By Marge Roth
I was always a child who fit in–at least I felt like it. I always expected to become part of whatever group there was, or might be, and for the most part, that’s the way my life went. Sometimes this had more appearance of fitting in; I only became aware of that when something was said that roused some discomfort in me, an awareness that distance was being created between me and whoever.
The background to this was the fact that we were Christian Scientists, a much smaller group than Catholics or other kinds of Protestants, and those who were familiar with the religion usually thought it strange, different. Most people who became Christian Scientists came to it from another religion. That carried its own difficulties. And practicing Christian Science was also difficult, as it required a set of beliefs that seemed contrary to what one experienced.
In the middle class neighborhood in Brooklyn where I grew up in the 1930’s, there were Catholics and Protestants and Jews. We all knew the neighborhood was slowly changing. Jews were moving in and the others were moving out. It was kind of a slow, steady transition
Most of our close neighbors were not Jewish, but when change occurred it was Jewish families moving in that created the change. Once in a while I heard a derogatory remark about this, but didn’t relate it to me. Then one day in first grade the teacher asked me to get some paper out of the paper closet. As I was crouched down to get it, Elaine Sommers, a little busybody with thick glasses, rushed to crouch down next to me and said, ”Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” Surprised at her intensity I said yes. She said into my face ”You can’t. You’re a Jew.” She then fled back to her seat after delivering this message. She had taken advantage of the teacher’s inattention to make this intervention and I guessed, even then, that our family had been a subject of discussion and her mother had made this pronouncement. So far as I knew we didn’t even know her family, but we did know there were gossips and busybodies.
I don’t remember what my mother said when I told her about this, but it stayed with me and rankled. When I brought it up with my Sunday School teacher a couple of years later and asked what I should say when someone pursues the question of my religion, she suggested I say “I’m a Christian Scientist of Jewish descent.” That seemed perfect, but I don’t recall having to use it too often. I felt at home at Church and Sunday School, and I felt at home at school with the other children. My closest friends were Catholic, Protestant and Jewish.
The changes in the makeup of the neighborhood were reflected in attendance at school on Jewish holidays. At first there would be a few children missing, but as time went on the absences increased. By then a class normally 25 or thirty would be a class of ten or twelve. We ten or twelve loved those holidays. It was a holiday in school with a very relaxed teacher not teaching too much because she would only have to repeat it when the attendance resumed.
We non-Jews bonded and recognized ourselves as a special group without ever really talking about it or in any way remaining separate during normal school days. It was much fun. And then, as we were about to graduate from grammar school, Eddie Fries invited our holiday group to a dinner party at his house. He broke the news to us that his family was moving to Garden City, Long Island in a couple of weeks. We were all shocked and sorry to hear it.I don’t know about the others, but I presumed his family needed to move and had been waiting for him to graduate from grammar school for an easier transition to high school. It was not until we were having dinner and Eddie said laughing ”We’re having butter with the ham tonight, Kenny” that I realized why Eddie’s family was moving. I looked at our group and realized that no one else was of Jewish descent…and that while I passed whatever test it was to be one of the group, I did have this difference.
I lived with this dichotomy, usually forgetting about it until it was brought to mind. For example, on the first day at a Christian Science summer camp, I walked to the deck of our bunk looking over the campus when Natalie joined me. We chatted a little and then, looking unhappy, she asked me if it was a Christian Science camp. I said, “Yes.” She frowned. ”There are an awful lot of Jewish people here.” This actually amused me because I had thought that Natalie looked Jewish, but of course would never have remarked on it. Fortunately we were not in the same bunk but whenever I did see her in passing she looked as though she was having a good time.
And maybe she was passing…