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8 two The Road to Neah Bay Begins in Chicago i was born and raised in chicago. my mother and father came to America from Russia before the First World War, among the flood of Jews leaving that country to look for a better life and freedom from persecution. Ultimately, both settled in Chicago. My mother, Rose Bolasny (later changed to Block), left behind her entire family—parents , three sisters, and two brothers. She apprenticed as a seamstress when she was a teenager, and once in America she employed her skills making fashionable women’s dresses. After marriage, she settled into life as a homemaker. Mom observed all the customs and traditions of Orthodox Judaism, but Harry Ziontz, my dad, totally rejected them. To him they represented an archaic, benighted way of life that he associated with the primitive conditions of the Russian shtetl, or little village. He had the equivalent of a fourth-grade education, but he had taught himself to read and he read the English and Yiddish newspapers. Every day he went to the tavern he owned in a Chicago workingclass neighborhood. He embraced America and modernity: cars, radio, skyscrapers, sports. And he idolized Franklin D. Roosevelt. He admired Roosevelt’s wit and loved to listen to the president’s speeches on the radio. He would shake his head in admiration: “He can hold a speech.” Until I was five, we lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood and my Jewishness was unselfconscious. My parents spoke Yiddish at home and I, of course, understood them. It was the language of our the road to neah bay begins in chicago 9 relatives and family friends. The Jewish holidays were part of our lives. But then we moved so my father could be near his tavern, and the new neighborhood was entirely Gentile. When I started elementary school, I suddenly became aware of my “otherness,” and I soon experienced the world as hostile. After incidents of name calling and harassment, I became apprehensive. Every strange boy approaching me seemed a threat. Derogatory names for Jews were in common usage in America during the 1930s, and as I grew older I heard them from otherwise nice people. You never knew when one of these epithets would pop up casually in conversation: “I Jewed him down.” “He’s as cheap as a Jew.” “Look at those kikes.” And if such comments were uttered in my presence, I faced the dilemma of either announcing my membership in the despised class or swallowing my self-respect and remaining silent. The question of my Jewishness inevitably arose whenever I had to tell someone my name was Ziontz. “What nationality is that?” came the typical response. I knew what that meant. Sometimes I would say “Russian ,” sometimes “Jewish.” This constant awareness of my separateness, of being a member of a disparaged minority in America, I believe, was responsible for the powerful empathy I later felt toward Indian people. But as a child I experienced my Jewishness as a liability, and it remained that way until well into adulthood. Growing up, the most important figure in my life was my father. He was just over five feet tall and people called him “Little Harry.” But he was well muscled and self-confident. He was like no other father, I thought—affectionate, even soft-hearted, and he was a self-made man. Coming to America at the age of twelve and going to work as a hawker plying the trains between Detroit and Chicago, selling sandwiches and candy, and later, loading sacks of vegetables on peddlers’ wagons, gave him enormous self-reliance. Still later, he took a horse and wagon into the countryside of Michigan, buying scrap metal from farmers. Meeting America face-to-face gave him an easy manner with everyone he met. Eventually he moved to Chicago, and after a stint as a bootlegger he gravitated to the tavern business when Prohibition ended. His tavern was his whole life and formed a backdrop to my childhood . He was there every day from ten or eleven in the morning till closing; one in the morning on weekdays and two on Saturdays. I loved 10 the road to neah bay begins in chicago talking with him. He seemed to know about everything, and he was curious about even more. He had a way of challenging questionable statements, rubbing his chin and delivering a drawn-out, “Well, I don’t know.” He called me Sonny, changing to Alvin only...


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