Those Were the Days

Minnie Brandt was raised in the poor section of Cleveland in the 1920s. Her father, an immigrant from the Ukraine, supported his family by taking a horse and wagon to get rags, paper and cans for recycling. Her childhood was simple: At school she learned how to add, read, write, cook and sew. When school ended each day, she had plenty of time to play with her friends.

My grandmother, Rebecca Goldman, daughter of immigrants from Russia and Poland, attended public schools in Atlanta, Ga. She had minimum homework, not much busy work and ample time to participate in athletics and in Young Judea Club.

Unlike most Jewish American students today, Brandt’s and Goldman’s peers also had parents who were immigrants. Their parents belonged to one of the largest waves of Jewish immigration to the United States. Most came to America between 1880 and 1914 from Poland and Russia. They fled the pogroms, seeking better lives for their families. Their children were the first major generation of Jewish children introduced to the American education system.

As summer turns to fall, and children begin to anxiously prepare for the upcoming year of school, Brandt, Goldman and others of their generation find themselves reflecting on how different education and life was for children of their generation.

Irwin Brandt, Minnie’s husband, who grew up in Chicago, often had to walk one mile through the snow to school. While reflecting back on his childhood, he said, "I never remember having lots of homework, and was never stressed about it either. My childhood was much more simple. We went to school, and then played with our friends. "

Goldman agreed that school was 10 times less stressful when she attended school. She always cringes as she sees little children coming home from school, with backpacks "larger than they are." Most students carry these heavy backpacks home, despite doctors’ recommendations that a child’s backpack should weigh no more than 5-10 percent of his or her body weight.

"When I went to school," Goldman remarked, "backpacks were unheard of. The girls just carried a pencil in their purses, and the boys carried their pencils in their pockets. There was just no reason to have backpacks — we never had many books or homework to fill them. We had easier childhoods."

Yet, although they had less homework than the modern student, this generation had their own share of worries. They grew up during the Depression and World War II.

Irwin Brandt noted, "My friends and I could never ask our parents with help on homework. Our parents were immigrants and we taught them English. My father was more concerned with getting bread on the table."

However, he added, "Our parents were really the ones who worried about this. We were more carefree. This is all we had ever known, so we were used to it. I still believe that growing up and attending school today is much more difficult. "

Pauline Reich, who grew up in New York and later moved to Los Angeles, worked in the public school system for 20 years. She knows firsthand that it is more arduous growing up today. "First of all, this generation is more stressed because of one reason: The world is smaller," she explained. "Because of all the advances in technology such as e-mail, computers and television, we get instant information about things going on all over the world. Children were so much more naive back then!"

Also, schools have become much more competitive, with students across the globe striving to excel at standardized tests and be accepted to the most prestigious colleges.

Schools used to focus much more on teaching "practical subjects for the real world" such as sewing, cooking and shop. Now, students spend hours and hours memorizing information, such as the steps in mathematical formulas, which many tend to forget just days later.

The U.S. Department of Education suggests that daily homework assignments last up to 20 minutes for kindergartners to third-graders; 20-40 minutes for fourth- to sixth-graders; up to two hours for seventh- to ninth-graders; and up to 2.5 hours for 10th- to 12th-graders.

Helena Rosenthal, an incoming junior at Milken Community High School, laughed when hearing this recommendation. She said, "My peers and I normally spend at least 2.5 hours studying for one test alone. Students today begin to worry about college when they are only in sixth grade. We are told then that our grades will affect which high school we will be accepted to. And how we do in high school, will affect which college we are accepted to, which in return will determine which graduate school we will attend — it never ends."

Jennifer Gottesfield, an honors student at Beverly Hills High School, remarked, "Because of the advancements in technology, there is so much more information that we now need to learn. In my grandparents’ days, even though they strove to do well in school, it wasn’t mandatory to go to college to succeed. Now, it has become increasingly difficult to get a job without having gone to college."

Melissa Hoffman, an incoming junior at Shalhevet High School, added, "The pressure on kids today to be in the hardest classes and to get excellent grades is unfair and unhealthy. We are missing out on our childhoods, because we literally have no time for recreation and we have so much less time to spend with our families. Kids today are no different from the kids growing up decades ago in our grandparents’ generations. Our intelligence hasn’t ‘evolved.’ And yet the standards we are expected to meet are so much greater."

Goldman mused, "I am really glad that I grew up when I did…. Honestly, I am not sure how I would cope in today’s schools."

Forging a Common Future

Allies or adversaries? That is the question confronting Jewish and Latino political leaders as they assess the current and future relations of their communities.

Some legislators, such as Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, disagree that Jews and Latinos are at cross purposes politically. Hertzberg points to elected officials such as Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, a Latino who drew substantial support from the Jewish community.

“The issues that mean so much to Jews, such as education, resonate with Latinos,” Hertzberg said. “I think they see we have a common heritage as immigrants and in places like Boyle Heights, although we don’t live and work and socialize together as much as we have in the past.”

According to statistics from the Los Angeles County Children’s Planning Council, Latinos make up more than one-third of the population of the San Fernando Valley, versus 20 percent of the Westside area (including Santa Monica and West Los Angeles). Most Valley Latinos reside in the area’s northeastern region, including San Fernando and Pacoima, while the Valley Jewish population continues its shift westward.

On the economic front, statistics from the recent Jewish Federation demographic study show a median household income of $52,000 for Jewish families, while the median household income for Latinos as of 1990 was just more than $27,000 (according to a county profile). The county profile also shows 53.5 percent of Latinos employed either in sales/clerical positions or as operators or laborers, with about 11 percent employed in the professions; more than half of Los Angeles Jews hold professional occupations.

Then there is the language disparity. For many Latino immigrants, such as Mary Ballesteros of La Opinion newspaper (who moved to the Southland just eight years ago), Spanish remains their primary language. Thus, Jews — at least those who cannot speak Spanish — and Latinos find themselves communicating at a basic level, if at all.

A few organizations, such as VOICE (an immigration assistance and citizen education group) and the Valley Interfaith Council (VIC), have long worked at bridging the communication gap between Jews, Latinos and other minorities.

“Jews have successfully transitioned from being outsiders to being leaders in government and business,” said Scott Svonkin, a member of the VIC and chair of the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC). “We have a wealth of experience to share, and it is in our best interest as a minority to help the Latino community succeed by forging a genuine partnership with them.”

“The relationship [between Jews and Latinos] is relatively new, and it doesn’t come from the same place, historically, as black-Jewish relations,” said Barbara Creme, director of the Valley JCRC. “We need to approach this from a different perspective and realize it takes time. The black-Jewish relationship took time to evolve, too, and I think the biggest problem we face is people’s lack of patience.”

To help develop and nurture the Jewish-Latino relationship, Creme last year created the Hispanic Jewish Women’s Task Force with the assistance of Margaret Pontius, community services coordinator of the Guadalupe Center in Canoga Park; Virginia Rafelson of Los Angeles BASE (Basic Adult Spanish Education); and Rayna Gabin, field deputy for City Councilwoman Laura Chick.

Pontius, who supervises a wide range of social-service programs at the Guadalupe Center, said that she found it interesting to compare the different perceptions each group has of the other.

“In the Hispanic community, everything depends on class; they tend to see everyone who is not black or Hispanic as rich and, therefore, don’t want to have anything to do with us,” she said. “I don’t think Jews have an accurate picture, either; they think all Latinos are like their cleaning lady, that they don’t have degrees or are professionals, they don’t care about their kids going to good schools or about art or travel. Both sides tend to lump people together unfairly.

“This group [the task force] has been a real eye-opener for all of us. After a time, each side sees we have the same problems with teen-agers or aging parents or even domestic violence. At that point, it begins to be about women sharing, not Jewish women or Hispanic women or Asian women, but just women.”