents to attend Catholic schools and keep them financially viable.
But there was good reasons for closing the public schools, too.
The massive invasion of immigrants that had come at the turn of the century had increased enrollment in schools, forcing the construction of new schools through the 1920s. One school built in 1912 had a student population of 2,700 in 1920, taught in two shifts. But by the 1930s, families were moving out to other parts of the city or other states, leaving many of these schools more than half empty.
City officials, however, did overtly support the Catholic Schools by closing the 7th and 8th grades in public schools, forcing parents to send their kids to catholic school or to the even more expensive progressive schools – which traditional families would never do.
The progressive schools to which Liza went evolved out of an intense dissatisfaction with the educational direction public and even Catholic schools had taken. Alex and Hattie both being educators would not have wanted their only child to go to public or Catholic school where the teaching methods had either already been discredited or were out of touch with the social changes underway in the world.
Progressive schools offered highly individualized instruction, almost complete opposite of what went on in their public and Catholic counterparts.
Students were encouraged to do things, “hand work,” as one source claims, “rather than headwork,” and these schools avoided imposing social values on their students, but tried to cultivate a more individualized standard that grew out of each individual student.
Citizenship was not taught as it was in public schools, nor was respect for law and authority as was taught in their Catholic counterpart.
The approach to art different from public schools as well. Instead of studying recognized masters, students were encouraged to seek their own vision before they were exposed to work of others, thus – in theory – avoiding imitation.
These progressive schools, like the Ancient Greeks, did not completely trust home life many student had to endure, and often extended their hours – even creating nursery schools to keep the students longer. These schools also served lunch and let younger students take naps, offering ad controlled recreation – dealing with problem children they encountered. Sometimes, school officials even visited the homes of these children.
For Liza growing up in Greenwich Village, it was a totally different experience from what most kids who attended other schools where kids learned things long out of date. Public and Catholic schools tended to focus on teaching English and stilted lessons of the past that were out of touch with reality. Most kids, including Liza, were picking up lingo from movies, radio and the press. In the street, any kid that spoke correct English was likely to get beat up as a sissy.
One progressive school that Liza probably attended for a time and that her mother mostly likely taught at was Greenwich House, which adapted some of the programs of other progressive schools and made an effort adapt them for lower income students, establishing several nursery schools at various locations by the end of the 1930s – and offered training in the arts, music and craft, and may explain in part Liza’s wife range of abilities that include music criticism, the ability to draw, write and work fabric.
Her education in progressive school also prepared her to embrace the Beat movement when she encountered it in the late 1940s, and other movements in the decades that followed. She just wouldn’t trod a too well-trodden path and wanted to make own trail, which of course, she did.