On being Jewish

January 3, 2023

Dell Franklin, Jewish in California

Editor’s Note: The following series, “Life in Radically Gentrifying Cayucos by the Sea,” to be posted biweekly includes the notes, thoughts, and opinions of an original American voice: author Dell Franklin. 

Franklin’s memoir, “Life On The Mississippi, 1969,” is currently on Amazon.

By DELL FRANKLIN

On being a Jew, I’d say I’ve been pretty lax these past 60 or so years, as I haven’t been in a synagogue in all that time, except to deliver eulogies at my parents’ funerals. I get lost when discussing religion and was raised never to bring it up in any conversation in fear of insulting somebody. When somebody proselytizes to me about any religion, I quickly inform them I’m hopeless and at best an agnostic, or nonbeliever.

Still, I was raised by Jewish parents who both grew up in the Midwest amid virulent and, in my dad’s case, vicious antisemitism. And I went to synagogue, usually by force, resentful because it was unbearably boring and took me away from baseball, football and whatever else was on the agenda in blue collar, roughneck, Compton, California.

My father grew up in the 1920s and 30s in Chicago, the only Jew in an antisemitic German/Polish neighborhood. From little on, he and his sisters were called Kikes, Sheeny, Jew boys and Jew bitches, and yes, were spat upon.

Dad engaged in fights nearly every day. He was built for it and by 13 trained in a boxing gym that produced the great Jewish champion Barney Ross. By 16, Dad was an amateur champion under an Irish name because he didn’t want his parents knowing what he was doing.

You see, like in most Jewish families, plans were made for Dad to become a lawyer, doctor, dentist, or businessman. What they didn’t expect was a psychotic athletic competitor who received a football scholarship to the University of Illinois, and ended up playing for the Detroit Tigers in baseball’s major leagues.

At the beginning of his 17-year professional baseball career, Dad dealt with antisemitism quietly, until it went too far, and then pulverized a Nazi teammate who belonged to a Bund and repeatedly needled him with the usual antisemitic insults. Dad carved out his eye with his fists and the man never played ball again. He vowed no Jew hater would ever forget the beatings he administered them.

Dad despised the foolish stereotype that Jews were elitist intellectuals and money mongers who wouldn’t fight. “Your old man’s a fighting Jew,” he’d tell me, flashing his most murderous, soul-shaking glare, then wink, and grin.

Growing up with a father like this, and an extremely educated bookworm mother, a nurse and an Eleanor Roosevelt bleeding heart liberal who applied a scholar’s dedication to Jewish history, I was bombarded with the history of the Jews and especially the Holocaust. I was reminded constantly of a culture that produced people like Einstein and Oppenheimer, as well as media and entertainment giants and business titans.

This was already part of my identity and forced me to expect much of myself, or at least more than what most people supposedly expected of themselves, because I was a Jew.

In my mother and Dad’s families, their sisters and brothers insisted on marrying fellow Jews. Thus, I was attracted to lush Irish girls and voluptuous Italians. I was a full on jock and not one Jew lived in our neighborhood. I was an unmotivated student who had no interest in medicine, the law, or business.

I was not called a Kike or Sheeny or Jew Boy, but, rather affectionately, Herman.

At that time, being so young and obsessed with myself and sports, I failed to realize that when something tragic or disastrous faced the Jews, it became resoundingly obvious to me we were not necessarily a religion, or a race, or a nationality, but an historically tortured tribe, which was why, possibly, three months after my army discharge, I was at the Israel Embassy in Los Angeles trying to volunteer as a soldier for what turned out to be the Six-Day War in the Middle East in 1967.

Of course, they informed me I had to become an Israeli citizen and calmed me down by explaining they felt the war would be over soon in their favor, which it was.

But my inclination to end up at the embassy ready to fight for a religion I had not observed since I’d left home, reminds me of how I feel today, when the ugly cruelty and ignorance of antisemitism in the world and in the United States, especially, is again rearing its ugly and evil head.

After 55 years of utter stagnation, I am riled. Not about being suddenly fervent about my Jewishness, but of being a member of a people I respect and admire and yes, love, despite myself. Once a Jew, always a Jew. Like my father, I can’t read from the Torah during High Holiday services, but when I observe those gentle Jewish people who were shot down in that Pittsburgh synagogue a couple years ago by an antisemitic monster, I am a Jew.

And watching and listening to these survivors of that slaughter, and how forgiving and spiritual they are, brought back the civility and kindness, the warmth of the Jewish people I grew up with, and how if you are in trouble they rally around you and form a womb of comfort and safety that only a people who have been through what they have. can.

I recall, as a cab driver back in the late 1980s in San Luis Obispo, picking up at the airport a bearded man nearing around 75 who had a regal bearing and penetrating gaze. He was visiting a daughter. He sat in the front seat and talked to me in an accent, and when I asked him where he was from because I was a writer and very curious, he said Israel.

Dell Franklin in his cab

His name was David Kopenhaus and he was originally German. but had fought with the British in WWII. And then against the British in 1948 as a member of the Irgun terrorist organization in Israel, and again in the 1967 and 1973 wars against the Arabs.

He also explained he was not necessarily religious, and seldom went to temple. “I am more of a Nationalistic Jew,” he said, looking directly at me with intermittently piercing and kindly eyes.

But I knew what he meant. He had seen it all. And I guess he saw into me, too, because, when I dropped him off, he said, “I enjoyed talking to you—landsman.”

“How did you know I was Jewish?” I asked, because I hadn’t mentioned it.

“As an Israeli, we make it our business to know these things.”

Then he winked and we shook hands.

Remembering a person like this, and my mother and father, and what is currently going on in this country with the rise of antisemitism, I admit to being a proud Jew, ready to rally and rumble, if necessary.


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Seems to me that antisemitism is the ugly expression of envy for a people who honor those values that lead to success. I believe the most important distinction among human beings is not their race, religion, nationality, class, or sex; it is their behavior. There are only two races, the decent and the indecent, and in my opinion, antisemites seem to fall into the latter category. I’m not Jewish, by the way.


Different values most definitely lead to different results, but no is allowed to say one result is better than the other lol. As it truly is a matter of perspective. Spiritual success or monetary success? Who’s to say which is “better”. Thus the issues with religion, nationality, class, or sex relations. Simple yet complicated.


Cooperdog,


I do agree with your assessment of antisemitisim being an expression of envy. Sluggardism awareness might a good resolve to for the envious.