She was the smartest woman I have ever known, but she could flirt with the best of them, batting her eyelashes and putting on plenty of Southern charm. That was my grandmother, Mama Bea, who was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1904, and who died in 1996 at the age of 91.
Mama Bea loved reading, travel, and the arts. She was intellectually curious, deeply committed to social justice, remarkably willing to serve a cause as well as to direct it. She had little interest in fancy clothes or furniture. Mama Bea spent her money on books, travel, art and social change philanthropy. At 91, struggling with liver cancer, she ventured out into the coldest Chicago winter weather when others cowered under blankets. She believed in living each day to its fullest: she had things to do, places to go, people to see.
Her courage was more than physical: she had the courage of her convictions. Passionate about social justice, she did not stand on the sidelines. If a cause mattered to her, she dove in wholeheartedly, attending rallies, volunteering for Board service, arranging meetings, and organizing fundraisers.
I did not know my grandmother until the last third of her life. I remember her as incessantly busy, a voracious consumer of the arts, a lifelong learner, and endlessly active in one liberal social cause or another. An excerpt from one of her letters captures the indefatigable Mama Bea:
"The Fall season is full of concerts, theatre, lectures and other goodies. I'm not involved in any big job right now – just several smaller volunteer activities. So, I've time for lots of reading, which is joy #1 when I'm alone…. There's a group of women in Chicago who are trying to bring "The Dinner Party" to our town…. I went to one meeting and am invited to a reception for Judy Chicago next week. Next Saturday there's a dinner for the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights, with an old friend from the South, Reverend C.T. Vivien as speaker. The following week, I'm going to a weekend seminar on De Tocqueville…." [October 1980]
While the details of her story are unique, on a larger level, hers is also the story of countless women and men who contributed to social change in this country. They did not run major organizations or stand for office, but stuffed envelopes, worked on political campaigns, convened meetings and wrote checks. They were not generals, but my grandmother and others were lieutenants in the army pushing for civil rights for African Americans, decent working conditions for blue-collar employees, and a progressive American foreign policy.
Beatrice Holtzman, like her older brother Lawrence, was born in Atlanta. Her father, Abe Holtzman, owned a small jewelry store on Broad Street in Atlanta. Emma, her mother, worked the sales counter while he concentrated on watch repair. Abe was reserved, working all day and then returning home to spend the evening alone reading. Emma was extremely outgoing and made friends easily. She charmed the customers at the store, and then spent evenings playing poker or strolling up and down the street talking to neighbors as they sat on their porches taking in the night air.
Mama Bea was a combination of both personalities. Like her father, she spent endless hours alone reading The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and two or three books at a time. My grandmother also inherited her mother's friendly and warm manner. She could hold a substantive conversation with anyone simply because of her genuine curiosity about the lives of others.
My grandmother grew up on Richardson Street in Atlanta, in the only Jewish family among many Irish immigrant families. Her family was poor, but, given outrageously low wages, still managed to follow white Southern practice and employ two African American servants – a nanny and a cook.
Her main social circle consisted of Jewish friends, all from families wealthier than hers, whom she met through religious school. Perhaps growing up poor while surrounded by rich friends contributed to her empathy for the oppressed.
According to Mama Bea, she encountered very little overt anti-Semitism during her childhood. Still, the Leo Frank lynching did touch her. In 1913, when Mama Bea was nine, Frank was found guilty of raping a white teenage farm girl, Mary Phagan. Frank was sentenced to hang, but in 1915 Georgia's governor commuted his sentence to life in prison. Two weeks later, a mob abducted Frank from the state prison farm. Shouting "Hang the Jew," they hanged him from an oak tree until he died.
Mama Bea remembered her parents speaking in hushed tones of these events so "the kinder" would not hear. Yet nine-year-old Bea read the paper cover to cover each day, and knew every detail of the case.
Mama Bea always said that her childhood attitudes toward race reflected the prejudices of her community, where segregation and the second-class legal and social status of African Americans were the norm. She remembered celebrating the Southern version of Memorial Day on April 26 by placing wreaths on the graves of Confederate soldiers.
Nonetheless, her interest in social issues and activism seems to have started in Atlanta. At Girls' High, she mounted an unsuccessful bid for student government president, sharpening her formidable debating skills at student assemblies.
Mama Bea loved the intellectual challenges of high school, and she would have loved to go to college. Yet she turned down her cousin's generous offer to send her to Stanford because her mother wanted her close to home in Atlanta. After high school, Mama Bea continued to live with her parents and worked as a secretary and then copywriter for an advertising firm. After World War I she became involved in the peace movement, the push to disarm, and in the movement to create a League of Nations, attending and speaking at rallies.
At that time, Southern Jewish communities offered many opportunities for young, single people to socialize. In the mid-1920s, her older brother's friend, Louis Kaufman, became her most important beau. Apparently, Louis proposed regularly; she regularly told him she was not ready for marriage. Family legend has it that Louis asked Bea one last time, challenging her to take a chance on marriage or stop seeing him. She consented to marriage. In 1926, she moved to Montgomery, Alabama to start the next chapter of her life.
Mama Bea's early days in Montgomery were a time of luncheons and teas, parties, events at Montgomery's Standard Club and family gatherings. In 1927 Mama Bea gave birth to Betty. Sam and my father Larry followed in 1929 and 1931. My grandfather worked as a salesman for the wholesale grocer Schloss and Kahn, while my grandmother settled into motherhood and managing a home.
Domesticity did not remain Mama Bea's focus for long. Eager to get involved in the larger world, she joined the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), and worked on immigration issues. In the early 1930s, she became one of the youngest representatives to NCJW's National Board.
Although my grandmother was never religious, the Jewish prophetic tradition inspired and informed her commitment to social justice. In the mid-1930s, her synagogue hired a new rabbi, Ben Goldstein. His clear vision and courage helped to focus Bea's energies on social justice. Goldstein preached that one could not speak of social justice and then stand on the sidelines when the limits of fairness were being tested. Challenging local racism and strong anti-union sentiment, Rabbi Goldstein helped develop a sharecroppers' union, and both my grandparents joined in his efforts, raising bail money for labor organizers. My grandmother credited Goldstein with "making a radical" out of her.
In 1931, when the "Scottsboro Boys" – nine Black teenagers – were wrongly convicted of rape and sentenced to death, Goldstein openly and passionately advocated on their behalf. Mama Bea joined the committee of support. The Scottsboro case brought plenty of attention to sleepy Montgomery. National leaders of the early civil rights movement trooped through town, as did journalists from progressive publications such as The Nation. Many of these leaders and journalists ended up camping out at my grandparents' house or the houses of their small circle of progressive friends.
Rabbi Goldstein's open support for the Scottsboro Boys disturbed most Temple Beth-Or members. Montgomery's mayor threatened trouble if Goldstein continued to call attention to the injustices of the Scottsboro case. Afraid of losing business and broader community acceptance, a majority of the synagogue board began to push for the Rabbi's resignation. Only my grandfather and one other board member stepped forward to defend Rabbi Goldstein.
Mama Bea stayed true to Rabbi Goldstein's lessons and continued to work againstinjustice. In the late 1930s, while serving as Legislative Chair of the Federation of Women's Clubs, she fought to secure women the right to serve on juries; in the 1940s she and my grandfather joined an interracial group working toward civil rights. In 1940, she made her first of many trips to the progressive Highlander Folk School in Mount Eagle, Tennessee. This is where she first heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak and met Rosa Parks. In the 1950s her association with Highlander earned her a place on the FBI's list of suspected communists and leftists.
While my grandmother cared deeply about the struggle for racial equality, she never took a leadership role in the fight. She was a behind-the-scenes supporter – raising and donating money, attending discussion groups, sponsoring parlor meetings. Playing this role may have been her concession to the reality of the time and place in which she lived. The grocers and restaurant owners who purchased goods from my grandfather would have abandoned him if he and his family came to be known as "agitators" on questions of race.
From 1939 until 1945 my grandmother also worked for the Council of Jewish Federations as a field organizer for nine Southeastern states and then as an administrative assistant. In 1945, she became circulation manager of the liberal newspaper The Southern Farmer, a position that brought her into contact with many progressive activists and Washington insiders.
Her work with The Southern Farmer also had a profound influence on her personal life. On a 1948 trip to Chicago for that paper she met Harry Schneiderman, the love of her life. The two spent a whirlwind weekend getting to know each other, and Harry asked her to leave her family and move to Chicago with him. She returned to the South, struggling to decide what to do. Her father pressured her to stay in her marriage. For perhaps the first time in her life, she followed her heart and moved to Chicago, leaving behind her husband and seventeen-year-old son, my father.
I have always had mixed feelings about this chapter in my grandmother's life. Her actions deeply hurt many people I love – my aunt, uncle and father, and most importantly, my grandfather. Nonetheless, I have regularly marveled at the courage that it must have taken to leave her husband and children to run away with her lover.
Mama Bea described the years from 1948 until Harry's death in 1964 as her happiest. The couple lived in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, close to the University of Chicago. Mama Bea kept busy raising her two stepchildren, visiting her daughter Betty in Philadelphia and entertaining her sons' college friends from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. She had always reamed of traveling and Harry made this dream a reality, taking her to Paris, Mexico, western Africa and all over the United States.
My grandmother took advantage of the courses and lectures available at the University of Chicago. She also continued to work for racial equality and social justice. She was a Founding Board member of Urban Gateways, a local organization devoted to exposing inner-city children to the arts. She worked on political campaigns ranging from Adlai Stevenson's run for President to Eugene McCarthy's campaign.
In 1964, Harry died of heart failure. Although Mama Bea was crushed by this loss she kept herself busy to avoid wallowing in self-pity. After the first period of mourning and putting Harry's affairs in order, she began a stepped up itinerary of travel – traversing Europe, Africa, and Asia and sending her grandchildren postcards from every corner of the globe.
Her studies, her travels and her tireless intellectual curiosity sustained her progressive political philosophy. She insisted on being open-minded, on being willing to re-examine her assumptions and to keep learning and growing. She had as little patience for doctrinaire leftists, who simply swallowed a theory whole and never struggled with its inconsistencies, as she had for rabid right-wingers. She preferred the company of those who shared her worldview. However, she respected those with whom she disagreed for standing on their principles, as long as those principles did not harm others. The only people for whom she had contempt were those who refused to take a stand.
My grandmother was a remarkable woman. She could have chosen the conventional path and settled into a genteel middle-class Southern existence. Instead she engaged publicly in the issues of her day, learned and read all she could, and traveled widely. She taught us to live each day to the fullest, to open ourselves to new ideas and experiences, to take risks, and, most importantly, to stand up for what we believe to be right and fair. Hers is a very rich legacy.