Commentary Magazine


From the American Scene: The Good Life in Fayetteville

In September when the autumnal haze descends on the cliff dwellings of the Bronx, and the temple seats go on sale for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I get the urge to buy a round-trip ticket to Fayetteville, North Carolina, seat of Cumberland County. I would be home for the holidays. Better still, I would be magically eight again, wading in Cross Creek and feeling red mud ooze between my bare toes.

As children we lived the Brotherhood of Man. Moses’ band of Israelites boasted two Gentile members, Ella Mae and Josie, who were saved along with the rest of us Chosen when the Cape Fear River, which walled our town, ebbed during the drought period, and the red clay bank could be used for continuous deliverances from Pharaoh. The difference between Ella Mae and Josie and the true descendants of our “Israelite tribe” only became apparent when the sun set on late Friday afternoons, and we had to cut short our play to hurry home for the Sabbath. Our gang trooped up the broad avenue of Hay Street to the rhythmic chorusing of:

“For I’m a Tarheel born
And a Tarheel bred,
And when I die
I’ll be a Tarheel dead!”

Invariably Ella Mae and Josie, the real Tarheels, were drowned out.

Born deep in “Yankee” territory, New York City, I only staked my claim on the Southland at the age of three. (Most of my Jewish friends, I daresay, were likewise conceived above the Mason-Dixon Line.) In that period of the early 20′s there were no more than twelve Jewish families in the whole town of Fayetteville. Not enough to create a stir. Certainly not enough to warrant a house of worship. Because this was so, when the Holy Days came the hat was passed around for contributions to hire the services of an itinerant rabbi. Naturally, pains were taken during the negotiations to conceal the fact that no temple was available. Time enough for him to learn this when he was duly committed to conduct services from a makeshift pulpit erected in a loft over McKeithan’s Drug Store. At least it was centrally located; smack in the middle of Hay Street.

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The years following the First World War were rich in opportunity for the man willing to gamble. My father was just such a man. When I was three he was a construction engineer engaged in building new barracks for Fort Bragg, N. C. His spare moments were spent appraising the town of Fayetteville some ten miles distant. It did not take long for my father to be convinced that Fayetteville was just the place for him to settle down in. So it was that my mother, older brother, and I found ourselves in this “camp town” many months before the camp barracks themselves were completed. The living-quarters my father secured for us were situated above an empty store, later to be known as the Bragg Bargain House.

When my father first strode the wide, pleasant streets of Fayetteville with calculating design he must have presented a poser to the townspeople. He was then in his early forties, tall and well-knit, with light brown hair still plentiful, a high forehead, and wide blue eyes that held a glint of mischief. At first glance he might have easily claimed kinship with the early settlers of Campbelltown, as Fayetteville was known in the year 1762. But the link with those Scotch-Irish pioneers was quickly dispelled the instant my father opened his mouth, by his unmistakable Riga accent.

According to my father, the business of keeping his gloves spanking white for the Ruler of all Russia was more than he could stand. It could well have been true: my father was incapable of any restraint.

When my father revolted against the Czar and the confines of his native village in Riga, he could hardly have forseen how far his rebellion would carry him. When my father deposited us in Fayetteville, population 8,000, he knew nothing of its historical background. To him it was just a one-horse town, awaiting my father’s magic business touch. I’m certain he never knew the town’s name was changed from Campbelltown to Fayetteville because of the impassioned Gallic oratory of a noted Frenchman—a Marquess de la Fayette—who once spoke from the balcony of the old Slave Market in the town square.

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The year I was rounding out nine my father conceived the idea of a low-priced bungalow colony. It was a capital idea, to borrow my father’s expression. He supplied the idea and a myriad of partners supplied the capital—a business principle to which my father was very loyal. Still, it must have had some merit. Property was bought high on a hill in the western portion of town, and broken into 60 by 75 lots; and my father’s knowledge of construction served him well. Within the year, moving vans were doing a rush job on Tager Terrace.

Like many a promotional genius, my father was hopelessly chained to vanity. One street of the proposed development had to bear his name or the deal was off. Alas, Tager Terrace, once a proud monument to a man’s ambition, is now Park Street.

My mother was, as always, chief victim of my father’s egotism. My father argued thus: Tager Terrace would be a meaningless street sign if the Tager clan did not reside there. Correct? Our presence there would have a reassuring effect upon some of the townspeople. Correct? My mother, however, was on occasion a total stranger to logic: “Lowie, please. Let’s stay where we are.” In moments of stress my mother invariably fell back upon her special interpretation of my father’s given name, Louis, with varying effectiveness.

Anyway, by 1922 we were firmly entrenched on Tager Terrace, conditioned to the mile and a half trip to town and friendly with our goyishe neighbors. That year was a banner one on many counts. It marked the time our first Jewish synagogue was erected. It was also the year one hundred percent rental showed on the books of my father’s dream bungalow project. The new synagogue and my father’s bungalow colony came to life simultaneously; the plaster on the new walls of the synagogue dried at about the same time as did the plaster in the shingle bungalows of Tager Terrace.

This happy coincidence developed one serious drawback when Rosh Hashanah came around. When it did my mother was equal to the occasion.

“Well, Louis,” she said, her normally gentle voice tinged with a metallic ring. “Feel like walking a mile and a half to the new synagogue?”

Louis said nothing for a few minutes, which in itself was unusual. Then my father let his deep blue eyes roam over me in a suddenly tender sweep.

“You know, Paulie, I don’t think Horty looks too well. You sure she’s all right?”

His voice, always rich and expressive, now literally throbbed with anxious undertones. All bogus, of course. To the best of my knowledge he never suffered one ounce of distress over me after the doctor told him to pass out the cigars. (Actually he had been preparing himself for another son, and when I materialized the smokes were given out with the air of a gambler down on his luck.) But my mother rose to the bait. My mother was sure that I, a healthy, overgrown youngster of nine, was far too fragile for the rigors of a foot march to the new house of worship.

Rosh Hashanah morning my mother, dressed in a manner calculated to dazzle the Lord and the women of the congregation, clambered into the front seat of our temperamental Essex. She shot one apprehensive glance skyward and another to the rear seat to insure my presence. After which she rode with my father, stiff and disapproving, to a clandestine spot midway down Gillespie Street. Here the car was parked. Rugged individualist though my father was, he was not bold enough to drive up to the synagogue door on Rosh Hashanah.

My father was, I honestly feel, just as good a Jew as the rest. The temple was important to him; placing a yamulke on his head and draping a tallis on his shoulders fulfilled some very deep need for him. Yet within sight of Beth Israel Congregation some few blocks down on Cool Spring Street my father drew me aside. He touched forefinger to nose in a characteristic gesture.

“Horty, when you get into shul remember to look tired. Mention a few times that your feet hurt from the long walk from the Terrace.”

I remembered.

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But the real excitement was in the wild Activity preceding the holiday. It was the kind of frenzy dear to the hearts of Northern manufacturers who sent their drummers to the deep South on a flying trip to cash in on the High Holidays.

The drummers could naturally expect nothing approximating a field day in the town of Fayetteville, boasting some twelve Jewish families. However, the surrounding towns of Raleigh, Greensboro, and Goldsboro more than compensated for a one-night stand in our town. I remember Mr. Kramer. This gentleman traveled out of Baltimore with a misses’ and ladies’ coat line. He stayed with us, cases and all, putting up with the unyielding springs of our Grand Rapids sofa in preference to the hospitality of the local hotel. My mother’s expert cooking had something to do with it.

My feelings towards Mr. Kramer were mixed. When he swooned over my mother’s food, when he passed around some much abused snapshots of his family back home, I could be fond of him. But when he palmed off a beat-up sample coat on me in the fateful year 1922, affection vanished.

“Kramer’s folly” was a royal-blue plush affair sporting a pseudo-ermine collar. My mother thought it was gorgeous, an opinion reinforced by the fact that it was a gift—a token of appreciation to the family from that homesick wanderer out of Baltimore. Mr. Kramer’s gesture was more than touching; that monstrosity of a coat left an almost permanent scar upon me. Such a coat required shoes befitting its grandeur. The low oxfords I favored were out of the question, so by dint of threat and force I was fitted for Betty Janes. It mattered little that the patent leather slippers added inches to my already over-large feet, even though they pinched my toes—I was to look like a proper young lady at least once a year.

It was a disastrous enterprise. Decked out in unaccustomed holiday frumpery and cramped toes, I was the image of abject misery. Besides which, though “Kramer’s Folly” bagged out ludicrously on my stocky figure, its ampleness disappeared without reason in the cut of the sleeves, which stubbornly refused to reach my wrists. A starched, orange-colored dotted swiss organdie dress, complete with wide sash, added the final touch to my get-up.

My mother, on the other hand, was a vision of loveliness in her New York styled gown and fur-trimmed coat. She was generally considered the best dressed woman in town during the holiday season, a reputation she held for a flatteringly long period. Behind this local conquest was the needlework of Mme. Helen, girlhood friend of my mother from the “old country.” When my father made annual trips to New York City for fill-in merchandise his first stop was always the workshop of Mme. Helen. She had a large, rambling apartment overlooking Central Park on 110th Street. She also had a thirty-eight form which made it possible for my mother to have her dresses run up without benefit of in-the-flesh fittings.

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During the high holiday dress-up period I must have been a painfully sharp thorn in my mother’s side. It was therefore merciful that I took leave of my parents when we entered the small vestibule of the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. According to custom, my mother found her place on the side reserved for the women of the congregation and my father made his way to the opposite side. I went up a series of stairs, two at a time, to the balcony where we children were expected to be seen but not heard.

Once separated from my mother’s finery, I found a new ground for resentment presenting itself in the remoteness of the balcony at the time when the Torah was removed from the Ark. Without clearly understanding why, the desire to be near enough to touch the honored scrolls as they were paraded down the shul aisles was powerful among us children. I would fasten my eyes upon the locked cupboard behind the raised platform, my view blocked at times by the Rabbi’s figure and the outstretched exhortation of his tallis-covered arms. But when the moment for the removal of the Torah came, I would lean forward on my folding chair with the nervous anticipation of a marathon runner, ready to sprint from the balcony when the procession began. Then the race was to the swiftest. I had long legs and could take the stairs ahead of the other children to get a vantage point. There I waited for the approach of the scrolls. They were beautiful to me, jewel-studded, clothed in gleaming white satin and brocaded with thick, gold thread. I reached out and brushed the Torah with two fingers, and neither I nor my friends would, under pain of death, consider washing the hand that had kissed the blessed scroll for many a day.

The week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was a fairly placid interlude, colored only by boasts of how long we children were going to fast on the Day of Atonement. (My mother felt that half a day’s abstinence from food was sufficient for me.) On this holiday there was no problem about transportation. My father engaged two rooms at the Lafayette Hotel directly across from our place of business, the Bragg Bargain House, for the Yom Kippur holiday. For this was the one day my father mustered up as much religion as the next man, with certain reservations. Naturally he fasted on Yom Kippur. And, equally naturally—for him—he sneaked in a cigarette or two behind the synagogue whenever he could manage it undetected. Very likely he made a bold concession to the Lord by not inhaling—only puffing.

When the weak rays of the sun set upon the roof of Beth Israel Congregation on the Day of Atonement the small band of worshippers were recalled from Mt. Sinai and emptied upon the synagogue steps of Cool Spring Street.

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But, alas, today the tiny shul in Cumber-Bland County is but a memory. I am a citizen of the Bronx, and I must confess the large-scale worship I meet on High Holidays and the strange faces make me shrink. Back home in Cumberland County I knew every officer of our synagogue by first name, and in Beth Israel Congregation a bronze plaque proclaims my father as one of the founders of its house of worship.

Assuredly the premise that God is everywhere, New York as well as Fayetteville, condemns my attitude as childish. Nonetheless, I have never been able to recapture the High Holiday spirit as I knew it in that small Southern town of my youth. Fayetteville now has 72 Jewish families making a total of about three hundred Jewish souls. Beth Israel no longer suffices—there is talk of a Jewish community center.

I dare say that were I to return now to the old home town, I should be as alien there as I feel in the houses of worship I have frequented these many years up North. Here, only the Yizkor memorial service brings me to a synagogue door. “Door” is quite correct because I have no seat for the High Holidays, and from the door I hear the voice of a strange rabbi and feel myself alone and a stranger among faces unfamiliar to me jammed into the house of God. I have a haunting feeling that under these conditions that rebel from Riga, my father, is not too well pleased with my Yizkor, for him. He would expect me to have a ringside seat, at the very least come September. But this is not Cumberland County—times have changed.

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