Susie grew up in the Bronx, where from her start at PS95, she eventually moved on to receive her PhD from Yale, as did her husband Benjamin. She and Ben now live in the Merriam Park neighborhood of St Paul with their two daughters, Sophie, who is 17 and president of the Temple’s SPORTY, and Samantha, who is just finishing the eighth grade. Sam recently went on her first NFTY Kallah, which as it turns out happened to also be Sophie’s last, “which I thought was very sweet, and she loved it.”
After receiving his PhD in French literature, Ben taught for a while before later receiving his law degree from the University of Minnesota and starting to practice law here in the Twin Cities.
They moved here for her job at Hamline University. Though unaware of, and unprepared for, the culture shock of living here, she now confirms “it’s our home, we love it, and would never live anywhere else”. They joined Mount Zion in 1996, just before being married by Rabbi Abrahamson.
Both of Susie’s two sisters and her mother continue to live on the east coast. And she uses her ‘natal’ name, a term she prefers over ‘maiden’ name.
Let’s start with where you were born and raised.
I was born and raised in the Bronx, in New York, in a mostly Jewish neighborhood. Almost everyone in my elementary school class was Jewish. As far as I could tell most of them had at least one parent who was a survivor. So it was very different than it was for my kids. One thing that I feel, not exactly guilty about, but torn about is the fact that I’ve brought them here, where in their public school classes they are the token Jew. And they’re often asked to explain Judaism, to represent Judaism, and I never had to do that.
So fast forward, what do you do here at Hamline?
I’m a history professor. My specialty is gender in Victorian Britain. I think a lot about gender and how it works in society, that’s why I say things like ‘natal’ name, rather than maiden name, which is used to imply virginity. But Hamline is a small school, and we get to teach more broadly, which is nice, and so I teach modern western European ‘stuff’ – I teach British Empire, Victorian Britain, I do a class on same sex love in the 19th century, that I really enjoy. And then I’m also the Director of Undergraduate Honors here. My own area of interest is actually women and the law. And specifically, breach of promise of marriage. I am one of two world experts on breach of promise of marriage in 19th century England. So a big fish in a very, very, very small pond.
Have you had a disappointment in your life that has actually turned out for the better?
Well in my career, when I started out, I wanted to get a job in what we call an R1 school, which is a large research oriented University, where research comes first and students tend to come second. That’s how I envisioned my career. And in fact, it’s turned out just the opposite, I teach at a school where students come first, and research is important, but it comes second. And that has turned out to be great, for a lot of reasons. First, it is a much more family friendly life. I gave birth to both my kids before I had tenure, which I would not have been able to do at an R1 school. And when I teach people here I feel I get to change the course of their lives, I get to enrich their inner lives.
Speaking of family, what do you know about your family history?
My father died in 2000 (z’l) and was a holocaust survivor, he was a camp survivor. He was in the camps from age 6 to 12. Then he was in a camp for displaced persons. He came to America when he was 16, in 1949. There were a lot of survivors that came in ‘49 and ’50, because there had been a couple bills passed that allowed them in. He was from Poland, but he wasn’t Polish, which he felt very strongly about. I think the Jews at the time would have agreed, that they weren’t Polish, but they were from Poland.
When Ben and I were first dating, we drove from Yale down to Washington together, and we saw a lot of museums, but we spent a whole day at the Holocaust museum. Which at the time was pretty new, this must have been 1992 or ‘93. That was a really great day, partly because my father was interned at this very small camp, and there was a slide show going, and they had a slide from his camp! I had never seen that before, and I just stayed, and let the slideshow go through two or three times, so I could see it again. I was very excited! He was in Demblin, about 100 km from Warsaw. The Jewish part of town had been made into a ghetto, and then into a work camp.
What do you remember about your own neighborhood growing up?
It was lower middle class, which means it was very precarious, always striving for respectability. Always in danger of falling into the working class. There were tenements across the street and there was a project across the street, but our particular building was a Mitchell-Lama coop, if you know what that is. That was a New York initiative to provide affordable housing, so you had to be under a certain income limit, but it was a modern, big building, and we moved in the year it was built, in 1965. There were also a lot of Sholem Aleichem cooperatives there. So the neighborhood had a strong Jewish presence but also a strong socialist, Bundist feel, and people were living in certain income bands.
And people would know that, from one side of the street to the other?
The area is called Kingsbridge. It’s not Riverdale. If you are white and from the Bronx people sometimes assume you are from Riverdale, which is very affluent, very Jewish.
It wasn’t that. It was Kingsbridge.
You know I’ve noticed, that when I am a Greeter at temple, and I meet someone new from New York, I try to pick up on that as a connection.
Oh, so you’re from New York, where from?
Oh no, I’m from Milwaukee, but actually what I was going to say, is when I try to introduce two people from New York – and I hope you are not offended – but their questions to each other often remind of watching two dogs check each other out.
Yes, that’s exactly right! “What neighborhood? Which part? What borough?” We’re placing each other, right?
So were you synagogue members – in Kingsbridge?
The only temple near us was Orthodox, so my father would go there only on the High Holy Days. And my sisters and I used to go with him when we were little children, until we started developing, physically, and then they wouldn’t let us sit with our father in the men’s section. But what we did do instead, there was a Workmen’s Circle nearby, it was like an antizionist, Bundist, socialist – very committed to culture over religion, and to Yiddish over Hebrew. And we went there, so I went to Yiddish school three days a week. All through elementary school. So instead of having a Bat Mitzvah I had a graduation – and we had to write and then read aloud a paper in Yiddish. My mother sent us there because my father was a native Yiddish speaker, and she wanted us to have that connection.
Do you still retain your Yiddish?
I do still retain it, but to be honest if there were a Workmen’s Circle here I would love to participate. But they don’t really have them anymore, at least none here. It’s hard to find centers of Yiddish culture. I love the Reform movement, I love my Temple, but it is very Hebrew oriented, there is not really a Yiddish piece to it. That feels sad to me.
And to me as well. So how do you keep it alive, are there others here you speak with?
There are little spots, I still know a lot of songs we sing at the holidays. We used to do a Yiddish Seder, which is largely sung. And when I get together with my family, which we did this spring, back east, we still did that Seder, the Workmen’s Circle Seder.
Do you remember any Yiddish songs?
There are some great Shabbas songs, there are songs about potatoes … there are songs about fire … there’s a song about the woman who made the hamantaschen but they were half burned and half raw, and her husband is angry.
Do you remember any of that one?
Editor’s note: imagine yourself, surrounded by students in the Union of Hamline University with their history professor now singing “Hop! Mayne hamentaschen” to some guy with a mike.
Oh my, lets see.
Hop! mayne hamantaschen
Hop, mayne vayse
Hop, mit mayne hamantaschen
Hop, pasirt a mayse!
According to one online source (and there appears to only be one online source), this refrain translates roughly into:
Oh, my hamantaschen,
I sing this for you !
Oh, my hamantaschen,
What’s a girl to do !
There are so many great ones. Yiddish is a very colorful language, and Samantha likes me to teach her the most colorful curses. In Yiddish. Which we work very hard on.
That actually reminds me of a time that the Minnesota Jewish Theatre gathered a group of men in a recording studio, right here at Hamline actually, so we could record several minutes of our shouting Yiddish curses. They then used the recording for the off stage, crowd scenes, for a play (Women’s Minyan) in which men were supposedly standing outside a shtetl home to berate the woman inside.
Oh, wow. That’s amazing. The one that that Samantha has just learned is … ‘svet vaksn kop in dr’erd vi a tsibele!’, which means ‘You should grow like an onion, with your head in the ground!’
It’s a curse, but its not that its dirty, it’s just very evocative. A very colorful image.
I wish my father had just raised us bilingual. It was his native language. It’s so weird when I think about it. That my whole relationship with my father was not in the language he was most comfortable with. That seems like a weird gap. He and his siblings always spoke Yiddish together.
And what do you wish for your children?
I guess that’s kind of easy.
I want them to be healthy. I want them to be happy. If I’m honest with myself I hope that they find Jewish partners, and live a Jewish life. But the second is more important than the first. That’s one thing I love about Mount Zion is how we are a great Temple for interfaith families. In so many ways. So I hope that they live Jewish lives, and that that’s a source of strength, and comfort, and inspiration for them.
And I think it will be. I feel real optimistic about it. Not just because I want them to do it. And I do want them to do it. But because I think it will add to their lives. And that it does add to their lives.
Any final thoughts?
The Yiddish word for enough is genug. So when Sophie was very little and she would do something for the hundredth time, I would say ‘Sophie, it’s genug, it’s enough already’. And sometimes she would mix them up and she would say ‘Mommy, it’s genough already’.