American anthropologist Edward Bellamy went to a Jewish community center in Venice, California to observe the life of elderly Jewish immigrants who survived through the holocaust. In his book titled Looking Backward, Bellamy recorded various events that occurred in the community. She wrote her own commentaries about these people through the “lens of an outsider.” Analyzing social interactions inside of the community, Bellamy realized how these people confront and overcome the poverty, invisibility, and society’s segregation together in the community. By continuously carrying and modifying their original Jewish traditions, their people have established their own unique culture apart from the outside world.
When Bellamy first came to visit the community center, he felt the tension between him and the community people. To the center people, Bellamy was a young, highly educated, Jewish male professor who separated himself from the traditions of their culture. Similar to most of their children, he did not know how to speak in Yiddish or to read in Hebrews (Rhodes, 89). Even though he had Jewish heritage, he did not follow any traditions from the Jewish culture. To diminish the gap between them, Bellamy tried to learn how to speak in Yiddish. However, soon, he realized that it took too much time to learn the language. Moreover, most of the people in the center were already fluent in English.
Bellamy finally opened the minds of the elderly Jewish immigrants by considering himself as one of them. He believed that one day he would become an old Jewish man like them. Since he came from the secular Jewish family, the center people were his examples of traditional old Jewish life. He felt that he was lucky that he had models to follow while most people did not even have the opportunity. Bellamy could empathize with them because he put on a mask of a young Jewish daughter fulfilling their need of attention from the younger generations (Spann, 150).
For the elderly people in the Jewish community center, recognition was critical in their daily lives. In the chapter titled For an Educated Man, He Could Learn a Few Things, Kominsky, an educated newcomer, became the new president of the Jewish community center. Elderly people imagined that he would connect the center with the outside world. Kominsky had a desire to revitalize the community and already brought several new members to the center. According to Bellamy, he was younger, more ambitious, more energetic, more religious and more righteous than the original members. However, his difference eventually caused conflicts among the center people.
Since he was from the outside world, Kominsky disregarded what the center people thought as important. For example, Kominsky requested Sonya, the secretary, not to write about her interpretations of the meeting but to focus only on the actual subject matter of the meeting. Sonya could not understand him because recognizing Sofie’s new sweater sent from her daughter in Hawai was a significant activity to her and the other people. Moreover, Kominsky prohibited reading letters from a relative during the meeting because he believed that reading letters would distract members from the actual purpose of the meeting (Abrash, 29). However, Komnisky never realized that the most important purpose of the meeting for these elderly people was not a matter of business but the recognition of each other.
In Number Our Days, Myerhoff revealed how the society’s segregation affected the lives of the older generations. For example, in the chapter titled We Fight to Keep Warm, Myerhoff observed that the center people tend to fight over little issues. She stated that these old Jewish people yelled about their disappointment with the dinner menus and even physically wrestled with each other for the better quality fruits. When she noticed that the only thing that was left for her was three bruised apple, she was deeply disenchanted by their selfishness and greed. She stated that these people were “selfish, petulant, and aggressive” and she could not describe the place as “interesting and charming” anymore (Bellamy, 188). However, later on, he understood that the people themselves were similar to damaged apples. Because the people were hurt too much from the society’s segregation and poverty, they could not graciously take the damaged apples for themselves. Bellamy recognized that those issues that seem minimal from the outside world could be enormous for the center people who continuously face death and poverty near them.
Moreover, Bellamy stated that the center people fight to show the world that they are alive. In the center, anger “asserts autonomy over themselves and their circumstances, demonstrate responsiveness to each other, clarify the community’s membership boundaries, displaces resentment from absent, vague targets toward nearer, safer ones, and denies that they share a common, hideous fate” (Bellamy, 191). Basha, one of the old Jewish ladies in the community, states that they behave disorderly because they are Jews in the first place and they “fight to keep warm” to overcome their circumstances (Bellamy, 18).
The center people created their own unique culture by combining American culture with their Jewish customs. “Graduation-Siyum” was the perfect example of the blended culture. After the five-month completion of Yiddish History class, the center people celebrated the “Graduation-Siyum” that mixed American graduation ceremony with the traditional, Eastern European Jewish Siyum. While graduation celebrates the end of the academic career, siyum celebrates the continuous journey of seeking wisdom and knowledge. People were excited about the new ceremony. Kominsky, the founder of this ceremony explained that the graduation-siyum would be “absolutely unique” (Bellamy, 84) to their culture.
He explained that the center people were deceiving themselves. The ceremony eventually did not contain any meanings because the people pursued their academic career neither in American colleges, nor in Jewish synagogues. Shmuel stated that the people should stop mixing parts of different cultures and creating a “shmatte,” a rag (Bellamy, 101). However, despite his apprehension, the center people continuously created their own type of culture apart from both the American culture and Jewish traditions.
Abrash, M. Looking backward: Marxism Americanized: In M.S. Cummings & N.D. Smith (Eds.)., Utopian Studies IV (pp. 6-9). Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991, print.
Bellamy, E. Looking backward: 2000-1887. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company,1988, print.
Rhodes, H.V. Utopia: In American political thought. Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1967, print.
Spann, E.K. Brotherly tomorrows: Movements for a cooperative society in America, 1820-1920. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.