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Ma and Religious Tolerance:

The business of old Sophie Graham and the Catholics is sufficiently far removed for me to find it rather comical. Ma’s biases (and Dad’s) are considerably less so. Consequently, the following makes for a nice little bit of Schadenfreude.

Whereas matters of color were the overriding issue in Dad’s mindset, Ma, as befitting any granddaughter of Sophie’s was more concerned with articles of faith. Or at any rate, creed (faith not being one of Ma’s more conspicuous attributes). Regarding the Catholics, we need say nothing further. After all, Sophie had pretty well said it all. Nor was Ma so devout herself as to make much of an issue over any of the myriad factions engaged in poking and prodding each other under the all-covering blanket of Protestantism, apart from a general impatience at the Jehovah’s Witnesses whenever they came to call.

Ma did not live long enough to be subjected to the uncertainties and pitfalls of having to navigate through a society rife with Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists and the innumerable other sects now evident in the very same town in which she raised me, and which has since earned itself the distinction of being regarded as the Nation’s first suburban Chinatown. Consequently, she had no qualms about smugly reserving for herself the comfortable conviction that the Jews were somehow “different” from us.

Ma’s version of anti-Semitism was — for a wonder — unpoisoned by any consistent degree of active hostility, but Jews were unquestionably looked down upon by her. Chiefly for the lack of taste they displayed in being not “just like us”. Since, however, persons of Jewish background were also perceived by her to be intelligent, well-educated and affluent (the “professions” being as close to an aristocracy as anyone in our family was ever likely to see), their acquaintance was diligently to be cultivated, given the chance. I wasn’t given much much chance. There were very few Jewish children in my school. And I was notably unpopular, in any case.

Nevertheless, my family, as I have indicated, had wonderful names for everyone. And they used them. In my hearing. One time this backfired on Ma — and serve her right.

I’ve only the vaguest recollection of the actual incident(s) by this time, but I think I must have been four or five.

I suspect that for Act I Ma, Gran, and I were on our way to the main branch of Sears Roebuck on Soto St., over in Boyle Heights. In any event, we were traversing East L.A. and Boyle Heights via Brooklyn Avenue (now renamed in honor of Cesar E. Chavez).

However, in the late ’40s and early ’50s, Boyle Heights was still a heavily Jewish enclave, although the westward migration to the Fairfax District and beyond was already well under way. In any case, we were making very slow progress, largely due to road work complete with orange rubber cones, and barricades with open trenches taking up at least one, and possibly more lanes of the street. Traffic was heavier than normal as well.

In addition, there was a markedly high level of pedestrian traffic. At the age of four or five, I had very little interest in random strangers, so didn’t take much notice of that. The holes in the road were having a good deal more fascination for me.

Since this was during the period that Ma had returned to the work force, we were almost certainly making this pilgrimage on a Saturday, when all of the local Jewish families would have been on their way to or from Temple, decked out in their prayer shawls and yarmulkes. Ma, fuming at the wheel, was not enjoying the drive.

Eventually, in exasperation, she turned to Gran and made some disparaging comment about “all the schmucks in the street”.

That comment came home to roost a few months later when driving through suburban, white-bread Monterey Park (hey, Monterey Park was white bread back then. Well... white bread and tortillas) we happened to pass a crew of road workers digging up the street.

In a high, clear, very carrying voice I sang out; “Schmucks, Mama!” I cried, pointing out the clusters of orange rubber cones guarding the hole, “See all the schmucks!”.

I don’t know whether the car’s windows were open or not, but Ma was every bit as mortified as she deserved to be, and realized beyond question that she had only herself to thank for it. While she no doubt told me to lower my voice, to give her whatever credit one can, she did not disabuse me of my innocent belief that “schmucks” was the proper term for orange rubber traffic cones. Indeed, in our immediate family, orange rubber traffic cones were schmucks for the next several years.

(Older now, and somewhat more conversant with common Yiddish expressions — and where, I wonder did Ma ever pick up that — very “common” — Yiddish expression? Did she even know what it meant? — I still tend to think that “schmucks” is a reasonably appropriate term for the orange rubber traffic cones used by road crews.)