At college Alan Borovoy was reading the New Republic and the Nation magazines. He supported Henry Wallace but was opposed to Stalin’s communism. He voted for Wallace but was then glad when Truman won. He cared about the poor and racial minorities. He felt very Jewish but was increasingly secular in his outlook working for justice not only for Jews but for all minorities that felt discrimination. His father had lost his livelihood during the depression when Alan was young and he and his parents had moved in with his orthodox, kosher, grandparents on Grace Street in Toronto, a working class neighborhood, often anti-semitic but which banded together in feeling a slight scorn for the “rich folks on the hill.” His parents and his grandparents were deeply supportive and allowed him to question accepted wisdom in everything, including his religion
How is it possible that Alan and I reached the same point coming from such entirely disparate backgrounds?
At college (and in High School) I read PM newspaper, the New Republic and the Nation magazines. I read Max Lerner and I.F. Stone, I supported Henry Wallace in his bid for the presidency, and was opposed to Stalin’s communism. I tried to vote for Henry Wallace but because his name did not appear on my ballot in Monticello where I was voting– only that of his elector which I did not recognize – I ended up reluctantly voting for Truman and was very glad later that I did.
I felt deeply Jewish but was increasingly secular and felt it would be selfish to work only for Jews so I eschewed purely Jewish causes and worked for union causes and racial minorities. While I was finishing my senior year at Smith college my husband belonged to a union and he and I used to play on the phonograph all the great union songs, “I dreampt I saw Joe Hill Last Night” and “I’m Gonna Put My Name Down Brother, Where Do I sign?”
Due to the fact that his beloved youngest brother was dying during this period, my father sold all his stocks as they were a distraction. He left Columbia University when his father became ill, to help in the coffee business and ultimately went into business with this father, my grandfather, during the Great Depression. Together they ran a successful business selling coffee to restaurants in New York City run mainly by newly arrived Jewish immigrants or first generation Jews.
He taught us to see and deplore the tragedies we saw all around us – the homeless and cold on Riverside Park, warming their hands over a tin can with a wick, or trying to find warmth in a cardboard box., selling apples on the street. My father had been brought up on the lower east side and now supported the Settlement Houses which had meant so much to him when he was young. There he played handball with the other guys – all Jewish – some of whom were notorious gangsters when they became adults.
My mother was a volunteer at Madison House and supported the Hudson Guild. Yet I grew up with my older sister and younger brother in a penthouse apartment that had two “ maids,”, one cook, one laundress, sometimes a chauffeur, four bedrooms and four general rooms, a kitchen and several miniscule “maids rooms.” . I adored first Kathleen and then Mary Francis Murphy, the young Irish catholic girls just off the boat, who came to live with us and work for us. Mary was like a beloved older sister.
I will never forget coming home from school one day when I was about eleven years old, and exiting the elevator on the 16th and penthouse- floor, seeing a line snaking out our door and stretching the length of the corridor. These were, I learned, young women all waiting to be interviewed for the job as maid in our home for $30 a month plus – and this was all important – room and board. Kathleen was leaving to be married and my gentle dear mother, with her invariable good sense, hired Mary to be her replacement. Because I was the most docile and amenable, I was chosen to share a room with Mary and I loved that! I remember how – if I tried on a new dress top show her, she would look at me and say in that wonderful Irish brogue, ,”It’s not the dress, it’s the one that’s in it!” And if I admired her, she would say, “Ach, you can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear.”
I never met with any sort of anti-semitism except for one small incident when I was eleven and we rented a house in Mamaroneck and a little girl neighbor was not allowed to play with me. But I had heard from my father about the pogroms of Europe and from my mother about signs she saw in the Catskills in her early youth reading “No Dogs or Jews Allowed.”
We children – my older sister, younger brother and I – went to a private school taken there either by my grandfathers’ chauffeur or our governess. My mother had selected the Ethical Culture School because their application form had not read – as the others did – “Nationality (Jewish, American, etc.)” which angered her. She was Jewish by religion but fully American in her nationality and she would not have the two confused. Our parents were completely secular having “escaped” as it were from kosher homes. My father was a confirmed and proud atheist. Although a good friend of Rabbi Israel Goldstein who had married him and my mother and subsequently married Jimmy and me, he disliked and suspected most Rabbis. This was a holdover from the Orthodox European Rabbis he had met I imagine.
He and my mother met Leon Trotsky on a visit to Mexico, and he had become an admirer. (My Mother was more reticent.) Leon Trotsky was Jewish and could not, as Stalin was, be an anti-semite. Nor, Trotsky assured my father, would he ever hunt down and kill those who did not think as he did. Nor would he strip wealthy men like my father of their wealth. Rather, he said, he would consult them, use their wisdom. He wanted to give each according to their need, which did not entail taking away from those successful individuals who could help the cause. My father hated Stalin and I grew up hating him as well. But once again, like Alan, that did not preclude my dislike for Senator McCarthy and the UnAmerican Activities Committee and their smear tactics. I could never forgive Robert Kennedy for his part in this chapter of United States history. I tended in those days to feel sorry for those in Hollywood who might have sympathized with the Communists, feeling that though they were misguided, their hearts were in the right place if they felt for the poor and downtrodden. This included a professor at Smith, whom we later sheltered from McCarthy, a woman who had never allowed her Communist sympathies to creep into the classroom. We – my husband and I – believed in democracy and free speech although we knew and felt alarm when the avowed and hard core communists pushed too far.
When Israel was recognized by Truman, I too stood in pride and sang the Hatikvah on my 21st birthday at Jennie Grossingers hotel in those very Catskills, now no longer banned to Jews. For my birthday my mother had taken me there for lunch and the announcement came while we were there. Everyone jumped to h/h feet and sang, many with tears streaming down their cheeks. My uncle, my father’s older brother, Harry, was one of the founding members of the Zionist Organization of America. He was a doctor and we adored him.
My father was progressive in almost every one of his attitudes, far ahead of his contemporaries, but alas, on two subjects, he fell short. One was homosexuality and the other was womens’ rights. I think if he had lived to today, he would have changed. But at that time, he once questioned in my presence why women had never achieved any greatness in literature or art or politics – the odd exception only proving the rule – I did not then know how to rebut him, did not know that women were not allowed to learn throughout the centuries. But nonetheless, I knew that he was wrong, while not arguing with him. I did not argue with my father. There I believe Alan and I would have differed. I was docile although I secretly and stubbornly held to my opinions. I respected my father’s admiration for Trotsky, knowing as I did, that it came from a genuine wish for an egalitarian society, but I had read that Trotsky, when in power, had abused that power. Was this misinformation? I did not know. But I wondered. Nevertheless, I allowed my father’s denigration of women’s contribution to diminish me.
Now at last I come to the question. How did Alan and I end up in the same place? Genes? Parental influence? Early environment? All of these? Alan, of course, surged way ahead of me in founding the CCLA (The Canadian Civil Liberties Association). I joined CORE and other civil rights organizations in the US but never achieved the intellectual mastery of the complexities of civil rights and liberties that has enabled Alan to make a huge difference in the ethical climate of Canada. And thank God for that! Whatever God there is or isn’t. Later, at my mother’s urging, I joined the Board, of which she was Chair, of the New York Women’s Division of the Hebrew University. My father at that time was on the Mens Board. Now they would not dare to have two separate Boards! I loved the way my mother conducted a meeting , allowing every one to have their say, quietly and gently keeping things on track. I determined to do the same when and if I ever headed such an organization, which I did when I became Chair of Operation Lifeline which helped to bring the boat people, refugees from Vietnam, into Canada.