The opening of school, after a year of lockdown and virtual classes, might seem like a fraught experience, but for Jewish children this will not be the first time that the classroom will be an anxious experience.
More than a century ago immigrant Jewish children, not knowing English, new to the country, entered classrooms frightened. Lithuanian-born Joe Dave of Durham recalled teachers who were “very liberal in their thinking…very courteous and very helpful” to the Yiddish-speaking kids. Min Munich of Oxford described her teacher’s patience as “indescribable,” and Miss May would become a lifelong friend.
Typically, the children were assigned classes below their age until their English was sufficient. Fourteen-year-old Rebecca Moscovitz of Troy, attended class with six year olds. She couldn’t fit in the undersized desk. Jewish students advanced quickly in grades. Rebecca rose six grades in six months. She remembered her classmates as kind, and soon kids were coming home with her.
Other kids recall anti-Semitic taunting. Benjamin Schwartz of Wilmington recalled his first three years of school as “tough” as bullies threatened him, mocking his “Jew talk.” Novelist Thomas Wolfe of Asheville remembered how as a child he and his friends chased Jewish kids home, mocking their accents. Monroe Evans of Fayetteville was taught to box by a community elder so he could defend himself. The schools were pervasively Christian with daily Bible reading and hymn singing at assemblies. In 1913 the Goldsboro B’nai B’rith requested that Bible readings end, but six years later the local rabbi was still protesting.
But for most Jewish immigrant children, school was a happy experience that made them feel American. Min Munich, who arrived in Oxford from Lithuania, was frightened when she was taken to first grade. An older cousin, Dora, translated her Yiddish. The public schools acculturated immigrant children as Americans. What fascinated Min most were the school’s toilets, and she flushed and flushed simply by pulling a handle. “This was America!” she exulted.
Wishing all of our students across North Carolina a safe and successful school year!