Growing Up Jewish in 1950s Dallas
I don’t remember feeling more out of place than the evening, some 50 years ago, when my family and I walked into the Columbian Club.
|illustration by Artman
I don’t remember feeling more out of place than the evening, some 50 years ago, when my family and I walked into the Columbian Club. We had driven well beyond the farthest outreaches of North Dallas, down dark, unpopulated roads, only to reach an unspectacular ranch-style building that looked lonely under the glow of the summer moon. Because it was evening, I couldn’t see the golf course. I couldn’t see why anyone would build a country club in the middle of nowhere.
I had come, not because I wanted to, but because I was told to. My parents, my sisters Elizabeth and Esther, and I had come at the invitation of the family of Esther’s boyfriend. All this happened in the late ’50s. Esther was 15, I was 14, and Elizabeth was 8. We had moved to Dallas from the East Coast only two years earlier. Texas was still alien territory, and this country club, with its fancy décor and small army of black servants, was stranger still.
My discomfort went beyond the fact that I knew no one there. The deeper truth is that I had never been in the company of a large group of prosperous Jews. My family’s origins were the Lower East Side of New York City and the lower middle-class section of Newark, New Jersey. My parents had met as factory workers on Broadway. We moved to Dallas when my father became a traveling rep selling men’s hats. Then, as fate would have it, John Kennedy attended his inauguration without a hat, and the business went to hell. During those first years in Dallas, our finances were flimsy. So when my sister Esther, with her great intelligence and beauty, became our conduit to this world of Columbian Club Jews, I felt overwhelmed.
When we had arrived in Dallas two summers earlier, we drove around until we found a $15-a-day motel on Harry Hines Boulevard. We wondered why it was so inexpensive until we realized that “air cooling” was not air conditioning. We sweltered. We drove through the city looking for Mom’s one childhood friend from New York who lived off Hillcrest Avenue. On the corner of Hillcrest and Northwest Highway, I caught sight of a brand-new building whose architecture suggested the grandeur of a museum. It was Temple Emanu-El, where, a few months later, I would have my bar mitzvah.
My bar mitzvah was held not in the main sanctuary of the temple itself, but the small auxiliary chapel. The reason, of course, was that as newcomers our guests were few. Whatever the reason, I felt marginal. Jews were certainly marginal at Thomas Jefferson High School on Walnut Hill Road, which was as new as Temple Emanu-El. As opposed to Hillcrest High, where Jews had a strong presence, TJ was set smack in the middle of gentile country.
Unlike the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, territories that I knew well, there were no visible pockets of struggling Jews in Dallas. Of course they were there—my best friend Richard Freed, whom I met shortly after arriving, came from a background like mine—but we all seemed to live in isolation.
“Assimilation isn’t merely an abstract concept; for the Jews of Dallas it is an essential way of life.” The words startled me, not only because they were stated with such unquestioned authority, but because they summarized what I’d felt but couldn’t quite say. The man who said them was the unofficial public relations spokesman for Dallas Jewry in the ’50s and ’60s. His name was Sam Bloom, and he was my boss.
I came to Bloom the same way I had gained entree as a guest at the Columbian Club: my sister’s boyfriend’s family arranged the meeting. The head of an advertising and PR agency, Bloom saw that I had written for my high school paper and gave me a summer job. The job gave me my first taste of ghostwriting. After he explained what he wanted to say in a speech, I had to put it on paper. He was an in-demand speaker, and his thoughts about Jewish assimilation were made in remarks to the brotherhood of Temple Emanu-El, where he had once served as president. I was there that evening when, after his speech, a newly arrived member from Philadelphia asked, “Mr. Bloom, are you saying that our job is just to go along and get along?”
“Our job,” Bloom replied, “is the betterment of our community through the judicious use of influence, wherever and whenever we can wield it.”
Kennedy had just been elected. Desegregation was descending on Dallas, and, in an attempt to avoid any public disturbances, the Citizens Council, the businessmen who ran the city—all gentiles except for Stanley Marcus—asked Bloom to write and produce a 20-minute film that argued for the acceptance of racial integration. Walter Cronkite was hired to narrate a script I wrote. The film apparently worked. There were no disturbances, and blacks and whites, sipping milkshakes and eating grilled cheese sandwiches, sat next to each other at the lunch counter at H.L. Green across the street from Neiman’s.
Back at Temple Emanu-El, Rabbi Levi Olan, the fiery liberal who led the congregation, had questions about Bloom’s cozy relationship with the Christian establishment. Wanting to discuss a recent speech Bloom had delivered to a symposium on civil rights, he called the adman to his office. In my apprentice role, I tagged along. Both men were master orators. Both brimmed with confidence.
“Sam,” said the rabbi, “the moguls you represent downtown make it sound like desegregation is simply a bitter pill the city must swallow. I get the idea that if they could find a way to keep discrimination legal, they would. And when I hear you defending that position, I’m uncomfortable. As Jews rooted in Talmudic justice, we need to cry out against any moral outrage.”
“Levi,” Sam said, “we’re old friends, and I respect your intellect and your ethics. But what you must understand is that these men are not motivated by morality; they’re motivated by business. I’ve proven to them that railing against this coming civil rights movement will be bad for business. They respect me as a businessman. They’re under the impression that Jews are all good businessmen, so they take my advice and say, ‘Yes, we’ll accept the changes.’ As a result, rabbi, you and I wind up in the same place.”
Dallas, of course, was never the same after November 22, 1963. Because the civic fathers had been concerned about their city’s radical-right image, they’d turned once again to Sam Bloom to handle the public relations for Kennedy’s ill-fated visit. When the trip turned tragic, when Jack Ruby, who had changed his name from Jacob Rubenstein and moved from Chicago to Dallas to run a strip club, shot Lee Harvey Oswald, the presiding judge at Ruby’s trial, Joe B. Brown, shocked the press. With the purpose of helping him manage the media, he announced the appointment of a public relations man: Sam Bloom.
Behind-the-scenes management of civic image and ethnic identity would soon be a lost art. As the ’60s rolled on, Dallas Jews became more Jewish, blacks became blacker, Latinos more Latin. The get-along go-along era was over. If you wanted to be heard, you shouted. If you wanted change, you made waves.
But before this brave new world erupted, I followed the lessons learned from my public relations guru. At Thomas Jefferson High, I latched on to the crowd that was running things. I edited the newspaper, where any hint of religious or political controversy was avoided. I began a column about custom cars. I wrote about rhythm and blues.
I was confirmed at Temple Emanu-El, where Rabbi Olan’s sermons seemed more secular than sacred. I didn’t mind, though, because during those years, other sacred messages penetrated my heart. Those were the ones I heard at the Dallas Sportatorium at the corner of Industrial Boulevard and Cadiz Street. Every few weeks, the great black gospel stars appeared at the Sportatorium. On other nights, you’d be treated to the country-and-western Big D Jamboree or an evening’s worth of wrestling. It was the good-news gospel, though, that got to me.
I remember going to the Sportatorium with two high school friends. They were curious to hear the artists I’d been raving about—the Swan Silvertones and the Staple Singers.
“Look,” said one of my buddies, pointing to Pops Staples, “that black guy’s Jewish. He’s wearing a big Jewish star.”
“I’m Jewish, too,” I said.
My pal looked at me quizzically and said, “I didn’t know that. I’ve never known any Jews.”
“Well, you’re looking at one now,” I said.
But then when Pops’ daughter, the fabulous Mavis Staples, opened her mouth and, with unrestrained passion and earth-shattering conviction, started singing, “Jesus is the way, Jesus is the light, Jesus is the sweet sound in my ear,” I believed her every word.
Dallas pushed me in surprising directions—from Temple Emanu-El to the Bloom Agency to the Sportatorium—that, even at age 65, continue to inform my spirit and nourish my soul.
David Ritz has collaborated on the memoirs of, among many others, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and B.B. King. His most recent collaboration is with comic Don Rickles. He lives in Los Angeles.