Interview with Florence Zacks Melton on May 27, 1987 by Meredith Moss. This interview is taking place as part of the Oral History project of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.
Interviewer: How did your childhood, your family members, and your family of
birth assess the role that religion has played in your life?
Melton: In the days when I was a youngster, my parents, who were the children
of the first wave of immigrants wanted their children to become Americanized.
That was the terminology used in that time, that was very important for your
children to become Americanized so that they can get a good job and they can
integrate well into American society and have a good life.
So that was the
attitude of my parents but we were fortunate to live close to my grandparents
who were the link with our Jewishness. My grandmother and grandfather were
Orthodox Jews and even though my grandfather had to work on Shabbat many times
because he had to make a living for a large family, he was a traditional Jew and
my grandmother kept a kosher home, even though my grandmother was partially
blind. She would not let any of us kids, my cousins or her own children, touch
anything in her kitchen because she was afraid that they would make traif the
dishes. But we were at my grandparents house so much that all the spiritual
Yiddishkeit that came through our grandparents rubbed off on all of us kids…my
sister, my brother, and all my cousins.
And we all of us grew up without Jewish
education, as we know it today. Because there was no Jewish education as we know
it today. The boys went either went to chader or they had a melamed when they
were ready for bar mitzvah and that was it. What we did get from my
grandparents, and mostly my, was the spirit that emanates from really good Jews
who believed in the mitzvod, who come from humble beginnings, who are grateful
for all their blessings and say so, who observe all the Jewish holidays in the
truest spirit that they understood and the stories that my grandmother brought
from the old country, that she related to all of us kids, with so much joy, that
was what inspired all of us kids to think jewishly and to feel Jewish, even
though we did not have the opportunity that youngsters have today for formal
kinds of Jewish education.
Interviewer: Can you tell me the story about your grandmother’s kitchen?
Melton: Oh, yes, my grandmother’s kitchen. My grandmother had a big kitchen
and that’s where all of us congregated all of the time. My grandmother had a
big, round table in her kitchen and she had a coal range which was her
preference for cooking and she had a gas range, which she did not use because
her children insisted that she have a gas range, but she did not like it. She
liked her coal range and my grandfather always had a pot of soup cooking on the
coal stove, so that no matter who came in and no matter when you came, there was
always something to eat, a good piece of black Jewish rye bread and some good
homemade Jewish soup that simmered on the coal range. It was hot in the kitchen
but we didn’t mind it. There was no air conditioning. There weren’t even any
They lived behind the store and it was a home that was a very simple home
but adequate for the family. When we were small children, there was no inside
bathroom and we remember well going to the outhouse and we also remember that,
in the wintertime, my grandfather had a big barrel of green tomatoes, pickles,
and a big barrel of homemade sauerkraut that was made with cranberries and with
kimmel caraway seed and we still talk about how wonderful it was to break
through the ice on top of the barrels and get some of that marvelous stuff,
because everything was done at home in those days.
My grandfather had what they
call a dirt heap in the basement (the basement was cool) and he would bury
turnips and carrots in the dirt in the basement and that’s how we would store.
They did not have refrigeration as we know it today, so they had to make do and
they had to be creative and they brought a lot of the ideas with them from the
old country, but that kitchen was a place where we felt at home and we knew it
was a place that we could always come and we could always experience joy and
And my grandmother was a very, very kind woman and every stranger who
came through the town and needed a place to sleep and a meal was referred to my
grandmother’s kitchen and my grandmother had a black leather couch in the
kitchen and it was always available for a stranger to sleep overnight and have a
good meal in the kitchen and to be on his way the next day.
Melton: There are very few of those kinds of grandmother’s kitchens left
today. I wish there were more.
Interviewer: And how did your parents feel about the Jewish education you
were getting from your grandparents? Did they approve?
Melton: My parents did not say one thing or other about it, it was all in the
matter of, that’s the way we lived. My parents did not have any experience with
any kind of Jewish education whatsoever as we know it today. They knew they were
Jewish and everybody they knew was Jewish. We knew some gentile kids that we
played on the street with and we were even very friendly with our gentile
neighbors; we had Italian neighbors and we were very friendly. But, hum, you
know as we think about Jewish education today, it never occurred to my parents
to even think one way or another about it, except when my brother was ready for
bar mitzvah, he had a usually melamed to teach him his parscha, and that was it.
Interviewer: What about your siblings? What were their names?
Melton: My brother’s name is Sidney, he’s 2 1/2 years younger than I. My
sister’s name is Pearl and she is 15 months older than I. I was the middle
child. All of us learned Yiddish at my grandmother’s house. We all know Yiddish
and I speak it fluently today because, as I like to say, my grandmother never
died; she still speaks to me. But my sister, who is very Jewish in spirit has
never become actively involved as I have in Jewish life and in Jewish affairs,
nor has my brother. In fact, it’s an interesting piece of information, that I
might add to this, that my cousins were all good Jewish people. They were all
kind hearted people, but they never became actively involved in the Jewish
community and, it’s very interesting, one of my aunts, my mother’s sister,
Goldie, who had taken possession of my grandmother’s candlesticks, when my
grandmother passed away. She, herself, had two daughters and, yet, she called me
one day and she said, “I want you to have your grandmother’s
candlesticks,” she said, “because of all the kids; of all the girls in
the family (and there were many) you were the only one who will light
them.” And she was right.
Interviewer: Why was it that you are more religious, more Jewish?
Melton: It wasn’t that I was more religious, it’s that the opportunities that
came to me in my lifetime, opened up for me. More information became available
through my experiences in moving from one town to another after I was married.
And I was always, always involved with my kids; always involved with all
children that I could possibly work with, because that’s one of the things
that’s always been very important to me.
Before I had any children, I did a lot
of reading about child psychology and about raising children, about parenting
and it was always very interesting for me. I was even interested in psychology
when I was in high school and I read on my own a great deal about psychology.
So, that I became extremely interested even though I did not have a college
education, I became extremely interested in furthering my knowledge on a lot of
different levels, in a lot of different kinds of disciplines. So that I was more
open to new experiences and new challenges, perhaps, than the other kids in my
And, when I moved to a town in Indiana, where my older son, Gordon
Zacks, was born and I had an experience there with the Reform temple, I became
the first president of a chapter of Hadassah. I organized a Hadassah chapter, in
Terre Haute, Indiana. And we wanted to meet in a Reform temple and, in those
days, there was the Reform movement was very anti-Zionist. Now, that’s hard to
believe, isn’t it, but it’s true.
Interviewer: Why was that?
Melton: Well, there were many German Jews who formed many of the Reformed
Temples. They were assimilationist Jews who came from Germany with their
assimilationist intellectual attitudes. In those days, Reform Judaism was very
different from what it is today. So Zionism to those people meant dual
loyalties. And they rejected the whole concept of Zionism. So, Hadassah being a
women’s Zionist organization of America was not acceptable to them in their
So, I told all of the ladies who were members of the first chapter that
the way to deal with this was for all of us to come to the board (of the Temple)
and tell the board that if they were not ready to accept the fact that
membership is entitled to decide for themselves whether Zionism is acceptable
and the members have a right to meet in temple, since we are members of the
temple and members of the sisterhood, that we in the group were going to drop
membership from the temple. And we did just that. And they finally came around
and permitted us to meet in the temple but you see, I was a part of that
experience, so I knew that Judaism is not something we take for granted. Judaism
is something we have to work with within the context of the opportunities we see
in those times.
So, in those times, it was important to me to fight for that
right to say that Zionism is valid, even though you may not agree with me, my
Hadassah group thinks it’s important and we have our right to do that. So, I
had many experiences along the line. I had experiences that dealt with
anti-Semitism with my kids.
Interviewer: Can you tell me about them?
Melton: Well, there were many but we moved from Terre Haute, Indiana to
Cumberland, Maryland, where my son Barry Zacks was born and we had no problems
at all in Cumberland, Maryland. We had a very nice temple in Maryland and we had
very nice experiences there but then we went into business in a town called
Hagerstown, Maryland. We went into business for ourselves in a decorating
business, and in that town, we moved to a street where there were no Jewish
There was nothing in the neighborhood that was Jewish and one of the kids
across the street; the father was a dentist, I remember well. He got into a
fight with Gordy and called him a dirty Jew and he picked up a stone that was
real sharp and threw it at Gordy and it went right through his corduroy jacket
and made a hole in his back and I had to take him to the hospital. He has a scar
to this day from that incident and then later on, when we moved to Columbus,
Ohio, in 1941, we had a number of on-going anti-Semitic experiences with kids
who lived in the neighborhood, particularly one Catholic boy by the name of
Miller and he was the leader of these kids who used to throw mud at our door.
And I tried very hard to get these kids into cub scouts (I was a scout den
mother in that time) and I tried very hard to get these kids and all the kids in
the neighborhood to form a club and I took everything out of my garage and all
the kids decorated the garage and we put curtains on the windows and we made
Interviewer: Thank you, Florence, for sharing your personal life experiences
with the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.