Seniors today have lived in two worlds: One with instant communication and one without. One where Jews felt they had to change their last name to sound more American, and one where they don’t. One where the knishes come fresh out of the oven, and one where they come frozen.
One morning last week David Frome, Lew Cohen, Larry Katz and Toby Gottesman, all in their early 70s, shot the breeze in the men’s locker room at the Bender
Frome, 72, said his family name originally was Fromowitz. But after immigrating to the United States and settling in Virginia, they shortened it to try to fit in.
“You didn’t have a name like that in Richmond,” Frome said. “So my parents changed the name and I was the first one that became a Frome,” he said.
Frome later moved to Silver Spring — more diverse than Virginia in the 1950s, but where the public schools still reflected the Christian majority.
“We were required to say the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance [in school],” he said.
Katz, 72, had a similar experience growing up in the Philadelphia schools.
“In the morning we had flag salute and 10 verses from the Bible, and this was in public school,” he said.
Frome said that changing public opinion and a series of Supreme Court rulings in the ‘60s upholding the separation of religion and state ended the school of singing Christmas carols at Montgomery Blair High School.
He remembers in college hearing someone using the expression “Jewed him down” in casual conversation. A woman was describing purchase her father had made — the implication that her father had driven a hard bargain, just like cheap Jews do, according to stereotype.
“She had no idea what she said and so we explained it to her,” he said.
Gottesman, 73, said his wife experienced religious discrimination as a working professional.
“She was going to be a teacher, actually, but they had too many Jews and they were looking for someone who was black — and since she was a math major she went into computers because she couldn’t get a job because she was Jewish.
Parenting was hands-off and dad wasn’t around much
For Cohen, 72, growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., meant living in an overwhelmingly Jewish neighborhood in a two-bedroom apartment with one bathroom. It was a neighborhood, he said, where kids started taking the subway to school at age 10.
“When we were growing up, neither of our parents had a car,” he said. “I remember either taking public transportation or walking to places,” he said.
Gottesman also grew up in the 1950s Bronx. He got on public transportation beginning at age 8.
“My father didn’t drive me to school,” he said.
Gottesman said his parents gave him a large amount of independence as a child, including letting him go to movies and hanging out with neighborhood friends during the afternoon unsupervised.
“I went out to play ball. As long as I was back home at 6 o’clock, my parents didn’t know who I played with,” he said. “Now every time a kid goes out — and I don’t care for it — a parent’s got to be at every game and be at everything and say ‘good job, Johnny. Way to go.”
But Cohen said he sees as positive the increasing involvement of fathers in their children’s lives, noting that it’s a departure from the days when men went off to work while their wives stayed at home. He praised the YMCA’s Y Guides and Princesses program, which seeks to bring fathers together with their children in a group setting.
“The fathers are much more involved in the raising of the kids,” he said. “Most of us go to our grandkids’ soccer games and basketball games. My father never participated in anything like that.”
There was more social interaction
As the four men talked, the theme of technology in the 21st century came up again and again, both for good and ill. They agreed that social media has created a world of superficial friends, and Katz said he is no longer able to easily connect in-person with neighbors.
“Growing up, I knew all my neighbors,” he said. “We used to interact quite a bit just in the neighborhood. I don’t have that now. I say hello to my neighbors and that’s about it. I don’t know many of their names. And I miss that. I think because of technology, we have this neighborhood that’s much more impersonal.”
Gottesman said playing games with neighbors was a huge part of his childhood and he can’t imagine how kids today can enjoy sitting still playing video games. And he thinks text messaging has changed society for the worse.
“That’s not social interaction,” he said. “I sometimes feel guilty when I’m picking up the phone and calling someone because I feel I might be intruding, and I have to use email so I’m not interrupting them.”
Good knishes are gone, but so are many diseases
Asked what he missed most about life in the 1950s, Cohen said he remembered a rummage sale his synagogue organized twice a year which included a knish bake-off he would participate in.
“I remember very vividly, as a kid I used to peel potatoes and onions and help out,” he said. “And these knishes, they used to take the butter substitute, bake them in the oven, people used to buy them by the bag and they were 15 cents each. Today you go to the store and get these machine-made knishes that don’t hold a candle to the old knishes of the ‘50s.”
But all of the men agreed that medical advances were one of the most positive developments they have seen in their lives.
Katz cited the development of antibiotics used to treat tuberculosis in the 1940s as one of the greatest medical developments. He said he wished his father, who died of the disease when Katz was an infant, had been able to benefit. He’d have grown up with a father.
In Gottesman’s case, 21st century medical technology saved his life.
“I’m a cancer survivor,” he said. “Had I gotten my cancer even 20 years ago I’d be dead.”
The men agreed that face-to-face interpersonal connections are so important, the more the better.
“We need more social interaction. That was better in the old days,” Frome said. “But that’s also the reason each one of us comes here to exercise. I’ll come here for two, two and a half hours exercising my muscles for an hour — and then exercising my mouth.”