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Prompted By Family Myths

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The most significant story in my family, which has been passed down through three generations, is definitely true, not a myth, although there is one detail on which we are not all in agreement. It is not crucial to the story, fortunately, because at this point there is no way to verify who is right.

The story is about my father, who was born in 1909, got his bachelor's degree from Rutgers University in 1928 or '29, went to work as a pharmacist in the family drugstore, but wanted to be a doctor,

The story is about my father, who was born in 1909, got his bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in 1928 or ’29, and went to work as a pharmacist in the family drugstore. He wanted to be a doctor, so he applied to medical school, but did not get in anywhere he applied. He did this again the next year and the same thing happened. He continued working as a pharmacist, eventually taking over the drugstore, but he still had his heart set on being a doctor. He applied to multiple schools every year for nine years, and every year he got rejected from all of them. In those days, all applications asked for your religion as part of the required personal information. The tenth year, someone told him to write Lutheran on the application instead of Jewish, because all the schools had Jewish quotas. He took that advice, and that year he was accepted to Hahnemann Medical School in Philadelphia. He started there in the fall of 1939, when he was already thirty years old, and graduated in 1943. Immediately after graduating, he and my mother got married, which is how I can be so sure about what year it was.

The one detail that there is disagreement about is what religion he wrote on his application the tenth year. I am quite certain that he told me that he wrote Lutheran, because my first husband was raised Lutheran and his parents were devout Lutherans until their dying days. While I found the heavy dose of Lutheranism hard to take when we visited my in-laws, especially around Christmas time, it was made more palatable by my belief that the Lutheran church had unknowingly helped my father get in to medical school.

I know that my middle sister told her daughter that he wrote Unitarian on the application, because that’s what appears in a family history my niece wrote in middle school. I think my oldest sister thought it was some other sect of Protestantism. Of course it hardly matters, the point is that he was only admitted when he told them he was something other than Jewish. We all agree about that part, and are grateful to that friend who told him to lie about his religion, so that he could have a long and satisfying career as a doctor.

Postscript: My oldest sister, after reading my story, sent me the following information, of which I was unaware. “On many occasions he asked why he wasn’t admitted and was told that he lacked certain courses of a liberal arts variety (he had majored in pharmacy) so he took extra courses in literature or whatever. This did not change the result the following year.”

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Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    What a terrific — though upsetting — story, Suzy. And also amusing to the extent that the family myth gets blurred when it comes down to remembering exactly what religion your father claimed to be. The point, of course, was that it was something other than Jewish.

    I can particularly resonate to the story as I recall my father, also a Jewish doctor, explaining to my brother and me in a matter-of-fact style the 10% “quota” on Jewish students in many of the medical schools in the 30’s.

    Of course, your story has a happy ending — for your father and the family — but I am sure it is also fairly bittersweet, knowing the prejudice that he had to battle against year after year.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, John. I never actually knew what % the quota was. 10% seems higher than I would have expected, although of course any number would be offensive. When we applied to college, I’m pretty sure the form still asked for religion, but I don’t think there was still a quota, do you?

      • John Shutkin says:

        I think I heard the 10% figure from others besides my father, but who knows what exactly it was. The point is there was prejudice in the admissions process.

        And I think you’re right about the college application, as I have a vague recollection of trying to choose between Jewish and agnostic. And I can’t remember what I decided upon. But I don’t think there were still quotas. In fact, I remember joking with my roomies — whom you knew — that we were the standard-issue roommate threesome: an East Coast Jew, a West Coast Jew and an inner-city Black.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Terribly upsetting story, Suzy, but true to the times, and so revealing! We are pretty sure that my brother didn’t get into Cranbrook (Mitt Romney’s private school, and a very fine one it remains) due to the same quota system. And though I was a straight A student with extracurriculars up the wazoo, when I applied to Yale in the second year it accepted women, my board scores weren’t fabulous, but it was also suggested to me by the alum who interviewed me (and was very enthusiastic about me), that I’d have a better chance of acceptance if I weren’t Jewish. Needless to say, I was not accepted.

    I would say anti-Semitism is subtler now, but with Trump ascendant, not so much.

    • Suzy says:

      Wow, that’s shocking about your Yale interviewer! For two reasons, that he thought it was true, and that he admitted it to you. And yes, you are unfortunately right about Trump, there have been dramatically more incidents of anti-Semitism during this administration, although not in the academic realm.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    Wow, Suzy, this story was quite a reminder of how anti-Semitism impacted our parents’ lives. Your father deserves a lot of credit for persevering for 10 years to achieve his dream. It really speaks to his character.

  4. Marian says:

    An unsettling reminder, Suzy, about what life was (and may yet again be) like for Jews and minorities. My father went to engineering school at Cooper Union in New York, where there were no quotas, but had difficulty finding a good job after graduation. Many private companies did not hire Jews as mechanical engineers. After a stint at a government job, he finally got hired at a small concrete pipe company in New Jersey. The president’s name was Alan Hirsch, who was of German heritage, and I guess the HR folks thought Henry Hirsch also was German. As you may be aware, our local communities had a lot of housing redlining. When we moved to North Caldwell from Verona in 1964, we were only the second Jewish family there. We were told that our name helped my parents get the house, along with the fact that all of us had blue eyes.

    • Suzy says:

      Wow, Marian, that’s quite a story about your father too. Last names that don’t sound clearly Jewish are obviously a big help, which is why my father later changed his to something that sounded very WASPy. Please check out the new postscript on my story showing the hypocrisy of the medical schools.

  5. Marian says:

    Interesting about the excuse the school gave to your father, Suzy. Names did matter in this era. My original Romanian name was Hershcovici. My grandfather Max (see the story I posted a couple of hours ago) changed it to Hirsch to make it appear German so that he could work as a traveling salesman in the south without risking his life.

  6. Oh my Suzy, what a story about an inconvenient truth.

    Growing up in New York in a Jewish milieu I was unaware – or more probably foolishly naive – about the realities of anti-Semitism, especially in the generations before me,

    My mother went to New York’s Hunter College, and my father to NYU undergrad and then NYU medical school – schools that accepted generations of Jewish kids who didn’t make the quota at the Ivies and elsewhere.

    One positive consequence of the Jewish quotas however was the founding of Brandeis, my husband’s alma mater as well as Betsy’s, which is how Betsy and I met! And BTW, like my dad I went to NYU which has facetiously been called ”NYJew” !

  7. Marian says:

    Per Dana’s comment, fascinating about NYU. Jews went to City College when they had no money–I had lots of relatives who went there. My aunt went to Hunter, which was considered fancy at the time. There really weren’t any west coast equivalents to these colleges, with the possible exception of UCLA, given its location. When my former boyfriend’s daughter went there, it was called “Jew-CLA.” After my first year of college at Brandeis, it was a real change to go to Mills in California. There were about 15 young women in the entire school who were active in Jewish culture. I actually liked it because I stood out in a positive way. These days there are many more Jewish students there.

  8. Suzy, I’m touched by this difficult story for a variety of reasons. Frankly, being “half-Jewish” comes with its own set of prejudices on both sides, something I’ve dealt with my entire life. It’s a complex, and sensitive, issue and something I could write an entire story about. But in terms of names mattering, my granddaughters have Arabic surnames, in fact, names that could beg scrutiny under certain regimes. I worry for them. Thanks for a thought-provoking story once again.

    • Suzy says:

      Barb, thanks for your perspective. I would love to see the entire story you would write about the prejudices you’ve encountered. And I don’t blame you for worrying about your granddaughters’ Arabic surname, ironically that could now be just as problematic as a Jewish one.

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