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Miriam Orzech Oral History Interview, June 9, 1992

Oregon State University

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JB: This is June the 9th, 1992. The interviewee is Miriam Orzech. The interviewer is Judith Berlowitz. So you came here --

MO: 1957, which was Ze'ev's first job -- first and only job, as it turned out, in academia. And I was very highly pregnant with our first child, and had been teaching prior to that, so when we came here and I had the baby and Ze'ev started his job --

JB: Was that your first child?

MO: Un huh. Sarah. We spent a lot of time trying to get established. Because although we really didn't think we were going to stay here forever, we weren't making any active efforts to go anyplace else.

JB: Could I interrupt you for just a minute, because you took off before I asked, and I would like to have a thumbnail sketch of your life, and that of your husband also, before you moved to Corvallis. Where did you come from, where 1:00were you born, how did you meet? So we just have a little sketch about who you were and are.

MO: All right I can do that very quickly. I was born in New York, and during the Second World War, I was what was called popularly an Army brat -- my father was in the Army, and we moved around some. And they, my parents, discovered that there was a world outside of New York city, and decided that they would like to live in it. And so he arranged to be discharged out in Washington State, at Ft. Lewis, and they ultimately settled right here outside of Portland, in Lake Oswego. So I finished high school there and I went to Reed College, and I wound up at Berkeley, UC Berkeley, where I met my ever-lovin', Ze'ev. And we married there. He was a graduate student, I was an undergraduate student. We married there, I finished in the fifth year, which was their system, in education. And 2:00we then moved to Pittsburg, California, which is in the Bay Area, outside of Berkeley in the East Bay there. Where we lived for three years while I taught in the high school there. And then I became pregnant, and he decided it was time to look for a job, and we decided we would try to find something up in the Portland area so we could be near my parents.

Ze'ev's parents -- Ze'ev was of course born in Germany -- when he couldn't go to school there any longer during the Hitler period, he was sent by his parents to a Jewish boarding school in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, which was where he learned to speak French -- it was either that or starve -- and he stayed there for two years, and then the family fortunately got a capitalist visa to Palestine, because the British were only letting in rich Jews, or at 3:00least self-supporting Jews. So he went to Palestine, at the time, went through high school there, in Tel Aviv, and worked for a while, and then came to the United States to go to higher education in 1947, which was before the establishment of the state. So he's a true Palestinian with a British Mandate passport that says Palestinian and the whole works. Anyway, he started there at City College and then transferred to UC Berkeley, which is where I met him when I came down, because there were mutual friends. It was not love at first sight, it was hate at first sight, but ultimately we got over that and got together and got married. So that was in '52 and we came here in '57.

JB: That brings us back to the point where I interrupted you, I think. How would you describe your Jewish background and also that of Ze'ev?

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MO: Well Ze'ev grew up in a moderately observant home, I guess. His grandparents, from Warsaw, Poland, the whole family, a huge family, was destroyed in the Holocaust except for a handful -- was ultra-religious. And that's one reason Ze'ev's father left that whole establishment, because he was very much under the thumb of Ze'ev's grandfather, and he struck out on his own and went to Germany, which is where he met his wife, they were married and Ze'ev was born. Ze'ev had a very good Jewish education, but didn't grow up being terribly religious. I, on the other hand, grew up in a reform family, and went to Sunday school from the year one and learned absolutely nothing, and my 5:00education really, my Jewish education, began, really, with my marrying Ze'ev.

I was always Jewishly identified, and active. At Reed College I was in a small Jewish students' group, because it wasn't fashionable to be interested in religion at Reed College at that time. And when the State of Israel was formed, I like everyone else went out of my mind with joy. And I've been accused of -- one of the reasons I married Ze'ev was that I thought he'd be my ticket to Israel. As it turned out I was his ticket back to Israel. Any, his family stayed in Israel, his mother died shortly after we were married, several years after we were married, and his father was utterly despondent and left Israel at that 6:00time, and went back to their home community in Wiesbaden, Germany, which shocked us to the roots, and we never could pry him out of there, although he came for short periods to visit, but he was always out of his element wherever he was. Story of the Jew. Anyway, so Ze'ev became an American, and he's lived here most of his life, as it turns out.

JB: So how would you describe the Jewish community when you came?

MO: Let me back up just a little bit about our identification. Because I had taught Sunday school when I was still in Portland, in high school and in college. Ze'ev it turns out had taught Sunday School always in the San Francisco area. Partly it was a way to make money, because although he had money when he came here, when the wars started it was very difficult to send money from 7:00Israel, so he was pretty much self-supported. When we moved to Pittsburgh, California, it was a little town like Corvallis, in a sense, but we were the new young, relatively newly married young couple, and so we were kind of adopted immediately by the Jewish community which was there. And they were in the throes of trying to start something, starting a Sunday school, starting a community and all the rest of that. So we immediately got sucked in for that. We were teaching Sunday school and Ze'ev was conducting services and all the rest of it. So our married life started out immediately with us being involved, which was fine with us, we both would have thought that anyway.

So when we came here, immediately, we sought out whatever Jews there were. And I don't remember how we --- I don't know, I think Jews kind of gravitate to each 8:00other. I don't remember how we met the first people. It was probably the Schecters and Fisiks, because they came here a year or two before us. Anyway we were almost immediately caught up in the gastronomic meetings that I'm sure you've heard about from other people. And I remember vividly going to Ruth and Ben Goldberg's house, and being very warmly greeted by them, and of course the Loneys the same way, and Konicks the same way. So the previously resident Jews made it kind of a point to gather in the people from the university for...

JB: And how many people are we talking about? Would you like to hazard a guess?

MO: Well there were those three families that were the residents here. The townspeople as it were. Loney, Konick and Goldberg. And that's really all as far 9:00as I know. And then there were the university people, and that's the others. Schecters were here, Malamuds were here although he wasn't involved in the Jewish community except the occasional latke, the Levines -- Shep and Gloria Levine -- in the art department, Ann Tonsen, philosophy, these people are not really involved anymore and haven't been for years. But the gastronomic connection was enough to keep them, and everybody liked everyone else, and there was lots of good humor and laughter, and all the rest.

JB: So it was a social group?

MO: It was entirely a social thing.

JB: Were the Goheens here then?

MO: I think so. I think so. And every time we got together for one of these things, we would kind of bemoan the fact that that was all there was, because all of us had come from bigger cities or other kinds of communities where there was an organization of some kind, and there wasn't even a B'nai B'rith or anything.

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JB: Would you say that the people of this group represented similar or diverse approaches to Judaism? MO: First of all, we didn't really talk about that, it wasn't important.

JB: You ate.

MO: We ate, exactly. And there were no services or anything. Occasionally, people went to Portland or even to Salem, which had its synagogue then, even though it didn't have a rabbi. And that took care of it. Most of us weren't deep into trying to live a full Jewish life.

JB: So you really didn't feel as if you were a religious minority, exactly. Or did you?

MO: Well I don't know how you can separate that. You're a Jew, you're a part of a religious minority. There was nothing in town for us, let me put it that way. 11:00We all felt that. And as more and more people came, and they did come, especially with children, because we came in '57, but '64 we had Hadassah already, so what are we talking about there? Six years, seven years. So it was a rather rapid development. The Schechters had two children who were already of school age. Goheens had children school age. Antons had children of school age. So did Loneys. And there was nothing for anybody.

JB: And speaking of that, let's talk of your children, and when they were born -- well you were pregnant when you came here, so that was your daughter, Sarah.

MO: Yeah, all three of my children were born here, Danny and Joseph.

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JB: How many years later?

MO: Oh they came quickly, one on top of another. '57, '59 and '60. So by '64, we already had somebody in school, or approaching school. And by that time the Philipps were also here with their children. And so the number had grown rather rapidly in those seven years. I don't remember who all was here. But I remember vividly that the conversations began to revolve around, "Well what are we going to do for the kids, we have all these kids." I mean it seemed like a lot, it really wasn't, but we started counting them up and we came up with 10, 15, 20 kids.

JB: We're talking about pre-Hadassah now, aren't we?

MO: Pre-Hadassah, right. These kinds of conversations occurred in our social gatherings, either at Hanukah or Shavuot or Passover or whatever. And then 13:00something happened that I think was one of the kickers, kicker-offers, and I don't remember the year, probably Ruth does, but Camp Adair was still functioning, and there was I guess a chaplain there, and there were a couple of Jewish doctors that were there, so Ben of course had been connected with that, just socially and professionally I guess. And they decided we had to have a Seder for the Jews of the community, including any who happened to be stationed there at Camp Adair. So we all thought that was a great idea and everybody helped in one way or another, and we had a Seder, the first community Seder, which was at Camp Adair. Well cullinarily it was a disaster, because there was a fire in the kitchen or something and the chicken soup was so concentrated it was inedible. We all remember that. But as far as the service was concerned and the 14:00event, it was a smashing success. And we all agreed that we had to do this every year, that this was important. And I think maybe that's where the germ, the idea came from, that, well, it was time that we started doing something officially.

JB: But to back up just a speck, you were mentioning just before you began to talk about this Seder, you mentioned some other Jewish holidays. So did this little community of people gather on other holidays?

MO: Yeah, we took every opportunity there was. There was always a latke party at somebody's house for Hanukah. And of course people had Seders, and we would get together in smaller or larger groups, depending on who had how many kids and so forth. And there would be other times that we would get together and we would have our own delicatessen kind of parties and things like that. Food was a major 15:00part of it.

JB: OK now, well you counted off all the kids and there may have been 15 or so, and were efforts made to have some kind of Sunday school even before there was any formal organization here at all.

MO: No, because Salem Jewish community had a Sunday school. I think the Loneys went there, because that was a much older community than ours and was in existence for a long time. We had nothing that was the closest place. So those people that had kids already of that age tended to take them there. And then as more of the younger people came in, you know going to Salem every Sunday, it was a schlep, and when the weather was bad it was even worse. So I don't know who made the idea or how it really got started, I just don't remember, but I 16:00remember that we finally called a meeting, and this must have been in '63 or something like that -- oh, I know what happened.

JB: The rational for this development, is what I was kind of interested in.

MO: It was to do something for the kids, to start a Sunday school. And we decided that we needed some kind of formal umbrella organization, some affiliation, to do that with. I had some friends from my Portland days who were very involved in Hadassah, in fact who were on boards and all that kind of thing. And one of the regional meetings, it must have been in '62 or '63, was in Eugene. And so I drove down to attend the meeting to see what I could see. And I got inspired there to establish a chapter of Hadassah. So when I got back I 17:00called this meeting. One thing led to another and we decided we would try to use an organization to help us establish something for the children, and that we would investigate several different organizations. Just because I was all hot for Hadassah at the time, not everybody was. Some people wanted to go for the National Council of Jewish Women, some for B'nai B'rith Women, one thing or another. So we spent a little time investigating those. And I was very Zionistic, and I guess I kind of forced the group in that direction. Anyway, there wasn't any bad feeling or anything like that. We were really looking at which organization could give us the most support for a Sunday school.

JB: There were also requirements, numerical requirements -- you had to have a certain number -- I understood that was true anyway.

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MO: Yeah, yeah it is true. But more importantly, I felt very strongly and I know others did too, that we didn't want simply a social organization. It had to have a Jewish philanthropic purpose. So that's why we didn't simply want to start a Sunday school. We wanted to do it under the egis of something else. And although the purpose of Hadassah is not to start Sunday schools, we all thought it was possible to do it that way, so we did. We were supposed to have 15 members. We only had 13. So we decided, what the hell, we're going to do it our way, we'll start it anyway. And so we did! And so we were chartered in '64, which is officially when it began. But the movement started much before that. But the purpose was very clear. To organize a Sunday school, to have a Jewish women's 19:00organization with a philanthropic base, and to try to, you know, find new members, bring new families into the community, support a Jewish presence for ourselves. We really weren't thinking of it in terms of "for Corvallis," but "for ourselves." It was all hang together, support one another.

JB: Well that's the story I wanted to hear, but there are a few questions that I have asked other people and I will ask you too. That, it's hard for me to get myself into the exact timeframe here, but did your children ever feel that they lacked something -- I don't know exactly how old they were pre-Hadassah, that they didn't have a Sunday school to go to, they didn't have...

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MO: Well pre-Hadassah they were really pre-school. Hadassah started in '64, the last one was born in '60. So '57,'59, '60.

JB: So it would have been pretty early for that sort of thing to come about.

MO: Couple of things I should say. We, meaning Ze'ev and myself, having come from very cosmopolitan kinds of backgrounds, and being of liberal persuasion, felt very keenly the Christian homogeneity of this town. When I joined the Faculty Wives Club, as it was called then, one of the first questions whenever I went to these teas, "Well have you found your church home in Corvallis yet?" I got pretty sick of answering that. People used to, when they'd find out that we didn't have a Christmas tree, for instance, some of Ze'ev's students found that 21:00out because he was a young professor at that time and there was a lot of camaraderie there. And a number of them who belonged to sororities, said, "We have a Christmas tree in our house, and by the 15th of the month we're all gone, and nobody looks at this tree. Can't we bring it to you, can't we give it to you?" Thank you but no thank you. They just didn't understand that. And so we didn't want our kids to grow up thinking everybody in this town was white, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and went to a church. And so we made it a very active practice to bring home foreign students, which we did very consistently for years.

But when the kids went to school, they -- we at that time fell into what we now think of as a trap of going all out for Hanukah, to counteract Christmas. So we decorated the house, and we strung blue and white popcorn and we made paper 22:00triangles and strung them and all of that kind of thing and gave presents to everyone every night and -- a big thing. And we also spoke in the schools about what Hanukah was like, all that kind of thing. Well we've come away from that point of view now, but that's kind of beside the point. But it was clear that the schools were very into Christmas and Easter and everything else. And as the kids went through school it became increasingly obnoxious to us. And at one point when Sarah was in kindergarten or first grade, I don't remember which it was, she came home in tears. What's the matter? She said the name of her good friend that I knew, a little child who was in her class, won't play with me. Why won't she play with you? Did you ask her? She said, "Yes, she said that I didn't 23:00believe in Jesus." So that was Sarah's first introduction, so that didn't take us very long, you know here she was in the first grade and she was having that kind of problem. And as the kids got older there were occasions where people would bump them and mutter something about dirty Jew or whatever, write something on a locker. It was always there and they always knew, but they were always identified as Jewish students, and there was never any question of that in our house. So I don't know whether subconsciously we got more involved because of these things or whatever but it was just -- we never had a problem identifying, let me put it that way, it was never even discussed. It was just part of our lives.

JB: Did you personally ever experience an anti-Semitic incident of some sort.

24:00

MO: No. Not in this town. My family did in Lake Oswego. My father tried to join a country club and was told the usual. But other than that, as far as I know, no. I'm sure there are places I haven't been invited to.

There came a point in our living here when not only us, the Orzechs, but other families as well, became increasingly unhappy with the school district's response to religious difference. For instance the Philipps always -- I don't know if Susie mentioned this -- had troubles when her kids were in the high school, mainly with the chess team.

JB: Yes, she told me that story. It's on tape.

MO: All right, I won't repeat that. And our kids occasionally had difficulty 25:00with one thing or another , but we were not observant so we weren't involved in that stuff. But the business of the programs and Easter vacation and the amount of time spent on all these holidays, Halloween and Christmas and Valentine's Day and Easter -- it was just overwhelmingly Christian, and we became increasingly unhappy with that. Also the town had changed very dramatically. There was a large, considerably larger number of foreign students than there had been, most of whom were non-Christian, the Jewish community had grown, we became aware that the Baha'is were here and they did not go along with that, and also there's a number of other fundamental religions that don't believe in celebrating 26:00Christmas in the schools and all the rest of that.

Anyway, I had become known to the school board and to the school superintendent, Tom Wogaman, who just retired, through my work on the school board, on that budget committee, which was not an elected position, it was an appointed position. And in conversations with him, I mentioned this kind of stuff to him and told him that I was aware that a lot of people were really unhappy with this kind of thing. And of course this was also the time when all over the country, cases were being brought before courts, and the big thing about the cross on the top of Skinner's Butte was constantly in the news for years, till it finally was declared a secular symbol and was allowed. And at one point I took Tom aside and 27:00I said, "You know, I'd be willing to serve on a committee that would look into this." And when Tom Wogaman came here, it was from Berkeley , and he had talked a lot about the things that had gone on in Berkeley, in favor of diversification and equality and the all the rest of that kind of thing. So I guess he mulled that around a little bit, and at one point said shortly after that that yeah, he thought that was a good idea, and would I actually serve on such a committee, so of course I said yes immediately.

So he put together a committee, and it was really a pretty good committee. It had all kinds of representation including people from the school system itself, a music teacher, for instance, because music was a major part of this. We had become increasingly unhappy with simply the amount of time, the whole month of 28:00December went, and all of this stuff. There was a Mormon, there was an evangelical, there were just some other people, and it was headed by a Methodist minister. Bob Burtner, who was an outstanding person, he and I became rather close. And the charge of the committee was to examine the policy vis a vis religion in the public schools. So we did. And we came up with the calendar, no religious terminology in the calendar, no religious songs to be taught unless it was part of a music program that was divorced from the celebration of the holiday, and that no religion was to be celebrated in the school. You could teach about it, in fact that was incumbent as part of the curriculum, and we 29:00were all in favor of that, but it was not to be celebrated. Well of course that gave rise to tremendous discussions.

Anyway, this, gave our report ultimately to the school board , and it was decided, and maybe this was part of the regular policy, I don't remember, that there had to be public hearings. And those public hearings were something fearsome. And I remember vividly one at Jefferson school, and Ze'ev and I were in attendance and it was packed, it was in what they called the cafetorium kind of thing, gym and everything, and lots of seats set up and they were all full. And Burtner was our spokesman and he was a very good spokesman. Anyway, a lot of heat was generated over the calendar, the terminology and all of that kind of 30:00thing. And I don't remember what was said exactly, but the tone of all of the comments from people were so hostile toward anyone who wasn't Christian or who wanted to change this, that I found myself, when I became aware of what I was doing, trying to fade into the wall. There was no place to sit, so I was leaning against the back wall, and at one point I was pressing myself. . .

MO: OK I remember on the end of side one I was pressing myself into the wall. That was the first hearing , public hearing, for the proposed policy. There was a second hearing scheduled a week later, two weeks later, something of that nature. And I remember in between the first and the second hearings, the liberal 31:00religious and secular communities got themselves together and decided it was time that the other side was presented. I know that we in the Jewish community felt very -- threatened is not the right word, but nervous and uneasy about us presenting this point of view, we being in the minority, we felt increasingly keenly that we were in a minority, and we certainly didn't want to put ourselves in the position of saying to the Christian community, "You can't be Christian in the schools." Although that was exactly what we wanted to say. There's a point at which you just have to be realistic.

But we felt very strongly that it was up to Christians to say to each other instead of we. And that was exactly what happened the second meeting, the tone 32:00was entirely different, the audience was very different, although there was still lots of evangelicals and fundamentalists there and so forth, but the tone of the meeting was different, the people who presented were different, and the reaction was very different. Then the next step, I believe, was the school board to vote on this, which they did at their next regular meeting, and they accepted the whole thing. So it was a very great relief that this is what happened, and I remember I made a speech which I can get you a copy of if you'd like, I have it in my files.

JB: I would very much like to have that.

MO: I thought it was a very good speech myself, if I do say so, and for that reason I kept it, and you can have it for the archives. I'll give you a copy. 33:00What happened then was the implementation of the policy, which is in a sense still being hotly debated in some places. There were teachers who were complaining to each other loudly, "Well we can't even say Merry Christmas to one of our students because of this policy," which is utter nonsense, of course. And for a while the committee itself monitored or attempted to monitor the implementation of the policy, particularly vis a vis the programs of -- the winter musical programs, which they then were called. And there were some teachers who just blithely went about their teaching and their lives without any change whatever, teaching religious songs to students, and there were other teachers who did a beautiful job of doing, you know, secular kinds of -- you know, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, that all kind of 34:00thing. And I continued to object to the inclusion of "I Have a Little Dreidel" and "Sivivon Sov Sov Sov," you know, these silly little children's Hanukah songs, which are fine for celebration of Hanukah, they in no way shape or form qualify as great music. And I continually made that point. About the only Hanukah music that is worth anything is Judas Maccabaeus by Handel. And nobody wanted to have anything to do with that. But I have always been a lone voice in the wilderness on that particular subject.

But anyway, we kept on plugging away, and gradually over a number of years the emphasis on Christmas lessened in the school and it became much better. Once my kids were out of school, I kind of got out of the monitoring business and I really haven't paid much attention since, although I know that every year 35:00various of the Israeli mothers or fathers who have children in the schools and come on sabbatical here are called to talk about Hanukah in the schools. And we've discussed this with not only local Jews but also the Israelis, trying to get them to see that this is nothing but an excuse to then talk about Christmas in the schools. The Israelis simply do not understand our concept of separation of church and state, since that's not the way Israel works. And lots of Americans believe it's better to have some Hanukah in the schools than nothing at all. Well this is a philosophical political difference. I still believe we were co-opted years ago, and I no longer participate in that kind of thing. I don't know what the new school superintendent will be like. But there is certainly much more awareness and cognizance of all kinds of difference in the 36:00public schools. And that's partly because of the great number of international non-Christian students in the schools, and also the fact that the Jewish community has grown, and other communities are much more willing to speak up when they believe their rights are being ignored or trampled on. So I am delighted to see that, and I feel very good that I was a part of that movement. I don't know what else I can tell you. I think we've probably covered pretty much everything unless you want to ask some more.