Along with about 25 others, Toba and I were part of the Mount Zion group that travelled to Cuba this past spring. We had a chance to talk on one of our long bus trips along the road to Varadero. Although it has been several months since, we were able to rekindle that conversation just before we led daily services together this past Halloween, and just prior to the 6th game of the World Series.
I grew up on the north side of Chicago, and I never expected to come to Minnesota. But then Mort was transferred here. So we moved up in 1973, from the suburb of Niles Illinois, with three children.
Is that where you both grew up?
I grew up on the north side in a fancy schmancy area called Roger’s Park, close to Lake Michigan. My parents were Joseph and Freda Gang, and they went to the Conservative synagogue B’nai Zion. Mort also grew up in Chicago, but in a very different part of the city, he was much further west, Roosevelt Road. Very different neighborhoods, different lifestyles. We were the more privileged – cashmere sweaters – we were like the Edina of Chicago. My father had a shoe store in Chicago, and he did well. Well enough to send both me and my brothers to college. But they worked hard, and they didn’t go on many vacations.
His mother was a housewife, but his dad seems to have been a policeman for the Detroit police department, and then he ended up working for the FBI, working undercover in unions. They had both died before I met Mort, and pretty close to each other, when he was about 19.
Did you have a favorite teacher or subject in school?
In high school, my favorite teacher was Mr. Croghan, he was my Spanish teacher. I loved it, and it was my favorite subject, and I can still remember my Spanish from four years of high school. It’s amazing! I went with the Levey’s on a South American cruise and sometimes I would stay in the van and the driver didn’t speak English, but we would carry on a conversation, and I was so proud of myself! After just four years of Spanish in high school, and a year in college.
Do you still have friends from your high school days?
My high school wasn’t the best of memories. We had Jewish social clubs. This was the far north side of Chicago, fancy, with jackets and everything. Our school went up to the 8th grade, so before we graduated, everybody was maneuvering to get into the best social club. Well I wanted to be in a club, and the most popular girls asked me to be in their club, and so I thought why not? But that was not a good move for me, not at all. First of all, I was the youngest in the class, because I had skipped twice, only because I could spell the words. So socially, I was not ready. My mother remembers watching me at the club meeting at our house, sitting in the corner and never saying a word. I just didn’t take part. I basically blossomed in college, actually in my senior year, because by then I quit the club.
And from there?
After high school, I had a year at the University of Michigan, but then I transferred and I graduated from Roosevelt University in Chicago, a small college, with a Bachelors degree in primary education. And then I loved my years teaching – first grade, public school, inner city, near north side, but you didn’t go down there at night. Now the area is very gentrified, very yuppie, North and Halsted. You can tell by the picture of the kids in my class, that the skin colors were changing, then all of a sudden the old houses have been torn down and new housing developments were built.
Where did you and Mort meet?
I met Mort at Roosevelt, it was a commuter university. And we had to get lockers, and he was in front of me and started a conversation. He was a business major. We dated at Roosevelt, and then I went away for a year, and came back.
Do you remember when he proposed?
It was a crazy, strange night. It was in my parent’s house, actually apartment, I never lived in a home until Mort and I bought a home. Mort and I were in the dining room, and my parents were in another room when he proposed. And that night my brothers were out on the town until very, very late, so my parents started to wonder where they were. So, in the midst of all that romance, Mort and my father had to go out to look for my brothers, and they found them, and boy did they get it! And they’re twins, so they got it together.
And our wedding was at B’nai Zion with about 150 people, my father’s family came in, from New York to Toronto, and my mother’s family included her brother Morris. It was a beautiful wedding. I still have pictures, my parents and all their friends, just like our little Mount Zion group is now, from south of the river. Like our own local chavurah.
What were the early family years like?
We were married in 1959, and moved here in 1973. Mort sold steel tubing, pneumatic tubing. They were into a lot of things, you’d be surprised. And one summer they needed some help up here and they asked him to come, and he liked it up here, and they liked him. But it’s interesting, when he did move here he was a typical Chicago salesman, fast talking. And they told him to slow down, because it was not the way the customers or manufacturers up here talked.
We never, ever, ever, thought that we would end up here. But we just made the move. Mort moved up here first and started to work and he liked the guys he worked with. In fact he picked out the lot for our house in Apple Valley, it was pretty far out at the time, but he said he wants to move there.
When we sold our house I cried, because I didn’t want to leave. But it turns out that if we had to make a move, this was the best place to move.
Did you find Mount Zion right away?
No, we didn’t. We had thought about a Conservative temple in Saint Paul, but when we talked to the administrator there, and he heard we were building in Apple Valley, he said ‘people aren’t going to want to visit you in Apple Valley, come live in Highland Park, where all the Jews are.’ And I was hysterical because we had put down money on a house. So we asked a real estate agent and we quickly looked at houses in Highland but they were miniscule compared to what we could have in Apple Valley, so we decided no, we’re going to stay where we are. We’ve seen Apple Valley change from gravel pits and farms, to what it is now.
So we didn’t join that temple, but we were friends with a wonderful couple, the Nachmans, and they belonged to Mount Zion. The secretary here at the time was so welcoming and so wonderful that we joined. But there were no other Jews in Apple Valley, we really were the first Jews. People used to come to us to hear the Chanukah story. Then more people started moving in, to Rosemount, and to Eagan, and the Nachmans – we were all the little group of Jews south of the river. It was very warm, we were all from out of town. We did the usual things, Mah Jongg games, in fact I’m missing one today.
When did Mort pass away?
Mort passed in 2013, but I am still in the house. They are going to have to carry me out because I love my house. I volunteer at the schools there. Love the area.
Let’s go back a bit. Did you know your grandparents?
I know that my father’s father came over from the Germany Austria area, and they ended up in the Toronto area, though I have never figured out why. And I know that the family name had always been Gang. Someone told me that Gang was German, like to walk, or walking. Aufgang. My father’s mother had passed away, though that is who I am named after. Her name was Tauba.
But I did know my mother’s parents much better, Alex and Sarah Shiffman, because we would go visit them in New York almost every spring break. My mother and her mother have an amazing story. They had to escape the Bolsheviks in Russia, while my grandfather was already in New York. My grandfather left Russia just before the first world war broke out, so my grandmother and mother were apart from him for 13 years. They had had another child in Russia but that child had died.
Eventually the two of them managed to leave Russia and went into hiding in Poland. And my mother and grandmother, this skinny little woman, stayed with a Polish family until the police came by looking for anyone that might be harboring Jews. So they left there and made it through the woods again, and finally to Belgium. And they left for America from Antwerp. It was thrilling to me, once when Mort and I were beginning a river cruise, and it left from Antwerp. It was probably that very same harbor. And I remember thinking my mother left from here, and it still just sends shivers up and down my spine.
So she made it here at the age of 12, in the late 20s, and then her parents had another child, my uncle Morris, and they were 13 years apart, my mother and her brother. So he would be a Shiffman, my mother’s name.
What person would you say had the biggest impact on your life growing up?
I guess my parents. My Dad loved music, and I’m sure that is why I love music, we all do. I played piano growing up and my parents thought I was going to make it to Carnegie Hall. I was good when I was a kid, but I couldn’t even move my fingers now. But I love music and my Dad gave me that. And my mother probably gave me a calm outlook on life.
He played the violin, but he had such a beautiful bass voice. He sang in the temple choirs, and he also sang in a church in Evanston, and he sang with the Halevi choir in Chicago. I don’t know if it even still exists anymore.
Editor’s note: “The Halevi Choral Society, founded in Chicago in 1926, is one of the oldest and most respected Jewish music ensembles in the country. Our mission has been to perform, preserve and transmit to future generations the very best of the Jewish choral repertoire. Halevi has kept alive the magnificent tradition of Jewish music at the highest artistic level as an art form and as a record of our history. Halevi has served as a living legacy that unites all Jews and lovers of music. It has served as a tribute to the past and a bridge to the future.”
And when he was in New York he sang in the choir of Beethoven’s 9th symphony with Arturo Toscanini.
(Editor’s next note: I’m not at all sure if this was the same performance that Toba’s father might have sang in, but it would certainly seem representative).
So after Cuba, do you have more travel plans coming up?
I’ve traveled with my twin brothers and their wives. The five of us plan to rent a car and go to Iceland sometime next year.
And I have another trip coming up to Japan, to visit with a family we have known for many years. My daughter Beth was taking Jewish Studies at St. Thomas, and went to the sister city of Osaka for a home stay, and I was able to join them, and our families have stayed connected and visited each other ever since.
I’ve gone back. Mort and I went. He was a big guy, the people were looking, and the slippers they would give did not fit. They took us everywhere, to the shrines … and to Toba actually, there is a city called Toba. This fall will be my third time there. I’m going on my own to stay with the same family. The father and mother are my age, and their daughter was studying English at the time, but she is married now and has two daughters. The daughter has been here, she came for Beth’s wedding. I have asked the parents to come over but that has not happened yet.
I don’t expect to be taken around. I just want to explore their lifestyle, grocery shopping.
That will be in September. For two weeks.
So what has impressed you during our time in Cuba?
Cuba is wonderful. Everybody is so helpful. But the decay, the buildings that are in decay. And our time at (congregation) Patranato was so interesting. All those young kids up there leading services. It gives you hope.
I see you’ve been keeping a diary, can you read a sentence or two from early on.
If I can read it, I’ll be very lucky. I’ve been mostly writing my impressions. Let’s see, well here we were arriving at the airport, and I was thinking in the airport, that they were going to give us a hard time, that we’d have to line up and wait, and all the terrible things that might happen and I just wrote ‘Piece of cake, we’re in Cuba! Our suitcases are already taken to the car’.
(fast forward to October, and this recent update on Toba’s travels)
The Japan trip was fabulous! I got back about a month ago now. It was a trip that was on my bucket list. It was a long hard trip, but I just wanted to see this family again before I couldn’t see them any more. It went very well, I stayed with the parents, in their home, which was not easy to do because the bedroom was upstairs and the shower was downstairs, and you needed to find and press a button for everything you wanted to do – even the hot water!
And I ate everything they made for me – the only thing I couldn’t eat was like the heads of shrimp. I just broke them off and said Takako, that’s their daughter, would you like these? And she loved them.
And do you still have another trip planned to Iceland?
We do, with one of my twin brothers and his wife. I talked to the travel agent today, and next September seems to be a good time to go for us. But I’m hoping to find another single to room with, so I don’t have to pay that single supplement.
I wouldn’t think to have asked this question last spring, back in Cuba, but since you are from Chicago I assume you are a Cubs fan?
Oh my God! Am I a Cubs fan? Are you kidding me? When I was a little girl, 10 or 11 years old, my friends and I would get on the train and take it to Addison station, and get off and go sit in the bleachers, or sometimes if it was ladies day you could sit in the grandstand. It was nothing to go on the train back then.
Do you remember any of the players from back then?
I remember an Andy Pafko. I remember how he used to stand when he would bat. He had a very interesting stance.
Really, did he crouch or something?
Oh, he had his little butt stick out or something. Yeah, I’m still a Cubs fan. I was in Chicago this past weekend, and I bought myself a Cubs t-shirt. I’m going to wear it tomorrow. It’s do or die tomorrow!
(Editor’s note: if you can open and forward this youtube video to about the 2:35:48 mark, you can get an idea of what Toba has remembered so vividly these 60 or so years.)
Do you have a favorite photograph?
Favorite photograph? I have a lot of pictures. I have albums and albums. But there is a photograph of my grandmother, it was taken in Chicago in the Jewish senior center, in Roger’s Park, and her face is just so, what is the word, beatific? Just glowing. At that point she might have been in her early 80s. It was taken by a newspaper that had come to do a story on the senior center there.
But I probably should have brought my pictures from my recent trip to Japan. I have a couple pictures that would blow your mind. One is at the Kinkakuji shrine, the Golden Pagoda. It is magnificent!
You took it?
I took it! On my little teeny tiny digital camera. And I printed it out at Walgreens.
And then I took a picture of a gate, and it is foggy, ethereal. And one at the Himeji Castle, and when I developed it I zoomed in to show the detail, that is unbelievable. I got some really good pictures, I must say. I am going to enlarge them and do something with them. But that pagoda picture is magnificent.
If you do say so.
If I do say so! And I’m not the only one who says so.
Just to wrap up, there is another line of questions I’ve started to include since our trip to Cuba, given our focus on Shabbat at Mount Zion this year. Do you have any special memories of Shabbat?
Oh yes! (long pause) Yes.
What are they?
When we sing the blessings over the wine, I hear my Dad. We would bless the wine and candles every Friday night. He would sing the complete blessings, and I still hear his voice. And then he would go off to the synagogue, because he would sing in the choir.
Many in our family have good voices, and love music. Both my girls, Beth and Leanne, and my daughter Julie did as well, until she passed away. So music is a real important part of my life.
I still have some of his music, and my brother David has his violin. Somewhere I also have some recordings – from back when you could go into a booth and record your voice singing. I’m a pack rat, I save everything.
But my Dad would probably have had the biggest impact on my life. And I can still hear his voice on Shabbat.