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Interview with Jeri Gertzman

Gertzman, Jeri
Eneman, Sam
Date of Interview: 
Jews and the South; Jews and Charlotte, NC; Jewish religious education; Jewish organizations; anti-Semitism; Girl Scouting; hate groups; racial and ethnic violence; World War II; discrimination; Holocaust; creation of Israel; Zionism; race relations; volunteerism; women's clubs; Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination.
A native of Charlotte, Jeri Gertzman discusses her life as a member of Charlotte's Jewish community. Recalling the community as small and close-knit, Gertzman reminisces about her childhood religious education at Temple Israel, Jewish youth organizations, and annual celebrations. She recalls the importance of Jewish women and their organizations in their many roles as civic leaders, volunteers, and role models in both their temple and community. Gertzman discusses discrimination Jews faced, especially in the social milieu, in Charlotte, and she talks about the Jewish community's own exclusiveness. Likewise, she recalls personal brushes with anti-Semitism as a schoolgirl. Gertzman shares her own family's World War II experiences with the Holocaust and remembers the creation of Israel.
Charlotte, NC, 1934-1990
Interview Setting: 
Jewish Community Center, Charlotte, NC
Charlotte Jewish Historical Society Collection
Interview Audio: 
IV: To introduce yourself please and tell us about when and why you and your family came to Charlotte or how that came to be.
JG (Jeri Gertzman): All right. My name is Jeri Pressman Gertzman, and I was born in Charlotte in 1934 and I grew up in the Charlotte community for most of my childhood life up until about the time I was fifteen. And then because of several moves, I moved to Charleston, South Carolina so that I would have more Jewish contacts with other young people because Charlotte was a small Jewish community. And then I went to college and married. And after my husband got out of service we came back to Charlotte to live.
IV: So you did--. What are your earliest memories of living in the Charlotte Jewish community?
JG: My best memory is that it was a close community. The women of Temple Israel Sisterhood made us feel very important and loved and very wealthy as young children. It's always amazed me how with that small, dinky kitchen, the Seventh Street Temple Israel, they could make our lives so exciting with the parties that they put on that were not fundraisers. They just really cared for the community's Jewish children. And of course I have memories of going to Temple Israel on Seventh Street for the High Holidays as a child and wearing winter clothes because the women always bought new outfits out of wool and velvet even though the building wasn't air conditioned. And we always had a lot of service men come to the Temple. One year it got so large that I believe we held the High Holidays at the old Armory building because there were so many service men we couldn't fit them into Temple Israel.
IV: Which Jewish holiday was the most meaningful for you?
JG: Well Passover. [Laughter] Mostly because I didn't have to wear winter clothes when there was no air conditioning. My parents loved Passover and it was a time when they had a lot of people in. And as a matter of fact, because it was their favorite holiday, that after their death, Rabbi Rocklin asked me if I wanted some manner in which to remember them. And I said, "Yes." And he said, "Well the Temple really could use a Seder; we don't have one." So originally the Temple Israel Seder was the Pressman Passover Seder, and I furnished the kitchen and for them.
IV: That's nice.
JG: And I suppose Passover is my favorite holiday.
IV: Do you have any particular recollection of someone in the Jewish community, especially as a child, that you would like to tell us a story about?
JG: Well I adored Rabbi Greenberg. I was madly in love with him when I was five. I wanted him to leave his very charming wife Beck and marry me, but instead he left and went to Pennsylvania. We had Sunday school and it wasn't as formalized as it is now. We would break for an assembly and that was a good chance to see the older boys. And then we had Hebrew school that was co-ed, but girls were not allowed to be bas mitzvahed at that time. And I suppose that I went mostly to see Rabbi Greenberg who was also our Hebrew teacher. And of course I guess my parents, Polly and Jacob Pressman, all children I think derived some confidence and some self-esteem from their parents, and my parents were very active in the Temple. My father was the president of Temple Israel and chairman of the building fund, which moved the location to Dilworth. And my mother was active in Sisterhood. And as a child I can remember her wearing hats and sitting in front of a mirror and saying, "As president of Temple Israel Sisterhood" and changing her hats [Laughter] to see which way she looked best as president of Temple Israel--, which hat made her look like the real president of Temple Israel Sisterhood.
IV: You told me a charming story about your recollections and, and connections with the kitchen, the Ner Tamid and something else. I'd love for you to tell that story.
JG: Well the Temple Israel on Seventh Street had leaking gas and the Eternal Light, I thought, was the source of this gas. And the kitchen and the bathroom and the Eternal Light all had the same odor and for years I-it wasn't until they moved into the new Temple Israel that I realized that the Eternal Light did not smell like [Laughter] natural gas leaking.
IV: That's funny. What were the highlights of your Jewish education, especially in Charlotte, in growing up?
JG: Well, I think in my mind, the highlights were the social contacts. Some things never change in history. [Laughter] The education was not formalized to the degree that it is now. I believe that Bessie Fagan taught me as a child in, in Temple Israel religious school and she also taught several of my children. And I think the highlight of it was when Ben Jaffa, Junior, taught, or substituted because he was younger and good-looking. [Laughter] And I found the lessons considerably--.
IV: Attendance was easier.
JG: Right. I did win a perfect attendance medal. Temple Israel used to hand out medals. And also at that time, just as we have the Greater Charlotte area, the Jewish community had the greater area. People brought their children in from Rock Hill and Fort Mill for religious school and Sunday school. And this was during the war with gas rationing, so it really was a dedicated effort on the part of Jews to have Jewish connections for their children.
IV: Were you active in youth groups through the Temple or--?
JG: All right. At the time, there was, there were two groups. One I believe was Young Judea and that was for girls and we went to meetings, I can't exactly recall what we did. My parents had a lot of land where our home was on Sharon Road and the AZA Boys used to come out there and I used to like to spy on them. And I believe Manny Siegel was their first advisor, but then I didn't live here during my teen years so I was--.
IV: I'm still on the devastatingly handsome rabbi ( ) that you talked about.
JG: [Laughter]
IV: Was there someone else who really stood out in terms of Jewish education as you were growing up?
JG: I believe Esther Naumoff because I associated Jewish education with the home, and she seemed to enjoy preparing for the holidays and she enjoyed her Judaism. It was not, "Oh, I've got to make gefilte fish." It was, "Oh, you want to help me?" And I think that I received so much pleasure and also confidence because of someone that I admired as much as Esther Naumoff could enjoy Judaism, then I could enjoy it. And you have to remember that Charlotte was overtly anti-Semitic during my growing up years.
IV: OK. Kind of in that frame of mind, can you tell us in your experience how the Jewish community related with the community at large, descriptively? How would you describe it?
JG: As a child, most of my parents' friends were other Jews. I don't think that there was any great relationship, although these are my perceptions as a child. My mother was on the Girl Scout Council, but I don't know at that time, during the early 40s, how many Jewish women were involved in any level with Girl Scouting. Jews, when I was growing up, could not live in any section of Charlotte they chose to live in. I believe, it was my perception that an occasional designated Jew was selected to be the token in the Chamber of Commerce or some type of civic organizations, but that in general, Jews and non-Jews did not socialize together. And, in fact, I believe that it, it hurt Jewish businessmen. Many of the country clubs were a source of many business deals and Jews could not belong to many of these country clubs. And I know that during the perhaps the early 60s, when I was back as a young adult, the Amity Club, which was a Jewish country club, had discriminatory policies as part of its bylaws. And at that time my husband was active with the Anti-Defamation League, and he went before originally the board and I believe the general membership and asked them to consider removing at least the wording from the bylaws. Because when you were going to the Board of Education and asking them to excuse children's absences on Jewish holidays and asking the Board of Realtors to do away with the practice of discriminating where Jews could live, you have to come in with clean hands. [Laughter] And you cannot have it thrown up in your face that the Amity Club has restrictive clauses too. And I must say that the general membership of the Amity Club considered this and very graciously and almost immediately saw to it that that offensive wording was removed.
IV: You said that your husband, as an attorney, was involved in, in through the ADL, etcetera, was involved in several incidents. Could you describe those?
JG: Well the one that scares me the most was the night that Martin Luther King was assassinated. We were at a party, and he received a phone call from an unknown source, but it was I believe a Klan informant, saying that there was going to be a blood bath in Charlotte because of this. And I believe that he worked with several other people, one was an Observer writer, and one was an FBI agent. And that they did, I know he left the party, they met with several groups and, and we got through that evening with very, very little trouble. The Klan may have been in its heyday in North Carolina in general in the late 50s and early 60s. And a group of people, primarily through the Anti-Defamation League, did work to undermine the Klan. And I think they were successful.
IV: Your husband was involved in that?
JG: Right. But of course with activities and hate groups they always resurface, sometimes the names change but Jews in particular, only as secure as they allow themselves to allow themselves to be protected, and most of it comes through self-protection, knowing who you are and what you're about and feeling good about it.
IV: Could you mention the awards, the involvement that your husband had with the--.
JG: Well he got the Torch of Liberty Award, which I believe is the state ADL's award. And he received a letter of accommodation from J. Edgar Hoover.
IV: ( ).
JG: Uh-huh.
IV: With regard to Jews involved in local politics, in your experience, has it been pretty low-key until what point in time?
JG: Well, growing up, in my early memories, are only Arthur Goodman, Senior, as being involved in politics. Al Rousso recently was involved in politics and successfully so. I do believe in, at one time I was involved in a market research project, and there was a discussion, a candidate had ordered it. And as a participant I found out that there is a certain percentage of people today in Charlotte that will not vote for our candidates simply because he or she is Jewish.
IV: Did the Jewish people who, in your experience, were involved in politics, did they ally themselves with any particular group? Any particular party issue?
JG: I think, my perception would be that it, it would be the Democratic party. I would think that originally successful backing came from outside of the Jewish community from the black community. And I think that the, the Democratic values of say the 50s or maybe even 40s were the appeal. I think Jews have always been liberal in their thinking.
IV: Do you have any other stories or comments that you would like to, you know, in part with regard to Jewish-black relations in the 50s and 60s?
JG: Well, Charlotte chapter of B'nai Brith Women won the silver medallion, and this is an award given by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. And the chapter won the medallion for starting a, well it's a forerunner to the Head Start program, and it was run at Little Rock AME Zion Church, and that is on Seventh Street. So I guess in a way we almost went back to our roots. We tried so hard to leave Seventh Street and then volunteered to go back. But this was so successful in giving these children, and this was a black church, the head start in entering into regular school. And at that time I don't believe that we had kindergarten as free kindergarten. So was, it was an important project, and I believe that eventually Head Start developed in that particular area for, at First Ward area from the success that was started there.
IV: In that church. Can you talk about any experiences that you personally or your family has had with anti-Semitism that you haven't already talked about?
JG: [Laughter] I don't remember exactly what I did tell you and when. My sister and I were the only Jewish children at Sharon School in the early 40s. Sharon School was first through twelfth, and it was a county school. We didn't have the consolidated school system. And the children there were mostly farmers' children to the degree that we got out for cotton-picking time, not spring vacation, literally. And one time, my teacher in the health class--. And I was in fifth grade. Her name was Bessie Smith-and it's been a long time since I've been in fifth grade so you can imagine how somebody carries pain with them-gave a lecture to the health class, and she was the sister of the Harkeys, by the way that had the Harky Nursery, gave a lecture on how the Jews spit on apples on East Fourth Street to make them shine. And everyone in the class looked at me. And the reason, of course, that they knew that I was Jewish is there was mandatory prayer in school, and I always was the one that got to, had the offer to leave the room. So there was no doubt that I was Jewish. And I went home and I told my mother what happened, and she went to school. And the next day there was a retraction, and such a dreadful retraction, the words were and--, "that there are good Jews and bad Jews and there are good blacks and bad blacks." Except the black word was not used; it was the most offensive word. "And any way, it is the Greeks that spit on the apples." So I went home from school and said momma you have to go again. And I can remember my mother saying, and this was in the 40s, "That we Jews have enough to deal with with anti-Semitism. The Greeks are going to have to fight their own battles." But I think you are ten when you are in the fifth grade, and I'm now fifty-five and I still remember having to, having a teacher offer to let me leave the classroom when we'd stand up in the morning and say the prayer because I was the only one in the school. And I can remember the idea that Jews spit on--. And my mother also wanted to know what did spitting on apples have to do with hygiene.
IV: Is there anything that you miss in the Charlotte Jewish community particularly from the old, you know, the other days?
JG: I think it's important for people to know how this community opened its doors and its hearts to the servicemen. My parents used to have busloads of people come from Fort Jackson, I believe, come to our home. Now they used the grounds but it was the entire Jewish community's effort to see that all Jewish people in service and their families would have a place for the holidays and that they would have contacts in case, particularly the families, in case anyone needed assistance. It was a close community, and I miss that closeness. I'm glad I have it and I hope that today's children, which are my grandchildren, will identify with what the Jews try to, to pass on. I had no part of that. It was my parents' generation. Many people came to Charlotte, it was not a good community for Jews, they made money and left. But many people stayed and it was not the best town. But they made it a very, very good town.
IV: In your experience, on the wartime topic, how did the Charlotte Jewish community react to news about the Holocaust? Do you have a story about that?
JG: Well, as a child, I really didn't know about it. Parents protected their children from, well even from a grandparent dying. Children were protected from death. One of the reasons that my parents moved to Sharon Road was because that the home sat on eight acres of land, and my father decided that the two German Jewish boys that they wished to adopt needed fresh air. And we had a room in the house called the boys' room, even though I only had one sister. And everyday I used to come home from school asking my mother if the boys had come. And one day I came home from school, and I found her crying. And she told me the boys were not coming; they had died at camp. And when I was ten or eleven, I had no perception of concentration camps. I thought poison ivy. Nobody died of poison ivy. But later I found out how the children did die. And it was horrifying, and maybe more when you're fifteen or sixteen, things impact in a different way. We always call that room the boys' room. About ten years ago, Ralph Howie, a local builder, bought that home and asked me to come out and go through it and he wanted to see some original pictures. And in going through the room, I pointed to the room. And I said and that's the boys' room. And he looked at me and he said, "I thought you only had a sister." And I couldn't explain it, those two little boys stayed with me in a way. And today I do a project, which is sponsored by the Girl Scouts, but I designed it. It's called Safety Haven. It's primarily for latchkey children. And this is where children in distress can go to certain homes that have been screened and seek shelter. And I believe that it wasn't something that I entirely designed as an adult I believe that when I did see, particularly the children, I could never understand how anyone did that to children. Today as a parent, if something like that happened again, I think there is a part of me that would want to protect my grandchildren from that knowledge just as my parents tried to protect me. But of course when we found out about it, there was a ZOA meetings and the Israeli Bomb Drive meetings, and the Jews of this community did do everything they could to support the efforts of those wronged.
IV: Was there an active Zionist group when--?
JG: I believe so. I have run across some things my father was always going to ZOA meetings. I think that's Zionist Organization of America. And I found some ZOA pins. And every--, nobody was ashamed to be associated with it.
IV: Did you--? How did you feel when Israel became a state? (What did you, did you take it) personal?
JG: I can remember hearing the news and I think we were listening to the radio with my family, and I was excited. I said I am so happy for them. And my father sat there with tears streaming down his eyes and said, "I am so happy for all of us." Because it, in my mind, I was more American. And in my father's mind, this was for everyone.
IV: Did you have any family or friends that went over to Israel at that time?
JG: No, I didn't.
IV: Have you ever been to Israel?
JG: No. I'm afraid to fly.
IV: Ah! OK.
JG: [Laughter]
IV: If you had something to say, Jeri, to the Jewish children that are growing up in the Charlotte community now and you would want to leave them with something, what, what would you tell them?
JG: Well I think everybody is good at giving advice to children and maybe too much. So I wouldn't want to give them advice. I'd like to give them some things to consider. And that is that, that self-esteem, good self-esteem and confidence never hurt anyone. And I believe that they can gain in their own self-esteem and their confidence if they understand their history. It is very good history from beginning through recently through Charlotte because our ancestors were writing law when other peoples were throwing stones at each other. I think that there probably will be a time when they will stripe traps during college years. But even in doing that there is some security in what is familiar. So not for the Jewish people but for themselves, they should consider their proud history and use it to benefit themselves. And I hope that they do.
IV: Well said. That's about it.
JG: [Laughter]
IV: Great.
JG: Did I tell you that I have a terrible speaking voice?
IV: No.
JG: You'll find out. Yeah it's, it's kind of high. [Laughter] And that's why I smoke to keep it lower.
SE (Sam Eneman): No, nobody likes the way they sound or look on TV. Very few people do.
JG: But I've enjoyed talking with you.
IV: I enjoyed that.