Uptown Jews, Downtown Jews

I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx. Although I was hardly a “stranger in the land of Egypt,” I often felt like an outsider. At P.S. 114 our readers featured farms, pick-up trucks, and grandmothers who wore their hair in buns and had names like Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Jones. My grandmother, a Bronxite, had my last name, Moldof, which no one could spell or pronounce correctly. She spoke and read only Yiddish, had short curly hair, and made schnapps in her bathtub. Moreover, I never saw a cow, much less a pickup truck, until I went to college in Ohio. So when I began writing for children I was determined to break the cliche. My first picture book. Grandma Is Somebody Special, portrayed my mother, a widow, living in an apartment in Los Angeles, working in an office and attending night school.

In New York in the early 1950s, a class distinction existed between Manhattan Jews and those of us in the Bronx. A boy I met at summer camp invited me on a date to his home, an elegant co-op on Park Avenue. Then he came to my birthday party in his chauffeur-driven car. His mother swiftly ended the friendship because of my address. I still remembered the hurt I felt as I recently wrote in a book on the history of Jews in America about the clash between “Uptown” and “Downtown” in New York at the beginning of the 20th century.

Susan Goldman Rubin is the author of more than 35 books for children and readers of all ages, most recently Odds: From Slave Quilts to Prison Paintings (Crown/Random House, 2004) and L’Chaim! To Jewish Life in America! Celebrating from 1654 Until Today (Abrams in association with The Jewish Museum, 2004).