Growing Up Jewish in D.C.

A few days ago, I spoke at B’nai Israel, a synagogue in Rockville, Maryland. “B’nai” means “brotherhood” and I am sure that today that’s understood to mean sisterhood, too. This is most of the speech I gave. It’s long but some might consider it important. I sent it to Warren Buffett. He’s not at all Jewish but he grew up in D.C. at about the same times I am referencing here and he liked it. So, you might like it too. Here it is.

I am a Jew, very obviously. I am a Jew who grew up in the greater Washington, D.C. area. For me, as a child, that was mostly 9342 Harvey Road, Silver Spring, 20910. We were members of what was then called MC JC, of which my father and mother were founding members. It’s now called Ohr Kodesh.

The DC Jewish community was much smaller than it now is. Nowhere near as widespread and powerful as it now is. And for my friends and me, it was almost like a pleasant middle class or upper middle class shtetl on the Potomac. There were Jewish clubs like Indian Spring and Jewish hangouts like Hofberg’s and Duke Zeibert’s.

I would like to say that it was a sweet life, because in many ways it was. We had just finished World War II and to the extent that the Holocaust is ever finished, we were finished with that. We were DEEPLY, and I mean DEEPLY conscious of our incredible good fortune in growing up in Silver Spring or upper 16th Street or anywhere other than continental Europe, where the absolute hell of the mass murder of the Jews by the Nazis and their friends in Europe was bloodily happening in ways too ghastly to be believed, even now.

We saw the newsreels of the Holocaust and the roundups and the Aktions and the corpses of the starved Jews of the Warsaw ghetto. We saw the local populace of the Baltic States beating their Jewish neighbors to death with iron bars. We saw the Einsatzgruppen making the Jews run to the edge of a ditch, shooting them, and then burying them while they were still living.

We saw the worst horrors that the sickest, angriest people on earth could perpetrate against their neighbors, the peaceful Jews. I saw the Jews lined up to be gassed and they looked just like me and like my sister and my parents and my cousins and my best friends. I saw the terror in their eyes and I saw myself and all the Jews I knew. I still see them in my sleeping dreams and in my day terrors. The Nazis are still very much alive in my fears and thoughts.

Hell on earth. That was the inheritance of the Jews of Europe and then I blinked and I saw the parks and golf courses of our Jewish world in greater DC. We all saw it and we were prostrate with gratitude if we had a brain in our head or a heart in our chest.

And I wish I could say that was the story, but it’s only part of the story. It’s the main part, but it’s only a part.

And now I want to tell a story of political struggle and personal triumph. It’s not about Republican versus Democrat. It’s about the political process working out beautifully in our green and leafy County.

Because the Washington, D.C. I grew up in was tightly bound up in our own greater Potomac land sorts of anti-Semitism. I don’t want for one instant to say they were comparable to the Holocaust. They were not. But they had a little bit of enough in common to make me uneasy.

Washington, D.C. in the late ’40s, the ’50s, and the ’60s was in many ways a thoroughly anti-Semitic town — just as it was a thoroughly racist town.

The two usually go together and they certainly did in my youthful days in D.C. and Maryland and Virginia.

Just to get the memories rolling.… My mother was always shopping. She, like many middle class women in D.C., liked to shop at a truly great store called Julius Garfinckel. Garfinckel’s, as we called it, had its main store at 14th and G, if memory serves, where Hamilton’s immense restaurant now is. But Garfinckel’s also had a store in the close in suburb of Spring Valley. It was on Massachusetts Avenue, about a half mile north of Ward Circle, where AU (American University) is and where I taught and had some of the happiest times of my life. It’s a great school. The neighborhood that Garfinckel’s was in, as I say, Spring Valley, was a beautiful old, green neighborhood of houses ranging from modest to mansions. My mother, an inveterate house hunter, often commented on what a beautiful neighborhood it was.

She often said she wished they could live there. It would be super convenient to my father’s work at Connecticut and K and it had great schools (although our schools in Montgomery County were also great schools). The problem, as my mother said, was that it was “restricted.” “Restricted” was a word I often heard in my youth.

“Restricted” meant that Jews were not allowed to live there. It wasn’t just that Jews were not liked there. We were barred BY LAW from living there. The developer, W.C. and A.N. Miller, had covenants in all of the deeds forbidding the transfer of the property to Jews or blacks or Asians. That was a covenant that a federal court would enforce. It was illegal for Jews to own homes in Spring Valley. I am positive that W.C. and A.N. Miller is completely different now. I know that it is because I bought my first house through them in 1974.

But back then, that “restricted” label hurt. It hurt like hell even for a 12 or 14-year-old or an 18-year-old. It wasn’t just Spring Valley. Wesley Heights, another W.C. and A.N. Miller development, a spectacularly beautiful development off New Mexico Avenue near Foxhall Road, was restricted. So was most of Kenwood. So were some parts even of Silver Spring and many parts of Chevy Chase.

Don’t get me wrong, I well know it’s not the same as Nazi Germany. But it hurt. To drive through some of the most beautiful areas in the nation’s capital and know that a court would enforce a deed provision keeping me as a Jew out — it cut like a knife and it made me furious.

At one point in the late 1940s, my parents were house hunting and found a house they liked and could afford off Military Road near Connecticut. They made an offer and it was accepted. But then the owner came to them and said, “I can’t do this. I can’t sell it to you. I can’t do this to my friends and neighbors.” That was a horror show even for a small child.

It went much further than that. When I was in 8th grade at Montgomery Hills Jr. High, a true hellhole of a school, in our civics class we had an assignment of writing what our top three choices of occupations would be for when we grew up.

I listed banker — because banks had great air conditioning and I love air conditioning. I listed advertising man, because I have been and still am fascinated by the world of ads, print and TV and radio. And cars, because what 12 or 13-year-old boy is not fascinated by cars?

My father, who traveled in fairly elevated circles, frowned and shook his head.

“Banking won’t do,” he said with a sorrow I can recall even now. “Jews are not welcome at high levels or even medium levels at banks. Jews are really not wanted in the ad business except in very rare cases. And the auto business doesn’t take Jews except as dealers and I don’t think you meant you wanted to be a dealer.”

“What is open to Jews?” I asked him.

“Civil service, like being an economist. Accountant. Medicine. Law. Starting your own business.”

That was a shock then and now. Of course it’s all changed. But that was then and this is now.

I mentioned how much of a hellhole my junior high was. My best friend, a neighbor from an extremely social and high born family, had gone to elementary school a year ahead of me at beautiful Parkside elementary school in Sligo Creek Park, and then had transferred to St. Albans — then, as now, a highly regarded day school connected with the National Cathedral. I asked my parents if I could go to St. Albans instead of horrible “Monkey Hills.” We were told it was not exclusive to Anglicans and so my parents had me apply and I took the admissions test. Almost immediately afterwards, the admissions officer gave me a sober look. “You did extremely well on your test,” said he. “But we have a rule here at St. Albans. One Jew per class and we already have our Jew for your class.”

He was a boy named Wilner, whose family had been in the men’s clothing business in D.C. since before the Civil War. He became a distinguished jurist.

I had the precise same experience when I applied to Sidwell Friends. One Jew per class and they already had their Jew. This was at a Quaker school.

So, I stuck it out at Montgomery Hills, where nasty kids would call me a kike and we would fight over it until a teacher broke it up.

That was Montgomery Hills, which was racially integrated in 1957, the first year I was there and where bomb threats were frequently called in.

Montgomery Blair High School, after Junior High, was totally different. It was a friendly, comfortable place and I loved it then and still do. A lot.

But it had its moments. One that I still recall with a wince was in the Spring of 1962 when I was a senior very casually — and I mean VERY casually, like miniature golf casually — dating a lovely young woman. I invited her to the Senior Prom. She accepted at once but then a few days later she tearfully took me aside in the breeze way between the B and C buildings at Blair (you see, I remember it very well to this day). She told me her father had told her she could go with a Jew to play miniature golf. But she could not go to anyplace nearly as important and significant as the Senior Prom with a Jew. She cried.

As I mentioned.

I knew she had majorette practice that night, so I went over to her home. I asked her father if I could talk to him for a moment. He invited me in.
“Why?” I stupidly asked him. “Why? I’m as American as you or your daughter. My father was in the Navy in the War. My grandfather won medals fighting in the Philippines on horseback. Why can’t Judy go to the Prom with me? I’m not going to seduce her. I’ll have her home by midnight.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “I never told her she couldn’t go to the Prom with you.”

I left the house in a puzzled frame of mind. It didn’t get better when I saw the young woman in school the next day and she told me that her father was so angry at her for my coming over that she was barred from even dating me for miniature golf again. She cried again.

That’s a bitter pill right now after fifty-six years. I guess if she really loved me, she would have sneaked out to see me but it wasn’t that kind of world and, anyway, she probably didn’t really love me. That’s not the point, obviously.

Then there were the clubs. There was and is a gorgeous country club in Northwest or just past it called the Chevy Chase Club. It was a golf club with some tennis and some swimming. It was on the primest piece of real estate in the area — just over the district line between Connecticut and Wisconsin Avenues, NW. It was as restricted as restricted can be. I was there only once, as a guest, of my high born friend and neighbor. I felt as if I were being looked at like I was a Martian.

I often took that route home and I would pass by the CC Club and also by Congressional. Also restricted. Burning Tree. Also restricted. And the downtown clubs, too. The Metropolitan Club. The University Club. I felt a burning rage even then. I often beeped my car horn as I drove by the CC Club just hoping it would disturb some racist golfer’s swing.

Another little anecdote — my wonderful sister was looking for a summer job. In those days, Jewish kids even from middle class or upper middle class families worked in the summer to help pay for their schools. They didn’t go on tours of East Africa or to drama camp.

Through friends, my sister got a job at the Washington Post taking down classified ads that people called in. She had to answer the phone with her name and the Post decided it was too Jewish. So she was Miss Clark. “Washington Post classified — Miss Clark. May I help you?”

That was in the days when the crime pages routinely wrote a C or a W after a suspect’s name. You can guess what that was for.

By the way.… In the days of the 1950s, even the major hotels were restricted. I can recall with anger that the Alumni Club of Williams College, where my Pop had gone to school, held its luncheons at the Roger Smith Hotel, a fine place but not in the league with the Statler at 16th and K or the Sheraton-Carlton. Why?

Because of all the major downtown hotels, only the Roger Smith (and I may have the name wrong) would admit black people for lunch and Williams had some black alums or at least one. That was a detour. It wasn’t about Jews.

Here I have to change gears a bit and talk for a moment about Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, as fine a small college as there ever has been. My father entered Williams at age 15, the shyest, most naive kid you could imagine. He came from a modest background. His father was a skilled tool and die maker at Ford Motor and then at GE. Yes, there were a few Jews working at Ford Motor but of course, not in the executive suite. My grandfather was unemployed for most of the Depression. My father went to Williams from 1931 to 1935, at the very depths of the Great Depression.

He had to work his way through college in large part. One of his jobs was to wash dishes at the Sigma Chi frat house, down in a hot smoky basement kitchen along with the other dishwasher, a black young man. Jews were strictly barred from being members of that frat along with all the other frats at Williams. There were no ZBTs or TEPs.

So my father was down in the kitchen washing dishes while the well-to-do Gentiles were upstairs laughing and partying. I asked my father many years later how he felt about this situation. Was he furious then? Was he still furious?

“I was never furious,” said my Pop, inhaling so deeply on a Kent cigarette that he turned a third of it to ash. “I just felt as if I were incredibly lucky to have a job to put myself through one of the finest colleges in the country in the midst of the worst industrial depression of all time.” That was his attitude and I think that was not a rare attitude among Jews of that era.

And so now I’ll change gears yet again and talk about how Jews of that era when I was a young boy in anti-Semitic times and places reacted and felt about it.

Frankly, I knew I hated it. I did not want to be looked down on. I did not want to be looked on as dirty and unfit for Gentile companionship or neighborliness. It hurt like hell. I did not like the idea that the people on Klingle Street or New Mexico Avenue, NW, harbored thoughts about us Jews that were in any way similar to the thoughts of the Nazis. After all, I thought with a shudder, Nazism in Germany started out with restrictions on property sales to Jews and the barring of Jews from prestige jobs and rapidly went to Dachau. If the members of the Chevy Chase Club, often powerful people, would not countenance eating in the same room as Jews, how far was that from the starting points (and I emphasize — the STARTING points) of National Socialism.

I hated the fact that I was loathed by some because I was Jewish and I resented the people who felt that way very much.

I offer one example that I still consider amazing. One of my father’s classmates and friends from college, a wealthy Gentile, went on to an EXTREMELY high position in foreign relations in the government. At one point, he invited my father to lunch at the Metropolitan Club. I was allowed to tag along. This man had started out his professional life as a journalist. While still in his 20s, he had gone to Berlin to interview Hitler, which would have been about 1937.

“What was that like?” I asked him. “Was Hitler obviously insane?”

“He wasn’t insane at all,” the man said emphatically. “He was just a very clever politician and a good speaker.”

“Not insane?” I asked incredulously. “Not insane? He ordered the death of six million Jews, women, children, old people, none of them combatants. He started the most destructive war in history based on crackpot race theories. Not insane?”

The man just ate his boiled fish and did not respond. I was a guest and dropped the subject. The man was a member of the Chevy Chase Club. Obviously, he did not mind eating with Jews, but I am sure you get the point. This powerful man in D.C. did not think Hitler was crazy.

So, I was scared by the anti-Semitism around me. But, the response of us Jews was not to demonstrate or picket. It was just to work harder.

As an example, all of us Jews at Montgomery Blair knew that it was much harder for us as Jews to get into an Ivy League college than for a boy with a Junior or a Trey after his name and a secondary school degree from a well-known private school.

So we worked harder. We got not just good grades but very good grades. We prepped for the SATs. We prepped for the Merit Scholarship exams. We made sure we were editor of the school paper and had at least one sport.

This was how we got ahead. We worked and we saved. We would not have dreamed — not even dreamed — of having children before we were married. We would not have ever dreamed of taking drugs. It wouldn’t have even crossed our minds.

And so we worked and got better jobs, better businesses, better golf games. And we asked our friends to help. I cannot recall one summer job I got during college that I did not get in part from my family connections — all of them Jewish. We learned to help each other. The Jew haters call that “clannish.” I call it friendly and smart and loving.

These were powerful tools. We learned that in real life, capital was important. It could be financial capital, a subject I write about frequently, or it could be intellectual capital like having a good degree or a highly useful skill. Or it could be reputational capital, which merely means having a good reputation. Or it could be social capital — having good friends who could help us. And we had steady habits, by and large, although to be sure there were mighty big exceptions.

And we flourished and got nicer neighborhoods and planted more trees and eventually did start sending our kids on safari for the summer.

Meanwhile, something else was happening. The black people of Washington, D.C. were getting angry and showing their discontent. Their lives in D.C. were — with some exceptions — difficult. Their families were sometimes disorganized. Their neighborhoods had far too much crime. They were basically not represented in governing the city where they were a majority.

Instead, the city was run by the House Rules Committee with crusty southerners as the usual bosses of that committee.

They didn’t like it. They demonstrated. They rioted. They burned places down, especially their own neighborhoods. And there were some white people who saw all of this and paid attention. I certainly did. I can well recall driving down 14th Street and Georgia Avenue and seeing slums and dwellings with no air conditioning and hearing the horrible words that white people called black people — and I thought that if I awakened one more morning and were black, I would want to commit suicide.

I did the tiniest little bit of demonstrating about it — namely picketing in front of the Hiser Bethesda movie theater, which did not admit blacks even as late as when I was in high school.

But in Montgomery County, there were brave men and women who were doing much more. I think particularly of my neighbors and worship objects, David and Elizabeth Scull. Mr. Scull, from one of the most prominent families in Philadelphia, was head of the County Council and his wife, Mrs. Scull, a distant relative of R.E. Lee, was active in helping the poor and the benighted in our lovely county.

Through a series of daring maneuvers much too complicated for me to retell here, Mr. and Mrs. Scull bravely crossed party lines and got Montgomery County to enact a fair housing law in 1967. It seems like yesterday but it was fifty-one years ago.

That law required that housing ownership or rental not be denied on the basis of race or religion. This sounds basic now. It sounds as if it were something that could not possibly have been otherwise. After all, isn’t it the essence of America? But it was revolutionary at the time. The Sculls had a gunshot, maybe more than one, fired through their window late at night by someone who obviously did not like the law.

Again, Mrs. Scull came from one of the most socially and politically powerful families in America, the Lees. She bucked opposition from her own family to do this work.

And I might add that their son, David Lee Scull, still very active as lawyer and mountain biker, and his wife, Nancy, are still working tirelessly for the less fortunate of this county, especially the homeless and especially in the arena of housing.

He’s an amazing example of how the political process can work for good. He’s still at it, mountain biking, lawyering, and trying to make miserable people’s lives better.

But that first fair housing law — that was 1967. One year before LBJ got fair Housing as part of his epoch making Civil Rights legislation. Montgomery County led the way.

As far as I know, the open housing laws in Montgomery County were not mainly aimed at helping the Jews. They were aimed at the disgracefully blatant cruel way blacks were treated.

But once the doors were opened, the Jewish people of the county rushed through them.

Now, it’s a different world. Spring Valley has many Jews, some blacks, even some Armenians. I mention this because the smartest person I know, Aram Bakshian, speechwriter for every GOP President from Nixon to Bush ’41, is partly Armenian and lives in a place that probably would not have let him in before Fair Housing laws.

Jews are admitted, even sought, by the top white shoe law firms here. They’re sought as lobbyists and editors and producers and news anchors. It’s a different world.

But it’s not completely different. There’s still plenty of resentment of Jews. There may be a few Jewish members of the Chevy Chase Club, but not more than a small number. There are definitely Jews at St. Albans, but not a lot and maybe that’s as it should be since it’s an Episcopal school at heart.

Can a Jewish boy take a Christian Science girl to the Prom? I don’t know if there even are proms any more. I do know that the young woman in my story has turned out to be an absolutely model human being, with a fine career, married to one of the smartest tax attorneys in the world. (By the way, tax law is just too hard. Even Einstein said that the Internal Revenue Code was too difficult to be understood by any human mind.)

We’ve reached a point in Jewish history where the greatest time for Jews in human history has just followed the worst times. We have prominence and legal protection in America. There are hate crimes against Jews, but they are illegal now, where the hate crime of having a restricted neighborhood was not even considered a crime at all and was protected by the courts when I was a child and even as a young man.

We have Israel, which is a flash point in world politics and violence, but which is a glory of courage and accomplishment that rivals anything in history. To think that the pitiful few Jewish settlers in Israel and the beaten to a pulp refugees from Hitler’s Europe have created one of the most scientifically advanced, militarily powerful states in the world is incredible.

I know that Israel is a controversial subject, even among Jews of good will. But when I was a child, before the Six Day War, there was an anti-Semitic joke: what is the fastest thing in the world? A Jew in a canoe in the Suez Canal. Now, the fighting Jews of Israel have created a state that cannot be seriously challenged in conventional warfare. Israel is, in that corner of the world, almighty.

But I’m not here to debate Israeli policy. I do say that the incredible prowess of the fighting Jew has — at least as far as I’m concerned — made every Jew stand taller and straighter and feel better about being a Jew. To be a Jew used to mean, to the anti-Semites — a coward. Now it means a shtarker. A tough guy. Some will say too much of a shtarker, but that’s for another discussion. People don’t mock the weakness of Jews any longer and that’s a stupefying improvement in Jewish self-image.

In a way, a more relaxed and happier way, the staggering improvement in the lives of Jews can be measured by the life of one 92-year-old German-Jewish widow in New York whose daughter and granddaughter are close friends. This woman’s entire family except for one sister were murdered by the Nazis. She was a slave laborer at Auschwitz for five years. She watched the Nazis shove her parents into the gas chambers.

She was forced onto a death march from Auschwitz at the end of the war and barely survived. But she was still full of fight at age 20.

She went back to her village in Germany, went to her home and ordered the Germans living there out. When the Germans refused, she brought in American soldiers who returned the house to her.

She met her future husband at a Displaced Persons camp. His entire family had perished. He had survived because he was sent to work for an uncle as an accountant at a Bolivian tin mine.

They moved to New York. He was an accountant. She worked as a housemaid and then a beautician. They had three lovely daughters. She has been a widow now for about ten years.

On her arm is her concentration camp tattoo. Now here comes the best part. She uses that number as her locker lock combination at the health club she still visits every day in Queens.

That tattoo — from serial number for slavery and death to health club locker combination — that’s the bridge between the unspeakable past and the glorious present that America has brought us. Spring Valley, once as Aryan as the Hitler Youth, now open to everyone. That’s what’s in my special display and my house that was the first house I ever bought — at 4411 Klingle Street, NW, in Wesley Heights. On the deed for that tiny, tiny house with one bathroom, in fine print, was a declaration that it could never be transferred to Jews.

“You can obviously just ignore that,” said my broker — from W.C. and A.N. Miller. Warren Buffett’s company now own W.C. and A.N. Miller and Warren would no more allow housing discrimination than buy bitcoins.

But what’s the future? We don’t know. There are still plenty of anti-Semites out there. Not as many from Waspy families and boarding schools. But still plenty who have immigrated from other parts of the world where their culture and religion make hatred and violence towards the Jewish people a moral duty.

They have their hands in a lot of jars, stirring things up, making life difficult, especially on college campuses. The anti-Semitism on University quads all over America is terrifying. Their influence runs into many areas of American life, even into city councils of key American cities. The upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents in this country in the past year and a half has been deeply worrying. I don’t for a minute think blame lies at the doorstep of the President, a man whose daughter converted to Judaism with his full approval. But something is going on. Europe, which saw the worst, and vowed never to let it happen again is seeing daily intimidation and frequent violence against anyone who looks Jewish or — G-d forbid — wears a skullcap. In many ways, Western Europe is turning out to be more anti-Semitic than it was before Hitler took over Germany. The future for Jews in Europe is menacing.

It’s a whole different story here, but there are still swirling undercurrents of anti-Semitism from Charlottesville to Anacostia. And Israel? It’s formidable. But if the Iranians get the nuclear bomb and the rockets to use it on Israel — they have already promised “a Holocaust in an afternoon.” Can that be stopped? We really don’t know. We do know that Iran is a foe in its own way as potentially deadly as The Reich.

Where does this leave us here in our synagogues and our clubs? It leaves us to ourselves. To band together. To work to show ourselves to be model Americans. To stand up for the political process that brought us into Wesley Heights. To appreciate the David Sculls of the world, who use the political process not to win elections but to do right.

And it leaves us to keep working harder than the other guy or woman. To keep our eyes on the ball. To do right in the eyes of our fellow countrymen.
Many years ago, when I was in high school, I took the bus down to Capitol Hill from Silver Spring and I watched JFK be inaugurated. He gave a magnificent speech that ends with words that stir me every day and should stir us all as Washingtonians, as Marylanders, as Americans, and as Jews. We face many problems, said John Kennedy. And we ask God for His help in triumphing over these problems and we ask God to go to work for our problems. But we know, as Mr. Kennedy said, that “here on earth, God’s work must surely be our own.”

Ben Stein
Ben Stein
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Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes “Ben Stein’s Diary” for every issue of The American Spectator.
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