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Interviewer: Carolyn Comai
Interview Date: September 11, 2018
Location: Pleasant Ridge, MI
Interview No.: 09.11.18-EG (audio digital file)
(Approximate total length 38 minutes)
Transcription: Yousaidit

Themes: Jewish Identity, Doctrine, Observance, Upbringing

Summary: Elwin was raised in an orthodox family who kept Shabbos and his father went to services weekly. His first memories of being Jewish were Seders. His parents came from Hungary, his family did not live in a Jewish neighborhood. After going to public school (Cooley High School) where he was one of a few Jewish students, he was transferred to Cass High School because of his art talent. While there was more diversity of student at Cass, he was shy and insular.

Example of citation/attribution:
Comai, C. (Interviewer) & Greenwald, E. (Interviewee). (2018). Elwin Greenwald: Jewish Journeys [Interview Index]. Retrieved from Jewish Journeys Oral History Collection of Congregation Shir Tikvah: /cstoralhistoryarchive


Note:  Counter index corresponds to track times when loaded into iTunes.


Interviewer:       This is Carolyn Comai. I am here with Elwin Greenwald, being interviewed at his home in Royal Oak, Michigan. Today is Tuesday, September 11th, I’ll review the purpose of this interview with Elwin that it will be public and access through congregation website and that you have agreed to participate and have signed the interview agreement. Do I have your permission to pursue this interview with you?

Interviewee:      Yes, you do.

Interviewer:       Thank you very much. Thanks for participating Elwin, let's start. I'm particularly interested in the early experiences, your family life, your religious customs that you experienced that helps you become the Jewish person that you are today. Can you share like your first Jewish memory that you have, was it a holiday celebration? Was it a home observance or just a custom in your home?

Interviewee        Well seder , of course I think seders as my earliest experience. Well, in our world, the Jewish was very, it was a big part of our world. So like the orthodox Jewish, Yiddish-kite, your Judaism isn't a piece of your world, it is your world. And everything else revolves around that. So as a reform Jew of today, we look at our life and our Judaism is a piece of our world. So that would be the difference. There wasn’t a specific event because everything was about Judaism, everything else went around it.

Interviewer:       So you were raised in observant--

Interviewee:      Orthodox—Lubavitch …one of those kind of things. But my mom came from, as she would say European Orthodox family, religious from Europe. She would say in other words, not Lubavitch, not the black hat, use different terms that they have now. Religion from Europe, Shomer shabbas. How do you say, I suppose now

 Interviewer:      Shomer shabbas, now I’ve not heard that identified as religious

Interviewee:      She was from Europe, that’s all she knew, shomer shabbas

Interviewer:       And your father as well,

Interviewee:      He’s Hungarian, like my mom, but his family was probably from a bigger city, Budapest, I believe. And they were more typical on here against where they weren't interested in religion so much. But he was very dutiful about it, he would go to shul, he would say yiskor on the days when the parents died. He would go to shul for the services. But if my mom didn't keep kosher, I don't think he would have cared. My uncle, again, the same thing, very dutiful going to shul on yom tov. But when, one year at the high holidays was, the Tigers were in the World Series and boy they came home on Rosh Hashanah to watch the World Series on the High Holidays, so they weren't as interested on being frum as my mom’s family was. Frum, which just means in German or Yiddish means religious. So you hear the word frum all that means just religious, German and --

Interviewer:       Religion really just intercepted with life totally and completely, then

Interviewee:      Friends of mine from high school, and paintings that I did, I look back at it now we have to do a painting of whatever was, what my painting was. We had to do an egg wash, we had to do a painting with using egg tempera. And my painting was, a Rabbi, it's like, oh my God, that was my subject matter. You know, rabbi was like on my God, that’s what my world was about. A 15 year old kid, like I couldn't have thought of something else.

Interviewer:       So you were 15, you were in the high school, going to Cass Tech

Interviewee:      In a totally removed world. So it could have been anything , I could have done apples, I could have done a naked woman, anything, you know, I was a six year old kid, I never thought anything, a rabbi was what I chose?!

Interviewer:       And, so that was maybe you were 15. Were you a freshman then at Cass Tech at that point I suppose? [Crosstalk] So, your grade school experience for you in school? Were you in school mostly with Jewish kids in a public school --

Interviewee:      Public school with a mix of kids. Some kids, some Jews. Some not. I'd rather, we didn't live in a Jewish neighborhood, more a mixed neighborhood where more of the people were not Jewish and on Saturday, when everybody cut their lawn, we didn’t. So we kind cut our lawn on a Sunday and no one else did. My brother wanted to join the baseball team from Saint Eugene's, you know, Catholic school. And of course they practiced on Saturday and my mother said, no, you can't practice on Saturday, that's like an odd thing, you know?

Interviewer:       Yeah. Because, I had suspected that you grew up in a predominantly Jewish area. So what area was that?

Interviewee:      Detroit

Interviewer:       Like what street?


Interviewee:      Cooley, so it was one block north of Seven Mile and one block west of Lahser. It was us and one other Jewish family.

Interviewer:       So I can picture the neighborhood. I went to Cooley as well, and I almost went to Cass tech. And you chose to go to Cass tech, and you had to be identified at that time I believe, and invited to enroll, to apply

Interviewee:      Teachers said to my parents, listen to the kid is good in art, recruiters for science, blah, blah, whatever it is. If they add, you know?

Interviewer:       Yeah. So that was quite an honor actually to be selected.

Interviewee:      It was more Jewish kids there.

Interviewer:       And then, did you know, know other Jewish kids when you went from like your neighborhood or from --,

Interviewee:      No, There was one family and we got along with them… we were the family that it was one family in every neighborhood block that kids gets picked from. We didn’t fit in, clearly we didn’t fit in. We were going up, it was in the late sixties and seventies but in our house it was in 1933, it was like the depression in our life. We didn't get the music that everybody listened to: Elvis Presley and the Beatles. We didn't listen to that. We used to Yiddish and opera and that's what my mother played all the time. Ironically, reminds me when I watched the video yesterday, on yomtov  at Shir Tikvah of (inaudible). Juliana had the best accent (inaudible) I'm not saying they weren't doing it, (inaudible) because what did we used to listen to all the time. I had a big reel to reel tape record Jewish music and Jewish comedians. I mean it's what we used to listen to.

Interviewer:       So that’s where yor love, your knowledge, your passion for Yiddish-kite  comes from, because I wondered about that. That was something I was going to ask early on, because that's such a big part of your life now. So that's really tough to imagine. I'm surprised because I really, really did think that you grew up in--.

Interviewee:      But he's Jewish.

Interviewer:       Yeah. So then how was that when you did go to Cass tech? He was,

Interviewee:      It was easier. Mixed people. Jewish, Jewish, black, white, rich, poor, rich kids from Palmer Park, Catholic kids, Jewish kids a big blend of everybody, was very nice actually. And gay too throw in the gay part--,

Interviewer:       That was part of your awareness at that point in time?

Interviewee:      Well, I knew something was different then I noticed. I just didn't know exactly what.

Interviewer:       Yeah. And so then did you connect with individuals there more so than you?

Interviewee:      No because was afraid of everybody, it was only one when Dale got sick that we reconnected with other kids from Cass tech that they said, Elwin, we had a big reunion a few weeks ago because we were all 60 so all of us got together. It was very nice but a couple of kids that we haven’t seen all this time, oh my God. Elwin, you're so funny, “you never talked. We always want to be friends with you. But you were so insular. You never said anything.” You were like off, standoffish, but you were just so quiet. And Dale used to say that couldn’t you be like that again once in a while.

Interviewer:       So Dale knew the story--

Interviewee:      But the kid never talked.

Interviewer:       How about at home? Where you more outgoing? Did you talk more --,

Interviewee        --I suppose, you know all those Jewish comedy things that, you know, that we used to listen to from 1912 so the other night we went to the Scafe’s for their Shabbos Friday night. So who's there? Josh Scafe and his wife Elizabeth and Marla and Art. So fine.  So me and Judith were talking about something, making some kind of joke from that radio show from 1911, the only ones who was laughing were Judy and me and Marla Scafe. Emilio, Catholic Spanish doesn't understand it, Josh Scafe Jewish, but too young. Elizabeth Scafe too young, Art not even Jewish. The only ones who were laughing was me and Judy and Marla Scafe, it was a riot.


Interviewer:       How did you come to be listening to Jewish comedy from 1909, at this  dinner party,

Interviewee:      Oh we were talking about some thing else and Judy and I knew the skits and were going through them by heart, and nobody got it. That's right. Just Judy, me, and Marla Scafe. Because if I really liked her parents, I could speak to Gloria in Yiddish and I liked that. I mean, I loved that!

Interviewer:       If I recall you really gravitated to people at Shir Tikvah since I've known you, who did know Yiddish and grew up with it and you had that common bond with a number of older people.

Interviewee:      And not just older people, Danielle (inaudible) who I took Yiddish lessons from, taught Yiddish at Columbia. My friend Miriam, and they’re frum, they speak Yiddish.

Interviewer         And so you took Yiddish lessons as an adult as well.

Interviewee:      From Danielle, and that woman that I mentioned to you yesterday, Arlene Frank who is Director of the Downtown Synagogue. I know her. She was in Yiddish class. Her name was Blooma, Blooma Frank. So I always loved the music, the culture, the food. We did it that one night, a movie night. We did a Yiddish movie night. We had the films. We had the food. It was huge.

Interviewer:       Yeah. Those themed activities at Shir Tikvah, I think were so much fun and were really phenomenal. Because you mentioned that particular movie night with a theme and also, the other word borscht (inaudible)

Interviewee:      Where you were saying we were (inaudible) sisters. Yeah. The Borscht-vile Babes, you were.

Interviewer:       We certainly were babes. Yeah. Well thank you for remembering that. That was a memory that I suppressed. But now you brought it back to life. So thank you very much, so you mentioned the food, Jewish food, so your passion, any kind of food, but it started with Jewish food. Did you cook at home?

Interviewee:      Well my mom do. My Mama did, my grandma did.

Interviewer:       Were you the sous chef or did you chop--

Interviewee:      --No, no they wouldn’t let me because I might mix up the dishes. And they were so petrified that we might mix up the dishes. We learned very early that we never have to wash the dishes after dinner because you know, It wasn't a big house. It was a little three-bedroom house. It was tiny. So we splashed water around. We were kids. Oh, oh, you’re splashing the water; you’re going to mix up everything, the flieshcih is going on the milk. The flieshcih [inaudible]. So we learned very quickly splash around a lot. “You’ll mix up the silver, you’ll mix up the silver, so I won’t be able to tell!”

Interviewer:       So you learned very early that to get out of washing dishes like the rest of the children probably in your neighborhood you had to do because I certainly did. And you were absolved of that.

Interviewee:      That part we didn’t do. She was careful about it. It was keeping kosher. She didn't want things mixed up in addition to put away into wrong and she didn't want that, you know?

Interviewer:       So did you go to a Jewish school?

Interviewee:      We didn't go to Yeshivah, but we went to afternoon Yeshivah school it's like you know a Nine Mile road part, you know the Hebrew, the chader, you know. But in the afternoon where they were all religious, religious, religious. So it was interesting. My growing up, my experience of going up as opposed to people my age. I used Dan as an example because we're so close in age. My growing up experience is more like somebody who who's first generation. My parents would have been from Europe but they weren’t, so most kids my age, their parents were American. My parents, even though they were both born here, you would have thought they were born in Europe.


Interviewer:       I see, so they both were born here?

Interviewee:      My Dad was born in River Rouge where Hungarians lived. My mom was born in New York, the New York, in lower East side. Both of them. (cross talk) But I think my, my paternal grandmother was born in Czechoslovakia and my mother and my aunt, maternal maybe I think in Hungary or Austria.

Interviewer:       How did they meet? Was it an arranged?

Interviewee:      Well deranged! My dad’s brother and his wife and my mom's sister and her husband went to the same shul. They called it the Blain shul you could ask Gloria Chatwick, anybody who will know about that is dead, except for me, They called it the Blain shul in Detroit. In those days they, shuls didn't have names. They called it the Blain shul. The Hastings shul. There were a lot of them. And that was a Hungarian shul. So they both went there to that shul. And then when they moved, that shul was subsequently called and became, Michigan Israel which is on Nine Mile in Oak Park. It is as run down as it ever was. Even when I went there and it was built in ‘52, maybe in the early part of Oak Park. It’s Lubavitcher, so So botch know, just religious kids.

Interviewer:       So, you went there and then how often was that?

Interviewee:      Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday,

Interviewer:       Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, three days a week

Interviewee        We didn’t get an education in Hebrew, and Israel, we learned, just religious, religious, religious

Interviewer:       the prayers, you memorized the prayers. Did you read them?

Interviewee: Of course, but even now I don't go to shul, don’t go to Shir Tikvah so much. We just say the Mourner’s Kaddish. We say the words, it's more a Modern Hebrew. They pronounce with a t sound and I pronounced with an s sound. So like Yisgadal, I say Yitgadal. They say, “What are you just off the boat?” Nobody pronounces it that way… always tease me because nobody pronounces it that way. Right?

Interviewer: Well I think it's really interesting

Interviewee: I’m proud of it actually.

Interviewer: You're not proud of it?

Interviewee: I’m very proud of it.

Interviewer: I know. That's what I'm, that's what I was just thinking because so many people I think to fit in to be even more accommodated in the modern practice, chose the more modern way as opposed to hanging on to that. The more traditional--

Interviewee: My whole life growing up I tried to fit in. And as an adult. I'm glad I don't have to fit in. You see the kids now, it's cool to be not nerdy but to be individualistic and have individuality. When we were growing up, individuality, it was not what you want and know my parents, When I was six or seven, I had to wear hand me down pants, they were nice, but it's like the styles were from 20 years back and they were nice and clean pants but I wanted bell bottoms, I want bell bottoms. I want to fit in. No, you can wear these clothes. They were from my cousins, they wore them so you can wear them as well. And then subsequently my brother did. Judy wore clothes from my cousins. The dress is from our older cousins just, that's what my parents did and that’s what we did.I want bell bottoms, bell bottoms, No bell bottoms they just didn't understand the concept of why would you want it, what do you need? The style? the style? All my life I had to fit in and I don't. Now I don’t have to fit in, it’s nice!

Interviewer: Were you ever able to get a pair of bell bottoms?

Interviewee: Yeah, we did. We got the money, snuck out of the house when I walked all the way to K-Mart and shopped and a pair of bell bottom.

Interviewer: You mentioned Dale.

Interviewee: Dave. Oh Dave. David, my brother Dave. Dale—I met Dale and he was talking about his grandmother. I said, wait a minute. Dale said his grandmother speaks English. What kind of language would she speak really, I know my grandparents don't speak English. I didn't know anybody like that, whose grandparents spoke English. I didn't know anybody like that.


Interviewer: Did you ever spend time in other neighborhood kid’s houses with or in high school?

Interviewee: Oh, yeah, my best friend Chris Vdanish, he was Catholic And Polish. It was very similar, His mother, she was cooking and cooking. I loved that.

Interviewer: So let's, when you mentioned cooking again, let's go back to your passion for cooking and your expertise as a chef. And you certainly did move beyond Jewish cooking, but that certainly is a huge portion of your repertoire.

Interviewee: When Yitzah Pearlman playing classical violin, then years back, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, he did an album called In the Fiddlers house. Here he is a classically trained violinist. Best in the world, kind of person and what was his passion, playing Klezmer. It was fabulous to hear him do that. It's like his blood. So that's like for me Yes, of course. The European cooking and French and whatever else, you know. But um, and where did you study French? I lived in the French Alps. And how long were you there? Eight months. Were there any Jews? No, No, That was a part of my life, I could care less about being Jewish. I didn't care about it at all. But that's not true. We went to Paris. It was Passover and I observe. No, no, it's Passover. I can’t eat this and I can’t eat that. After a couple of days, oh the hell with it. You’re in Paris, idiot, eat whatever you want, who cares.

My friend, who I’m seeing now.. saw a recipe [unintelligible] for French Pain , french bread. So it was called pain de Majorca, sweet, sweet, but they're like rolls, you know, and I'm going to make them for break the fast. I love finding the traditions and Spanish. We have Yiddish and they have the Ladino. And because he's not Jewish. Although his maternal grandparents are Jewish. So I told that to my cousins. Oh, he's Jewish. He's Jewish, maternal. Really well tell that to the cross. Well he actually wears a cross and a Chai. And the high former husband was Jewish. So now, he doesn't wear the cross anymore. He just wears the Chai. Sweet, actually.

Interviewer: So back to cooking, you were in France, you went to school there for eight months, eight months, and worked in first five star restaurant. And then you came here, then you came back. And then what? Then I came back and I became a chef. And then so you started your own journey then to your owning your own business and focusing, you don't, we don't, we shouldn't because, because the food that you make there, so much of it is Jewish…

Well the Jewish holidays, All that's true. So, as far as holiday celebration when you were young, because now the Jewish holidays are such a huge part of your life as far as the tradition and the food And all my friends who enjoy it. And that's a big part of it. And you are a fabulous entertainer. And you have wonderful parties.

Interviewer: So, what's your favorite Jewish holiday?


Interviewee: Succas & Peseach. I suppose Succot, now people in the modern world call it, but I don't know. So did you have a succah at home? No, my father wouldn't bother with that. So like now, with Tashlick. My mom always used to go to Tashlick on the Hudson River. We'd go to my bubbe and zeide and we walked down and really they lived farther up on the Hudson and we'd walk down there, make Tashlick with my zeide and my bubbe , she was home cooking. And then we used to do, you know, we did it this morning with Judy. You take the chicken and swing it over your head, which we did every year in the back of the Hebrew school. They had those chicken coops back there. In Oak Park. You can do that. What they call the shoclam pora Kappores? You can do it from the Yom Kippur.

We used to do the same thing with three coins and my mom would take three quarters and swing them around your head three times, say the blessing and then give the coins for Tzedukah. Of course it's more fun to do it with the chicken and put it on Facebook to all my friends who are vegan and vegetarian and interested in health. So, one year I took a package of Empire frozen chicken and then put it over my head and said does this count? Well of course, they laughed, but I have a beautiful picture of me with swinging that chicken, yes, from a few years ago, I can't find it. I'm going to find it, a very interesting picture.

Interviewee: You can do Kappores, Kol Nidre morning, Yom Kippur morning. And so, okay. So we do it together.

Interviewer: So I would like to be there and take a picture. So let's set a date to do exactly that. Okay.

Interviewee: The chicken or with coins? So I’m going to go there with my cousin, to a religious place where they do that with chicken. I’ll go there with my cousins and take a picture. But we can do it with the coins.

Interviewer: Well so, so we could, I do believe that part of this whole system here is that we can attach documents or photographs.

Very cool. I would love that it. You just don't see it in the non-religious world. You just don't see that kind of stuff. To us it was natural.

Interviewer: So tell me then or tell us that the significance of swinging the chicken or whatever, what happens?



Interview continues to 39:36

00:27:00 Continued discussion of koshering chicken, coins for Tzedukah

00.30:16 Passover preparations (changing of dishes, mis-matching of dishes, not elegant growing up)

00:31:21 Hardly had Hanukah, was nothing, a few decorations, no presents, fried salmon patties

00:32:42 In Israel, didn’t realize it was Christmas

00:33:23 Remembrance of Dale, who died between Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur; Liking of Shir Tikvah— Dale loved Shir Tikvah; Had Jewish wedding, then a legal wedding, about 15 years ago was Jewish wedding

00:36:30 Saw women on bimah with cepah on head—Cindy Silverman, holding the Torah—later he did the Torah blessings when Cindy did Torah reading.

00.37.35 On Sisterhood Shabbat, read “Woman of Valor” with Dale

00.38:33 “We’re frum, that’s just what we are”, said mother. Mother was one of thirteen kids. “His grandmother had a baby on the kitchen table every year, every year!”

00:39:36 END



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