This interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society is being recorded on June 16, 2017 as part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society Oral history project. This interview is being recorded at Congregation Beth Tikvah, 6121 Olentangy River Road in Worthington, Ohio. My name is Abby Goldbaum and I am interviewing Abramo Ottolenghi. (Rose Luttinger co-Abby).
Interviewer: Do you want to be called Abramo or Abe?
Ottolenghi: Either one.
Interviewer: I know you as Abe because of our Worthington ties. I’ll start with the beginning. What is your full name?
Ottolenghi: My full name is Abramo Cesare Umberto Ottolenghi.
Interviewer: What was that middle name?
Ottolenghi: Cesare. It’s Italian for Ceasar.
Interviewer: Spell it.
Ottolenghi: Cesare and Umberto. That name came because they were Royalists. The Italian prince, Victor Emmanuel’s son, was Umberto. So, I got Umberto.
Interviewer: What is your Hebrew name?
Ottolenghi: As far as I know it’s Abraham ben Michael. My father was Michael.
Interviewer: Michael or Michel?
Ottolenghi: However you pronounce it, however you write it in Hebrew.
Interviewer: How far back can you trace your family?
Ottolenghi: The Ottolenghis I can trace back — the Ottolenghis appeared in Italy, in Piedmont, in the middle 1500s, in the 1570’s they appeared. The question is whether they did, as Roth says, whether they did come directly from Germany or from a town called Ettinger. He said that the name Ottolenghi came from there or, as the family tradition says, that we were of Spanish origin, but we haven’t been able to trace. After the expulsion, the 1492 expulsion, Spanish Jews went to Germany and Holland, and so on. So, one does not know whether it was that kind of thing.
Interviewer: What can you tell us about your grandparents?
Ottolenghi: Well, I can tell about my paternal grandparents not very much. My maternal grandparents, can trace them all the way back to the 1700s, 1800s. I have a cousin that wrote a book and there’s a whole genetic chart here because my mother and his mother were double cousins, both from the father and from the mother’s side. So, we can trace back that family all the way to the Montefiores from Florence, basically, the Montefiores that eventually became Sir Montefiore over in London. We know about the Montefiore Hospital and so on.
Interviewer: Was Montefiore your mother’s maiden name?
Ottolenghi: No. My mother’s maiden name was Halevi, but my maternal grandmother came out of the Montefiore line. That was because she, it’s a long story. She married an Orefice. He was of the Orefice family in Florence. It’s an old (wealthy) family in Florence. The Montefiore aspect came out of Pisa where the mother of my great grandfather was from Pisa. She was the Montefiore connection.
Interviewer: Our son brought us a little statuette of the Leaning Tower of Pisa kicking a soccer ball. Did you know your grandparents? Were they still living when you were (young)?
Ottolenghi: I did not know my paternal grandparents. I was too young when they died but I did know my maternal grandparents because they came to Ecuador with us. They came actually a year later. They were part of the second wave of Ottolenghis that came down to Ecuador.
Interviewer: What were your parents’ names and where were they born?
Ottolenghi: My father’s name was Michelangelo Ottolenghi and he was born in Turin in 1906. My mother’s name was Edmee Levi. She was born also in Turin in 1910.
Interviewer: Any relation to Primo Levi?
Ottolenghi: Not that we know, not directly but yes, I am a direct cousin to Rita Levi Montalcini which you may have heard of. She won a Nobel Prize. She was a cousin of my mother.
Interviewer: Where did you grow up?
Ottolenghi: That’s an interesting question.
Interviewer: Were you born in Turin?
Ottolenghi: I was born in Turin, went to Messina because my father had a job in Messina. Then he was transferred to Sassari. My parents did not think schooling was good in Sassari. They left me in Turin with my grandparents. Sassari was in Sardinia. My father was transferred to the university there. This is stories that they told me. I was there with my grandparents in Turin. Then the racial laws came. I was in Turin then. When I was eight we came to Ecuador. Then when I was 14 my father was transferred to Colombia. Then when I was 16 I came to the United States to go to college. Now you figure out where I grew up.
Interviewer: Many different places, yes. What were your feelings about moving around like that? Do you remember what it was like to leave Europe?
Ottolenghi: I always thought it was okay. It was no big deal. Even when we went to Ecuador it was no danger. It was fine.
Interviewer: How old were you then?
Ottolenghi: I was eight.
Interviewer: Do you have any brothers and sisters?
Ottolenghi: Yes. I had a brother who died in 1958. He died in Colombia. He used to work for Grace and he was in the jungle. We don’t know what happened. I had a sister who died in the 1960s. She died in Montreal. I still have a living sister in Ottawa.
Interviewer: What kind of company was Grace?
Ottolenghi: A multinational with all sorts of activities. A ship line, an airline and some consumer products. He was doing some research. I don’t know what kind exactly. They didn’t talk about it. I have no idea. He was in the jungles of Colombia for awhile. At that time, it was very customary to look in the jungle for products that could be used. I don’t know exactly what the thing was. He died one day. The thing when he died was rather interesting in the sense that my two sisters and I were in Montreal. We were all in school and I went to Montreal. I said let’s call our father since we’re all here, call him on the phone. We called Quito, his office in Quito. They said he’s in Bogota because your brother is sick. We called the office in Bogota, not Grace, but the office of the laboratory where we all worked at one point or another. We called the office, no he’s at the clinic. We called the clinic and he (my brother) had just died. It was just happenstance that we called him (my father) that day.
Interviewer: What kind of work did your parents do and what kind of work did your siblings do?
Ottolenghi: My father was a professor. He was a Veterinarian professor. He lost his job when the racial laws came. My mother basically had no job, did not work, until we were out of school. Then she basically became a teacher after she left Ecuador.
Interviewer: What kind of a professor? What was his subject?
Ottolenghi: My father was a veterinarian pathologist. My mother eventually taught Italian up in Canada. Eventually, in the beginning she was teaching French in Ecuador, early Alliance Francaise, this kind of thing.
Interviewer: Was Canada the last stop before you came to the U. S.?
Ottolenghi: Again, we went to Bogota then I came to the U. S. to go to college. Then I went back to work in Quito. Then I went back to go to get my Masters. Then I went back to Quito. Then I came back to the United States to get my PhD. Then I was too young. Anyway, I wasn’t PhD material at the time, so I went back to Quito, worked for three years. Then I came back and got my degree.
Interviewer: Where did you go to school here in the states?
Ottolenghi: Wilmington College for my BS, Rutgers for my Masters, and University of Pennsylvania for my doctorate.
Interviewer: You had mentioned Canada and I was trying to, I thought you said something about being in Montreal.
Ottolenghi: The problem with Canada was this. My father could not learn English, but he knew French and he was able to deal with French. By the time he moved he just could not learn English so coming to the United States at that time would have been difficult. They tried to come to the United States when we left Italy but because of the quota being so low, among other things. The policies were such that we just couldn’t come so we went to Ecuador. Coincidentally, there is a video now called “An Unknown Country” that was put out in 2015 with photographs of my parents that I gave them. It really talks about the experience of the Jews that went to Ecuador. I thought at one point that I might bring the film to show here and at the Jewish Center. Somehow, I didn’t get a very positive response. That to me is an unknown history for many people. I think you have heard me say that often.
Interviewer: So, it is called “An Unknown Country.” Maybe we can get that.
Ottolenghi: It showed up on Facebook not as a whole film. There you can also see a completely different history, the history of the Ashkenaze, the Polish and Russian and other European people who came to Ecuador and us, two completely different histories because of the circumstances which took us there and the circumstances which took them there.
Interviewer: What year did you end up going to Ecuador?
Ottolenghi: 1939. We left on September 19. We arrived in Ecuador on October 12 of that year. I remember that. We went to, we were out because the port of Salinas where we got in was not a port and we were out, and we got in. Now you have to remember that we were escaping (racial/religious persecution) and what we saw when we came in. One saw the banners of October 12, Dia de la Raza, Day of Race because Latin Americans, they viewed that day as their day etc. That in itself is another story.
Interviewer: Were they hospitable towards you?
Ottolenghi: Again, the official government policy was against the immigration of Jews. However, they were looking for industrialists. They were looking for farmers. They were looking for somebody who would come and do the (work). However, In Europe, especially in Italy, again, I have no great evidence on this. We’ve been trying to find out. The records unfortunately got flooded in Quito. One of my cousins is looking for them. This is a history that you see for many of the countries that diplomats were giving the visas. The official word was no. The diplomats were giving the visas. You showed up with a visa and that was it. This happened in Spain and this happened in a lot of places in Europe where there were Spanish and Portuguese. I guess it was open for Spanish and Portuguese especially and some Italians also were facilitating visas for people to get out. In fact, I have a friend who came to Italy and from Italy they (went) into Portugal. There was a lot of motion in that thing some of which is told in the book that Joan and I (translate).
Interviewer: Right, which I have in the car but Don (my husband) has it now. I meant to bring it in and have you autograph it.
Ottolenghi: I knew that I was going to talk about it.
Interviewer: It’s interesting because I’ve been into that book that you’ve translated.
Ottolenghi: That was a chapter that was very difficult. In general, it was pretty straight forward.
Interviewer: I was reading about attitudes and policy towards the Jews during the Spanish Civil War and running up to WWII. It was very interesting.
Ottolenghi: That’s the kind of stuff that interested me in doing the work.
Interviewer: Were your parents affiliated and involved with the Jewish community in the different places where they were, and with the general community?
Ottolenghi: Again, Italian Jews, in general, were very assimilated. Yes, there are Ottolenghi places, seats in the synagogue in Turin. It was an affiliation, I don’t know how to explain it, because in our family we’ve had intermarriages, many mixed marriages. We’ve had conversions in both directions. We’ve had that, for instance, my mother could not marry my father until she went through a ritual bath, etc., etc. because her grandmother was originally gentile. She happened to have been the daughter of the railroad engineer for the Pope. Now, I still don’t know the whole history, okay. So, my great grandmother was originally gentile so by tradition my mother had to go through the whole thing. In fact, one of my nephews could not marry until it got certified that my mother had gone through this whole thing. Now I have a grandson who would like to convert completely but he’s running into a bureaucratic problem.
Interviewer: Is that the grandson who is an attorney?
Ottolenghi: Yes. I have a daughter who basically considers herself Jewish but has not gone through (conversion). Basically, and this is what we, from the very beginning, my parents, in fact, my whole family, how you became (Jewish) is the issue. Even my wife, Joan, who basically she and I agreed because philosophically she said yes, her basic attitude is Jewish. The symbols may be different but we’re not dealing with philosophical differences. So that’s that history. So, I can’t tell you we were connected. My recollection of my connections in Ecuador were sort of loose. I know that when I did my Bar Mitzvah, I read in Sephardic and I was a follower for awhile.
Interviewer: You did have a Bar Mitzvah?
Ottolenghi: I did have a Bar Mitzvah, but I had cousins who were converted, who were baptized in Ecuador at the request of their mothers who were Romanian. There was one who was baptized by the maid.
Interviewer: That’s interesting. I thought a person had to be baptized by a priest.
Ottolenghi: Theoretically, any Catholic can baptize. You have to look at it from their point of view. She was doing this girl a favor. Now, my cousin is Jewish, absolutely. As I say, a little holy water doesn’t hurt anybody except when it happened to me in Mexico City. We went to one of the places and out came a priest with holy water and that’s when they stole my wallet. Everybody was rushing to be blessed with holy water and they stole my wallet. That is basically the philosophy that my family owned. Two of my uncles remained in Italy and their families are fairly religious to the point that they don’t go to synagogue on Saturday because it’s too far away and they have to drive but they are very active in the community. I had an aunt who was in Paris at the time when the Germans came in and she left Paris. She had a PhD in Physics. She was a classmate with Fermi. She left Paris as an “au paire” with an American family and that saved her. I don’t have the complete history. I’ve been looking into it but it was late to look into it because the people who can tell this history are no longer around. People my age, we have not looked at things as much, so we can only put pieces and things together. German Jews escaped very early, and it wasn’t difficult for them to come to this country because the German quota was 50,000 plus a year. This country was anti-Semitic, and the immigration laws were designed that way, but they were not religious in context as we see now. They were by nationality which happened to have served that purpose. When you talk about Italians and Spaniards, Italians were considered criminals, etc., etc. We’re talking about 1924 laws. I’m going away from your (interview).
Interviewer: That’s okay. It relates to your life. When your father took the family to Ecuador, was it relatively easy for him to get a position at a university?
Ottolenghi: No, he didn’t go to a university. What happened at that particular time the Ecuadorian government was looking for somebody to take over a laboratory, pharmaceutical. So, my uncle, basically five of us, five of the twelve went to Ecuador. I lost track. I think five went to Ecuador, four went to Argentina, two remained in Italy and one went to England and worked with the English secret service, etc… He’s in the book also. We went, and he had a job. My (father) had a job. They had work. They had everything set up.
Interviewer: Before we started the interview, you were talking about some medals, or medallions, or something. Could you relate that for the tape?
Ottolenghi: My grandfather had a very long gold chain, a watch gold chain on which he had a medal for each one of the kids. My father’s the ninth. I have the medal. It was just a little medal that was attached to it. When my uncle cut the chain, he cut the chain at the site of the medals and sent them to all. I don’t know where the chain is. I know where my medal is but that’s a whole story.
Interviewer: He gave a medal to each son?
Ottolenghi: And girl. For the women it was a bracelet. For us it was supposed to be a gold chain. I have a watch. In those days you had a gold watch. We basically were not a poor family.
Interviewer: Your immediate family was eleven, twelve children?
Ottolenghi: My father’s family was twelve. My material grandfather was one of sixteen.
Interviewer: Big families and the twelve could almost represent the tribes of Israel as an interesting analogy. Didn’t you say that each son or daughter had their medal and kept it no matter where they landed, what country, so that they could somehow reconnect?
Ottolenghi: That was the intent (of my uncle. I have the letter). My maternal grandfather, he was one of 16 from the same mother but two fathers because his uncle died and by tradition the brother married the widow. They were traditionalists that way.
Interviewer: Was there ever a time when you felt that you could reconnect earlier on when the people were, the grandfather’s siblings would still be living and that you could reconnect with all these branches of the family?
Ottolenghi: I basically have as much as possible. Converted or not, we are connected. I wouldn’t say converted, I would say baptized because to me that is probably the essence, but we are connected. With my cousins, right now, we are connected no matter what their religious status is.
Interviewer: You have family in Italy, don’t you?
Interviewer: You’ve gone to visit them?
Interviewer: Have they come here?
Ottolenghi: (Some yes but not all) and that is a sore point because I keep on telling them the distance between here and there is the same as from there to here. We have a different mentality. Once you move out of Europe, you have a different mentality. I always said that my parents had two feet in Europe and they still jumped a little bit, but not my mother. My mother had a foot in both places. We had feet in both places. Our children’s feet are here. That’s basically the way it works.
Interviewer: In what ways, you answered this for me where you told me how you were connected to the Jewish community in Quito and you mentioned the film, “An Unknown Country” which tells a lot about the Jewish community and you mentioned that you had a Bar Mitzvah, was it what we would call Orthodox or Conservative?
Ottolenghi: It was a small synagogue and it wasn’t particularly Orthodox. It just happened to be the synagogue that the community had. There is a group called the Beneficencia which was a set up
Interviewer: I’m sorry, B’nai?
Ottolenghi: Beneficencia. It was a group for the benefit of Jews.
Interviewer: Like a charitable (organization).
Ottolenghi: Yeah, basically, a large number of the Jews were rather poor. I mean when they came there they had nothing, they had to do it. They had traditional businesses that one visualizes the central European Jews to have. There was a fundamental difference between them and us. Our family was all professionals at the doctorate level. So, it was a completely different world. It was no shtetl involved at all. It was no shtetl.
Interviewer: Were there very many Jews?
Ottolenghi: There weren’t many. I think at one point there were maybe 1,000 in the whole country.
Interviewer: Quito was probably the most?
Ottolenghi: Quito and Guayequil. There were quite a few in Guayequil. That’s the story that film will tell you. I have another film that I gave to this (Beth Tikvah) library but it disappeared, I don’t see it. It’s a video tape but I have a copy. I’m having it put on disc as soon as I can get around to it. It’s called “A Debt To Honor.” It’s the story of my family in Italy, the ones who remained and how they basically were saved by a lot of people. We lost no one.
Interviewer: That’s remarkable and that’s a large family.
Ottolenghi: Well most of them were gone.
Interviewer: But even among those who stayed.
Ottolenghi: In Italy there were 5,000 people who died. There is an outfit in Milan, one of my cousins worked there. that documents all of the Italians, not only the Italians but also those who came from Central Europe to Italy and then were lost. What Mussolini did to the Europeans that came, he sent them to a camp in Southern Italy. I think we have somebody here in Columbus. I met him at one of the survivor ceremonies. He was in that camp, that southern camp. I met him here. Unfortunately I don’t remember names very easily.
Interviewer: Primo Levi was in Auschwitz.
Ottolenghi: Primo Levi was taken. He was in Auschwitz, came out. We don’t know whether we have a connection or not.
Interviewer: Where did you attend elementary and middle schools?
Ottolenghi: Well, elementary school was in Italy, was in Ecuador. High School was in Colombia. That was it. I never graduated from high school.
Interviewer: How did that happen to be? Did you go to work early?
Ottolenghi: They worked us hard. I was 16. I had enough Carnegie credits to come to college. It was as simple that. I was a junior. I had enough credits to come to college.
Interviewer: So, you didn’t have to have a graduation certificate for college?
Ottolenghi: No, all you had to have is the credits, Carnegie credits, and it was enough.
Interviewer: Did you go to private schools or public schools?
Ottolenghi: In Italy I was in a public school in Messina. I was five years old. Then I went to Jewish school because we were forced by the racial laws. Then in Ecuador I went to private school, American School. That’s where I learned English. In Colombia I went to private school also. I did not go to public school at all. My aunt and uncle, they lived in New York and when I was 16 I came to them. I was admitted to two schools. Wilmington was one. My aunt had a connection with the Quaker Society of Friends so they admitted me there. The other school was one in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I had the most miserable summer of my life (in New York) because it was hot. They lived in a tenement in the bowery, third floor, we had to walk up. They had to leave to go to Colombia because my grandmother was dying and she (my aunt) wanted to see her before she died. As soon as they left I took a train to go as far from New York as I could and so I came to Wilmington.
Interviewer: Wilmington is a college run by the Friend’s Society?
Interviewer: That’s what I thought. When you were going to the Jewish school, is that where you learned Hebrew?
Ottolenghi: Yes, in fact, I got a prize one time because I was the best Hagadah reader of the whole class, or something like that. I never really knew Hebrew. I could read it but it’s no different than now. Now I can’t even read it anymore. I can sort of read it. For my Bar Mitzvah I went through the same routine. I learned everything.
Interviewer: What did you study in college?
Ottolenghi: My Bachelors degree was chemistry and biology. My Masters was geology and bio-chemistry. My PhD was medical microbiology.
Interviewer: When were you called to Ohio State?
Ottolenghi: Right after graduation I worked in a post doctoral in Philadelphia for four years and then I came to Ohio State.
Interviewer: So, it sounds like you pretty much spent your career at Ohio State?
Ottolenghi: When I became 50 I said to the family. I said, “Well I’m 50 now. We’ve been here 15 years, either we leave now, or we die here.” They looked at me and said, “What’s wrong with here?” So, we stayed. Laughingly, it was as simple as that.
Interviewer: If there’s a teacher who inspired you during school, please tell us about it.
Ottolenghi: I had one teacher in Ecuador. He basically taught Spanish and Spanish Literature. Basically he did send me in the direction in which we were sent, with the writing and that kind of stuff and looking at history because he was an inspiring teacher. In retrospect he didn’t know certain things. He hadn’t seen some of the things. He interested me in Spanish literature, in Latin American history and things like that. That’s basically what it was. Then he came to this country. He was in Albuquerque. We went to visit him there. He started a school there.
Interviewer: What was it like living in Ecuador?
Ottolenghi: For us it was great. I never had an impression of anything missing. We had maids. We had chauffeurs. We had gardeners. One day my father looked up from the table and said, “Why am I paying all these people to do these things?” We had an upstairs maid, we had a downstairs maid, we had a cook, we had a gardener. We moved with the diplomats at that level. Now that there was some discrimination, that there was some problem because we’re Jewish that my baptized cousins did not have, that’s real. One day I was sitting next to the papal nuncio at a dinner at the Italian embassy. My father was a member of Rotary.
Interviewer: Just like you’re a member of Rotary here.
Ottolenghi: My mother did not like Ecuador. She wasn’t happy. My father, on the other hand, he was comfortable there. My mother found the whole environment too closed. My grandmother wasn’t suffering yet, my maternal grandmother. The revolutionary in me has been around for awhile. That’s basically where we’re at. Just imagine,here we come, come from Italy, okay. We get off the ship and we take the train that goes up to Quito. I don’t know if you ever saw the movie, “The Three Amigos.” There’s a train, remember the train that goes up, we were on that train. And here we stop and here are the people who are offering roasted Guinee pig on the train. They (my mother and her friends) were horrified. We get off the ship. There were minimum requirements, the men were happy. We had a close call, well I don’t know how close the call was. When the war started, the French came into the war. Our ship went to Marseille. In Marseille they stopped. They took all the German men off. Then they allowed the Jewish men back on. Then we kept on to the ship. The ship went past Spain where the Germans had just bombed Barcelona and that area. You know all those things happened then. I remember those things. That’s another problem. My kids are urging me to write my memoirs.
Interviewer: They will enjoy hearing this.
Ottolenghi: I keep on telling myself how much do I remember, how much is real and how much am I making up? In Ecuador we had a horse. I went horseback riding. We lived a different life.
Interviewer: Was it sort of like, comparable to, if a family had lived in New York City and then they moved out west in the earlier days?
Ottolenghi: Not quite. There was no struggle. There was no struggle with the land. There was no struggle with anything.
Interviewer: Did you get to know the indigenous population as well as the Christians?
Ottolenghi: Yeah, I’ve always been considered the black sheep of the family and I did associate with the indigenous people more than my parents would have liked. Among other things, at one point, I had a chicken farm. I was the first importer of chickens to Ecuador. This I have a good recollection on. We got hit (by an outbreak of Newcastle disease). We had a vaccine because the company produced a vaccine against one of the chicken viruses, but it was an American virus. So, I got hit, my chickens got hit and they died. I went to my uncle who was the manager, the CEO, of the laboratory. I said, “Look, your vaccine doesn’t work. You got to pay for my loss.” He said something like “You are a member of the family so no pay”. This is the kind of thing. But anyway, I lived with him for a year when my parents were in Peru. My father was sent to Peru to set up a branch which never took off because Peru and Ecuador, they fight. I can’t say that we had a hard life.
Interviewer: Interesting. When did you move to Columbus?
Ottolenghi: 1964. I moved to Worthington. I’ve been in Worthington since 1964.
Interviewer: And that’s interesting too because you became quite prominent in the community. Would you like to describe how you became involved in the community, besides Ohio State?
Ottolenghi: I wonder many times about this, whether it’s true or not, I don’t know. I don’t know if the community ever knew that I was Jewish, initially, because I was Italian and in the American mentality there are no Italian Jews. Okay, remember we are in Central Ohio in 1964. There’s no such thing as an Italian Jew. The question is whether I was elected, I never made an issue of it, whether I was a nobody, I wouldn’t make an issue of it, whether I was elected because people thought I was Italian, therefore, Catholic. I never made an issue of it. So that’s how I became a leader in the community and I wondered if that was the case. I’ll never know.
Interviewer: You didn’t tell them you were Jewish, you didn’t mention that you were Jewish?
Ottolenghi: No, it wasn’t an issue. It’s never been.
Interviewer: You hadn’t joined the temple yet, you hadn’t joined Beth Tikvah?
Ottolenghi: No, we hadn’t at the time.
Interviewer: Joan belonged to Newman Center?
Ottolenghi: She does now but then we were both fundamentally unaffiliated. I mean we were basically unaffiliated.
Interviewer: Like your son …?
Ottolenghi: They went to public school. They rebelled against going to catechism. It was that kind of thing that never became an issue. The kids were there so they went to public school, simple as that.
Interviewer: They didn’t go to a synagogue, right?
Ottolenghi: They didn’t need a synagogue, (they were) not Jewish. Joan did not start going regularly until very recently.
Interviewer: When did you join Beth Tikvah?
Ottolenghi: They have better records than I do.
Ottolenghi: Five years, ten years, I don’t know.
Interviewer: At least ten years.
Ottolenghi: How old is Beth Tikvah?
Interviewer: About 50 years. It started in 1961.
Interviewer: Beth Tikvah started at the university basically.
Ottolenghi: I know that it wasn’t then because I know that it wasn’t when I came.
Interviewer: Were you at the Indianola address?
Ottolenghi: I know they were on Indianola for awhile.
Interviewer: But you weren’t there?
Ottolenghi: No, I wasn’t there.
Interviewer: You joined when they came up here to Worthington?
Ottolenghi: Yes. I joined, not even at the beginning. At the beginning Joan said we need to join the synagogue. Okay we had to join the synagogue.
Interviewer: I bet Joan remembers when.
Interviewer: Do you know who the rabbi was?
Ottolenghi: (Gary) Huber.
Interviewer: So, it was after 1981, sometime in the 1980’s probably.
Ottolenghi: Some time like that. That’s the best that I remember. I needed a place of identification. That is what this served for me, to maintain my identity.
Interviewer: Were you surprised to learn that there were so many other professors here because I think this congregation has maybe lots more than some.
Ottolenghi: No, because if you look at this congregation the way it is, it is basically a, what can I say, it’s a varied institution which suits us fine because Joan feels comfortable here. I can’t go to many …. I have had to go to funerals, unfortunately, and a wedding. I can’t go because of the incense, it makes me sick, so I have to leave, but that’s a different story. It has served us well.
Interviewer: I know you’ve been involved in the Sunday evening (study group).
Ottolenghi: I haven’t here as much as I could. I don’t know why but my time is, I just can’t connect easily. I have to do things. I can’t participate as much as maybe I should.
Interviewer: You do what’s good for you. When did you join the Rotary? Is that an influence of your father?
Ottolenghi: I joined, no my father was dead by then. He had been a Rotarian in Ecuador. I joined in 1985 I think, around then. I was on the (Worthington) School Board at the time. The Superintendent took me. We’re still friends. I joined then and then I got involved in some projects in Ecuador. Now I’m involved again in a project in Ecuador. One of my cousins is involved. You know it’s that kind of thing.
Interviewer: What kind of project?
Ottolenghi: There’s this outfit run by Jesuits. Basically what it does, it takes kids who are shoe-shine boys and brings them in to educate them and their families and give them business, gives them work-type things like apprenticeships. Our Rotary Club gives them money for that. I went down to Ecuador recently and we did that.
Interviewer: How did you get involved with the School Board? By the time our children were in school, you were the President of the Worthington School Board.
Ottolenghi: Right, I was coaching soccer and one day I was in the field the flats and this other father was helping me, as an assistant. We were complaining about the schools. (We were discussing the schools and complaining). He said to me, “Why don’t you run for the School Board?” I said, “I will if you’ll be my manager.” That was it. I ran, and I was President three times. I lost one election, but my next campaign was two years later. They got into trouble, which we would have had trouble anyway but they got into trouble, so my next campaign slogan was “Two years without Ottolenghi were enough, weren’t they?” That was good enough. I got re-elected.
Interviewer: What kinds of things do you remember helping put in place in the education system?
Ottolenghi: Well there have been a lot of changes. Unfortunately, many of the changes, however, have become a political football, the whole testing thing has become a political football, unfortunately because some measure has to be there as to what the kids are learning, what the schools are doing. There’s no way to avoid that. Unfortunately, the form (of the tests) has become a political football. The next question, of course, I’m still involved in the financial (aspect). I’m on the Treasurer’s Advisory Committee. I like to tell them that I am the institutional memory who tells them, “Oh yeah we did that, and it worked. Oh yeah we did that, and it didn’t work.”
Interviewer: You have that institutional memory.
Ottolenghi: Every generation rediscovers the wheel.
Interviewer: Absolutely. Now back to your personal life. Where did you meet Joan?
Ottolenghi: In school in Philadelphia. Actually, Joan had gone to school with my sister at McGill and when I went to Philadelphia she said, “You know I have a friend who’s coming to Pennsylvania.” That’s how we met.
Interviewer: When did you get married?
Ottolenghi: We got married in Philadelphia in 1958.
Interviewer: Where is Joan from?
Ottolenghi: She’s from Hartford, Connecticut.
Interviewer: Do you have children and what are their names and ages?
Ottolenghi: Carol, David, Diane, Gina in that order. The first three were born in Philadelphia. Gina was born here. The other day she said to me, it was her birthday, she said, “Dad, can you imagine that you have a 51-year-old daughter and the youngest one?” I said, “Yeah, the oldest one is almost ready for Medicare.”
Interviewer: That would be Carol. I worked with her at the Worthington Library.
Ottolenghi: Carol was born in 1959.
Interviewer: So, they were all raised in Columbus?
Ottolenghi: Basically yes.
Interviewer: Where do they live now?
Ottolenghi: Carol is here in Columbus. Gina lives in Upper Arlington. Diane is in Mansfield. David is in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Interviewer: David is a physician, isn’t he?
Ottolenghi: Yes, he’s a physician. Carol works for the Attorney General. Diane taught at Ohio State until they got rid of all the adjuncts. Now she’s teaching for Ashland College and Gina is a free-lancer, teaching Spanish to whoever wants to learn Spanish.
Interviewer: That’s interesting. I’ve met her too. Do you have grandchildren?
Ottolenghi: I have seven grandchildren. Three are Diane’s. One works for Microsoft in Seattle, two are in Dayton. We have two that are Carol’s. One is an attorney here and the other one is in Raleigh, North Carolina and is a forensic accountant. The two youngest ones are in Fort Collins with David. Then we have two acquired because David remarried. He married somebody who had two children.
Interviewer: What are their names?
Ottolenghi: Diane’s children are: Max, he calls himself Maia now; then there is Nicholas and Joe. Carol’s are Robert Michael and Kathryn. David’s are Riley and Nicco.
Interviewer: What was the occupation that Joan had? Was she a teacher and what did she teach?
Ottolenghi: Spanish, actually she taught foreign language but mainly Spanish.
Interviewer: She’s also volunteered with Barbara Taxier’s (reading) program at the (inner-city) school.
Ottolenghi: She was doing that. She had to quit. It became a problem for her.
Interviewer: You ran for public office once, what about that?
Ottolenghi: I decided I was going to run for the legislature and I did, in Ohio, the Ohio Legislature governing Worthington and East of Worthington. In Worthington where, as you said, they know me. I had more votes than my opponent, more votes than Bush, and more votes than Kerry. That’s a point of pride for me but I didn’t win because the people on the East side did not vote. I lost by 2,000 votes out of 50,000.
Interviewer: It was quite a campaign.
Ottolenghi: It was quite a campaign. It was fun, but Joan would not let me do it again, a few years later.
Interviewer: It’s a tiring thing and it’s costly to run a campaign.
Ottolenghi: Remember I was already 73. Joan said you’re too old.
Interviewer: You tried. You almost won.
Ottolenghi: I had a lot of help. It’s one of those things which are important.
Interviewer: Right. What are your hobbies and interests?
Ottolenghi: I do gardening. I spend too much time on the internet now.
Interviewer: Prior to that, you were involved with the clubs you’ve described.
Ottolenghi: I coached soccer. We started a boys, then we started a girls soccer team. Then I had the School Board. I wasn’t by myself, there was a Swedish engineer in Colonial Hills, and he and I basically started the program here. Then it spread all around. There were some groups still playing.
Interviewer: Did your son play on the soccer team?
Ottolenghi: Yes eventually, that was an issue. He was playing football. He was short and there was this neighbor kid who was twice his size and David was playing both sides and I said, “Who makes me do that” and we decided I would coach soccer which I had played when I was young.
Interviewer: That’s what I figured because it seemed like the whole world played soccer except for the United States for awhile. It’s been more recent.
Ottolenghi: Still we’re not quite there yet. We still need a generation before we get there.
Interviewer: Right. Has there been a difference in the sense of community where and when you grew up as compared to the Columbus community?
Ottolenghi: I had no real sense of community. I was very young, so I can’t talk about that.
Interviewer: What kinds of life messages and wisdom do you wish to give to your children and grandchildren?
Ottolenghi: Well the message is basically the same message that my father and grandfather gave me. The fundamental one is to be honest. You don’t have to be right, but people have to know that what you say is really what you believe. You may be mistaken but they can take your word for what you’re saying. That is the critical thing. It’s a question of trust. That’s the message. Fundamentally be honest and, if anything else, adhere to the Jewish tradition. When I say Jewish tradition, I don’t mean what I, at one point at Hillel in Philadelphia, I called “gastronomic Judaism” which irritated me.
Interviewer: You mean the values.
Ottolenghi: I mean values. I was irritated by the “gastronomic Judaism.” I was surrounded by fundamentally “gastronomic Judaism.”
Interviewer: When you say that you mean people who like Jewish food?
Ottolenghi: Yes, laughingly that which revolves around that type of thing. Actually, it was all foreign to me. Fundamentally it was all foreign to me. What did I know about latkes?
Interviewer: What did your mother cook?
Ottolenghi: You have to remember that we went to Ecuador where we had cooks. They didn’t cook Jewish food. We’ve always ate pasta. I mean we were Italian, we eat pasta.
Interviewer: What about Passover?
Ottolenghi: I don’t remember Passover specifically. We always ate matzo. We made the Italian version of haroset. We always had matzo, even in Ecuador. That we did have. That I remember. That was about as far as we went. We never looked for the bread crumbs. We never did any of those rituals. I really don’t remember Seders.
Interviewer: Your mother didn’t have any recipes from Europe that she brought to Ecuador with her, that she wanted the cooks to make?
Ottolenghi: Probably not. Remember we were Italians and any recipes were Italian. Italian Jews were very assimilated. I could tell you a story. We were in Messina. In fact, we went and visited the house. The other day somebody told me that they had seen the house. We visited the house where I grew up. It’s right under the monastery, no it’s not a monastery, it’s a big religious shrine. In Italy, at Easter time, you have a tradition of the chocolate egg with a gift from Perugina (the people who made chocolate eggs). There was a gift inside. When we were in Messina we would get, at Easter, an egg. When the bells in that big church would ring, which was basically a religious type of thing, we would get an egg.
Since I was the black sheep of the family, one year I got a piece of coal. My mother relented eventually and I got my egg but the sequence was not a Jewish sequence. It was an Italian sequence. It was an Italian event. We had carnival, a festive carnival. Basically it was assimilated. That’s why when the racial laws came in 1938, it was a shock. All of a sudden you no longer were Italian. In fact, I still have my birth certificate and it says, the one that I kept, it says ‘of Jewish race.’ I was wondering, after I heard her talk at Rotary Wednesday, I was wondering whether Mussolini did not do us a favor because when he put in the racial laws he gave us a signal that it was time to leave whereas the French never had that signal. The Germans came in, it was not only the French, it was the Belgians, the Dutch, it was all those people. None of them had a signal that they were at risk. Already in Italy it was known. Franco, already in 1938, had distanced himself from Hitler. Anyway, that’s the story.
Interviewer: Even though Italian Jews were assimilated, did they belong to synagogues?
Ottolenghi: Yeah, we belonged to a synagogue. Like I tell you one of the things that we did, and I did this with my aunt’s money. My aunt and uncle had no children, so she took care of me and I took care of her. When she was old one of the things we did was remodel one of the synagogues in Saluzzo, one of the Piedmont cities, we restored the synagogue there. This happened later on, when I had time, when I no longer was teaching, when I went. I used to go, she lived in New York and she was basically (incapacitated) for 13 years or maybe a little longer. I wonder if I did well by keeping her in her home. She could afford it. We had 7-24 care. I got very lucky. I got a family of illegals from the islands, the Caribbean Islands. They were absolutely fantastic. I would go once a month without telling them when I would show up. I never saw any problems. She never had bed sores. There was always somebody there, like there was supposed to be. At one point I said no, I don’t want to deal with illegals. At that time, it was possible to legalize them, so I had her attorneys legalize them all. We were very lucky that way.
Interviewer: Back to the synagogue, did you tell me one time that they had separate seating?
Ottolenghi: Oh yes, they still do. The synagogues to which we go have separate seating for men and women. In fact, the one in Milan where my relatives go, the women are upstairs. The one in Bologna also, where my other cousins go, has an upstairs and a downstairs.
Interviewer: Did they have Reform, Conservative?
Ottolenghi: No. In fact, when I tell them what goes on here, they make an interesting gesture, (laughs).
Interviewer: Is there anything else you would like to tell us about or say that hasn’t been asked?
Ottolenghi: No, I talked too long as it is.
Interviewer: Do you possess any records or historical items that you would consider donating to the Columbus Jewish Historical Society?
Ottolenghi: We’re working with the grandkids about that and at this point I will not commit myself to anything of that sort.
Interviewer: What is the name of the book that you say you’re translating?
Ottolenghi: “Spanish Attitude Toward Judaism From the Inquisition to Franco, to the Holocaust.” It traces basically how things changed. For instance, there was a big debate between Netanyahu’s father who was a professor at Cornell and a Spanish historian as to what was the origin of the Inquisition? The Spanish historian said it was Jewish in nature. Originally speaking, the Inquisition was not anti-Jewish. It was anti those Conversos who were Conversos but were not. In other words, those people who converted outside but still were Jews. That was what the Inquisition was all about. It was not an anti-Jewish organization, even though people would think that. And the other thing was, again they talk about the Catholic kings and the expulsion. It’s interesting, Jews were allowed to convert and stay. The Moslems had to go. In other words, for the Jews either you converted, left, or got killed, one of the three. The question is whether, we see this in modern times also, the Catholic kings were trying to unify Spain religiously. There were a lot of Jewish people who worked for the Catholic kings. Eventually something very interesting happened. All these people converted and because of the Jewish tradition of education, they started taking the jobs away from the old Christians. So, all of a sudden, what happened was the anti-Converso movement. Many things that happened then in Spain happened later on in this country with the African Americans. There were towns in Catalonia and other places where Conversos could not live. Human nature has not changed.
Interviewer: On behalf of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society I want to thank you for contributing to the Oral History Project. This concludes the interview.