By the end of the 1960s, the American Dream as people of my generation -- the generation that grew up in the 1940s and 1950s -- knew it, had collapsed. For some, the chaotic and disheartening events of the 1960s led to profound changes in their outlook on life. In my case, the sixties ended with my family and I leaving the United States and moving to Israel. My generations early lives had been lived in a post World War II world that, while dynamic and changing, nevertheless retained America's traditional values and beliefs. The book describes a boyhood spent on the playground and dreams of being a sports hero. It tells the story of long train trips across the country from Los Angeles to Cleveland. The book delves into the life of a fully assimilated Jewish family and my quest to establish my Jewish identity. Despite the turmoil around me, I lived a traditional American life in the 1960s. I married and raised a family, earned a Phd and became a college professor, and stayed clear of the newly emerging drug culture and social protest. I kept inside the pain I felt when, one by one, the leaders I had believed in were assassinated. In the end, though, the unobservable but profound changes that were occurring within me, led to the decision to leave the United States. The last section of the book describes the very different world I and my family found in Israel.
A New Life
Mom was 24 and Dad 27 when they moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles. Both had been Clevelanders all their lives; and both had grown up in large, lower-middle-class families living in small, rented apartments. Dad was the eldest of three brothers and one sister 18 years younger than him, while Mom was a "middle" child, with two older brothers, each in his own way the apple of his parents' eye, and one younger sister.
Although my Grandpa Max had a steady job, Mom's family was poor when she was growing up. Once she told me that when she was in high school she had one dress, which she washed and ironed every night. A bright girl and an outstanding student, she must have been popular as well, because she was elected president of her class. Mom never told me anything about those days, anything about her hopes and accomplishments. Consequently, her high school years and the time from when she finished high school until she met Dad is a dark cave to me.
Neither of my parents had much experience outside of Cleveland, and neither had any big dreams about their future. Neither attended college; and, in fact, the only one among all their siblings who did so was Uncle Joe, who became a doctor. Dad entered the work force just as the Depression struck, and was one of the fortunate young men who had a steady job throughout the Depression years.
Engaged to be married, their plan had been to set up their new home in Cleveland Heights, which they both knew so well. Then, Dad received a job offer from Los Angeles that was to change their lives dramatically. At the time, he was working as a publicist for the Cleveland branch of the Warner Brothers theater chain. His job was to promote the movies and live entertainment at the grandly designed Warner Brothers movie palace.
As Dad entered the office that day, his boss, usually a difficult and demanding taskmaster, greeted him with a big smile and invited him into his office.
"I have some good news for you, Mort. A couple of weeks ago the folks out in LA asked if I could recommend someone for a publicist's job. Although I hate to lose you, I decided that you deserve the chance to get ahead and wrote back to them singing your praises. Anyway, I just heard that they want you to come out to LA as soon as you can."
Caught completely by surprise, Dad couldn't believe that he was being given this golden opportunity to be at the center of the action in the burgeoning new movie industry. He had no qualms about leaving Cleveland. As he once told me,
"There was nothing holding me to Cleveland - not my family and not my friends. Cleveland was a boring, backward town and couldn't compare with the excitement I felt when we arrived in LA."
My parents had planned to get married several months later. Instead, there was a small ceremony attended by their immediate families, a couple of weeks after Dad accepted the job offer. There had been no time to acquire any possessions together - no furniture, no pots and pans, no dishes or silverware. They would be starting from scratch. Whatever life they were to have together would be one they would build entirely by themselves. Their new marriage had become an unexpected challenge and adventure.
After a two-and-a-half-day train trip, they arrived at the brand new Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. The taxi that took them to the hotel where they would be staying until they found a furnished apartment to rent drove west on LA's main thoroughfare, Wilshire Blvd. Looking out the car windows, they caught glimpses of the small, single-storied, white Spanish-style homes lining the side streets that intersected with Wilshire. With its lovely sunlight and tall palm trees, Los Angeles of the late 1930s felt light, wide open, easy-going, insubstantial. What a contrast it made to the heavy, old brick buildings in Cleveland.
Mom and Dad were about to join a community of rootless newcomers, much like themselves. In fact, they were early arrivals. Migration to California would really pick up steam during and after World War II. Many came west to find work in the war-related industries that had sprung up in Southern California. Others, having passed through Los Angeles or San Francisco on their way to the war in the Pacific, had taken one look at the sunshine and open spaces of California and decided that that was where they wanted to live.
The two-bedroom furnished apartment they chose was located on Commodore Sloat Drive, near the Carthay Circle Theater. Surrounded by small, one-story single family homes, the theater, which had a small tower that could be seen from miles around, was a well known Loa Angeles landmark. With an expansive, unobstructed paved area leading from the adjacent San Vicente Blvd. to the entrance to the theater, it was an ideal location for Hollywood movie premieres. On a warm summer evening Mom and Dad could walk down the street to take a look at the glamorous stars as they entered the theater.
By the time I was born, less than a year after their arrival, they had moved to a duplex apartment on Arnaz Drive, abutting Wilshire Blvd. in the middle-class, south-eastern section of Beverly Hills. Such small, two-story Spanish-style apartments were very popular in those days, and still can be found on the streets of the southern side of Beverly Hills.
To this day, Southern California has ways of enticing and winning over newcomers from the East. Typically, upon arrival, the transplanted easterner complains that the place lacks character and is too casual to be taken seriously. However, it doesn't take long before the casual life style and great weather win him or her over. My mother was one of those who wasn't so easily sold on the advantages of her new home. She was lonely, and couldn't get over the wrenching break with her family. Dad, who was well aware of his new wife's unhappiness, tried to convince her to look on the bright side of things. One sunny Sunday morning in December, on a drive through what were then farmlands in the San Fernando Valley, he turned to her and said,
"Dorothy, there's no way we'd be spending a day like this back in Cleveland."
"Why do you say that?" she answered. "I used to love it when Mom and Dad took us for day trips out in the countryside. We'd buy fresh corn, which we couldn't wait to eat once we were back home."
"Yeah, but that's not something you'd be doing in Cleveland in December."
"Of course I know that, Mort. Your problem is that you refuse to appreciate how much harder it is for me being alone and isolated here. You've got your job, while I'm stuck at home. You want to live in LA, and I go along with it. Isn't that enough for you?"
"You know that it isn't enough for me. I worry about you and want you to be as happy here as I am."
"Well, I'm sorry, Mort, but that's not something I can just decide to make happen."
I was born less than a year after their arrival in Los Angeles. Dad, who was thrilled to be a new father, vowed to himself that he would be a better parent than his own father had been. He couldn't wait to teach his son about all the things he loved in life. However, it was Mom's life that was truly transformed by my birth. I became the center of her existence. This lovely, sometimes sad young woman now had a purpose in life.
Apparently, the first months of caring for their firstborn child were not easy for Mom and Dad; shortly after I was born, Mom asked Grandma Belle to come to Los Angeles to help her out. Dad once told me he was infuriated when Grandma Belle took over, not just my care, but also the running of our household. Dad was greatly relieved when, a month after her arrival, he waved goodbye to Grandma Belle as she boarded the train for her return trip to Cleveland.
Then, something quite marvelous happened. Mom's older brother, Hal, and his wife, Helen, arrived in Los Angeles, sometime, I think, in 1942. Hal was a gifted pianist and had come to LA to try his luck at being a "studio" musician - the people who provide the background music for Hollywood movies. Mom adored her brother Hal, who could do no wrong in her eyes. Hal and Helen's arrival in Los Angeles was a dream come true. What Mom felt rubbed off on me. As I saw Hal, he was as glamorous as a leading man. Pictures from that era show him wearing a fashionable suit and tie and exhibiting the warm smile that could win almost anyone over. Newly married, Hal and Helen had no children. That meant that both couples focused their attention on me, and I felt almost as if I had two sets of parents.
Hal's laid back style was as much a contrast to Helen's bubbly personality as Mom's quiet demeanor was to Dad's outgoing nature. In fact, Mom and Hal were a lot alike. Neither was inclined to talk about their feelings, and both gave the impression of being thoughtful people who observed life from some distance.
The two young couples had a great time together in those months after Hal and Helen arrived in LA. Dad always had a new story to tell, and Helen had a sharp wit. Perhaps she sometimes made fun of Dad's exuberance, but that wouldn't have...