This one is an oddity. No point to be made here, no fingers pointed, no conclusions. Just an odd set of memories. The events, as best I know, are true. The names have been changed, to protect… well, me.
When I used to tell people that I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in a small town in Tennessee, in the 1960’s, I was only partly lying. That is, I didn’t grow up in much of a neighborhood at all, just one in a row of five or six houses, red or yellow brick homes all, that lay along a state highway maybe a mile from a center of this small town, which had a population of about five thousand people at that time. I was an only child. My parents moved from that house when I was about six or seven; the home itself was later sold again and carted away somewhere, I seem to remember hearing. In its place was built, during the grand expansion of the interstate highway system in the 1960’s, a cloverleaf exit ramp, so that almost every day now I drive through the physical space where I grew up. Some cyclic connection of lines of ley and power, some ritual dance through the shadowplay of time and space, a mostly unconscious ritual performed using the body and the car.
I don’t remember any kind of “racial prejudice” from my childhood town, although I’m sure today’s PC pundits would’ve found some way to make it awful; no anti-semitism, no real black-white resentment, only a natural separation of peoples according to culture, race, and type. When I was a small child, I embarrassed my mother, probably, on seeing what may have been my first Negroes, exclaiming, “Look, Mother, chocolate people!” in the grocery store. There was a small section of the town called “colored town” where in later years we would all go for barbequed goat on what became Martin Luther King Day. I do remember the first day when they integrated my school; it must have been 1964, I know it was the beginning of second grade for me. The elementary school grades in those days were still segregated according to ability – high, medium and low, three classes per grade (and we had large classes – I seem to remember about 45 in mine!). I also seem to remember that they deposited three Black kids in each of the classes, and I definitely remember their names. There was one boy, and there were two girls whose names would seem like racist parodies were I to list them here. I don’t remember what became any of them, although I only seem to remember the one girl graduating with us a decade later.
What struck me soon thereafter, in my odd child’s mind, was an irony – the Black kids were moved from a brand new school that had just been built from them, into our aging one which was nowhere near as nice. That new school became the new school for the retarded kids, what became later knows as special education, where my friend and classmate’s mother was the odd Principal. But that’s another story entirely.
Anway… my Jews. Really there was just the one extended family; the grandparents, the progenitors, came from somewhere in Europe, somehow connected with the War; I guess I had the impression later, when I became capable of such impressions, that they had fled Hitler’s Germany, although I don’t know how early, or from where. They certainly must have come out with their assets, as they seemed well-off; I think he, the grandfather, had owned a successful business, I think in the garment industry, and if I am not mistaken, I still see signs for some remnant of that establishment today, albeit in another town. It could just be a coincidence. Their name was a variation of one you see in connection with the big department stores of the time. I don’t have much memory of the man himself; he may even have been deceased by the time the other memories were formed. We called her Bubba, which I was told mean Grandmother, and I remember her being kind; I vaguely remember visiting her in her home, next to ours, with my mother. My mother was German, and had been raised by Pennsylvania Dutch stepparents in northern Ohio; she spoke some German as a child and as a young adult, and I don’t know if that was troubling or a bond between them. I remember some echo of Yiddish, and cookies.
The oddest part of these memories, incredibly faint and probably remembered more in its discussion than in its occurrence, was that I attended a synagogue once, with the family, somehow; I’m not sure how that happened, or what the conventions were. I remember putting on the skull cap. My family was not religious, although my mother had felt obligated to take me to the local Methodist church occasionally, whose teachings from at least the age of nine or ten I rejected as ridiculous. My experience with the synagogue was probably not too much different. I’m not quite sure why I was taken there, or on whose instigation. I wish it had left a more lasting impression.
The daughter of these patriarchs had married another Jewish boy, and that family inhabited the house on the other side of the grandparents’, the yellow brick one. Their name was one of those that seems concocted out of the parts of the earth; think Stahlbaum. I don’t know how they earned their living, but they had two sons that I remember, who were substantially older than me; at least the eldest was born in the 1940’s. The older son had a little red toy sports car that he drove through the yards of the neighborhood; I seem to remember that it actually had a gas engine and ran like a real car. One of the earliest memories of my childhood was in fact a dream; I remember having in the dream a red car just like that. That son surfaced again later in my life; he somehow stayed in or returned to the town and ran a couple of the local funeral homes; I understand he later went bankrupt in the recession of 2008, although how someone goes bankrupt in that industry, none of us could ever figure. My dad had made his funeral arrangements with him.
The other son was probably the first gay person I ever knew. or at least I assume now that he was. Let’s call him Alex. I just remember he was nothing like the older brother and mostly stayed home with the mother. I remember one Halloween, trick or treating, going by their family home; Alex was there, dressed as a witch, a female witch – the first cross-dressing I had ever seen. I do remember other gays later on, in that town. It didn’t really do, to be gay in a small town in the South in the 1960’s still. I did and still do feel sorry for those kids.
The next thing I heard of Alex, years later, was that he had become a Catholic priest. I think he died of AIDS, of “pneumonia”, later.
The only other Jew I remember from the small town of my childhood was the town banker, a Koenig, who also died at some time between my childhood and the time when I returned, decades later. I remember the controversy when he buried his dogs in the town cemetery, somehow; I don’t know if there was a separate Jewish cemetery or if they stayed there. Even later, there was some controversy involving his widow, a house burning down, perhaps even a murder. It’s all rather murky to me.
All of this begins to fade for me from about the same time as they integrated those Black kids into my school, and we sold the house that was later moved, and we moved further out into the country, by a few miles. I remember hearing when the grandparents, Bubba and the old man I don’t remember, had died, and then old Joe Stahlbaum. Alex went away, and my dad interacted with Martin Stahlbaum the mortician. I honestly don’t remember any Jewish students in my grade or high schools, or even particularly at the big State University I attended undergrad, although of course they would’ve been there. Later on they were of course a major force at my Top FIve law school but I still had no distinct or prejudicial impression. There are just two more recollections in connection with the Jews of my small-town childhood.
Seven or eight years ago, in Nashville, I had commissioned a ring to be made in silver for my friend, from a shop that specialized in gold work, with whom she had had good dealings. The proprietors were of course Jews. When I went to pick up the ring, I found in conversation that the proprietress was in fact from my same small town, and not too different from my own age. So there was of course a more extensive community that I didn’t know. She remembered my neighbors, and in particular the peculiar child Alex. She recalled meeting him in an airport: “Wait! Aren’t you Alex Stahlbaum? And you’re a Catholic priest now! But you’re Jewish…” And we both knew he had died.
But somewhere, buried within years that are largely lost to me, somewhere between my years of college and law school and law and the dark times that came after, there was a dream. I sometimes would have these dreams of great clarity, when my brain would’ve refreshed and re-nourished itself after a period of deprivation of sleep and of other necessary things.. and the dream was subjectively of great length and depth, and I walked in the dream through an old house, upstairs and down. It was a dark old house, with many things of value and of memory, smelling and feeling of old Europe in a way I couldn’t identify at the time, having no personal acquaintance of Europe or Europeans. I touched the covered and velveted furniture, plunked at a small and aged piano, gazed at the dusty shaded lamps, creaked upon the staircase. I awoke with every distinct memory of that house in my mind, could’ve at that moment have drawn a diagram. It was so clear that today, decades later, I still recall something of it, especially the feel. Of an intriguing darkness.
It may have taken me days to place that place, to identify it, but all it once it came to me that these were deeply implanted childhood memories of that house next door, the house of the old European Jews, who were kind to me in my childhood.
Such are my personal memories.