Irene Friedman

Irene Friedman was born in 1931 and grew up in Augusta. She attended Sunday school there when teachers were available to teach it. She dated a non-Jew in high school who proposed to her and offered to convert to Judaism so that they could be married. She had always been told that it was not possible to convert to Judaism so she turned him down, later finding out that it is possible. This has caused her to resent her lack of knowledge of her religion, which she feels held her back. Irene was interviewed by Nicole Mitchell.

We had a friend, or a distant relative, on Bridge Street who had a daughter. Her name was Marjorie Gerstein and she became an attorney in Boston. She taught us a little bit of Judaism. We learned songs that we sing today in the synagogue. Not too many, one, one song. Its called Ein keloheinu, and it’s the song that ends the service on Saturday. And we learned all five verses of it so we could sing it. For a long time I had very little use for it until I grew up and started to go to services it came back to me. It was fun learning. Every so often, someone moved to town who was willing to teach a little bit of Sunday school. Not a whole lot, but a little bit to know the Ten Commandments by heart and a few other things. Of course, we learned the religious holidays in our home because, as I said, it was a very Jewish home. We learned the high holidays and Passover and the different holidays, although we didn’t have a synagogue in town. (33:28) My grandfather’s first cousin owned a shoe store, in fact he owned the whole block. Up over the shoe store on Main Street in Augusta and Bridge Street, we had one room and it was our synagogue. My mother was the first president of the sisterhood there. My grandfather was the cantor, but not on the high holidays. So we got a touch, a good touch of Jewishness, but we didn’t know a great deal about the religion.

And I can tell you that when I moved to Bath—I don’t know why they took me but I guess it was because I was a senior or junior in high school at that time—I was able to teach at their religious school, because Bath had a synagogue. And I chose a book One God, and it talked about all three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And I was teaching it and I said to the children, its very important that you understand other people’s religions as well as your own. Well, one day I got a telephone call from one of the mothers who said to me, “Irene, you are not to teach anything but Judaism. They get enough of the others in the school.” And first I was offended. But I began to realize that in some ways she was right. I mean, they weren’t coming to the synagogue to learn about Christianity and Hinduism and Islam. You know all the other religions… Buddhism… and I had to stop. But at the time I was offended, I felt “she’s wrong! They need to know all these things!” But I guess that wasn’t the place. To this day I don’t understand it, but that’s all right. Religion is a funny thing and you learn when you grow up.

There are a lot of people who are very Jewish but who aren’t very religious, I happen to need the religious end of the religion. And it’s very difficult if you are uneducated. And even though I have gone to study groups and everything and I feel that I’ve learned a great deal about the religion, but I don’t read Hebrew and I feel that I’m missing out on a lot of things that perhaps as an adult I could’ve gotten, but I just didn’t. Because I admit, I had many opportunities, even today, to learn Hebrew…but the one thing I did do, though, was I gave all my children an education in Judaism.

I think if I’d been raised in a Jewish home with an education I would have a different feeling. My feeling was “Why?! Why?! Why?! Why?!” Because I just didn’t know. And the answers didn’t tell me anything. And when someone says “because, I say so,” that doesn’t tell you anything. And when you tell that to a young person who’s not a dumbbell, it doesn’t set well.