Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Then and Now----The Holocaust Generation

The separations between the generations all living side by side today are more than ones of age. The Holocaust was a defining moment for my parents' generation and for some of us in my generation as well. It plays almost no role but a historical one for the generations after mine. And in a way the Holocaust is responsible for the widely divergent parenting approaches between my parents' generation and mine, and between some of my generation and the generations that follow. Let's call my parents' generation the Holocaust Generation. My generation is known as the Baby Boomers. Following my generation is Generation X, fondly also known as the "Me" Generation. And then there is Generation Y or the Millenials. How do they differ?

The Holocaust Generation literally came back from the dead. And the world they found after the war had no relationship to any world they had ever known. Families were destroyed, and those members who remained were dispersed to the literal four corners of the earth. Immigrants who arrived to the US, regardless of what kind of home they had come from in Europe, arrived with nothing more than could be carried in a few valises. Everything in this country was strange to them and yet here they were, expected to rebuild their lives.

One hallmark of this generation was a fear of absence, of people and things. Money was not all that easy to come by for most of the immigrants and they saved diligently, against some time when maybe they would need to take the money and run. They wasted nothing, ever. Throwing away leftovers? Didn't happen. They wrote notes on the backs of old envelopes and reused and reused the bags that came from the grocery. Clothing? If you weren't naked then you had enough clothing. And when children outgrew something it was diligently passed along because why would someone want to spend precious money on new things when the old things still had plenty of use to them? They watched over their children with an eagle eye; they knew exactly where they were at every given moment.

This generation also wanted better for their children, a lot better. And they looked at education as the tool that would make things better. There was a great respect on the part of this generation for education and for educators. Being a teacher was an honored calling. And this generation was mostly unanimous in one aspect: the school was always right. Heaven help a student who came home and complained that the teacher yelled at him for doing X,Y or Z. If a student brought home poor marks it was the student who ended up in the doghouse, not the teacher. Homework was assigned and homework was done--in this the teachers and parents were united partners.

And yes, for the Holocaust Generation new technology and new innovations came along slowly and were accepted cautiously. And no, the Holocaust Generation did not run en mass after every new doodad that came on the market. Old is what was precious to them. They bought things to last for years, if not for a lifetime. They moved out of tenement and project housing, much of which had no private bathrooms or that had shared kitchens, into roomier quarters, more spacious apartments and homes they purchased with hard earned money. They put plastic covers on chairs and couches so that the furniture would last "forever." Going into debt was rarely heard of; you bought what you could pay for, and you saved up so you could buy. Wildly expensive bar mitzvahs and weddings? No way. Birthday parties for children with entertainment and catered food? No way.

This generation did fairly well for itself here in the US. Most of the immigrants made enough money to give them a sense of security; some did extraordinarily well for themselves. Yet, even those who did that well economically were usually careful to avoid real public ostentation. Many gave tzedaka generously and also became movers and shakers in the Jewish communities, but few made public "spectacles" of themselves, throwing their wealth into others' faces. There was both the European idea of its being vulgar to flaunt money and possessions and its being dangerous for Jews to call too much attention to themselves. These Jews did not live in 1/4 acre palaces. They may have had "nice" homes but not the kind that would raise kinah in other Jews, certainly not in goyim. What they wanted was to blend in, because standing out could be dangerous.

Family life was central. Cousins, no matter how far down the family tree, were kept in touch with. Privacy was valued, and family matters stayed in the family. No, not all marriages for that generation were happy ones, and some should have been dissolved but weren't. Divorce was considered a busha, both among the frum and in the general society at large, and people suffered, for the most part silently.

What did this generation do when it came to getting their kids married? With the exception of the Williamsburger chassidim, they pretty much did nothing more then tell their family and friends that Yankele or Sarale was looking to get married. And the single children had friends from the neighborhood and from school who they asked about a possible fix up. The Boro Park of today that is so restrictive would not be recognized by the Holocaust Generation. In the old Boro Park Friday night was shpatzeer (stroll) night and groups of boys and groups of girls would stroll up and down 13th Avenue to see and be seen. Sometimes groups stopped to talk to each other. And if they didn't stop to talk, they sure stopped to look. Shabbos afternoon the process repeated itself on 14th Avenue. And there were hundreds of shidduchim that came about because a boy and a girl met at Brooklyn College or at Queens or at City Uptown. Sometimes you had already met the person who asked you out and other times it was a blind date. If I had a quarter for every boy I went out with who I passed on to a friend if it wasn't for me, I'd be retired in comfort by now.

For most of the immigrant Holocaust Generation their major criteria for a possible shidduch for their children was that the person come from a heimishe home. By this they meant of European extraction also with an immigrant background, and from the same general geographic area of Europe--either Eastern or Western. But even here heimishe was not carved in stone. Many a child of the Holocaust Generation married an Amerikaner or someone from out of their geographic area. One of our closest friends is a couple where he is a born and bred Breuer Yeki and she is a Hungarian. Caused just a little bit of a stir when they got married but the marriage is at over 40 years and still going strong.

Add as a second criteria that the person had to be frum. And everyone understood what that meant without needing to read 4,895 pages of info on the person. How close together a couple was in their frumkeit was something that generally they found out about while dating.

What kind of investigation did the parents do before a couple went out? You have to be kidding. Investigating? Usually investigating was limited to asking someone who might know the family if it was a "nice" family. So what kind of information did you get about someone who was a blind date? If you were lucky the person doing the fix up actually got the name correct. And maybe if you were really lucky they got the age and height correct. Sometimes you even found out what city the person lived in. They might tell you the person was in college and what they were majoring in, or they might tell you what job the person had. If a guy or girl had already dated the person they might tell you a little bit about his/her personality. And that was it. All the other personal information was considered dating fodder.

Dating was a new experience for the parents of the Holocaust Generation. They mostly had nothing to compare it to in Europe, a Europe where shadchanim were a "treasured" part of each community. As they said "Siz ah niyah velt."--it's a new world. But here is the funny thing: these parents let their kids date because they knew they had raised them right and that they weren't going to do something crazy while on a date. Okay, honesty compels me to admit that there were some "wild things" in the frum community who took full advantage of the 60s attitude prevalent while they were dating. But they really were the exception rather than the rule. Did my mom and countless other moms ask how a date went? Sure, but that was basically the extent of it. Only at the point where a relationship was really getting serious did some parents ask for more information on the family. When I decided that my hubby was "it" my parents did not question my judgement nor ask me to prove to their satisfaction that I knew what I was doing. I do believe they asked if he was making a living. Yeah, he was, at least enough for us to get married on, certainly if you counted in my graduate fellowship as well. The Holocaust Generation, knowing how they had raised us, let us be the adults they knew us to be.

For the Holocaust Generation there was a sometimes role reversal, although always with the greatest kovod going to parents. The children, born, schooled and raised here, were sometimes better at navigating this strange new world. Their English was more proficient. They were out and about sometimes more than the parents were. There were parents who depended on their children to translate for them when dealing with financial matters and government matters. These were adult concerns and they came early to many of the children of this generation. While the children of this generation were protected in many ways, they nonetheless knew a great deal about "adult" requirements and concerns.

There were many, many working wives and mothers in the Holocaust Generation. When the immigrants arrived here most qualified only for minimally paying jobs, and two people working was a necessity for survival. Many of these women had to leave their homes to work; some were "lucky" and got piece work to do at home. Either way, children were involved in helping out at home, offering whatever service they were capable of. The children of the Holocaust Generation very early on learned that if they wanted spending money they were going to have to earn it. And if you were looking to buy narishkeit with that earned money your parents were going to sit you down and explain the facts of economic life to you.

So, was this generation perfect? No, in the way that no generation is a perfect one. And quite inadvertently they planted the seeds for some of the problems that are seen in the generations following them. While what I have written above applies to the children of this generation in general, it applies most specifically to the oldest of the children more than the youngest. By the time the youngest children were born their parents were already established here and life was far easier than it was when the oldest children were born. The parents had "Americanized" a bit and were less likely to frown at things that the children wanted. They took it as a matter of pride that they could provide these things, although still with a shiur. While these families were "child concerned" they weren't "child centered."

A recent comment on a different blog referred to the children of the Holocaust Generation as "fragile," that the Holocaust Generation babied their children and overprotected them. Sorry, the wrong generations are being referred to. The Holocaust Generation raised a generation of "survivors," and fragile hardly describes them. It is the children of the Holocaust survivors, the Boomers, who became the activists of their time period. Unlike our parents, we Boomers were not afraid of getting up and being counted. We marched, we bussed, we sat in, we protested, we wrote petitions and we signed them, we let our voices be heard--and we were part of the groups that changed a whole lot of practices that were prejudicial to anyone who was not a white, Protestant male. Are you a Sabbath observer who can apply for virtually any job you want and not be told "Sorry, if you don't come in on Friday night/Shabbos, don't bother to apply here"? Thank the boomers for that. Are you female with a wealth of opportunities available to you, both in education and in the general world? Thank the boomers for that. Ever hear of the quota system that was used in universities and in the corporate world? It's mostly disappeared, and you can thank the boomers for that.

And yes, fairness also requires me to admit that the Boomers raised the next generation, the "Me" generation. And somehow, in getting rid of all the old iniquities that were present during our younger years, we also got rid of some of the child rearing practices that were used on us. And the result, in many cases, is a generation that thinks of itself as entitled to get anything and everything that it wants, without counting the cost. Some of us toed the line and raised our children mostly along the lines of how we, ourselves, were raised (mostly those who fall in the older portion of the Boomers). Yes, we had more money available to us, thanks to the insistence for getting an education that our parents had, but we passed on the idea that with money comes responsibility. The idea took with some of the next generation, but, unfortunately, it didn't take with a whole lot of the rest.

Let me end with this. A friend, a few years older than I am and the child of Holocaust survivors, finds herself in an awkward situation, one she never dreamed she would find herself in. She and her husband, both college educated and both professionals, raised three children. She saw to it that all of her children would get a college education and become professionals themselves. And then there are her grandchildren. She has 19 of them. And the oldest one is getting married soon. Ask her male grandchildren what they are going to do/be "when they grow up" and the answer is "We're going to sit and learn." Ask them who will take care of the mundane matters of providing food and shelter and even the youngest will tell you "Mom and Dad will take care of it." Sometimes they'll substitute "the in-laws" for mom and dad. And worse, they tack on "Bubi and Zayde will pitch in, just like they are doing now." My friend's mother hears all of this and shakes her head often. She has no idea how this situation came about. SHE didn't raise children who were takers, who were dependent long past the age of dependency. She's fairly certain that her children didn't inculcate these ideas into their own children. So where did all this come from? As to my friend, she and her husband are at an age now when they would love to slow down, to cut back, to relax a lot more. And they find that they can't.

At Shabbos lunch a few weeks ago someone at the table asked if I was still working. Yes, I am. Her comment? "The kids still need supporting?" No, but the fact that she could ask that tells me a whole lot about what is going on with the following generations. My generation, the children of the Holocaust survivors is fragile? Try frazzled and you'll be getting it more like it is.


Orthonomics said...

I believe that Generation Me in general terms refers to kids born in the early 80's and following who have largely been raised in the era of self-esteem movement. There is a fascinating book by that title, although her conclusions seem incongruous to her thesis.

Great post! The baby boomer generation is certainly not the fragile generation. The question now is, what does the collective we do to get us out of the mess we are in?

Anonymous said...

I think your observations about generational differences hold true for many other immigrant groups and their children and grandchildren, including gentiles. Indeed many of these observations also fit the descendants of long-term u.s. citizens. The depression and two world wars also had a big impact on values toward hard work, material goods and money. Similarly, the current generation (regardless of religion) may share a sense of entitlement with OJ youth.

What is different is the notion that its ok to sit and learn for several years with Mom and Dad or in-laws paying the bills. True, there is the issue of the boomerangers, but I don't know of any other groups that think they can get married and start a family without being sef-sufficient or that parents/grandparents should support them after college age (or perhaps some grad school). I wonder if the Kollel life would be so popular if they had to take out student loans and work part-time jobs like so many college and grad school students. The parents that enable the sit and learn life-style are not doing their children any favors in the long-term. It's not a sustainable way of life.

Rae said...

Your characterization of the Boomers is correct in calling them activists. But what happened to that activism? The generations that followed them are putting them into a financial bind and into financial difficulties? Why aren't they protesting and refusing? They could take on the government but they can't take on their own kids and grandkids?

Maybe the boomers need to find their voices again and become activists against today's social problems, like kids who never get off the dole.

My hubby and I managed it with our own kids. Why aren't other boomer parents managing it with their kids?

Anonymous said...

Rae: I'm not sure how many of the hassidic or orthodox crowd were activists in the sense usually referred to when describing the folks who risked fire hoses and dogs to march in Selma, or those who conducted sit-ins to protest the Viet Nam war, or those who worked with union organizers (or who were union organizers) to address sweat shops, black lung disease and child labor in the first half of the last century. And, lord knows, they certainly weren't burning their bras. This is not a criticism, but I am just not familiar with this type of activism within the OJ community. Their efforts were towards building schools and shuls. If I'm wrong, I'd love to know.

JS said...

Really liked this post.

ProfK said...

Anonymous 11:42,
I have an upcoming post on activism, but I'll give you just a few morsels to chew on--the MO of the Boomers were many of them activists in just the "Selma" sense that you mentioned. They participated in campus-wide protests and rallies, they rode the buses to Washington to show solidarity for Israel,and for other things as well, they planned demonstrations and rallies in NY at the UN, again with regards to Israel. They formed organizations to protest and actively legislate for change in society, here and abroad. Two examples: the SSSJ--Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and the NJCOLPA, usually known as COLPA today--the National Jewish Committee on Law and Public Affairs, which is an organization of Jewish lawyers who pushed/push for legal change and reform of laws/regulations that are prejudicial to religious observers. What, you don't think it took activism to get an Israeli Day Parade established here in NY?There are many other examples, but stay tuned for the posting.

Lion of Zion said...


like profk, i was also going to mention soviet jewry and zionism.

today the soviet jewry of course does not exist, nor does grass-roots zionist activism.

Marsha said...

I'd agree that fragile is not a word that applies to the children of Holocaust survivors. I'd say it probably applies better to the younger college age to 30s group we have now. I'd say they are the fragile ones because they've never had to do without, they've never had to struggle for anything, they've had everything given to them, they have expectations that this will continue for ever. They've been babied and over protected. This is the group that mentally and emotionally is going to have the most trouble with the present economic situation. Time will tell if they can toughen up enough to withstand what economics is doing to us now.

frum single female said...

i really liked this post. im not sure what anyone is thinking expecting to have their parents or grandparents support them endlessly.forget the present economy. at least go on welfare. thats much more respectable. but seriously, living the kollel life is lovely, but not for everyone as all of the yeshivas since the eighties have been preaching, especially when they are encouraging people to have as many children as possible. i dont think its any different than the octo-mom. she too was expecting her parents to help her out.