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“We Were Different”: Adapting to a Strange Land
Immigrant Jewish children arrived at school not knowing Washington from a washtub. Often they were placed with much younger students until they learned English. Classmates frequently taunted them for their funny “Jewtalk,” but many Jews recall making friends quickly, and receiving concern and kindness from their teachers. Settling in, Jewish students often became standout orators, debaters, musicians, and athletes.
“I was too frightened to go into the class and refused to let go of my father’s sturdy and supporting hand. I was put into the only first grade that existed at the time, where my younger cousins near my age had already been placed. I sat frozen to my desk, afraid to move a muscle, but watching all that was happening around me!”
– Min Munich, Oxford
“Miss May’s patience with us was indescribable. She somehow led us through the mystery of the English word through pictures, songs and various motions. Gradually we learned enough words to communicate, and when we began to read The Sunbonnet Babies, we were off and going.”
– Min Munich, Oxford
“The bad part is that I have to go to school with a group of six-year-olds because I have to learn the language. It is so embarrassing. I hardly fit into their little seats, and the children giggle to see a big person sitting in their midst …. The school jumped me six grades in six months! Mrs. Edwards is my English teacher and she praises me every day. Everyone at school has been very kind and I have made a lot of friends who come home with me in the afternoons.”
– Rebecca Polakavetz Moscovitz was 14 in 1913 when she wrote about attending school in Troy after emigrating from Russia.
“My first three years in school were tough,” Benjamin Schwartz in Wilmington recalls. “You see, we were different.” Kids threatened to punch him just to hear him “talk Jew talk.” That is, his native language of Yiddish.
A bully cornered Roy Levy on a schoolyard and wanted to know why he killed Christ. “I didn’t do it,” Roy answered. “My brother Dave did it.”
“I got beaten up three times a day just because I was a little waif of a Jewboy,” Durham’s Gibby Katz remembers. When his friend Joe Hockfield was jumped by three kids, Joe got revenge by ambushing them one at a time.
“I had several fights at school just over my being there,” recalls Monroe Evans of Fayetteville. An older student taught self-defense at Hebrew School, and “the first time that I hurt the other kid in a tussle, it seemed to clear the air.”
David Citron, who moved from Atlanta to Charlotte in 1932, encountered a “lot of prejudice” as the lone Jewish student at his school, but helped by “a gentile friend and a very nice teacher,” he was elected student body president.
Sara Evans recalls a teacher who referred to her son as a “little Jewboy” and insisted she meant no offense.
“Everybody was friendly, recalled Joan Samet, but I never got invited to parties.”