Named not in hubris but in honor and memory of Austin M. Wright, who taught me critical thinking, and his teacher, Wayne Booth, who coined the phrase.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Remnant of Jews in Tama County, Iowa

Michael J. Bell, in “True Israelites of America” (Annals of Iowa 53, 2, Spring 1994), comments that well into the 1850s almost all the permanent Jewish settlers in Iowa were peddlers who traveled through the state:  “Those early Jews who came to Iowa were among the first generation of American entrepreneurs.  For the young Jewish businessman, a small store in the right community offered the opportunity for a Jewish immigrant to link himself to the rising prosperity of 19th-century American and to develop a sense (however limited) of individual power and independence.”

In addition to Louis, A.I., and Zachariah Solomon, at least two other Sime men followed this path to integration if not prosperity.  Louis joined his sons, Max and Simon, in Des Moines in 1889 for two years where they operated “Sime Bros Clothing and gents furnishing goods” in the city center.  

Max Sime
In October 1892, the two brothers opened yet another store in Denison, Iowa, in the southwest corner of the state, which they ran for eight years.  Shortly after they opened their store, prairie fires – a frequent occurrence – swept the nearby countryside.  In an act of charity, the Simes donated clothing to the victims; in 1893, they donated 5 percent “of All Cash Sales” in December “to be distributed among the deserving poor and needy in Denison Township.”

Simon Sime
Max especially became active in the life of the town.  He was an officer in the local whist chapter (a popular card game that had a national organization) and a charter member both of the Order of the Eastern Star and the International Order of Odd Fellows. His wife and daughter also were founders of the Order of Eastern Star.  The brothers had a float in Denison’s July 4th parade.

In March 1900, Max became a member of Denison’s city council, but in May of the same year the business failed and the brothers declared bankruptcy.  Both brothers ended up in the clothing business – working for others – in Chicago, where they both died, Simon in 1932 and Max in 1945, after being struck and killed by an automobile.

The only early Sime settler who prospered in Iowa was my great-grandfather, Abraham Isaac Sime (“A.I.”). After working in his brother Louis’s business and moving around like his brothers and cousins from one small Iowa town to another, he established Sime’s Clothing Store in 1896 in Toledo, at the corner of Broadway and High Streets, where Louis had originally had his store on the main square.   

608 Broadway
He and his wife owned a big white house at 608 Broadway, and they had three sons and a daughter.  A.I. was active in many civic organizations, and when he died of tuberculosis in 1923, his obituary was the lead story on the front page of the Toledo Chronicle.

Hyman, 2nd from left, at Northwestern
His oldest son, Hyman – my grandfather – left Toledo to study pharmacy at Northwestern University and received a PhG (pharmaceutical graduate) in 1904.   

With his first paycheck, Hyman bought his parents a Tiffany lamp to hang over their dining room table.  He worked as a pharmacist in Dayton and Clutier, Iowa, as well as Wayne, Nebraska, before settling in Chicago, where he married my grandmother, Mary Drapekin, in 1913.  By 1918, he had his own drugstore, which he maintained till the Depression when – family legend has it – he gave away too many medications to people who never paid for them.  From then on, he was a druggist in someone else’s store.

Sampson Sime
The second son, Sampson, went to Iowa State University and became a civil engineer, settling eventually in Kansas City.

A.I. and Lena’s only daughter was “Little Sarah,” who started working in a Toledo bank in 1916 and retired in 1965 from her position as assistant cashier of the State Bank of Toledo; it was clear to all of us that she ran the bank!  Sarah lived with her youngest brother Zelic in the big family house on Broadway.  In 1921, Zelic became a partner in his father’s business and ran it until his death in 1949.  Sarah sold the business in 1962 and died in 1972 in a nursing home in Gladbrook, 20 miles away.

Sarah and Zelic
When I was a little girl in Chicago and St. Paul, we would take a summer driving trip to Toledo.  The Sime house was on a double lot, and Aunt Sarah, who collected rain water in a barrel to wash her waist-length hair, grew all kinds of vegetables.  When we would arrive, there were always many rituals.  First, she would call the operator on the crank telephone in the kitchen so the news could be relayed to others in town.  Then we would go into the vegetable garden and pick peas to shell.  Then I would go up Broadway to visit Sarah’s best friend, Estelle Born, and pick up a little red wagon she would lend me.  In the evenings we would go to band concerts on the Courthouse Square, and when we got back in the dark, we would go into the garden to listen to the corn grow.

On a “roots road trip” we took about three years ago, my husband and I drove across Iowa, beginning in Denison, and followed Route 30, the old Lincoln Highway, which runs through the center of the state, to Toledo.  The countryside is still beautiful, with rolling hills and fertile fields. 

Sime's Corner, Toledo Iowa
The towns, not so quaint.  Town squares and downtowns are full of empty storefronts, many of which were remodeled in the 1970s and 1980s with unattractive siding (like A.I. and Zelic’s store, now an insurance office).

Iowa is still drawing new immigrants, just as it did 140 years ago.  A.G. Sulzberger wrote in the New York Times (November 14, 2011) on the front page about towns in Kansas where “Hispanics are arriving in numbers large enough to offset or even exceed the decline in the white population in many place.” 

Of the towns in Iowa where Simes and Solomons lived, Denison in particular reflects a similar influx; the 2010 census counted 42.1% of the population as Hispanic. Denison is home to three major animal-processing plants:  beef, chicken, and pigs’ blood.  The stores on its main street, where the Sime brothers sold men’s clothing, now feature dresses for La Quinceañera.  Fine old Victorian-era homes shelter multiple tenants. 

The only visible remnant of the Sime family of central Iowa is an old barn with a fading sign just a few miles outside of Toledo.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Simes and Solomons of Central Iowa

Driving across central Iowa, it’s easy to imagine the countryside when Louis Sime opened his men’s clothing store on the town square of Toledo, Iowa, on April 10, 1877. 

Tama County had been in existence for 34 years.  Toledo, the county seat, had been founded in 1853, and the stately county courthouse (now listed on the National Register of Historic Sites) in the center of the town square had been completed in 1866.
The land surrounding the two towns was richly agricultural.  An 1875 history of the county lists wheat, corn, oats, barley, rye, buckwheat, potatoes, cabbage, timber, and meadows:  “The various tame grasses grow in Tama soil as if by magic.  There is but little labor needed in raising it and the remuneration is good.”

Many of Iowa’s early settlers were drawn by the railroads, whose representatives went to Bohemia and other parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire offering an acre of land to hard workers who would come to build the railroad.

Clearly, the farmers and the railroadmen needed clothes.  The Simes and the Solomons, two intertwined Jewish families that lived in the twin towns of Toledo and Tama City, arrived to meet their needs.

Louis Sime and his wife, Deborah (Dora) Levinson had come to central Iowa most recently from Wisconsin, where all five of his children had been born.  His partner in the Toledo business was Zachariah Solomon.   Louis was 37; Zach only 23.  Zachariah Solomon’s younger brother, George, was married to Louis’s younger sister, known in the family as “Big Sarah.”

In addition to Sarah, Louis had two other siblings, Leah and Abraham I. (“A.I.”), my great-grandfather.  When Leah died in childbirth after the birth of her second daughter in New York, her older daughter Sarah (Sadie) went to live with A.I. in Toledo; the new baby, Rachel, was placed in a New York orphan asylum but eventually she, too, moved in with her mother’s family in Toledo.  Both left in their teens for Chicago, where they met husbands and remained.

Rachel (Rae) and Sarah (Sadie) Goldstein

A.I. followed Louis from Milwaukee to Iowa, becoming a clerk in the establishment of Sime & Solomon when it opened.  Two years later, in 1879, Zachariah Solomon went into business for himself in Tama City, and remained a clothing merchant there till 1914, when his business failed.  He moved to Chicago, where he worked as a clothing salesman at The Fair, and died in 1922. 

Louis had even less success in the clothing business . . . or perhaps he had trouble staying in one place.  In 1881, he had relocated to Gladbrook,and in 1885, he was back on the High Street in Toledo.  He subsequently lived in Belle Plaine, Des Moines, De Witt, and Denison before he moved to Chicago, where he was working as a “laborer” in the clothing business in 1900.

In Toledo in July 1882, when George Solomon married “Big Sarah,” A.I. married his childhood sweetheart, Lena, from “Lebova”:   probably Liubavas, Lithuania, based on other information.  This is when facts get tangled.  Their marriage certificate says her name was Ziman, but her husband’s obituary says her maiden name was Jeruslinsky, and her own obituary says her maiden name was Vatelsky.  Leah’s first husband had the last name Simon, and when A.I. and Hyman and Leah’s father died, their mother also married a man whose last name was Simon.  A.I. had a half-brother, Morris Simon, who was killed in “the Moro insurgency” in 1905 in the Philippines. The coincidences are too great to be coincidences; the families must have known each other and been interwoven in the towns they left behind.

Lena Ziman had arrived about a year before her marriage with – family legend has it – a tag around her neck that said “Toledo, Iowa.”  In fact, the records of the ship she took from Hamburg, the Uranus, note that her destination is “Toledo,” and she was already listed as “Lena Sime.”  Nevertheless, they were officially married a year later by Rabbi David Davidson, a Reform rabbi serving Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Des Moines, Iowa.

A.I. and Lena Sime ca. 1922
I remember stories of trips to Des Moines for kosher meat, but how my grandfather’s family lived a Jewish life in Toledo never really entered my childhood consciousness.  Simon Glazer, in The Jews of Iowa (1904), divided the Jews of Des Moines into eastsiders, mostly Orthodox, who came from the Suwalki region – where I believe the Simes came from – and westsiders, mostly Reform, who established B’nai Jeshurun.  Among their family photos was a “rabbi card” of Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor of Kovna obviously copied by a Des Moines photographer.

Nevertheless, when the Simes and Solomons needed a life-cycle event, from a wedding to a funeral, they sought out Reform synagogues and Reform rabbis.

To be continued . . . 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Morpurgos and More in Trieste

At the end of our trip through Dalmatia last year, I contracted a combo of bronchitis and pleurisy, and by the time I made my way to an E.R. and some very strong antibiotics, time had moved on.  Finally editing and organizing my photos last week compelled me to write about experiences that particularly linger in my mind.

Our modus operandi in our travels, as usual, was to spend a few days in a city and try to see it through the eyes of the Jews who live or had lived there.  In Trieste, that is relatively easy.  The great synagogue, extremely well preserved, is outside the historic center of the city.  The grand sanctuary – with an organ – suggests the size of the Ashkenazic congregation in 1912, when the building was completed:  about 5,000. A small congregation of mostly North African Jews has a Sephardic Shabbat Service in a side chapel.  There is separate seating, but all on one level, and all the little girls in front of me turned around with wide eyes and stared when I loudly sang Adon Olam at the end of the service.

The scale of the synagogue contrasts with that of the remaining fragment of the Jewish ghetto near the port.  “Ghetto” is an Italian word that described the area, originally, where the Jews of Venice lived; Trieste’s ghetto was created in the late 17th-early 18th centuries. 
Trieste has a small but interesting Museo della Comunità Ebraica di Trieste Carlo e Vera Wagner.  It recounts the story of the ancient community as well as the history and fate of the community in the 19th and 20th centuries, when about 4 million Jews passed through the city on their way to the U.S., South America, and Palestine. 

Trieste also was our introduction to the Morpurgo family.  The name apparently is a variation on Marburg, which in turn is the German version of the city, Maribor, in Slovenia.  One member of the family, Giuseppe Lazzano Morpurgo, moved from Gorizia, Italy, to Trieste.  In 1831 he founded the Generali insurance company, which is now being challenged, poignantly and ironically, by Holocaust survivors to make good on their parents’ and grandparents’ policies (New York Times, June 2, 2011). 

Two other Morpurgos, brothers Carlo Marco and Giacomo, left their apartment to the city of Trieste; it is now the Morpurgo Municipal Museum.  We encountered the name again in Split:  Lucciano Morpurgo, a poet and publisher; Vittorio Morpurgo, who headed the Jewish community; and Vid Morpurgo, who founded a bookstore that just celebrated its 150th anniversary.  The many, many branches of the family include the stepfather of War Horse author Michael Morpurgo.

Two famous Italian Jewish writers are celebrated in Trieste.  Italo Svevo, whose real name was Aron Ettore Schmitz, wrote novels, plays, and short stories; he was a friend of James Joyce and is widely considered to be the model for Leopold Bloom.  Umberto Saba (born Umberto Poli) wrote novels and poetry.  Svevo died in 1928; Saba survived World War II by moving around Italy (in one year he moved 11 times).

One day we took a city bus to an industrial area on the edge of Trieste to visit La Risiera di San Sabba, a former rice-processing factory that the Nazis began to convert to a prison camp in September 1943.  At first it was used for captured Italian soldiers, then as a transit camp for deportees to Germany and Poland, primarily Auschwitz-Birkenau.  By early 1944, partisans, political prisoners, homosexuals and Jews – including 700 from Trieste – were being interned and executed as well as dying from the conditions.  By April 1944, thanks to Erwin Lambert – whose designs for gas chambers and ovens also were realized at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor – bodies were being cremated on the site.  On April 29, 1945, the fleeing Germans dynamited the crematorium and its chimney.

On our day at La Risiera, we were two of perhaps a dozen people there.  The factory was declared a national monument of Italy in 1965, well before Holocaust memorials and museums began to proliferate elsewhere.  In 1966, Trieste-born architect Romano Boico won a competition to turn La Risiera into a memorial and museum.  His conception, completed in 1975, is stunning.  Stark concrete entrance walls guide the visitor into the center of the factory, which he described as an “open-air nondenominational basilica.”  Down the center runs a sunken line of steel that demarcates the absent crematorium.  Other parts of the factory house a Museum of the Resistance that traces the German domination of the area as well as their ultimate defeat and trials for their war crimes.

By the time the Germans occupied Italy, about 2,000 Jews lived in Trieste, the rest having either left Italy or gone into hiding; after the war, according to some sources, about 600 and now numbers less than 1,000.  As in so many communities, the Jews left behind both physical and intellectual evidence of their presence but not many Jews.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sliding backward

Nearly four months have passed since we left Milan, and we are still adjusting.  Our days and evenings have been filled with errands, chores, and deferred maintenance of ourselves and our house.  We’ve had to replace our glasses, our refrigerator, and our tires.  We had to catch up on some of the Academy Award films that hadn’t yet come to Italy in English before we left, and most importantly reconnect with many friends and relatives in Washington and Chicago.

“How does it feel to be back?  Do you miss Milan?  Are you experiencing ‘culture shock’?”  Those are the questions we are asked most frequently.  Our answers are pretty much the same as you would expect:  Most of the time it feels good to be back.  Yes, we miss many aspects of our daily lives in Milan. 

The “culture shock,” on the one hand, is not so much as it was when we returned from two months in the UK in the summers of 2000 or 1979.  The reason for that is the internet . . . globalization . . . everything lumped together as “modern communications.”  We were never really out of touch with our Washington lives.  As we worked at home in the late morning, we streamed “Morning Edition” and in the evenings, “All Things Considered.”  I practiced my Italian by reading Corriere della Sera every day, but I filled in my gaps by checking the New York Times or Washington Post on line.  I could even keep up with my New Yorker by downloading it to our Kindle.

This past week, however, I did experience huge culture shock.  We took our usual Amtrak regional train from New York to Washington.  It took 3-1/2 hours, and we were on time for a change.  The ride was bumpy and so jerky that I couldn’t take a sip of water without getting splashed in the face.  What a contrast to our many trips between Milan and Florence a few months ago:  a smooth ride that took 1-3/4 hours to go only 30 miles less for about $20 less.

Italy has its share of infrastructure problems, but the U.S. is falling behind so many other countries in so many ways.  Since we have returned, we have watched and listened to the continuing statistics on unemployment and services here being cut; this morning's paper describes Amtrak's problems.  Most seriously, the holes in our safety net are getting larger, and we have only ourselves to blame as our country slips back in time.  

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Arrivederci, Milano

“No matter how well you think you know someone,” my mother used to say, “You don’t really know them till you’ve lived with them for 24 hours.”

So we’ve had the opportunity to get to know this country of charming people, great food and wine, and artistic creativity in many, many ways, some of them not so charming. 

Espresso.  I am not a chronic coffee drinker.  My routine for most of my adult life has been a half-cup of my homemade brew (black) for breakfast, another half-cup mid-morning, and a full cup with lunch.  I didn’t discriminate, and when my young coworkers went out every morning for a Starbucks, I was happy to drink the coffee in our office kitchen.  After dinner:  a little decaf, also black.  Here I have found myself growing increasingly fond of the Italian habit:  a normali (one shot of espresso) or caffe doppia (two shots) with a packet of brown sugar (canna).  We are fortunate to have 20 steps from our front entrance a gelateria that has been featured in the papers for its Sicilian cannoli.  They are good, but resistible.  Dropping down there for a coffee around 11 after we pick up a newspaper, however, is not.

Similarly, I have never been a sweets eater, but I have never seen as many attractive and delicious dolci as I have in Italy. Perhaps it is because Italian sweets are not so sweet. Every holiday has its unique pastries (e.g. panettone for Christmas, deep-fried or baked chiacchieri for Carnival); every city has its specialty (Bergamo’s polenta e osei); and each pasticceria tries to outdo its neighbor.

Public transportation.  Except for last week’s strike of Milan transport workers, public transportation is remarkably easy to use and accessible.  For three days we rented a car with friends to show them the area around Lake Como; otherwise, for six months, we have depended on trains, buses, and our feet.  No complaints.

Small specialized shops.  We quickly learned that you have to know where to go to get what you want.  A panificio has bread and fresh pasta but not many dolci:  cakes, biscotti, and other dessert items.  A pasticceria (see above) has everything sweet you could possibly dream of plus, usually, a place to eat it with a cup of espresso . . . but not much bread.  A farmacia has prescription medicine, toothpaste, some over-the-counter medications like aspirin, skin creams, gluten-free foods, and petroleum jelly; a supermercato has toothpaste has toothpaste and cosmetics, and so on.  It can drive you crazy.  Or you begin to appreciate the fact that people really know their merchandise.

Flower stands on almost every corner.  They cheer you as you walk by and mark the changing seasons even if you don’t buy anything.

Produce.  I’ve written before about the joys of going to the produce markets.  The proliferation of varieties of fruits and vegetables always available is truly overwhelming.  Good things to eat come from all over Italy, all over Europe, and all around the Mediterranean.  It is fresh and inexpensive.  While it’s common for Americans traveling in Europe to complain about high prices, the fact is that we can buy produce for a fraction of what it costs in a farmers market at home.

Primi piatti.  Consequently, pasta and risotto dishes are also inexpensive.  Risotto with porcini mushrooms, a first course in thousands of neighborhood ristoranti, costs 6-7 €, or about $8.  In Washington, such risotto might appear on the menu of an upscale restaurant and cost $15-20.

That’s the good news.

In the wake of more disgusting disclosures about the not-so-private life of Italy’s premier, Silvio Berlusconi, I ask myself yet again how and why the general population supports and even adores him.  One expatriate suggests that the Italian view is:  “You are born.  You die.  You might as well have the best time in between that you can.”  Berlusconi embodies that attitude and is admired for really knowing how to have a good time.

Rachel Donadio, writing in last Sunday’s New York Times, gives what I think is the most accurate analysis I’ve seen yet:  “Italy is a survival culture, steeped in that most time-honored survival mechanism: fatalistic resignation.”  That explains a lot of what we’ve observed.

* why we rarely see a young person offering an older person a seat on a bus or tram.
* the short hours that businesses are open, the long mid-morning coffee and prosecco breaks, the two-hour lunches, and the famous happy hours (“aperitivi”).
* why people park their cars in every inch of space:  on sidewalks, in crosswalks, in the middle of the street, and in other people’s driveways.
* dog poop, everywhere, and almost exclusively on the sidewalk.  While it is a law in Milan and elsewhere, only in Bergamo have we seen a sign that you are required to clean up after your dog.
This is not a third-world country.  Milan justifiably calls itself the “design capital of the world.”  Yet Italy is in 80th place in the World Bank’s “Ease of doing business” survey, down four places from 2010.  A friend told us it took five weeks from the day he bought a new car to the day he could drive it home:  that’s how long it took to switch his insurance from his old car.

In today’s Washington Post, Nina Burleigh notes, “[Berlusconi’s] attitude toward women is the official version of the national norm in Italy, which ranked 74th out of 134 countries . . . in the World Economic Forum's 2010 global index of gender equality."

The “national norm” includes an obsession with one’s looks and clothes.  I have never seen so many parrucchieri (places to get your hair done) for women and men, plus barber shops for men.  Street markets and commercial areas, always packed with buyers loaded down with shopping bags, respond within hours to the latest fashion trend.  Fur coats abound.  The newspapers and television commercials focus almost exclusively on “the beautiful people,” and never mention anyone – in any context – without noting their age.

We have had a wonderful time, we’ve made new friends and, yes, eaten a lot of delicious food.  We’ve appreciated anew the pleasures of small personalized shops, neighborhood bakeries, and walking.  We look forward to returning home and, eventually, to returning to Italy.  As we pack our bags, we stand with one foot in each culture, and each enhances our appreciation of the other.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Debbie Friedman: A Tapestry of Memories

If you have traveled to Italy or fantasized about traveling to Italy, you picture sunshine, fields of sunflowers, a lazy lunch in the shade of a leafy pergola with a glass of wine, a plate of pasta, and a bunch of lavender on your table.

If you have spent winter in Northern Italy, however, the picture in your mind’s eye is foggy.  It is raining hard, or misting.  Your shoes are wet and the cuffs of your pants are wet.  Your umbrella is dripping all over you and the person next to you.  You are cold, chilled to the bone; your toes and fingers are freezing, no matter what you do.

We have now endured seven consecutive cold rainy days. They do not offer a hope of a green spring (though that is their inevitable result). We work around them, running our errands and visiting friends and going to museums, but they make it hard to get up in the morning.

Especially the last few days, when the illness and then death of Debbie Friedman and the shootings in Arizona surround us like the fog and the chilling rain. 

I cannot say I grew up with Debbie Friedman, but I certainly grew into Reform Judaism with her.  I cannot claim friendship or even a personal acquaintance, but she and her music meant so much to me.  She represented the openness of Reform Judaism to new ways of praying and exploring and understanding how people relate to one another and to God.  I grew up in Orthodox and Conservative synagogues, and I never attended a Jewish camp until I worked at one when I was in graduate school.  I was an instant convert. 

Eventually, I married a man who had known Debbie from early days at Olin-Sang-Ruby Camp; many years later, I envied our son, who took a class with her when he was a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. 

Up close, I was in wonder at her humility; awed by her sensitivity and vitality; worried about her delicate condition.  From afar, she filled a room, controlled a hall, kept us holding our breaths and singing at the top of our voices.  I often thought in those moments that I could understand what it felt like to encounter Hildegard of Bingen or Joan of Arc.  She would have laughed.

The eulogies at her funeral emphasized all those human qualities.  The overriding metaphor was the tapestry of memory.  Debbie wove that tapestry, and we are all threads.  And even as we are threads, we all have our own tapestries of memories.  For some, Debbie herself is a part of those memories; for others, it is her music that makes the cloth.