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Leon Bruer z"l

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Interviewee: LEON BRUER

Interviewer: Lawrence Boocker
Interview Date: June 25, 2019
DOB: 8/24/1939 Place of Birth: Ferndale
Location: Troy, MI
Interview No.: 06.25.19-LB (audio digital file)
(Approximate total length 25 minutes)
Transcription: Yousaidit (DS), Fiverr

Themes: Jewish Identity, Upbringing

Summary: Leon Bruer did not know that he was Jewish until he was age 28. His parents were German Jews who migrated to the US in the late 1920’s and decided not to practice Judaism. Thus he did know very much about his Jewish heritage other than that he was a Jew by matrilineal descent. His son, Matt, became interested in Judaism. Then Leon and his son started a course of study about Jewish religion at Congregation Shir Tikvah.

Example of proper citation/ attribution:
Boocker, L. (Interviewer) & Bruer, L. (Interviewee). (2019) Leon Bruer: Jewish Journeys [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from Jewish Journeys Oral History Collection of Congregation Shir Tikvah:



[00:00 silence]

Interviewer:   The name of the interviewer is Larry Boocker. The name of the interviewee is Leon Bruer. Today's date is June 25th, 2019 and we’re in the library at Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy, Michigan. I've explained the project and you've signed the consent to this public interview. Is that correct?

Interviewee: Correct.

Interviewer:   Thank you. Okay. So, let's get started. Lately you've been coming to services here and I have the impression that there was a long time when you didn't go to Jewish services. Is that right?

Interviewee:  Well, correct. Yes.

Interviewer:   What is it that's bringing you here after all the years away?

Interviewee:  I think I kind of had a feeling that something was missing in my life for many, many years and so did my son, Matt. We had this background, we knew we were Jewish, but we had come from an unusual background. I didn't know I was Jewish until I was 28 years old. I didn't have not have any kind of a traditional Jewish upbringing. Matt had the experience also knowing that he was Jewish for many, many years and not doing anything about it.

I think it just kind of simultaneous occurred to him and myself at pretty much the same time that maybe that would be a good idea now. Maybe it was time we really did something about our heritage. That brought us here.

Interviewer:   Well, before we get more into the background, do you feel that what you found here is meeting the need that you felt?

Interviewee:  Yeah, I think it is. It's helping us become aware of who we are and what we are. I think Matt and I are both finding it very beneficial to be involved with the synagogue here.

Interviewer:   What does it mean that you're on this journey along with your son instead of just doing it as an individual?

Interviewee:  I'm not sure exactly what that means other than there was synchronicity in the time or synchronicity in the time element. We both came to a point where we got this idea that it was time to do something. I think the fact that there were two of us and we both felt the same way made it easier for us to do it. It certainly did in my case.

Interviewer:   Did it help your comfort in exploring new things?

Interviewee: Yeah. There was always a little bit of a discomfort to go somewhere and meet people that you don't know how you're going to be accepted. You have a kind of an unusual background and you don't know how that will work. I think there was a little bit of resistance from that kind of thought.

Interviewer:   You've been participating both in the religious services, the prayer services, but also in the study groups.

Interviewee:  Yeah. That's very much -- we enjoy that part very much.

Interviewer:   The study groups?

Interviewee:  Yeah.

Interviewer:   You feel that that's more of what was missing from your life than the prayer service?

Interviewee:  Well, I wouldn't necessarily say more but certainly equally. To have an understanding of the Torah and I haven’t been doing it that long a number of weeks, but already I feel a much better understanding of what it is and why it's important to us to take time to study it.

Interviewer:   You know what, let's go to that time you said you were 28 when you found out that you were Jewish. You had no idea previously?

Interviewee:  No, I really didn't have it.

Interviewer:   How did that come about?

Interviewee:  To just give you a quick recap of history to kind of understand how that could have happened. My ancestors were all from Germany and they decided to leave Germany in the early 1900s somewhere, where once things got bad there for Jews, they migrated to the United States. And because of their experience there, they were fearful of letting their Jewish identity be known when they came here for fear they might encounter the same kind of thing kind of thing here.


Interviewer:   Could you give me an idea on what years we’re talking about?

Interviewee:  I couldn't give you exact. My perception of it was probably somewhere in the late ‘20s.

Interviewer:   Just before the Nazi era, but at a time of rising anti-Semitism?

Interviewee:  You could call it just before depending on how you reckon time. It was a few years after that before the Hitler thing came along. For many, many years before then things were bad for Jews in Germany. Hitler didn't necessarily make that -- well, in some ways he made it much worse, but in other ways, he just capitalized on it to get power.

Interviewer:   This is both on your mother's side and your father's side? They were both German Jews who came at roughly the same time?

Interviewee:  Right.

Interviewer:   What did they do when they came to America? Let's talk about it in terms of settling and occupation first.

Interviewee:  They were pretty much laborers in the beginning. They found themselves at trade and earned a living basically.

Interviewer:   Did your parents talk to you about their experiences at that time?

Interviewee:  No, obviously, when I was 28 years old was the first time I got any inkling about that background.

Interviewer:   They completely abandon their Jewish identities. They didn't let people know they were Jewish or --?

Interviewee: Correct. I think there was some level of hidden practice, but I don't know much about that.

Interviewer:   Would they just stay secular or were they trying to pass as Christians?

Interviewee:  They played at passing as Christians. In fact, when I was a youngster, they worked very hard on trying to make a Lutheran out of me. It didn't work, but they tried.

Interviewer:   So, they were churchgoers?

Interviewee:  Well, no, not really. Once in a while. Very sporadic. They were obviously trying to create an illusion of something that wasn't real. They kind of forced themselves to go to church once in a while, but it was never consistent over any long period of time.

Interviewer:   Did they talk to you about God or heaven or things like that to you as a child?

Interviewee:  To some degree. I think since I was probably three or four years old, I had some sense of God. That's something I always had. Nobody needed to explain that to me.

Interviewer:   All right. Tell me about what happened when you were 28.

Interviewee:  When I was 28, I don't remember all the details, but we were having some discussion that involve some Jewish people I knew. All of a sudden, it triggered and my mother and she had to dump it, “You are Jewish.” Just like that out of the blue. It wasn't planned. It just happened.

Interviewer:   How did you react to that?

Interviewee:  Total confusion. I didn't know what to make of that. I had no inkling of being Jewish before that point in time and suddenly she tells me, “You are Jewish.” I don't think I know how I reacted. It just kind of confused me initially, I think, until I began to figure it out more later on.

Interviewer:   You said you knew Jews, did you have opinions about Judaism before that point?

Interviewee:  That's kind of interesting. Matt had the same experience that I had. I tended to make friends with Jewish people and many of them would tell me, “Aren't you Jewish?” Then they’d explain what a lot of Jewish people did when they came to the [inaudible 00:09:28] denying that they were Jewish just like my ancestors had done. Of course, I would say, “No, that's not true. I would have known if, you know.” That was kind of interesting. I think that kind of experience led up to this thing where my mother finally let me know after 28 years.

Interviewer:   There are people who believe that there's a Jewish soul and even if you don't know you're Jewish, your Jewish soul comes out in some way.


Interviewee:  Exactly. Matt and I both had that same experience in life that we would end up in situations with Jewish people and they would suggest to us that we probably are Jewish.

Interviewer:   This is a result of your Jewish soul guiding you in certain ways.

Interviewee:  That interpretation makes as much sense as any I ever had. That sounds reasonable to me.

Interviewer:   Did you make changes in your life as a result of hearing about that?

Interviewee:  Not until recently, basically.

Interviewer:   Okay, so you found out about this, and you knew that you were Jewish it but then it took decades before --

Interviewee:  Yeah. I already had -- by the time I found out I think I was already engaged to be married to a person who ended up, I think, had the same background as I did, but she was denying it at the time as well. We had this life and I just chose not to rock the boat at that time. People knew me as -- they thought I was a Christian and everything. I just didn't have the strength of character, the motivation to suddenly disrupt all that and start saying, “Hey, I'm different than what you thought I was to the world.”

Interviewer:   But then years went by and something happened where you decided to act on this.

Interviewee:  Yeah, exactly.

Interviewer:   What do you think was going on?

Interviewee:  I'm not sure. I think maybe that Jewish soul as you were talking about, just kicked in. I suddenly realized that, I should be doing this. The time is right. I never did before, but better late than never.

Interviewer:   You were saying though that you were finding something missing, something lacking, is that right?

Interviewee:  Yeah.

Interviewer:   Can you can you articulate it all what it was?

Interviewee:  I never could, really. I think the concepts you came up with about the Jewish soul, maybe it was that. That makes as much sense as any idea I ever came up with.

Interviewer:   During this time when you knew that you were Jewish, but you weren't taking any action. Jewish holidays came and went, you didn't do anything and you had Jewish acquaintances, but you didn't do anything with them. It didn't change your life. It needed to work on you for some number of years.

Interviewee:  Yeah, definitely. I think I've probably felt -- you have this ego that you build up. I think this ego was one thing and underneath the surface, there was something else. Over the years, it just gradually emerged to the point where I felt it and I know it was time and this is right.

Interviewer:   Some people are kind of forced to make religious decisions when they have children. Did you have to give extra thought to this? Is Matt your only child?

Interviewee:  Well, I had another son who is deceased at this point.

Interviewer:   You've had two children, though.

Interviewee:  Yeah.

Interviewer:   I mean, as children start growing up, you need to make decisions about what you're going to tell them about God and religion. How did you deal with that?

Interviewee:  I dealt with it by not dealing with it, I think. I think a lot of my history is this compartmentalization or you know but you don't totally own it yet. I guess until recently, the idea that I was Jewish was more of a just a thought that -- not an integral part of my life. I knew it, but it wasn't a part of my everyday life.

Interviewer:   But children have questions. Children start asking what happens when people die, or where did I come from and things like that?

Interviewee:  Interesting because both my sons didn't do that. They kind of had the same thing that I had where there's an inner sense of what things are and you kind of have this inner knowing that you don't have these same questions that some people might have.

[00:15:01]       I never asked about it. When I was growing up, I never asked my parents about religion. It just never came to mind that I shouldn't be doing that.

Interviewer:   You decided to make a change. How have people around you reacted to that, family and friends?

Interviewee:  Originally when did that?

Interviewer:   Yes, yeah.

Interviewee:  It's interesting because I reached a point in my personal development where I don't care how they react. I don't really even notice it.

Interviewer:   Oh, is that right?

Interviewee:  Yeah. I'm Jewish, and it never occurs to me even consider how that's being received.

Interviewer:   Before doing that you didn't have any concerns about how people would react that they might be change relationships or anything like --?

Interviewee:  At one time I probably did.

Interviewer:   When you were younger?

Interviewee:  When I was younger, yeah.

Interviewer:   That would have been [inaudible 00:16:10].

Interviewee:  That was why when I was 28 years old, that's initially why I didn't do anything because I was afraid of turning everything upside down. I was engaged to be married. I don't know how that -- I didn't know how that would affect that relationship. I chose not to take the risk and that became kind of a lifetime pattern until recently.

Interviewer:   Are you still married?

Interviewee:  Pardon.

Interviewer:   Are you still married?

Interviewee:  My wife's deceased at this point, but yeah, I was married for 37 years to that same woman I was engaged to.

Interviewer:   Was she's still alive though when you started on this journey, or no?

Interviewee:  No.

Interviewer:   We don't know how…

Interviewee:  I don't know how that would really react, but I suspect that it might have not gone well because Matt tried to bring that up to her and she kind of was not very happy to hear that at all.

Interviewer:   Even though she knew that she had a Jewish background.

Interviewee:  Yeah, she did, but I don't know is she really accepted it. She was in kind of a denial pattern with that.

Interviewer:   Let's talk about some of the -- it's like you're exploring a new world here. What are some of the things that you find most rewarding or some of the things that you've had trouble connecting with, that weren't as meaningful to you in terms of holidays or rituals?

Interviewee:  I haven't had difficulty with anything. I mean, to me, it's a learning experience which I'm enjoying. I like to learn everything.

Interviewer:   Largely, it’s an intellectual thing?

Interviewee:  [Inaudible 00:17:58].

Interviewer:   Are you observing holiday? Is this something that you're doing mostly here or are you doing things in your home as well?

Interviewee:  Yeah. Matt and I observe holidays.

Interviewer:   Are there any that are particular favorites?

Interviewee:  Every one becomes a favorite, it’s all new, you know? We're definitely interested in getting involved and enjoying the holidays. We learn about them and we understand what they're about and we practice those ceremonies and so forth.

Interviewer:   Your son has been wearing a Tallit and doing more of the ritual things and you've chosen not to.

Interviewee:  I really haven't chosen not to do anything. I don’t quite understand the distinction but he seems to be very motivated to learn anything more quickly than I am. It's not that I've rejected anything. I'm just not in the rush that he's in.

Interviewer:   The time may come when you'll start doing more things?

Interviewee:  Well, absolutely.

Interviewer:   You spoke about your studies are connecting you to your people and your heritage, the history of it, but what about a connection to God? Is that something that you're feeling as you do these things?

Interviewee:  Like I said, yes. That's why I think it all connects so well at this point in time. Like I mentioned earlier, since I was a little kid, I had a sense of God, who God was and what God was. Being Jewish works for me because that's what it's all about, you know?

[00:20:03]       It explores that reality which I always knew was there but I never quite focused on it in the same way as I have in recent times since I've been involved here.

Interviewer:   Are you changing some of your concept of God as a result of your studies or you still hold on to what you believed about God when you were a child?

Interviewee:  I think I have more knowledge of God now. What I'm doing is learning knowledge about God, but it hasn't really changed my sense of what God is, that was always there.

Interviewer:   Are there things that you haven't gotten around to that you're looking forward to in terms of either studies or practices?

Interviewee:  I'm looking forward to everything. Anything I haven’t done or I don't know yet, I'm interested in.

Interviewer:   It's a major learning experience, is that --?

Interviewee:  Yeah, it definitely is.

Interviewer:   What about culturally though? Setting aside the religion, there's a cultural aspect to Judaism; the foods and the literature and Jewish comedy and things like that. Has there been any change in that? Was Jewish culture something you were always familiar with?

Interviewee:  No, I think I've been, well, to some extent I was but I learned more. I've been learning a lot more in recent months than I did before. I enjoy learning about it. Over time, I'm sure I will absorb a lot more than I know at this point.

Interviewer:   But your parents didn't do anything Jewish culturally. They didn't want bagels and lox or corned beef --?

Interviewee:  There might have been some. As I think about it my mother would cook things that were probably Jewish, but I didn't really know it at the time.

Interviewer:   Did they speak Yiddish at home?

Interviewee:  Not that I ever heard, no.

Interviewer:   Or any foreign language, they very much Americanized, as much as they could.

Interviewee:  Yeah. I think my grandparents did, but not my parents.

Interviewer:   It was your grandparents. Did you know your grandparents?

Interviewee:  I did.

Interviewer:   When you think back are you able to identify things that would have told you, you were Jewish you didn't recognize it at the time, but --?

Interviewee:  There probably were. Yeah. If I thought about it, I could probably come up with things that I didn't realize at the time. I hadn't really thought much about that, but I think I probably could.

Interviewer:   When you decided to pursue Judaism, and accept it more, there's a lot of options for how to be Jewish. There's all kinds of denominations. There's a lot of synagogues.

Interviewee:  In one of our meetings few weeks back, you said something that kind of gave me a clue of what denomination I probably came from. You said something about how there was one denomination that believed that being Jewish passed down the mother side. My mother explained that to me. That was the way it was as far as she was concerned. So whatever group --

Interviewer:   Well, that is the traditional Jewish belief that both orthodox and conservatives [crosstalk 00:23:51].

Interviewee:  Oh, that's traditional Jewish belief.

Interviewer:   It's the reform movement that changed that definition.

Interviewee:  She definitely had her traditional belief on that.

Interviewer:   That gives a hint because there were reformed Jews in Germany at that time, but they probably were not that.

Interviewee:  No, they were definitely were not that. Well, that's my evidence right there that she believed in that.

Interviewer:   Matrilineal descent. Are there any other things that --? You were explaining to me though how you wound up at Shir Tikvah as opposed to many of the other places you could have gone to?

Interviewee:  That was really Matt's choice. He did the research and made that choice.

Interviewer:   Have you tried going to services at other places?

Interviewee:  I haven't. This is the only place I've been to. At this point in time, I wouldn't have any motivation to go anywhere else.

Interviewer:   Shir Tikvah is meeting all of your spiritual needs?

Interviewee:  I feel I'm happy being here and I feel I've got a lot to learn still.


Interviewer:   Okay, anything else that you wanted to say about this that I’ve forgotten to ask you?

Interviewee:  I think we've probably taken a pretty good survey of my background and how I got to be interested in joining the synagogue. No, I can't think of anything particularly that we missed, but I'm sure there are some things maybe you can dig some more out.

Interviewer:   No, this has been very informative, and I want to thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Interviewee:  Okay. My pleasure.


[End of Recorded Material]


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