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Interview with Gladys Kahn Lavitan

Lavitan, Gladys Kahn
Bloom, Ken
Date of Interview: 
Jews and Charlotte, NC; Jews and the South; Jewish experience; Jewish religious education; recreation; Jewish leadership; anti-Semitism; World War II; religion.
A long-time Charlotte, NC, resident, Gladys Lavitan discusses the Jewish experience in the 1930s and 1940s. She describes the challenges life in Charlotte presented for Jewish men and women, including the lack of continuity in the transient Jewish population and the resulting lack of lay and rabbinical leadership. She recalls a network of organizations, kith and kin stretching across the Carolinas that provided Jews with social and religious outlets. She discusses personal brushes with anti-Semitism in Charlotte and reminisces about her early Jewish religious education. Lavitan talks about changes she witnessed in the Charlotte Jewish community including the crystallization of Jewish identity and the increase in population during and following World War II.
Charlotte, 1930s-1990
Interview Setting: 
Jewish Community Center, Charlotte
Charlotte Jewish Historical Society Collection
Collection Description: 
Charlotte Jewish Historical Society Collection
Interview Audio: 
KB (Ken Bloom): Thank you for participating in the Jewish archives. We're starting off by just asking each person to please say who they are.
GL (Gladys Lavitan): Well, I'm Gladys Lavitan.
KB: Can you tell us something about first coming to Charlotte?
GL: Well, I'm one of the ones that really came here as a baby. I was born in Georgia, in Augusta, Georgia, but my family moved here when I was very little. And Charlotte was a small sleepy little southern town. We had in those days just one temple. It was on Seventh Street, and it was called the Hebrew United Brotherhood. It was Hebrew. It wasn't very united, and there wasn't too much brotherhood, but [Laughter] there was--. We were all, the few Jews that were here belonged. And I grew up here. I, I don't remember Georgia at all. I don't remember any other place. We were just a, a small group of Jewish people and we, we were friendly, very close. In fact when you tell people this that come from big cities it surprises them. Actually we, [Laughter] we were friendly with people in towns near Charlotte. We would travel all the way to Durham for a party or a meeting as we were growing up. We would travel down to South Carolina to Spartanburg or Greenville or Colombia. And so it was, we, although we were a small group here in Charlotte, we spread out. I mean we had tentacles that reached out to other Jewish families in small towns.
KB: What was the vehicle for those tentacles? I mean how did you meet each other?
GL: Mostly it was because they were groups from the temples. Youth groups of various kinds. And then there was also the Aliyah, Young Judea. It was Young Judea. Young Judea was very active, and we would have a lot of Young Judea meetings. Also we were friends with people who had cousins that would live in these various places. So if there was a party or if there was a group getting together for a football game, we'd all go in a group because we'd make a party out of it. It was, it was enjoyable. We had a nice time.
KB: Were all the interactions with Jews from other communities these kinds of social interactions?
GL: They were social intel--, interactions, yes, except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And then people in Charlotte would invite Jewish students who were at Winthrop College in Rock Hill to come to Charlotte and stay with a Jewish family, and at least join us for the holidays. And surprisingly enough there were quite a few Jewish girls that were at Winthrop in those days.
KB: Was there a, an association of Jewish women to--?
GL: Oh yes. There was Hadassah. There was Hadassah which was extremely active. I don't recall any other Jewish organization. I don't, in other words there was B'nai Brith, I'm sure, although I don't recall it. I do remember Hadassah because my mother was a very active member of Hadassah. There was this Sisterhood, which was of course active in the temple. But on a small scale just my own time, I remember Young Judea. I remember learning Israeli, what we would call Israeli dancing. It was folk dancing. I remember that.
KB: What age were you when you began to participate?
GL: Very young. I, I think I started maybe when I was six, seven years old. And--. We--. I--. There wasn't much of a Sunday school. We tried to have a Sunday school, but we never kept a rabbi very long. We'd have a rabbi and he'd stay for a year, and then I think he'd leave because maybe there was a bigger temple or something. So there was not much continuity as far as a leader was concerned. However, we did have one rabbi, and I remember him very, very well. He was splendid. His name was Rabbi Kleinfeld, and he was at this Hebrew United Brotherhood which we always used to call the hub. It was the hub. I mean that's where we all congregated. It was our, it was our home, our spiritual home. Rabbi Kleinfeld was an activist. He wanted young people to be very, very active, so he was a writer and a composer of music. He put on all kinds of musical comedies. He'd involve the young kids in it. He'd get other people in it. In fact he wrote one terrific three-act musical that was based on the story of Queen Esther. And in those days we had--, no movies were allowed on Sunday. We had Blue Sundays. So the one big theater with a marvelous stage--because they used to have Vaudeville between the movie parts--was called the Carolina Theater on Tryon Street. He arranged to get the Carolina Theater for a Sunday. And I want you to know he even talked to an orchestra to come in and give us the orchestration. We involved the whole community, and we gave that production at the Carolina Theater. And I want you know it was a big theater, and it was filled.
KB: When was this?
GL: Thi--. Oh, I must have been--. I don't remember how old I was. I remember what I played; I was Zerash, Haman's wife. And [Laughter] that's the only reason I know her name was Zerash was [Laughter] because I played it on the stage. But I, I think it must have been about, I don't know fifty-five, sixty years. Maybe, maybe more than that. About sixty years ago. I remember, I remember the little kids in the chorus singing. It was very--. It was an active group. And I remember he's the only man, the one rabbi that I [Laughter] remember most clearly because I had never been to a Seder. And when I was about, I must have been about eight or nine I suppose, my mother was in the hospital, and my father was with her. She'd had surgery. So Rabbi Kleinfeld and his wife invited my brother and me to participate in the Seder at his home. Well I was enjoying it. Thought it was absolutely marvelous until it came the time when he said, "Go to the door and open the door and invite Elijah in." I was always very dramatic. I liked theater. I was always active in it. I went to the door, and I was feeling fine until I got to the door. And as I put my hand on the doorknob, I suddenly thought, what if I opened the door and an old man with a long white beard and a staff is standing there. I'll die! I'll just die of fright! I was petrified. I put my hand on the doorknob, I closed my eyes, opened the door and then when I opened my eyes, there was nobody there, so I felt marvelous. And then I said, "Oh dear prophet, Elijah, do come in and share our Seder with us." And [Laughter] I enjoyed the Seder so much. From that day on the Seder is my favorite time of the year. I still love it.
KB: Your parents, at the time you were participating, did they encourage, they, of course, encouraged you?
GL: Oh yes. Well we would never--. You know I have to explain there really wasn't very much in the way of, of participation. Friday night you would go to temple. I don't think they even had services except for just a few men that showed up on Saturday morning, because the majority of the men at that time worked on Saturday, and it was a major living problem for them. They had to make their money on Saturday. They were merchants, and Saturday was the day that people came in from the outlying areas, and so really and truly they just couldn't have Saturday morning services. But Friday night, and we tried to meet. We tried to go on Friday night as often as possible because it was, it was a socialization, you know, as well as the fact that we would be able to have our prayers and our beautiful hymns. We did have nice hymns, I remember that. In fact we even--. I was confirmed at that temple. I remember the confirmation and how beautiful it was. I remember how good looking the boys looked for the first time. [Laughter] They always looked so miserable. And that day they were all dressed up in blue jackets and nice gray pants, and the girls all looked attractive. We were a very attractive group that day. Not during the rest of the year because we were not, we were more apt to be in play clothes. But for confirmation everybody was well dressed and the place was jammed, and, oh, our parents were so proud of us.
KB: What kind of Jewish education went to support--?
GL: There wasn't much. And I'll be honest about that. We didn't have good teachers in our sch--. We tried to have Sunday schools, but there were just not many people that knew anything to teach. We were given what I call pap. Just plain ordinary pap. These silly little stories and, and about the people in the Bible, not the Bible itself. It was almost considered that you were strange if you asked to open a Bible and look at the Bible itself. I used to wonder if there was something wrong with our Bible that we didn't want people to know it. Because I remember getting slapped when I criticized Abraham. The teacher in Sunday school was probably not very much older than I was; in other words he was a kid, a teenager. And he probably didn't know very more about the Bible than the rest of us did, but he was supposed to teach Bible. The rabbi had said that he was the Bible teacher. And I remember sitting there, and I loved to hear about the Bible. I liked the Bible stories, but I wanted more. I always wanted more. Because remember, I lived, I was one-and just a few of us. I was one of the few Jewish people in this town surrounded by many, many Christians all knowing their Bible. You could wake them up at midnight and ask them a question and they could give you the answer. And it used to bother me that I could not meet them on their terms. So I wanted to know the Bible, and for some reason we were taught what you could eat what you couldn't eat. We were taught the holidays. We were taught the stories, the little stories the story about Joseph and his coat of many colors and all the, the usual things. But this particular Sunday morning I, I can still remember it, the story was about Abraham and how he told Pharaoh that his wife Sarah was really his sister not his wife. And Pharaoh took Sarah into his harem, and then God punished Pharaoh for doing that by giving him boils and all kinds of terrible things. And when he came back to Abraham he said, "Why didn't you tell me the truth? Why did you tell me that this woman was your sister and not your wife?" And Abraham said, "Well, I was afraid you'd kill me if I told you the truth." Pharaoh said, "Take your wife, take your things, and get out of here." [Laughter] He was fed up with Abraham. I listened to this story, and truly it wasn't out of maliciousness that I said this. I was thinking, and I said, "You know, well that wasn't fair. Abraham told a lie. He should have gotten the boils, not Pharaoh." And the teacher, instead of explaining to me what the story, the background of the story, what the ramifications really meant, he leaned across the table and he slapped me on both sides of my face. That ended my Sunday school career at Hebrew United Brotherhood, but it didn't stop me from wanting to know the Bible. And I did--. Fortunately there were other rabbis that came into town, and I was able to study with some, years later, with some very fine rabbis. And I, I got, I think a very good grounding in our Bible. And I, I've been a Bible teacher for forty years. I've taught at the temples, taught at both temples: Temple Beth El and Temple Israel.
KB: What Jewish lay leadership do you think were influential, that were important to you as a young Jewish child in Charlotte?
GL: I, I can't, I cant really, I can't really put my mind--. I can't figure out who it was. I knew the parents of my friends, but I don't know how involved they were. The Jewish leadership was, was not consistent. In other words, you had people who moved in town and moved out, so my memory of Jewish leadership is really rather hazy. I remember there was a problem with people who wanted to keep the dietary laws, and they brought a schochet in. And I remember Dick Blumenthal was a fine man, really a terrific person. Dick Blumenthal, really and truly if anything he did a lot, a great deal to make the Jewish community cohesive. He helped guide it, and he did. He was always interested, always caring. And I, he is the man that stands out most in my mind.
KB: What actually did he do?
GL: Well, he was the man that brought schochet here, in order to get the people who wanted to keep kosher, they didn't have to live on vegetables and fruits. I mean they [Laughter] were able to have chicken and meat. And then, too, he was the man that stood up and helped at the temple a lot. When anything went wrong, when we needed a rabbi and we didn't have enough money, or we couldn't get a rabbi, Dick did go and do it. Dick arranged. He found the rabbi. He helped bring him. And he was, he was always--. I hope I'm not [Laughter] messing this up. I'm, I'm digging. He was always an active person. Always you could depend on him. If something happened in the community- and there was a time when something really bad happened in this community. It was a, a time--. I don't know if you really want to hear this.
KB: Sure we do.
GL: You do. All right. It was in the 30s. There was an evangelist by the name of Mordecai Ham, Dr. Mordecai Ham, who had a tent pitched somewhere on Tryon Street. And I don't remember exactly where it was, but I remember it was down off South Tryon. And he came to Charlotte and had this big revival. The B'nai Brith became very upset at what he was doing. He was saying the Jews are at fault for everything. Everything that goes wrong in this world, blame the Jews, the Jews, the Jews. In fact Harry Golden, a blessed memory, even had pictures in his place when he--. I remember talking to him about it, and he showed me some of these pictures. He had photographs of some of the signs that Mordecai Ham had about the Jews. The Jews are the cause of your trouble. The Jews are the cause of the Depression. The Jews are the ones that are ruining everything in American life and all the lives of the Christians, the good Christians. And he filled his tent. People came to listen to him, and it was a group of Jewish men who were very perturbed over that because there was a rise at this time of the, the Nazi German-American Bund was beginning to be felt. The Klan became more active. A group of Jewish men, including Dick Blumenthal, and I believe my father was one of them. And I know Sam Schwartz was one of them. He was another fine leader and good man in Charlotte and had done a lot. They went to, they went to the authorities and they asked that something be done about it. Now whether the authorities really did do it or not, I don't know, but it wasn't but a short time after they went there that his tent went down and he left Charlotte. I met him years and years later when he was on the platform with Billy Graham here in Charlotte at David Ovens Auditorium. I refused to go with some friends of mine who were not Jewish. I would not go, because I said I wouldn't go to hear anybody where Mordecai Ham was on the platform. And I told my friends why. And one day the phone rang and this friend of mine said, "Would you be willing to meet with Dr. Ham?" I said, "Yes, I'm perfectly willing." So I did meet with them in my friend's home, and I told him why I would not go to hear Billy Graham as long as he was there. And he said, "Oh, you just misunderstood. I would never say anything against the Jews. Why because my name is Mordecai, and my friends in the Arab world think I'm Jewish." And I remember I was probably not very nice. I said to him, "Well they're not very bright. They should know that a Jew wouldn't have the name of Ham." [Laughter] And he was kind of surprised that I did say that but, when he left Billy Graham announced that night--. That was in the morning. In the--, that afternoon, late, I heard on the television and on the radio that Dr. Graham had said Mordecai Ham had to return to Kentucky because of illness in his family and would not be on the platform. Then I went with my friends who were not Jewish to hear Billy Graham. But I would not, I would not go while he was there. I mean to me it was like going to hear Hitler. I wouldn't want to do a thing like that.
KB: But the following like what you observed, though, people came to hear him.
GL: Oh yes, they did.
KB: So, so had you actually observed the tradition of anti-Semitism ( )?
GL: I didn't go. It wasn't, you know, I grew up here, and I really don't, and if there was anti-Semitism, and there may have been--. But my father was elected to city council. He was a city councilman. There wasn't another Jew elected to the city council until fifty years after my father and that was Al, that's Al Rousso, who's a fine, wonderful person. But it wasn't Jews who put my father in. The Christian people here voted for him. And I, I had friends who were not Jewish. I, I we, we socialized. I went with them. My brother had his friends. You couldn't have stuck just with Jewish people; there weren't enough of us. We were a small group. But if I, if there was anti-Semitism, and oh of course there're some kids that say things, but if you fought back they left you alone. I only had one, one time that I [Laughter] ever had a problem and that was when I was about, I must have been ten, ten years of age, and I was hungry. It was lunch time. We didn't have cafeterias in those days. We had a little hole in the wall of the, of this old, old Civil War building, which was our school, the D. H. Hill School, which isn't here anymore. And all you could do was buy a ready-made sandwich and a bottle of milk. That's all they had. Well I was late getting out of class, and I was so hungry. And all I had was fifteen cents for lunch, because the sandwich was a dime and milk in those days was a nickel. And that's all I had. So I went to get my sandwich and my bottle of milk, and all they had was a ham sandwich and a bottle of milk. And at that point I really didn't care what I was going to eat. I just was hungry. I wanted my lunch. I bought it, and I hadn't even taken a bite out of the sandwich when one boy who was about three or four years older than I-- he was a kind of a big heavy set chap-- came over to me and the ground was sandy. We didn't have grass on the ground. We were deprived, but we didn't know it. So he came [Laughter] over to me and he said, "Jews don't eat ham." Bang! He slapped the sandwich out of my hand, threw the bottle of milk the other way. There goes my lunch. I'm hungry. And I had red hair, and I was furious. I had a temper to match my hair. I remember I put my head down, and he thought I was going to cry. And he looked around at all the other kids to show them what a big shot he was, and I butted him in the stomach. And I knocked him on the ground and then I sat on him. And I pulled him by the hair. I held his head, and I slammed it on the ground. "Take my sandwich, will you?" Bang went his head. "Throw my milk away?" Bang went his head. Well they took three people to pull me off that guy, and when I knew I was being pulled off him, and I couldn't hold on anymore I bent down and I bit him through his cheek. He still has the scar. But when I went home crying to my father and telling him what this man, what this boy did, my father was a friend of his father's and he called him up and said, "Do you know what your son did to my daughter?" And I'll never forget what this man said to my father. He says, "Wait a minute, oh, wait a minute, Max. You should see what your daughter did to my son." And that was the only time in all the time I've lived in this town that I ever came across any overt anti-Semitism. It may be here, but I wasn't aware of it.
KB: Is that person still around?
GL: Oh yes, we're friendly. [Laughter] He, actually he was just a kid. I don't think there was a mean bone in his body really, but you know how children are. I think he just wanted to show he was, you know, a big shot. I was skinny in those days, and I was short and he--. And I was younger than he, and he was, you know, big--.
KB: When do you think the Jewish community began to define its own identity?
GL: Actually I think it didn't really come about until World War II.
KB: During? Before?
GL: No, just before. Well about say 1941, '40, '41, we got bigger. People started coming in because, you see, we had been--. I don't know if you know about it because you're kind of young, but we had what was known as the Tennessee-Carolina Games. This was before World War II, but we already knew--. I think Roosevelt was aware of the fact that we were facing hostilities. And so they had what they called war games. And they piled all these fellows in that were pulled in the Army for one year, and we got this influx. We started what was known as the Jewish Welfare Board. And the Jewish soldiers used to meet at the J. W. B., and Jewish families here would take them into their homes for weekends, so that the boys could get out of camp. And then they had dances for them and get-togethers. Well, you know, you give an influx of thousands of Jewish boys, and we hadn't seen that in many, maybe in ten years. It--, some of them decided to stay here. Many fell in love with Charlotte. And then of course after the war, they came back here. But I think a lot of the coming together of the Jewish community, the burgeoning--I think it's, that's the word--the burgeoning of the Jewish community really began right around 1940.
KB: I'll ask you one more question this is our last question ( )--.
GL: All right.
KB: What would you say to younger Jews about the importance of religion and cultural heritage? What thoughts would you like to pass on to help them maintain strong Jewish community identity?
GL: Well, I think basically, I think they should realize that being Jewish isn't just saying I'm proud to be a Jew, but living the pride. Being aware that we are people with a long history and a good history. We are the first people in the world that ever had ethics. Our ethics, Jewish ethics is something that we have given to other people in this world that are civilized. And we can be proud of that. We can be proud that our religion doesn't hem us in. We're not told you can't ask questions. I remember a rabbi once telling me that when he'd teach, when he would teach a group of boys who were getting ready for a bar mitzvah, if they didn't ask questions he was convinced they weren't listening. We are encouraged to think. Judaism doesn't say that you can't think. And that's not true of all religions. We're allowed to question. We're allowed to think for ourselves. We should be proud of the things our, our religion has given through our people to the history of the world, not just America but the whole world. And although we zero in because of the terrible, terrible things that have happened to us in our history. Not only with the Romans who took our people in 70 and took them to Rome as slaves and fed them to the lions and made slaves out of them. But all through history we have had trauma, we have had tragedy, but we have remained true to our beliefs. I, I, I, I think if we just zero in not only on the bad things because any people that go back 5,000 years are going to have some bad things in their history. If, if we can just zero in on the positive of what our religion is--. And I resent, I deeply resent anybody saying to me, "Well, I'm Jewish but I don't think much about it." I think we should think about it, and I think we should care about it. Care about it enough to treasure it and perpetuate it, not let it go. Because once, you know, I remember one man telling me when a Jew becomes an agnostic--. I don't mean an atheist, but an agnostic. He just accepts the fact that he was born to Jewish families, and that's it. When that happens we've lost not only that one Jew, but we've lost a whole further generation. And I think our religion is worth keeping and worth maintaining. This to me is a very, very serious and very deep and emotional thing. I'm not religious in the sense that some people are, I don't think. But I'm deeply, deeply committed to Judaism and to perpetuating it if I possibly can. I don't say I agree with everything. But then how many Jews agree with everything. You know and I know we're not the kind of people who nod and say yes when we really want to say no. If a Jew doesn't agree, he will say so. And that's the beauty of it. You can say it and still be a good Jew. That's my philosophy, that's my standards.
KB: Thank you very much.