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Our Own Kind
Growing up Jewish in Arlington of the 1950s meant being singled out as different—by classmates, teachers, even the neighborhood we lived in.
Every family has its mysteries, and one of ours has confounded my two sisters and me for years: Why did our parents move us to Arlington?
It was the early 1950s, a time when they, along with so many other white families in the District, were gearing up to flee their cramped apartment in the city and strike out for the green, treeless lawns of suburbia. Prices were reasonable, new houses were springing up all over, and the five of us were bursting out of our one-bedroom rental in Northeast DC’s Trinidad, where my parents had spent the previous decade sleeping in the living room.
It took work to raise a kid Jewish in Arlington back then. For all of Northern Virginia, there were only two synagogues, Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria and the Arlington-Fairfax Jewish Center (it wouldn’t acquire a Hebrew name, Etz Hayim, till 2002), several miles from our Overlee neighborhood. Moving to Arlington meant signing up for years of carpooling, because my sisters and I were expected to take Hebrew classes three times a week.
Years later, I met a woman who insisted she’d badly wanted to attend Hebrew school but the rabbi, Noah Golinkin, had refused to let girls in. This, of course, couldn’t have been true or I wouldn’t have been there myself. I tried to tell her, but she was adamant. I finally figured it out: Her parents had obviously come up with this as a convenient excuse and had sold it so well she was still buying it a half century later.
• • •
Not every family felt like taking on that burden.
All of my parents’ friends, Jews like us, were moving, too, but without exception they were headed north to Maryland—Silver Spring mostly, though one family was opting for a new community in Bethesda near Glen Echo, called Bannockburn. Before we moved to Arlington, they begged my parents to join them. It was to be a true cooperative venture, left-wing verging on socialist, heavy with labor-movement types, most of whom shared two attributes: They were Jewish and comfortably fixed. Unfortunately, it was out of my parents’ reach financially.
Their friends—the husbands, that is—had come to DC from points north (mainly one point, New York) to take jobs with the FDR administration, as my father had. Moving to Maryland made sense. Despite the clauses in real-estate contracts that made certain established areas—much of Bethesda and part of Chevy Chase—off limits (and would remain in place well into the ’60s, despite a 1948 Supreme Court ruling), despite the presence of a bunch of snooty, restricted country clubs, the Maryland suburbs were widely considered more amenable to Jews. There were several synagogues; a kosher supermarket, Posner’s; even a decent deli, Hofberg’s. And it was closer to the mother ship, New York City, by several miles.
Arlington had none of this. What it had back then was total black/white apartheid (DC had segregated schools, too, but plenty of black families lived in our neighborhood) and a strong Southern ethic, or what might more correctly be called a Civil War ethic. Everything, from streets to schools to stores, was named after a Confederate war hero, mainly Robert E. Lee, though Jeb Stuart and Stonewall Jackson got the occasional nod. To realize just how odd this was, all you needed to do was consider how few institutions in the North were named after Grant or Sherman.
Schools concentrated on teaching the history of Virginia, as opposed to the US. The state’s population consisted of a preponderance of military families, a large number of Southern Baptists, and practically no Jews.
Yet that’s where we ended up.
• • •
As far as I could tell, my sisters and I were the only Jews in public school. There was no question of hiding it—every year started out with our notable absence on the High Holidays. When we got back, everyone knew and eyed us speculatively. Then there was the Bible reading, which jump-started every day, invariably from the New Testament, followed by the Lord’s Prayer, which we didn’t say but remains embedded in my brain. And of course, the occasional comments by our predominantly Southern Baptist classmates—“You killed Christ” being one. No one else was Jewish, not in my classes all the way up, not in my Girl Scout troop, not in the theater groups I joined, not anywhere.
In my Washington-Lee High School class of 720, I now see looking over alumni records, there actually were a few—Jews accounted for about 3 percent. For a time in junior high, I had belonged to a Jewish crowd, which sprang up around bar mitzvah parties and came from the entire area. But by high school we had mostly learned to avoid one another.
Still, by then everyone knew. One young man made a habit of following me in the halls of Washington-Lee, Bible in hand. (He was particularly fond of quoting Isaiah.) Another took me out a few times, hoping to convince me to visit his church. A teacher who prided himself on his tolerance—that was the big word then, with its implication of teeth-gritting acceptance (who “tolerates” anything pleasant?)—demanded I stand before the class so they could see for themselves that I looked pretty much like everyone else. There was always the lingering sense, much of the time, that we were different, which both attracted and repelled attention. (So monochromatic, so homogeneous was Arlington back then that a Jewish girl could actually seem exotic.)
None of this rose to the level of true anti-Semitic horror, of course; most of it was more on the level of wryly amusing. Still, it was true that being Jewish in Arlington was not a completely comfortable experience. And it could have been even worse, except for something that was so bizarre it took me a lifetime to figure it out.
• • •
It had to do with the block we lived on. The brand-new subdivision we moved into—our parents having chosen the house while it was still in blueprint stage—was built by M.T. Broyhill & Sons, a local building/real-estate company that boasted a congressman in the family. With the exception of one street, none of the houses were owned by Jews. I recently checked a 1955 city directory just to be sure.
The exception was striking: a cluster of seven Jewish families, all on the same street.
In other words, smack in the middle of Arlington we had our own little ghetto, and it was a good 50 years before it struck me that this not only was damn strange but couldn’t possibly have happened by chance. Someone had to have gone to a great deal of trouble to arrange it. But the reality, once you saw it, was unavoidable—courtesy of a thoughtful Broyhill official, or more likely an entire group of them, all of us lived on “Jew Street.”
What was the thinking there? That we’d be more comfortable with our own kind? How patronizing, how paternalistic, how—well, actually, how true. We were more comfortable, and my family has stayed close to three of the other families our whole lives. We’d all get together for Hanukkah parties or latkes, never suspecting someone had orchestrated our connection, for reasons of their own. And while we would have been horrified to know the truth back then—even now it’s a bit chilling—you can’t ignore the possibility that those reasons were, at heart, well meant.
Years later, I read a short bio of the family congressman, Joel T. Broyhill, which said his experiences in World War II had had a great effect on him. Did that mean he had come back from the war believing Jews deserved a place of their own? Perhaps even a block or two in a Virginia suburb?
• • •
Living in Arlington meant many things. It meant hearing screams of horror from classmates when the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was announced over the PA system at school—a reaction that gave me a deeper sense of alienation than any of the mildly anti-Semitic incidents I encountered ever did. It meant having the head of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell, ensconced in Arlington, just a few miles from the high school, until he was assassinated by one of his minions. It meant graduating knowing all there was to know about the colony of Jamestown (which comes up more often than you’d think on Jeopardy!) but almost nothing about what went on in the world beyond the Virginia border.
Living in Arlington made no sense whatsoever. Did my father see it as a challenge? A chance to seed the diaspora? We never knew. A dedicated civil-rights advocate, he became a PTA president at one point so he, along with another man, could help grease the wheels to bring integration to Northern Virginia far earlier than it came to the rest of the state. They managed to pull it off, too. My father was closely involved with the synagogue, teaching classes, participating in policy decisions. Obviously, there were some benefits for him.
For me and my sisters, though, I still wonder: How do you figure out what you’d be like if you’d grown up somewhere else? Would we be happier? More confident? More Jewish? Less?
I know I’d miss having one of my dearest lifelong friends, who grew up across the street. Would we ever have met if we hadn’t both moved to Arlington as kids? If a magnanimous builder hadn’t decided to create Jew Street?
So there have been advantages, certainly. (And changes—for one thing, Northern Virginia now has about 20 synagogues.) But I raised my kids in Maryland.
Judy Oppenheimer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer and the author of “Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson.” This article appears in the January 2014 issue of Washingtonian.