Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Generous Life of June Solnit Sale

Aaron Solnit, MD, in his role at the Ammonoosuc Community Health Center
Aaron Solnit, a member and leader of Congregation Beth El in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, shared this reminiscence from his aunt June (née Solnit) Sale:

The present crisis [Covid-19 pandemic] and the need for medical personnel reminds me of another crisis that occurred in the 1940s. 
 
It was a time of another kind of war and many doctors and nurses were inducted into the medical corps of the army, navy and air corps, leaving hospitals in the U.S. without adequate, needed personnel. The Red Cross was given the challenge of recruiting and training citizens to provide help and back-up where it is was appropriate.
 
At that time, after the 4th election of FDR (in which I was heavily involved ) I decided to volunteer. Sam was still stationed at Minter Field, near Bakersfield, and although the sight of blood was something I tried to avoid, I decided that volunteering to be a Red Cross Nurse's Aide. It was a duty I could not turn down.
 
I was accepted for the training, along with nine other women, which was held at Kern County General Hospital. Our Trainer was a large, articulate nurse from Texas, who was clear with her instructions and her prejudices. I found myself uncomfortable with much of what she said, but happy to learn the do's and don'ts of providing much-needed services: how to bath a patient; how to assist the doctor; how to help with bed-pans, etc.
 
My moment of decision came when she told us that we didn't have to worry about bathing, or attending to patients of color (she did not use those terms). I spoke up saying things like “Doesn't every person deserve to be treated with dignity?” "What is this war being fought for?" etc. She would nod her head, roll her eyes, smile at me, as if I was some sort of nut, and continue her lecture. I talked to the recruiter about the Trainer's racism and got a smile and pat on the back.
 
I decided that I would proceed with the class and when I was finally given a schedule for work, I would ignore her racially repugnant directions. For a few months, that worked out: I treated all patients the same. Then our instructor came to review our work and she noted that I seemed to be more diligent with people of color than others. My reward was that she placed me on the prison ward where the injuries and illness were so difficult for me to face that I became ill.
 
Sam wanted me to quit. He was so kind and understanding, but me frequently throwing up ....well, you know...it wasn't pleasant. 
 
After a week or two, I was back to what was normal, and I decided to give semi-nursing another try. 
 
I talked to my recruiter and asked if I couldn't be placed at Mercy Hospital. She was not thrilled with the request, but since Mercy did need a few volunteers, she made arrangements for me to meet the nuns who were in charge of that part of the hospital. Our meeting was a wonderful relief for me. The nun in charge was sweet and kind...she welcomed me with open arms (we did not have to keep our distance then).
 
I stayed at Mercy until Sam went overseas (to Honolulu). When I came back to Los Angeles, I again volunteered and was placed at LA County Hospital in Boyle Heights. Unfortunately, I was placed in the Burn Ward......another time I would get home in time to throw up.
 
Finally (you are getting to the end of this confession), I asked if I could be placed at Children's Hospital since they were asking for volunteers. Ode to joy. I had found my place in the "war effort". I loved my work. I loved those sweet children. I loved the people I worked with. However, despite a happy ending of my "contribution" to the war effort, I now will do just about anything to stay away from hospitals...especially if they involve my health and welfare.

June was married to Sam Sale (the couple is pictured above, from some time in the 1990s), and they lived in Los Angeles. Here is Sam's obituary:

Samuel Sale II

March 23, 1921 - April 25, 2014 
 
Sam was born in St. Louis in 1921 and was the pride and joy of Julia and Frank Sale. He was the grandson of Samuel Sale, the first reform rabbi in St. Louis. He lived in many different places: Chicago, McAllen (Texas), Boston and Los Angeles, and in each of those places he made lasting friends. Sam went to Soldan High School in St. Louis and then to Wooster Academy for two years (because he graduated from high school at 15). After that it was on to his beloved UCLA, where he majored in business administration and became the sports editor of The Daily Bruin. It was there he met June and went on to become her constant support and lover until he died. In the forties, Sam volunteered for the Army Air Corps and was sent to Bakersfield's Minter Field where he became a navigation instructor. He then volunteered to go overseas and was sent to Honolulu to conduct classes for Air Force personnel on "Why We Fight". He returned to Los Angeles where he became the campaign manager for Gordon Williams for state assembly. After a disappointing loss, Sam joined his father-in-law, Ben Solnit, in the wholesale shoe business. They truly loved, admired and respected each other and Ben's death was a big blow to Sam. After many successful years in the shoe business, at 65 Sam decided that was not what he wanted to do with the rest of this life, so he concentrated on volunteering, sailing, handball, racketball at the "Y" and senior classes. He especially enjoyed going to the Pasadena Senior Center with his college classmate and dear friend, Lester Buhai. There, again, he made new and lasting friendships. Sam was a mensch who would get to know the stories of everyone he met. He was outgoing and full of fun, yet serious and concerned about those who were unable to fully participate in this rich world. He worried about the future for his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Climate change, discrimination and the many wars in which we have been engulfed were a constant worry. He has left a rich legacy for the world: June, his loving wife of more than 70 years, Laurie Sale and Norman Josephs, Nancy Sale and Bleu, and Josh Sale and Peggy Curran, Jorge Flores and Jill Teitelbaum, Aaron Flores and Jordanna Flores and great grand-children Luca, Maddox, Shira and Reuben Flores. He is also survived by his sister, Betsy Singer. The family wants to especially thank Jeffrey Medina, who has been his other son and caregiver for over three years, as well as Edgar Toletino and Alex Gueverra, who were with Sam to the very end. Services will be held at Hollywood Forever Cemetery at 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, April 27, with a reception to follow. In lieu of flowers donations may be made to Southern Poverty Law Center (splcenter.org), LA's BEST (labest.org), Stone Soup (stonesoupchildcare.org) or Court Appointed Special Advocates (casaforchildren.org). GO BRUINS!

[Published in the Los Angeles Times from Apr. 26 to Apr. 27, 2014.]
 
Aaron also provided a second set of June's recollections, in this article originally published in the Jewish Journal:
 
In November 1943, June Sale, a UCLA student, was part of a demonstration at Los Angeles Polytechnic High School against Gerald L.K. Smith, the most prominent anti-Semite of the time.

Listening to the speeches inside the auditorium, she recalled recently, “I became nauseated and teary. I decided to leave.  As I got to the foyer of the auditorium, a police officer arrested me, told me I was disturbing the meeting and walked me to the police paddy wagon.”

I learned of her long-ago bust in one of the emails she sends to friends, often writing of her anger over where President Donald Trump is taking the country. I was intrigued by the story of her arrest, and by the picture she included of herself talking to her lawyer before going on trial, which appeared in the now-defunct Los Angeles Daily News (the one that folded in 1954, not the current Woodland Hills-based newspaper). I wanted to know more. So my wife, Nancy, and I talked with her early in April over lunch at her home above Sunset Boulevard. We have been friends since we met June and her late husband, Sam, on Barbara Isenberg’s London theater tour several years ago.

As she told the story of her life, I saw that it reflected an almost forgotten era of Jewish Los Angeles, when anti-Semitism was rampant and a beleaguered Jewish community pondered how to fight it. “It was just something that happened to me over and over again,” she recalled of the anti-Semitism of her high school days in Pasadena.

June was born at White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights in 1924. Boyle Heights was then home to immigrants of many ethnicities and a hotbed of Jewish progressive politics.  Her parents, Ben and Bertha Solnit, were immigrants from a town on the Russian-Polish border. Ben learned the shoe business from the bottom up and grew prosperous. When their son was ill with bronchitis, his pediatrician advised them to move to a hotter, drier place. They chose Sierra Madre, near Pasadena, a center for right-wing politics and one of several communities riddled with anti Semitism.

Although Jews were among the founders of Los Angeles in the 19th century, Midwesterners who made the growing city a white Protestant conservative place soon outnumbered them. Restrictive covenants kept Jews — and African-Americans, Asians and Latinos — from some neighborhoods. Clubs would not admit Jews nor would fancy downtown law firms hire them.

In high school, June said, “all my friends who were not Jewish joined sororities and they were told not to talk to me.”   When she was elected president of a student YWCA group in junior high school, a vice principal said she could not accept the job because the group recited Christian prayers and Jews could not join them.

The Solnits wouldn’t take it. “I’m a better citizen then you’ll ever be,” Bertha Solnit told another school vice principal when he refused to permit June to use transfer credits to graduate and lectured Bertha on what he considered the citizenship obligations of immigrants. 

Their determination to fight anti-Semitism, as well as their liberal political views, put the Solnits firmly in the ranks of pro-labor, progressive Jews — usually immigrants or children of immigrants. They were at odds with more politically conservative Jews who wanted to get along with the city’s Republican powers and didn’t approve of the liberal activists’ confrontational tactics with anti-Semites. 

June accompanied her father to meetings of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, which was helping anti-Franco forces in the Spanish Civil War and campaigning to rescue Jews and other victims of Hitler. President Harry S. Truman’s Justice Department later blacklisted the committee, an action overturned by the Supreme Court.

“The grown-ups were passionate, worried and concerned,” June wrote of the meetings. “The discussions were often difficult for me to comprehend, but I do remember the point of the gatherings was to find ways to bring refugees from Spain and Europe to safety. [President Franklin] Roosevelt had turned away Jews trying to escape the Holocaust and refugees from Spain were not welcome here.”

Liberal outrage was intense when Gerald L.K. Smith spoke at Poly High in 1943. Sam and June had married and he was overseas with the Army Air Corps. June, still at UCLA, had been on a union picket line during a strike against the studios. Impressed with her demeanor, one of the strike captains, a man named Irving, asked her to join a labor-sponsored demonstration against Smith.

After her arrest, she said, “I was greeted in the paddy wagon by other ‘disturbers’ and we were whisked off to jail. The women were placed in cells with prostitutes who had been arrested. Irving had observed my arrest and soon came to my rescue. He was able to pay my bail and I was released early in the morning. Believing I would be the first person out of the dungeon, I took everyone’s phone number on a piece of toilet paper (the guard loaned us a pencil) so I could call a contact and tell what had happened.”

All of the charges were dismissed. “The police were required to identify us and they couldn’t,” she wrote in an email. “Strangely enough, we all looked quite different from the time we were arrested.”
She concluded her email about her arrest by saying, “You may ask why I bring this moment in my history up at this time. Well, I think we are headed for rough and difficult times as we face the Trump years. America First was a theme of the thirties, anti-Semitism is on the rise, the rich are getting richer, the middle class is disappearing and the poor are getting poorer. We must organize against this growing threat of ‘America First.’ ”

June graduated from UCLA. She and Sam raised a family and generously supported progressive causes, no matter how unpopular. She became a preschool teacher, started Los Angeles’ first Head Start program and was in charge of child care services at UCLA for 10 years. Then for 18 years, she was a court-appointed special advocate, going from court to court, home to home, looking after the welfare of some of the 35,000 children in the Los Angeles County foster care program.

“When you get old, gray and sleepless, you may find, as I do, that your memories of days gone by keep you company,” she wrote.

Her memories keep us company, too. The issues have changed. The immigrants are no longer Jewish refugees, but Latinos and those fleeing war-torn Muslim-majority nations. Episodes of anti-Semitism are increasing. But the challenges remain the same as they were when June Sale joined the picket line at Poly High.


BILL BOYARSKY is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

It's intriguing that none of the preceding material mentions that June Solnit Sale was also an author. She was the lead author for The Working Parent's Handbook (1996), pictured here; contributed to Child Care and the Family (1984); and wrote Child Care Services: A Guide for Colleges and Universities (1993). With her daughter Laurie, she also wrote blog items on grandparenting.


 

Monday, April 20, 2020

Friday, October 11, 2019

History of the Jewish Community of the Northeast Kingdom, Vermont, 1971–2019: David Kanell

Photo by Darcie McCann.
With heartfelt thanks to Dr. Erica Andrus of the University of Vermont, here is the interview she recorded with David I. (Dave) Kanell on March 30, 2019. May his name be for a blessing.

Across the Massachusetts Border: Two Resources

from Samuel Gruber's Jewish Art and Monuments

Exploring the family history of Patty (Grodsky) Caplan of St Johnsbury led to this valuable site that includes her home town of Springfield, Mass.: the Jewish Historical Society of Western Massachusetts.

Because North Adams, Massachusetts, is featured on this site (and is just across the border from Vermont), it's of value to share and look, especially at the art from the now vanished synagogue of North Adams: Samuel Gruber's Jewish Art and Monuments.

 

Monday, July 15, 2019

Harvey Caplan (May his name be a blessing): Synagogue Leader, St Johnsbury

At the celebration of Harvey Caplan's life, there was little mention of his role in Congregation Beth El of St Johnsbury. Most people mentioned instead his joy in life, his escapades, his friendships. It was a very good celebration!

But we note here that Harvey also played a major role in the growth of Beth El from its first location upstairs over Love's Department Store in St. Johnsbury, with a few families, to its eventual strength of more than 60 families and its own shul, on Hospital Drive. Whether it was helping raise the enthusiasm to get the land and build the structure, or gathering the community to mark special events, or recruiting a painter, a carpenter, a plumber, from among the many he knew personally, Harvey was excited about connecting and making things happen. He also served as president of the congregation for some years, and with his wife Patty, gave in many ways toward the formation and maintenance of the community.

His obituary is shown here, rich with family stories. For reference, here are some dates that precede him: His father Joseph Robert Caplan was born in Tupper Lake, NY, in 1905, and died in St. Johnsbury in 1993; Harvey's mother, Rhoda (Klasky) Caplan, lived from 1912 to 1972. Joseph Caplan's parents were Moses Caplan (1872-1950) and Dora Feder (1878-1953). Dora's parents were Mikhail Feder (born and died in. Russia, 1841-1890) and Sarah Feder (born in Vilna in 1842, died in Philadelphis in 1930). Sarah's parents were Eliyahu and Yetta Feder.

It is good to be able to say of Harvey that the joy and laughter he shared live on in many.