It Was a Smokin’ Affair

Some cultural forensics can uncover the lives and aspirations of immigrant Jews in mid-20th century America.
July 11, 2024
The author’s grandfather (left) and father

My father smoked a cigarette on January 8, 1949 in Brooklyn. He was just 13. His father lit it. The act is preserved in a sepia photograph in a just-discovered album.  It surfaced 75 years later, during the clean-out of my parents’ apartment. But many things in the photo and album are not exactly as they appear. Some cultural forensics can uncover the lives and aspirations of immigrant Jews in mid-20th century America.

For a father to introduce his young son to the pleasures of a cigarette, today, would be controversial. It might get the father kicked off social media, or worse. But save for Walter Winchell, social media shaming was far in the future.  And this is not just about the ills of smoking. It’s much more and must be examined through the lens of the time. The occasion of this father-son smoke was the son’s Bar Mitzvah! A Bar Mitzvah is a serious ceremony demanding months of preparation by a 12-year-old Jewish boy (in 1949, alas, only boys qualified). It culminates on the boy’s 13th birthday when he is called to the Torah during religious services — usually at a synagogue — to read or chant.  Hardly occasion for a smoke.  And yet, there they are. My father with his pompadour and double-breasted suit, taking a puff. My grandfather in his tux, cradling the match.

My grandparents didn’t smoke. My father didn’t. This is probably the only time in his 88 years that he had a cigarette in his mouth. So why do it? Because Jews, like other immigrant groups at the time were keen to embrace American culture. Who defined American culture? In this instance, the photographers, Renard Studio of Utica Ave, Brooklyn, who staged the photos and produced the album. Its well-constructed scenes and fancy-dress evoke Hollywood movies of the 1940s. Renard, probably a Gentile-owned company, can be partially forgiven for trying to project a bit of the glamorous Protestant-American monoculture of the postwar era onto what is otherwise a Jewish religious affair.  But they took almost as many liberties with the traditions as Oliver Stone did with the Kennedy assassination. Renard spared no opportunity to over-glamorize, over-secularize, and even to over-sexualize.

The album is fancier than my own wedding album from 1985. A fancy wedding seems to have been the inspiration for the staging of the photos.  There is no ring in the standard Bar Mitzvah, so Renard had to make due.  The photographers enlisted my father’s older sister to play (the made-up role of) Tallis-bearer. Dorothy parades down the center aisle of the synagogue carrying my father’s Tallis like Anne Baxter’s Nefretiri carrying gifts to Yul Brynner’s Pharaoh in “The Ten Commandments.”  On stage, Dorothy drapes the Tallis around the shoulders of her brother, the prince-in-waiting. It is, in Hollywood parlance, a “fictionalized” portrayal of a real event.

Like most fictionalizations, there are elements of truth. A Bar Mitzvah is the Jewish rite of passage from childhood into adulthood – although mainly symbolic. At that moment, certain responsibilities of an adult Jew do attach, such as counting as a member of a Minyan. But Renard played this coming-of-age theme to the hilt. There is a photo of father and son, side-by-side tying their ties in a mirror. Another, of my father’s contemporaries (all under-age) toasting him with what surely is not grape juice.  And a cringe-worthy picture of my father beckoning a young woman (either a girlfriend or merely a girl friend who happened to be at the wrong place and wrong time) up a staircase. It’s hardly Rhett Butler carrying Scarlett O’Hara up the grand staircase, but it is suggestive. Today, you are a man.  Perhaps the most overt projection of American-Christian culture onto my family’s Jewish event is emblazoned on the cover of the album. Rather than call it by its rightful Hebrew name, “Bar Mitzvah” (the term appears nowhere in the album), the gold lettering announces, “My Confirmation” followed by “Larry.” Larry has been officially Christianized and secularized.

To be clear, my grandparents were not duped by whoever staged the photos and turned their son’s Bar Mitzvah into a Hollywood movie. They are not victims. They wanted to assimilate into the prevailing culture. They wanted to move from the confines of a segregated society of immigrants into the American mainstream. A glamorous Bar Mitzvah and dinner affair — complete with first cigarette — likely seemed to them a necessary step. They may have spoken Yiddish — the language of the “Old Country” — to each other, but they spoke English to their children. If they couldn’t achieve the American dream in its entirety (my grandfather dropped out of Drexel for lack of money in the 1920s) they earnestly hoped the opportunities of the “Geldina Medina” (the Golden Land) would accrue to their son.  Like other Jewish immigrants and their community, they loved their new country. This love is captured in the album’s pages devoted to the processional into the synagogue. The grand processional was, of course, led by the rabbi, but the second position was reserved for a flag-bearer carrying a large American flag. The congregation members were proud Americans.

My grandparents were not duped by whoever staged the photos and turned their son’s Bar Mitzvah into a Hollywood movie. They are not victims. They wanted to assimilate into the prevailing culture. 

Immediately following the American flag was another flag-bearer. He carried the flag of the recently-declared (May 1948) independent State of Israel, a state not yet a year old. The members of the congregations were also proud Zionists.  Proud American, proud Zionist, there is no contradiction.  There were no flags proclaiming, “Death to America.”

My father achieved the American Dream that his parents sought for him. He went from a highly competitive public high school, Brooklyn Tech, to Stevens Institute in Hoboken.  He made it to Stevens on academic merit. His gold medal in science and silver in math from Brooklyn Tech surfaced with his Bar Mitzvah album.  After Stevens, he went to MIT and finally to Harvard for a Ph.D. Unlike Ryan O’Neal in “Love Story,” he did not play hockey. Despite his Bar Mitzvah photos, he was not a particularly glamorous guy nor an athletic one. Unlike Timothy Bottoms in “The Paper Chase,” my father did not ignore his grades (or throw them into the ocean!)  He was a straight arrow who went to school, completed his homework on time (and his master’s thesis at MIT early), and respected authority. In short, he went to school to go to school. He parlayed his studies into a career in computers and finally his own consulting business. He enjoyed his work. It allowed him to purchase a home in the suburbs, send two kids to private colleges, and travel the world with his beloved wife of 65 years.

The drive of immigrant Jews to Americanize — and to be allowed to Americanize — in the first decade of the 20th century was not without hiccups or blind-spots. A job offer during WWII to my eventual mother in-law was retracted by a prominent New York company when they learned she was a Jew. Such things were not uncommon. My father’s older sister – the Tallis-bearer in the “Larry Movie” — was not doted on like her brother. She was not expected, nor did she attend college. Like many Americans of their time, Jewish and non-, my grandparents were myopic in this respect, and it’s regrettable. But like the 1949 image of a father lighting his 13-year-old’s cigarette, they must be viewed through the proper lens. My immigrant grandparents tried their best to position their son for success in their adopted home. They were fiercely loyal to that home and embraced its culture.  All while maintaining their religion and ethnic identity. They sought to reconcile their own culture with the prevailing one.  They pushed study and academic achievement to the max. And it worked. It seems we can forgive them a little Hollywood “treatment” of Larry’s Bar Mitzvah – and learn from their example.

Evan D. Morris, PhD is a Professor of Biomedical Imaging and Biomedical Engineering at Yale. His father, Larry Morris (z’’l) passed in March 2024 at the age of 88.

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