Hillbilly Kheyder

August 1966. I’m fourteen years old, an acne-ridden, hook-nosed Jewish kid from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on the train to Jordan, a Greyhound bus neaded up north, alone through the summer night. My parents trusted me to spend an entire week wandering around New York on my own, staying with my uncle in his tiny rent-controlled apartment. I’d studied New York on Five Dollars a Day like I had my haftorah portion the summer before, imagining the sites I’d see, the sounds I’d hear, the smell of cheap chop suey and food-cart knishes. Pop art shows, Tompkins Square Park, Yonah Shimmel’s, the Jewish Museum: all sounded delicious. I couldn’t wait.

My longing to visit a place where Jewish was normal overwhelmed my senses. As we rolled along, I fitfully dozed. Several rows in front of me three old men sat kibbitzing: I could have sworn that Henry Roth, Alfred Kazin, and Chaim Potok were shmoozing in the dark as I escaped from goles, the Jewish diaspora. No more isolation among hordes of small-town rednecks. Nostalgia in its literal sense gripped me: up in the City, I’d be finally be home, walking streets paved with bagels and bialys, a yellow brick road topped with a shmeer. Fourteen years I’d wanderered in the desert, halvah in a vacuum-packed tin imported from New York my manna. Finally I’d taste freedom, look out upon the land of milk and honey masquerading as Times Square. Each small town bus stop along the way, reeked of Lucky Strikes, stale urine and lard-fried doughnuts. Off I’d clamber for a snack or a leak, shifting my burden, marking off the miles along the way, each tick another step towards my reward.

My New York uncle was an inveterate wannabe, his Eastern European parents not those he would have chosen. Our Crowd called to him. His Uncle Max had married IN, a poor, polite boy chosen by a rich yekke heiress to the Riverside Memorial Chapel fortune. The style of his aunt and uncle’s Reconstructionist temple on West 86th Street was too liberal for Uncle Tinney, though, so on Saturday morning he escorted me to the ultimate place for a well-starched Jew. I sat next to his buttoned-up fastidiousness in a back pew of Fifth Avenue’s Temple Emanu-El ,waiting in silent marble-trimmed splendor for the opening prayers. Suddenly, along with an unseen choir, the stentorian tones of an enormous organ bellowed forth. My gorge rose as the sound overwhelmed.me. Organs were for goyim. These rich folks weren’t Jewish. Maybe this trip was all for nought..

It’s 44 years later and I hear them cry: “You grew up in TENNESSEE ?” Over and over this happens to me, as if I were a remnant of the ten lost tribes. I mug with a flourish, presenting my profile to a new acquaintance who quickly sees that I was blessed with what is referred to in Yiddish as a noz fun ale nezer, a nose of noses. Growing up down South, things were pinkt farkert, 180 degrees different. A random young redneck would intone: “You’re a Jeeeeew???” The uninitiated questioner, who, on average, was an 11-year old Southern Baptist boy, had never laid eyes on a card-carrying Hebrew before his chance encounter with me.

Rock Hill Baptist Church

Half a century later, enormous ignorance still rules the day. My usual questioner, a New York-born person of Jewish extraction, has never, ever met a member of the tribe from an American city of less than 500,000, and finds it hard to believe that I am telling the truth about growing up among Baptists in a Southern Appalachian town. 30,000 souls inhabited Oak Ridge, with seventy houses of worship adorning its Bible Belt roads. That’s twice the proportion in today’s Tel Aviv.

Here are the Jews, shovels in hand, a handful of congregants of Temple Beth-El in 1953, at its red clay building site right off Michigan Avenue in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Shul foundation dig

That’s my late God-mother, Ruth Carey (nee Goodstein), in the foreground, resting and smiling. Born in Sohocin, Poland, she was brought as a one-year old to Knoxville, Tennessee in 1921 with her older sister Ida. Her parents joined in operating a grocery store in a poor, racially mixed neighborhood, where Ruth’s aunt and uncle already lived. Knoxville had a thriving Jewish community, two synagogues, one Reform and the other Orthodox, a Jewish community center, and an amateur Yiddish theater company producing classic works. Ruth married at age 16, a boy named Milton Carey (f/k/a Chodokoff) who arrived in 1936 on a train from New York. There he is, my beloved sandek, a slender sport, peeking out from the background in the photo. Milton and City College had gotten a divorce after he was caught shooting dice on campus. His home life on Fox Street in the Bronx had been miserable ever since his brother committed suicide and his bereaved mother took away Milton’s violin. With jobs scarce in the pit of the Great Depression, what did Milton have to lose? He’d heard that TVA was hiring in Knoxville and got on a train.

Oak Ridge, Tennessee was farmland in 1942 when General Leslie Groves laid out the production facilities for the top-secret Manhattan Project. Remote and unknown, the area had the requisite heavy electrical power available from TVA’s nearby Norris Dam to run the energy-intensive uranium enrichment equipment that would provide bomb-grade U-235 for the precious payload of the Enola Gay.

Built to order by Stone and Webster and the Army Corps of Engineers, Oak Ridge, as an army base, boasted one house of worship. The Chapel on the Hill stood in the center of town, where many denominations shared the space. Jews were lucky: their Sabbath needs conflicted with no one other than the Seventh Day Adventists (I’m unsure there were any in town during the War), and the Oak Ridge Jewish Congregation used the facility until 1953 when Milton, Ruth, and many other congegants pitched in and built a cinder-block all-purpose structure on government-owned land. My mother stayed away from the building site: with four children at home, ages 9 to 1 (I being the baby) and with my little brother almost born, her pick and shovel days were over for the nonce.

Hundreds of chemists and physicists were imported to Oak Ridge to assist in the war effort, my father one of them. The GI’s on the training field in basic at Fort Benning were ordered to step forward if they’d had two years of college training in those fields. Several dozen men were from the northern urban Jewish neighborhoods. New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Buffalo were well-represented during the Beth El Amidah, and a vibrant Jewish congregation, many of whose male members were kheyder-educated, substituted for the lack of family on the base. Add to that the wartime marriages of Southern Baptist girls who met Jewish GI’s and we had a wonderful mix: Mary Ginsburg often led the charge at Hadassah meetings.

95% of the Oak Ridge kehilah were scientist families. Among the exceptions were Mel Sturm and his wife Fran, Jews born and raised in the Cumberland Gap area, Mel’s family had a store in Jellico, TN, a coal-mining town up near the Kentucky border. Oak Ridge was considered remote enough for Army security when it was built, but Jellico was truly ek velt, the end of the earth. When the Cuban Missle Crisis hit in October, 1962 our local Civil Defense drills, Conelrad warning system alerts on the AM radio stations and the daily noon time air-raid siren whistle tests suddenly became deadly serious. Fidel Castro and Krushchev had their sites set on Oak Ridge, for sure. I didn’t sleep for nights on end. The siren would blow on a school day, and we filed out of Elm Grove Elementary School lickety split, onto those yellow buses for a practice ride to safety, up in the “hollers” of Jellico, away from the deadly roentgens of Soviet ICBMs.

Kheyder, with its sadistic melamed, and rigorous instruction bore no relation to my Oak Ridge Hebrew school. No cat-o’-nine tailed kantchik hanging on the wall, no ears pulled, no bare-ass whippings. Learning was gentle in Oak Ridge Hebrew School, but limited by the lack of a professional teaching staff. Religious school was held two weekday afternoons and Sunday morning. Mollie Horn, the fire-plug mom of one of my classmates, would cruise by Elm Grove at 3:00 pm in her Buick 88 and stuff five or six of us in the front and back seats. The 5-minute drive to the shul included a mandatory stop at Jackson Square Pharmacy to load up on candy and gum. Learning wasn’t happening without sugar up front.

Into the little classroom we poured, ten in my age group, seven boys and three girls. Seating arrangements were de rigeur: the little girls sat quiet as churchmice in the back row. The vilde-khayes, wild animals masquerading as little boys, spread out in the front two rows, high on fructose, taunting the lay teacher’s ardent efforts to instill in us some respect for Bible stories and teach us the aleph-beys. Then the recess-bell rang out. On rainy days, we’d wander the linoleum-tiled building corridors with our few minutes of freedom, congregating in the restroom with our World Over magazines rolled up like batons. One wise guy would douse the lights and we’d go after each other like Judah Maccabees, our batons twirling, hitting and beating til we all had enough. Sunny days were even wilder.

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Temple Beth El sat in a sward of crabgrass, raggedly covering the Tennessee clay. Out in the yard recess was bedlam: a game called smearball ruled the day. Known up north as “kick the can,” the rules are simple: The contestants form a wide circle and a piece of detritus is pitched in the middle. Shimshon Hagibur grabs the item and runs like hell, his pursuers mad after him, tackling him and piling on unless he’s too fleet to be caught.

I was a wus at Beth El and in public school: I secretly cringed with guilt as my classmates taunted the teacher, and took my place in the smearball circle only to avoid total humiliation. Maybe once in five years did I actually steal the can and run. I was a spaz in common parlance. Boy was I glad when the recess bell rang again, calling us back to our classroom tasks..

Here we are on our way to Camp Judea, three of the better-behaved members of my Hebrew School class, me, Jackie Lawson and Freddy Kramer. It’s late July, 1963. I’m eleven years old and it’s my first time away from home. The Carolina Special took us over the mountains to Hendersonville, NC from the Sourthern Railway’s station at Clinton, TN. I was scared but look hopeful. Little did I know what was in store.

Sadism was absent from my religious education. If anything the teachers were all too patient, almost desperate that the children grow up with some Jewish identity and connection to the past. Not so with Camp Judaea, though. Perhaps it was a case of a bad apple. It might as well have been Kasilryevke, 1884. Sholem Aleichem’s evil Boaz the Melamed jumps to mind.

Waiting at the curb at the Hendersonville station was a counselor named Dick, a creep sadist momzer. Tall and lanky, he’d been sent to meet the train and escort the new campers back. The camp station wagon was a pale blue, wide-bodied Plymouth galleon with a speedometer display that filled little columns with a red indicator bar as each 10 mph mark was reached. We careened down the mountainous, two-land country roads at a death defying speed, the red columns pouring over into one another as we closed our eyes and prayed. Each crease in a little boy’s brow was met with derision. Dick’s face broke out in a shit-eating grin. Later, at riflery practice he’d come up and apply his bare knuckles to our crewcut heads, giving us a twist as he bore down with full force on our closely-cropped pates. “Here’s a burr, you little pecker! Quit your shraying !! ” Ron Patimkin’s evil twin…

Trips to area sites like Sliding Rock were not conducted as they would be today. Fifty campers piled into the back of an open truck; wooden stockades formed the sides, no roof, no seats, not much at all. We’d hang on best we could as the truck barreled over the mountian roads. No seat belts, no safety. Luck of the Irish I guess, but no one got hurt.

Two weeks was plenty for me and camp. I was horribly homesick and couldn’t compete. The toilets were stopped up, the bug juice intolerable. All I wanted was to go back home. Adding insult to injury, my crush on Myrna Jaffe had to be shared. Two years older and well-developed, Myrna wore a white sweater that beckons to this day. A Knoxville jeweler’s daughter, a sun-tanned tsotske with a sweet Southern drawl. How I ached to investigate her knitting as we sat next to each other one evening at the outdoor showing of the Three Stooges Go to the Moon. Slowly I nestled my left arm around her back, investigating the upper middle where her bra strap would be. What was this! My trembling hand met an unwanted obstacle: on Myrna’s other side sat a far handsomer suitor. Schvartskheynevdik Steve Meyers had the upper hand; instead of her bra strap, my hand encountered his. I cringed with fear. Steve might well beat the crap out of me after the movie. He was older and built like an ox. When the film ended, I took it on the lam like the Egyptian air force. I barely lived to tell the tale.

Next year back in Oark Ridge, bar and bas mitzvah preparation was intense. My class of ten kids all did the whole hog. No mere leyning from the Torah and a thank you Mom and Dad speech. Each kid in Oak Ridge learned to lead Shabbes services from Friday evening thorough Saturday musaf, memorizing every prayer by rote, learning the separate trop, the cantillation, for the Torah and Haftorah. No hotel parties, no rock bands, no dancing, no separate rooms for kids and adults. In Oak Ridge all was heymish; the mothers cooked for weeks in advance for each simkhe, freezing knishes, making pots of chopped liver. Once the final kaddish rang out on Saturday afternoon, the ark was securely fastened, and the folding chairs were rearranged around tables on the shul floor. One, two, three, a banquet for 120 appeared.

Two instructors guided our bar and bas mitzvah learning. Joe Spector was a community teacher without rabbinic certification, but his learning was deep and his basso voice like a trombone’s. American-born and urban kheyder-educated, Joe trained us all in the haftorah trop. The rest was left to the rabbi, Alexander Gelberman, an old-school European-born authoritarian, whose stay in Oak Ridge neared the end of his road. With limited funds and well in the hinterlands, Oak Ridge’s congregation was not the first choice for many with smikhes. Several times we resorted to accepting a recent graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary whose stipend in New York required two years of post-graduate service in the boondocks. Those conscripts beat it back to civilization as soon as their debts to society were paid. Gelberman was close to retirement age when he gave up a position in New Castle, PA. Heaven knows the circumstances nor the choices he had, but his stay in Oak Ridge was’t easy for him.

Hazzones was Rabbi Gelberman’s specialty, and in a Litvak bel canto fortified beforehand with a liberal shpritz from an atomizer that surely was filled with molten chicken shmaltz, the Rebbeh would regale the congregation with traditional melodies, his voice reaching ever-higher in divine aspiration, while the khutspehdik bar-mitzveh boys winced and smirked. We’d wheel our heads around, sitting in the back row of the shul, searching for any place to rest our gaze except the Rebbe’s carried-away face. Often as not we’d fix our gaze on the electric yizkor placque, remarkably unadorned with nameplates, its dozens of still-empty sockets staring at us like the vacant eyes of a corpse. Yhe molokh ha moves lurked inside each one.

Death was far away, though, especially to a 12-year old. The congregation was formed during the War and few grandparents or parents of congregants moved to the town to be close to their offspring. Virtually none of my Hebrew school class had ever visited the Jewish section of the local graveyard. Life was in front of us, we weren’t afraid.

The absence of connections to the land and the distance from family, albeit one in gantsn meshugeh, bred in me a fierce desire, to find some roots, a place to be Jewish, where it felt comfortable and good. New York beckoned, as later did Yiddish, and I left behind a graveyard, then empty. That was 1969.

It’s a very long time since the late 1960s. New York’s been a brukhe for me,on a stick. Add Yiddish, I’ve learned it, and I feel very different. I carry it with me wherever I go. Now when I visit what the hevrah kadishe has accomplished, I feel somehow peaceful, though Oak Ridge is more Christian fundamentalist than ever before. Despite lacking religious belief, I feel the ground sacred, my footing much surer, knowing inside, my right to belong. Gone is the pain and fear of the anti-Semitism that informed every day of my boyhood down south. I’ve lived for 40 years in a place that supports me. New York is my shtetl. Feet first out I’ll go. But hillbilly kheyder gave me direction. Those voices and accents provided a goal. For that I am grateful. My bus ride is over. I’ve finally, finally found my way home.

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