No Jews Allowed
I did not experience much antisemitism growing up. While the line of demarcation between Jews and Christians was quite visible in northeastern Pennsylvania in the 50’s and 60’s, it only resulted in the same childhood taunting anyone might experience.
However, something happened in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1960. My father managed shoe factories, and occasionally his work would take him out of the country; several times with the rest of us in tow. We spent the entire summer outside of San Juan that summer. There was almost no English spoken anywhere on the island. I have no idea how my father conducted business, but at 10, I had little interest in such things.
The one thing I did have an interest in was finding someone to hang out with, and the pickings were quite slim. We were in a rented home in I guess what would have passed as an upscale community, had one existed at this point in time there. There was a hard and fast rule among children – you never played with anyone younger than yourself, ever. When a local eight year old found out about me, he parked himself outside our front door for several hours early one morning. I refused to open the door once I saw how diminutive he was.
Then one day I ran into two brothers from South Carolina. One was my age, so the three of us went exploring the neighborhood. Both were blond haired and blue eyed, spitting images from the 50’s Sci-Fi classic “Village of the Damned.” When their parents found out another American family was in the neighborhood, they invited me over for dinner. Things went downhill real fast as they all (except me) bowed their heads in prayer before partaking in the meal.
The mother politely questioned if my family prayed together before meals. When I told her that we were Jewish and generally did not do this at dinner, the chilled wind that swept through the dining room was noticeable to everyone, except for me.
The next day they made their intentions quite noticeable my crossing the street as my mother and I approached while out for a walk. They would not recognize our presence with even a faint hello or smile. My mother understood the source of the hostility, and it did not sit well with her. At 10 it was not a concept I could easily grasp, but the memory stuck with me.
South Carolina seemed to follow me wherever I went after that. My third year of college at Syracuse University, my roommate was from SC, as were his two friends across the hall. They took great pleasure in harassing me, simply for my choice of clothing – it was 1969 and I had a couple of floral design shirts, although I never considered myself to be a hippie.
We lived in a dormitory adjacent to public housing near the freeway, and on more than one occasion Mike would take an empty .22 rifle he kept in his closet and point it out the window at blacks passing by six stories down, delighting in the distress of the ones who looked up and saw him sighting them in. Out of fear, I said nothing.
Mike’s friend across the hall had been acquitted of beating two blacks to death with a parking meter several years earlier, and when that story made its rounds of the sixth floor, we all gave them a wide berth. How he got the parking meter out of the cement was a cause for idle speculation, but we tried to avoid eye to eye contact with these cretins as best we could. Mike was a flop with the ladies, so any night he would come back to our room and see that I was sharing my bed with a female friend caused him to toss and turn in anger all night.
When he found out I was Jewish he vented his anger in a most demonstrative way. He prepared a paper banner which he hung over my side of the room, filled with hate and venom for all Jewish people. I made a nearly fatal mistake in dealing with it. I was pretty much a wimp at the time. Sure, I had a fistfight or two growing up, but I had not been hardened in battle like some of my other friends.
Instead of facing him down directly for what he did, I did the worst possible thing – I called my mother. She in turn immediately phoned the Dean of Men, who then passed the message on to our RA (Resident Advisor), who then spoke to Mike. The deed itself was now secondary and of little importance. The most flagrant violation that my roommate received was that my mother had called the Dean of Men.
The harassment was 24/7, and I was relocated to the second floor, slightly out of the path of their sight. Riding the elevator with any of them was nightmarish, and visits to my friends on the floor usually resulted in me being physically attacked. I rode it out for the remainder of the school year – all but one were seniors and would be vacating the premise in a few months.
I had steeled myself over the next few years, becoming somewhat impervious to this blatant display of idiocy. However, while exploring Hollywood I passed a cross street on Sunset Blvd., Gower Ave., which stopped me dead in my tracks and I broke out in a cold sweat. Gower was my roommate’s last name, and in some pernicious way he had followed me cross country. Now, every time I chanced past this street sign, a flood of emotions would engulf me, carrying me back to those harrowing days.
The Coachella Valley was a new world to me late in 1975 when I arrived, and it pretty much rolled off my back when I found out my first boss was from South Carolina. Cliff was an amiable man, but a sincere control freak. For the $20 per hour I was charging him for my photographic services – a lot of money in 1975 – I managed to swallow any past animosity I had for denizens of that colorful state. When President Regan instituted a national holiday celebrating the life of Martin Luther King in 1983, Cliff’s response was ugly and profane, and the memories of southern bigotry wafted back into the room – momentarily.
When I learned of the history of the valley and the movers and shakers responsible for building the Rancho Mirage to Indian Wells corridor, some of the seamier slices of its social history seeped out of the walls. The generation of wealth I worked with were all elegant and resourceful people with characters above and beyond the pale.
Some of the country clubs had a more colorful history, notably Eldorado and Thunderbird. These areas had been built and rarefied by WASPS (White Anglos Saxon Protestants), a group known for their dismissal of anyone Jewish. While neither club had a blatant No Jews Allowed sign at their respective entrances, the unspoken rule was enforced nonetheless throughout the formative period of the forties and fifties.
I had been hired to photograph a formal affair at Thunderbird, and Cliff was kind enough to pay for my tuxedo rental. This was my first formal affair, my first black tie party, and I was not privy to the social mōrēs of the time. While everyone else would attend in the preferred black tuxedo, I chose something a bit more colorful.
Not having attended or photographed any Latino weddings, I did not realize I was dressing in style for one. I selected a peach-colored tux with a ruffled shirt. When I made my entrance at the appointed time, all eyes were definitely on me. Everyone (except Cliff) welcomed me as a breath of fresh air at the somewhat stuffy occasion. They thanked me for bringing a light-hearted touch to the evening, which made my job a lot easier. As I looked around between photos, the irony hit me head on. Here I was, a Jew, at a No Jews Allowed affair, taking all the attention front and center due to my unusual garb for the evening.
It seemed to settle my affairs of the past, closing the books on a few tempestuous events that tried but failed to mark me for who I was.