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CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
The Reminiscences of
Columbia Center for Oral History
The following oral history is the result of a recorded interview with Cora Weiss
conducted by Ronald J. Grele on May 21, 29, June 5, 10, July 10, 16, and November 20, 2014.
This interview is part of the Cora Weiss Oral History Project.
The reader is asked to bear in mind that s/he is reading a verbatim transcript of the spoken word, rather than written prose.
Weiss – Session 1 – 1 Audio Transcription Center Session #1 Interviewee: Cora Weiss Location: New York, NY Interviewer: Ronald J. Grele Date: May 21, 2014 Q: [laughs] Suppose we begin with your birth. You were born in Sydenham Hospital?
Weiss: Sydenham Hospital in Harlem was a small, private hospital, which I think my mother found because she must have investigated pre-Google that they had the lowest infant mortality rate in the city, so there we were. And I always had a good feeling for 126th Street. Later, not too much later, when my own children were small, I became a volunteer teacher at PS129, which was not far from Sydenham. And that was a wonderful experience.
Q: Did you then live in Harlem, or— Weiss: No.
Q: —or, where were you living?
Weiss: We were married and moved into Greenwich Village, first apartment.
Q: Your father and mother moved to the village?
Weiss: Where were we living after I was born?
Weiss – Session 1 – 2 Q: Yes, when you were born, where— Weiss: Oh, when I was born.
Q: —were you living?
Weiss: I think they were living in Eastchester, which was the South Bronx.
Weiss: And moved—upward mobility from there.
Q: What do you remember about your father and mother? Let's explore them in a little more detail. Your father was an entrepreneur?
Weiss: He was. But he was also a tennis player, and he also had an eye for women. And my mother was a housewife, but soon became an academic. She was an orphan when she came to this country with her father, her mother died in childbirth. She was raised by various relatives, and they lived in the tenement section of the lower East Side, where the bathtub was in the kitchen with a counter on top of it. And it's now a museum for the Tenement Museum.
Q: Yes, the Tenement Museum. Right. Yes.
Weiss – Session 1 – 3 Weiss: Right. My mother was very active in Westchester County politics. She ran the Roosevelt for President office in White Plains. She drove a car. She was a very advanced feminist in 1936, '38, '40. And when I went to University of Wisconsin, she went back to college to Columbia University and got her doctorate in anthropology. She had actually graduated from NYU [New York University] as the valedictorian of her class.
Q: In French Literature, I read.
Weiss: In French Literature. And we had a wonderful bookcase full of the old French paperback books. They were all, for some reason, in a pale, pale yellow, or light tan, all the same color.
They spoke Yiddish at the table.
Q: I was going to ask whether they spoke Russian or Yiddish.
Weiss: Not Russian, but they spoke Yiddish when they didn't want us to know. And so, I picked up Yiddish as a child, or as a young adult, most of which I have forgotten. No practice. My father was home for dinner, and probably not home for dinner more than he was home for dinner. But we had weekends, a lot of weekends, together. I have very fond memories, and I became very close to my mother because they got divorced, and it was not terrific. Then he got married, and then he got married again.
Weiss: That's where it leads— Q: —how that played itself out.
Weiss: —led to. Played out. Played out in three wives.
Q: [laughs] Oh, God!
Weiss: My mother was stunning, I thought, but— Q: Did you continue to have contact with your father?
Weiss: Oh, yes. Sure. But we were not as close, I think, it's fair to say, as I was with my mother.
My mother stayed alone, and he had company, so— Q: [laughs] I sent you a copy of this terrible right-wing college thing that says that your father was a member of the Communist Party when he was a young man?
Weiss: We have no evidence of that.
Weiss: Not once.
Q: That's the only reference I ever found to anything like that. I don't know where they dug it up.
Weiss: Well, then, you don't have a very good eye, because Wikipedia is full of it.
Q: Is it?
Weiss: I must say that I can't bear reading those things, because they are wall to wall lies. It's not the only lie in what you gave me. There are paragraphs full. They get transplanted without change from website to another, and you can find them in too many places. And they're very upsetting to me, because I tend to be a stickler for the truth and for accuracy. Truth is harder.
Q: Accuracy— Weiss: Accuracy is better.
Q: Nice distinction.
Weiss: Well, there is.
Weiss: I mean, what's true for me may not be true for others.
Q: In a couple of bio sheets that you sent me, you talked about being the victim of anti-Semitism when you were young. Was that in the Bronx, or was that in Westchester?
Weiss: It was in Croton-on-Hudson.
Weiss: Where my mother wrote her PhD thesis and coined the phrase, rurban. R-U-R-B-A-N, rural and urban. And her thesis was on the three tiers of Croton, and especially the lower tier, who were the Italian immigrants that came from Southern Italy, Catanzaro, Cosenza, and came over as brick layers. And many of them helped to build the famous Croton Dam. There, the lower village was Catholic, the middle village was Protestant, and the upper village, where we lived, was largely, but not exclusively, Jewish. So it made for a very interesting thesis. One of the problems that we faced was trying to erase differences between us as children in the school, and the other children in the school. One of the differences was that they all walked to school.
So, we were told to walk to school. It was two miles downhill. Going back was another question.
But when we passed the Catholic church in the mornings to go to this public school—it was a WPA [Worker's Project Administration] school, a famous program of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Weiss: It was a WPA school.
Weiss: We're talking about 1939, 1940. So, when we passed the Catholic church in the morning, little boys—I mean, they were kids—would stand on the steps of the church and throw stones.
It's something that has remained with me.
Q: Do you recall what you did as a result? Did you talk to your mother, did you— Weiss: We kept walking to school.
Q: Any complaints to the school officials or anything like that?
Weiss: I don't know. I mean, I just don't remember, if there were.
Weiss: I'm not sure they would have gone very far.
Q: Zero? They weren't particularly Jewish, or religiously Jewish?
Weiss: No. Jewish we were; religious we weren't. Big difference. We celebrated the holidays, we spoke Yiddish, we did Pesach and Purim, and our friends were both Jewish and non-Jewish. We had a lot of friends from both villages—the Protestant village and the Catholic village—but we didn't think of them that way. The family who had the cleaning store that did our cleaning were the Ginos and Guarneris, as I recall. I'm always surprised when I recall. They became very good friends, partly because my mother took me and my brother to Italy with her on a research trip, to help her with her thesis. I wonder if that was her thesis, or a paper that she did? It was probably both, a paper that she did for college, for university, that grew into her thesis. So we went to—do you know the book, Christ Stopped at Eboli?
Weiss: Carlo Levi?
Weiss: Well, that was one of my earliest books that I remember as a young person in school.
Weiss: Yes, of course. We went south of Eboli.
Q: South Eboli, yes. Oh, yes.
Weiss: In the olive district, olive growing. That was important. I mean, we were exposed to the world as kids, when I was in ninth grade, I think. I took my first trip on the Experiment in International Living to England, and we walked the Cotswolds— Q: Cotswolds.
Weiss: Cotswolds. The Cotswolds through England, and played darts in the bars and the pubs.
That was an important first early international experience. The next year, I remember going to France. We were counselors in a summer camp for the children of Algerian trade union workers, the Syndicate. The camp was in a village on the north called Oaplage, and it was run by a woman whom we called the main de fer, the Iron Handed Woman. But it had helped my French, and— Q: Now, who arranged that? That would be the Experiment your mother— Weiss: My mother. The Experiment, yes.
Weiss: They put us out on the boat early in life.
Q: And they put you in the training for the Algerian kids?
Weiss: It was a summer camp. It was like being a counselor— Q: It must have had a progressive tinge to it.
Weiss: If it did, that did not get to me. What got to me was the terrible discipline that this woman administered to the children. I felt that was terrible.
Q: When you say your family life was not particularly religious, what, then, stood in for religious in terms of just ethical ways of living— Weiss: Well, ethics.
Weiss: When we left Croton, I was in the ninth grade, I guess. And my mother looked for a school for us to go to. And she found Fieldston, which is an Ethical Culture School, but she liked it because they had a potter's wheel, and she thought that was very creative, and it would be wonderful if her children could learn pottery. Instead, I didn't learn pottery, but I learned about ethics. That was very, very important. Algernon D. Black, who was one of the main theoreticians of ethical culture, was my ethics teacher. Once a week, we sat in his room and had extraordinary conversations. That, I think, was a very important influence in my life. I've never been able to understand how two or three, maybe four at the most, alums who graduated with me have become very far right-wing. What was it about their ethical culture education that didn't stick?
Why didn't it stick with them, if the rest of us are normal, good people? [laughing] Q: What was the curriculum? Was it a fairly standard curriculum? History, English, algebra, et cetera?
Weiss: Well, standard is one way of putting it, but we didn't have teaching for testing. We had lots of participation, and we had terrific teachers who could have been, and maybe eventually were, professors in universities. My history teacher was a man named John Anthony Scott, Tony Scott, who only taught using original texts, original documents. He also was very interested in folk music, and used folk music and culture as a way of teaching early American history, for instance. He also played tennis with my husband, later. I think he was a teacher for our oldest daughter. So he stayed there for a long time.
Weiss: Fieldston was important. It probably planted the first seed for feminism for me, because I remember I ran for president of the school, and so did possibly two other young men in my class.
And all the young women voted for the handsome man. So that was a lesson, lesson number two.
Q: You didn't expect them to?
Weiss: It didn't occur to me— Q: Yes.
Weiss: —I think. It would be a fair way of putting it. But it happened.
Q: You were active in the student body, student clubs?
Weiss: Probably, yes.
Q: No foreign members?
Weiss: I remember that basically the only African American faces in the building were the porters, the cleaners. I do have a photograph where I'm talking to one of them. I don't know what we were talking about, but I imagine it had something to do with, “How come you're not in a
became a brilliant—I think she's a mathematician, and the other, sadly, committed suicide, I think probably because he was gay. But when I mentioned this to a young woman who interviewed me for her senior paper at Fieldston a few years ago, she commented that the situation has not changed, that they've noticed the same thing, which is sad. But then there was a— Q: The homophobia, or the women— Weiss: Oh, homophobia we didn't talk about, I don't think. But it was about the lack of diversity.
Weiss: Which is not just a racial issue, it's also a class issue.
Weiss: But there are scholarships, and there could be more, probably. But the front page of the New York Times Sunday Magazine section, the cover, ran a story a few weeks or months ago about two kids, one from Fieldston and one from a school in the South Bronx. The South Bronx teacher came to Fieldston with a proposal to link the two classes and find where the kids had
was the most brilliant thing that could ever happen. I was thrilled that it was picked up by The Times magazine cover.
Q: I got all the stuff about your father's philanthropy. Were you at all aware of that when you were young?
Weiss: I can't say how old I was when I became aware of it. I can't remember. But generosity was part of living. I don't remember his giving specifically. But he did start a foundation, I think it was started in 1949, although if you look it up, it says '50-something. I'm pretty sure it started in '49. And it was just he and my mother as officers.
Q: Fifty-nine. The Rubin Foundation, 1959.
Weiss: Well, I have the incorporation papers. [laughing] Q: Well, again, I got those off the Internet.