What Does it Mean to be a Jew? Part 2

Cub Scouts ca 1943: Me standing 2nd from left. Jim Henrikson, kneeling left. Ralph Kehle kneeling right.
Cub Scouts ca 1943: Me standing 2nd from left. Jim Henrikson, kneeling left. Ralph Kehle kneeling right.

Here’s a quick recap of Part 1 and where we left off:

What we’ve been dealing with is the the result of a series of questions that my “What’s the Story” guru, STACIE CHAIKEN, suggested I explore as a way of finding a way of creating a story arc for my embryonic film project, which later became “FOR THE LIFE OF ME”.

Her last question in Part 1 was: Did I ever get any clues that our family was Jewish?

But you’ll have to go back to Part 1 to find out, in case you missed it.

Stacie’s next question was:

“Did I ever sense the Jewish part of my family?”

The answer was emphatically, No! I had no frame of reference. Growing up I had no idea of what Judaism was. I’d never been in a Synagogue, or attended a Bar Mitzvah; nor had I any sense of Jewish traditions, its philosophy, or what being Jewish meant.

While I always had some Jewish friends throughout school, it’s ironic looking back now because many more of my friends and acquaintances turned out to be Jewish than I ever realized at the time.

I remember, as a small child, when I met German friends of my parents. Most were nice and many felt it necessary to pinch my cheek. But a few I found coarse with barely intelligible accents. I remember one or two who sprayed spittle on me when they spoke, and more often than not, smelled like cigars. But all of them were always referred to as Germans, Austrians, or Refugees.

Me, Mom and Cecili Balin.
Me, Mom and Cecili Balin, daughter of Jewish refugee friends of my parents.

Consequently the word “Jew”, or “Jewish” was never a part of my lexicon and held little significance for me. It was only when I entered college that I began to encounter serious anti-Semitism. That’s when “Jew” or “Jewish” became “loaded “ or emotional words for me, often causing the hair on my neck to tingle when I heard them. 

Could that have been a subconscious awareness that I was living a lie? Something I’ve often pondered since my discovery.

As a child, the only German friends of my parents, with whom I felt comfortable, were the Natzlers*, Dr. Adolph, his wife Hedwig, and their daughter, Marlese. But this was comfort born out of familiarity, because our two families got together practically every weekend, either at their house or ours. 

Dr. Natzler was a noted orthopedic surgeon both here and in Germany. His wife, Hedwig, who I always called “Tante Natzler”, had been a nurse, .

After her husband died, and my father had just started his own business, manufacturing and selling food items to military commissaries, Hedwig used to help him by packing his line of fudge and English toffee in her little apartment in Hollywood. I often assisted her by folding the boxes in which she packed the fudge.

It was during that time in 1944 when my mother cracked emotionally and had to be institutionalized. But after she was released from the hospital, I never saw Tante Natzler or Marlese again. That’s when I began to sense there were things I wasn’t being told.

I didn’t know until 60 years later, when I found Marlese Natzler again, living in a retirement home, that her father, Adolph, was Jewish, but Hedwig and Marlese were Lutherans.

 The following year, in 1945, my father tried to prevent Mom from seeing a Life Magazine expose’ which showed for the first time the horrors of the Nazi Concentration Camps. I thought he was sharing a secret with me that Mom’s brother died in one of them – a place he called “Belsen” – to protect my mother’s emotional fragility by keeping the horrible news from her. But I had no sense of the bigger secret.

I also remember a significant occasion when my father royally chastised me for some anti-Semitic remarks I made to him – parroting phrases I had picked up in school from a friend. I was in the third or fourth grade, and thought those remarks made me sound worldly. But I quickly learned otherwise. While he repeated the word “prejudice”, he connected it with “religious”; a sufficiently general term that allowed him to remain at arms length from any personal association. His membership as a Liberal Free Thinker was his stated motivation for the tirade.

1944. Mom's in the hospital. I'm in summer camp at Lake Arrowhead, being visited by neighbors, Judy & Sue Stefan.
1944. Mom’s in the hospital. I’m in summer camp at Lake Arrowhead, being visited by neighbors, Judy & Sue Stefan.

By the end of summer vacation in 1944, after Mom had recovered sufficiently to come home, a Jewish family moved in a few doors down from us. They were the Finklesteins. They had two children, an older son and a younger daughter. Until then, I never knew that Jews had red hair.

Barry, the boy, was a year older than me – very bright, and very nice. A few years later, when we were together in Junior High School, I tried to get him to come to the movies with us on more than one occasion. But he never could because he always had to go to Hebrew School. It seemed like a terribly cruel thing to do to him, forcing him to learn Hebrew, while depriving him of the fun he could have had with us!!!

Later, when I was in high school during my junior year, I was infatuated with a very cute girl, who had just transferred to North Hollywood High. We dated a couple of times during Spring Break, when we all used to go to Balboa Island for the week.

She was Jewish, and at first I felt I was doing something illicit. But she was so much fun that any misgivings quickly disappeared. On one occasion, we went to the Newport Beach “Fun Zone”, where I won a gold fish for her. We named the prize in her honor and called it, “Gefilte”. We giggled about poor Gefilte for weeks after. But our budding romance went nowhere, because her mother insisted that she only go out with Jewish boys.

I was devastated!

How did I feel about the possibility? & What did I do about it?

For decades I stumbled over these mixed signals. Yet whenever I sensed what the truth might be, it was always easier to return to a state of denial, where I felt more comfortable. Only after my heart attack did I feel compelled to change that, when I finally realized that my parents had been withholding things from me that added up to something bigger.

Yet when I finally learned the truth it was hard for me to accept. It took a while. But very slowly and cautiously I began to tell others about my discovery. As I became more comfortable with my new reality, I began to take part in some Jewish events. First at the University of Judaism, and then meetings at a local Synagogue.

I was apprehensive at first, with the distinct feeling that I was entering unknown territory as “the new kid on the block”. But I was surprised at how quickly I felt at home in those surroundings, as if I’d really belonged there all my life.

My first Seder came two years later. It was while reading from the Haggadah that I was overwhelmed by the realization that on a personal level, humanity and compassion towards people of all persuasions was a key part of the Jewish tradition. And so began my new education into what it meant to be Jewish, not only because of the discoveries of my real family and their stories, but the pride I began to feel learning about the long and proud history that is my heritage.


*For more on the Natzlers, go to https://forthelifeofme-film.com/2013/10/23/searching-natzlers/ and https://forthelifeofme-film.com/2014/07/30/family-friends-friday-natzlers/


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