This interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society is being recorded on February 6, 2013 as part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society’s Oral History Project. My name is Jody Atschule and I am interviewing Mimi Chenfeld.
Interviewer: What is your full name?
Chenfeld: Mimi Brodsky Chenfeld
Interviewer: Do you have a Jewish name?
Interviewer: Who were you named for?
Chenfeld: I think I was named for this relative of my mother’s in Romania who promised mother some gift or something nice if she named me Miriam. But I don’t think she ever gave it to my mother.
Interviewer: Do you know any legends or stories of the past which have been told and retold in your family?
Chenfeld: From way back in Romania? Yes, I do. I know of two wonderful ones. One is that my mother was taken by the gypsies. Just mischief. The gypsies used to come to her town in Romania – Harlow, a little village in Romania. She was one of seven children. The gypsies used to come in a caravan every single year and camp outside the village and do mischief, not evil, just mischief. One day one of the gypsy guys came and picked her up and took her to the gypsy camp. She was a little girl and was there for the day, I guess, and then the whole town was looking for her. When they found her, she was sitting, perfectly cheery. They took her little gold earrings out of her ears, but they treated her nicely. My mother was very matter-of-fact, so when she told me the story years later, I said “Mom, I love the gypsies. What do you remember? My mother said “I didn’t like their food.” That’s what she remembered. It is a legend, not a story. The other one was my mother’s youngest sister, Ella, was very, very sick as an infant. They called in the rabbi of the village to do the ceremony where they changed her name so the angel of death couldn’t find her. This is a superstition, but mother said she remembers standing there at the ceremony with the rabbi. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that my Aunt Ella said, “Oh, you know, my name really isn’t Ella.” They changed her name as an infant to ward off the angel of death. She did live quite a long life, so I guess it worked.
Interviewer: What was your mother’s full name?
Chenfeld: When she came from Romania it was Eida Bloom, but they pronounced it “Eeda.” She didn’t like the way they pronounced it in America because they kept saying “Ida.” She hated Ida and couldn’t get people to call her Eida, so somebody said if you take out the D and put in an R and add an S and you can be Iris. So she was Iris Bloom in America. My father was Joseph Kaplan.
Interviewer: In what country were they born?
Chenfeld: Mother was born in Romania and Dad’s mom came from Russia. He was first generation.
Interviewer: How did they get here and when did they meet?
Chenfeld: They met in 1934. Mother was a friend of my dad’s sister and they met at a gathering. They grew up in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn.
Interviewer: How old were they when they came to the country?
Chenfeld: Mother was 14 years old, one of 7 children when they came in 1920. And Dad, of course, was born here. His mom had just come from Russia.
Interviewer: Can you remember stories about them when they were young, beyond Romania?
Chenfeld: It was a very struggle of poverty. There were 7 children and they didn’t speak English, and they had one pair of shoes for the sisters, so mother’s feet were horrible for the rest of her life. They were spunky. When they got on the trolley cars in New York City, they never saw people chewing gum. They saw these people chewing and didn’t know what they were chewing. They thought Americans were like cows and chewing cud or chewing part of their jaws or something. So not one of those people ever chewed gum.
Interviewer: Where was their wedding?
Chenfeld: It was probably in one of the apartments, maybe my aunt’s apartment. They were very poor. It was about 120○ and no air conditioning, so all people remember is how hot and sweltering it was.
Interviewer: When they were young, did they have employment as they got older? Did they get jobs before they got married?
Chenfeld: Oh, yes. My dad never finished high school. His father died when he was a little boy, and he was the only son of three children, so he became like the little man of the house. My grandmother always worked. His mother had pushcarts in the markets in New York City, and she loved her pushcarts. She was a real salesperson. She had a dry goods pushcart. When they took it inside like the North Market, she had a stall. My dad did everything. He painted houses and knocked on doors and sold tires. He just did everything. He ended up in real estate the last 25 years of his life. He loved real estate. But he never finished school but was extremely well-read. He was conservative and had lots of arguments all through her life. Mom worked at a bank when she met my father. But then she got pregnant right away and was home. But she did a tremendous amount of community service wherever she was.
Interviewer: Do you have brothers and sisters?
Chenfeld: Yes. My sister and brother live in San Diego. My brother is a lawyer and my sister is in public relations. She is another one who never went to college. She is a fantastic woman who started her own public relations company that was one of the most successful in San Diego. She is retired but she works for her daughter who started a company. She was also a freelance writer. My sister is Laura Walcher. She and my brother both play music in groups that play in the senior housing and Heritage House type of places.
Interviewer: Have you taken any interest in community work?
Chenfeld: I have been totally involved since we are here since 1970. I am not a good committee kind of person. I’m more of the type where you tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll show up and do it.
Interviewer: Do you have any hobbies?
Chenfeld: They are more like the way you live. Dance, music, writing, walking, moving.
Interviewer: Tell me about your work and schools.
Chenfeld: I have been teaching since 1956. I’ve been teaching all ages, all kids, since we came to Columbus in 1970. Most everything I have done has been integrating the arts in education and programs and conferences and still at the JCC with the little mousies. There is so much that I can’t even go into it because it has been so many years. I teach at Otterbein in the summer and Columbus State and a library program. It’s too crazy but very involved.
Interviewer: Do you travel in your work?
Chenfeld: Yes. I’ve been to 46 states with teachers and England and Puerto Rico and Canada. Just with teachers, not the family. Of course, the family is scattered all over, so I travel to see the kids and everything.
Interviewer: Tell us about your husband and if there are other marriages.
Chenfeld: Howie is gone six years now. He was in the shoe business. We came here because he was going to work for Shoe Corporation of America. He loved buying shoes and loved deciding which shoes were going to sell a year ahead, putting shoes together. He was very good at it. He loved art history, which was his major in school. He was very involved in the arts community. He was actually the chairman of the Arts Committee at the JCC for a couple of years. He was on the Board of Directors of the Jewish Center and the Board of Directors of the Berwick Civic Association. He was very involved in the community.
Interviewer: Are there any deaths of your loved ones that you want to talk about?
Chenfeld: No, I don’t want to talk about death.
Interviewer: Is there anything unusual that has occurred in your adult life that you wish to talk about – unusual things.
Chenfeld: Everything in my adult life is unusual. I’ve been luck to get to do all the things I love to do. I’ve really been a lucky person.
Interviewer: Do you belong to any organizations?
Chenfeld: Oh, my God. I belong to every organization but am not always a good member. Hadassah, NCJW, International Reading Association, National Association of the Education of Young Children, ACLU. I really belong to too many organizations, but I’m not always good about being at a planning meeting or anything. I’m very supportive of community organizations.
Interviewer: I know you have gotten many honors throughout your career. If you don’t want to tell us what they are, we can probably fill in the blanks.
Chenfeld: I think it is for longevity. I have gotten a lot of honors, but the best thing I’ve ever gotten was a little kid wrote me and said, “Mimi, you’re the queen of fun.” I use that. That’s my greatest honor, that a little guy said that. I’m not a good honors person but sometimes an organization has to find somebody to honor.
Interviewer: I think there’s a lot of admiration there.
Chenfeld: Longevity and survival.
Interviewer: What affiliations do you have to temples, etc.?
Chenfeld: I’ve belonged to Beth Tikvah for 35-40 years. I’m not very involved as I should be, but that’s my temple.
Interviewer: Can you describe what your life was like as a child during holidays? Or did you celebrate the holidays? Were they a joyous time?
Chenfeld: Very joyous. Almost the whole family lived in New York City and extended family. We were all there. Holidays like seders and Chanukah were happy family gatherings, and there was a huge Harlow Romanian contingent. In the city they called them the Landsmen. “The Landsmen are coming.” Holidays were always cheerful and happy.
Interviewer: Does religion play an important role in your family?
Chenfeld: My kids are all adult and scattered, and they have different layers of involvement. I’m a happy involved member of Beth Tikvah. I am working with the Sunday School kids in folk dancing. As much as I can do because I’m on the road a lot, in and out a lot.
Interviewer: What values did your family have influence on you when you were young? Did you feel like your family gave you the values that have affected your life today?
Chenfeld: I think so. The family was very close and very joyful and active. Mother was totally involved in community volunteering. She was an unbelievable woman. She had awards from everyone from the President to the Governor of the state of New York for her work. She was a great role model. My dad was a humorous guy. He had a great sense of humor, phenomenal joke teller. Very l’chaim. I think the values of l’chaim was the biggest one in just family and caring. They were very caring people.
Interviewer: Who had the greatest influence on you do you think when you were young that affects your personality today? Was there a teacher, a parent?
Chenfeld: You know, Jody, it’s funny. I had to give this acceptance speech for an award awhile ago, and I said that I’d like to thank everyone I’ve ever met in my whole life. I always worked with kids even when I was 14 years old. The children, the people who worked with them, relatives of mine, teachers, writers, Louisa May Alcott with Jo March. I’m sure I started writing when I was 9 years old because of Little Women. I can’t think of any one person. Teachers, I loved school and counselors and friends and camps. It takes a community to raise a child. All the community voices influenced me.
Interviewer: What has helped get you through tough times?
Chenfeld: I swear to God I don’t know. It’s a miracle, and you just get through because you have no choice. Either you get through or you don’t get through. I think it is miraculous how we get through the tough times. I really do.
Interviewer: How do you feel television has influenced our society throughout the years?
Chenfeld: You’re talking to the lowest tech person. I am remembering television when it started with Sid Caesar and The Show of Shows and the Hit Parade. You know, those simple shows in years gone by that we loved. And then All in the Family which we thought was incredible. Those shows were fabulous to help people open their heads and hearts. And I think Seinfeld and Great Performances on PBS. I’m not a big TV watcher, but I’ll watch something special. Saturday Night Live keeps the irreverence going. Bill Maher and those satirists. But you know it is hard because the kids are so tuned in to crap. I’ve never seen a reality show and have no idea what they are really about. But what I hear about them is unbelievably stupid. I can’t even imagine the narcissist thing we are into. I think we have to try to offset it with children. I work with them all the time and we have to give them other ways to enjoy and imagine and celebrate.
Interviewer: How did you meet your husband?
Chenfeld: I met my husband through is sister. She kind of was a matchmaker. She is dear to me, like my sister. She lives in FL and Albany, NY. It was a second marriage for both of us. We were both widowed before. I got married in 1970, so figure that out. I am going to be 78. So I was probably 35 or 36.
Interviewer: Did you bring children to this marriage?
Chenfeld: Yes. Howie had a daughter and I had two boys, but we have three children. We came to Columbus as a family. We were married 36 or 37 years.
Interviewer: That’s nice that you found each other and were married for so long and had a rich life. That’s fabulous. Where did you get married?
Chenfeld: We got married in Albany, NY and went to Puerto Rico on a honeymoon for five days.
Interviewer: Tell me about your kids and their children.
Chenfeld: Cliff, my oldest, lives in New York City. His wife is Chana. They have three boys. Cliff is in the music business. He was a lawyer but he quit and he started a music business about 25 years ago called Razor and Time Music, and he is doing phenomenally well. I don’t want to give him a Kena Hora. They live in the city. Len is 21 and he goes to Trinity College in CT. Dylan is 19 and is a big music kid. He plays guitar. Noah is 17 and composes and writes music. Those three boys are awesome. Cara is our daughter, and she lives in Chicago and is married to a glass blower, Jim Wilbat, wonderful glass blower. He travels the country with art shows. She does all his business, the flyers, the PR – everything but blowing the glass. She is fantastically organized and talented person. They have two kids, Kelly is at U of Michigan (sorry about that). She wanted to go to OSU but Ann Arbor gave her a better deal. Ryan is going to be a senior next hear, and he I totally interested in theater tech. Danny is my skydiver and he lives in California. In skydiving circles, he has reached great heights. Everyone knows him in the world as BC (Brodsky Chenfield). He is a manager of a huge ______ but he also travels the world to coach national times in the skydiving where they make the designs in the sky. He just wrote a book called “Above All Else” which you can get on Amazon. It is an awesome phenomenal book. Cliff says Danny has written more books than he has read. He has two kids. Chloe is graduating this year from high school. She is a theater kid, dance, music, a gorgeous kid. And Landon is 13 and he is a 13 year old kid.
Interviewer: Wonderful. It seems like they are all channeling their energies into the theater and the arts.
Chenfeld: We don’t have any practical people there.
Interviewer: How often did you get to influence them in their lives?
Chenfeld: I wouldn’t give it to any kind of influence. I see the Chicago and New York kids more than I see the California kids. We see them all a few times a year.
Interviewer: Can you remember anything special about each of your children as they were growing up?
Chenfeld: The skydiver kid would climb to the highest diving board anywhere and jump off and dive off. He was never afraid of heights. He had no fear of climbing to the top of a tree. That was Danny. He ended up getting his degree at OSU in aviation. He did have a plane. He lives in the sky. Cliff was always like your politician, your editor, your publisher, your music guy. Don’t get into an argument with him because he is your brilliant, fast talking guy. Don’t mess with him. Cara is brilliantly creative. She could draw letters and calligraphy and design. Very organized and kind. If you need somebody to organize your life, she is your girl. She has always been that way.
Interviewer: That’s wonderful. Tell me about appearances that you have done, notable one with a consistency guest on Fred Angelis Show.
Chenfeld: And on Ann Fisher’s too. Always on creative education and creativity. We tried to offset all the topics of the day when I’d get on with creative and joyful and fun ways of teaching that honored the kids and strengthened teachers against the testing crap.
Interviewer: What are the names of the books that you wrote?
Chenfeld: One of them is Creative Experiences for Young Children, which is in its third edition at Heineman. One is called Teaching in the Key of Life, which is my first collection. It is out of print, but they are trying to bring it back as a 25th anniversary. One is called Teaching by Heart, which is a collection. Most of the stuff is from kids around here, at the JCC and the Columbus Schools. Another is called Celebrating Young Children and Their Teachers. That has on the cover kids from the JCC. And then I have some novels. I have one which was a first controversial book for kids in the country called The House at Twelve Row Street. This was turned into an ABC After School Special and got an Emmy nomination. I had nothing to do with it. It was adapted from the book. It was about our segregation and prejudice and was published originally in 1966. I wrote it in 1957 and it took ten years because at the time I wrote it, publishers closed doors to anything controversial for children. They wouldn’t even read anything if it was controversial. All the publishers rejected it. They all said it was a good story but were not publishing it. I kept it out for ten years, and the first company that rejected it ten years earlier, took it because the times had changed and they wanted realistic stories for children. By then I was very pissed off at all the publishers because for nine years they could have been publishing books for kids that really mattered. So anyway, it got published and was very well reviewed. It was in paperback, and chapters went into reading books and everything. Then it sort of went out of print. I got a call from Harper and Rowe in 1980. They thought I was dead. They hunted me down because it was under my other name, Mimi Brodsky. They found me and told me they have a film based on the book but couldn’t find me to ask permission. I gave them permission and got a little money but not a lot. It went on and was very well reviewed and got honored as the best After School Special.
Interviewer: Did you protest during the 1960’s?
Chenfeld: Oh, absolutely. I did not go south, but we had a lot of protests in New York. A lot of rallies, oh, yeah. I was active, same as I am now.
Interviewer: In your formative years, you were very involved.
Chenfeld: Remember, I grew up in McCarthy. We had a huge group at Hofstra, and anti-McCarthy group that was trying to get free speech and trying to stop this whole scare and fear thing he was trying to perpetuate all over the country. It was horrible. I was totally involved in civil rights and all of that.
Interviewer: Did your kids get some of that activism?
Chenfeld: Yes, I think they did. Cara was very into it in the Chicago area. She is very involved in community. Cliff was a deeply left wing wild guy, doing everything he can to help the causes.
Interviewer: Is there anything else that you want to talk about?
Chenfeld: One thing, Jody, and you are probably sharing this. The years with Harold Eisenstein. I think the years that we did the musicals with him were just joyful. They took chunks of your life, but I think I choreographed the first Fiddler, Milk and Honey, the Dybbuk, Yentl, five or six of his productions. I loved working with him and loved working with Gallery Players, loved working with you, honey. They were very joyful times.
Interviewer: Did you study that kind of theater?
Chenfeld: No. I loved dancing since I was 18. I still have the group up at Hillel for 42 years. I’ve always loved choreography and I studied modern dance. But when I studied it at college, they didn’t have that. Now you can go to OSU, which is the number one dance department in the United States. Fabulous, they’ve been doing a great job. You can get your degree in dance or dance education. When I was in school there was no such thing. I took modern dance classes, and we had a company in New York in Schnectady that was called _________ and we choreographed our own steps. So I have been choreographing for years. When I came to Columbus, I don’t know how it happened, but I ended up choreographing Fiddler. I loved it. Milk and Honey. There’s another one I just can’t think of. Harold was just a treasure. I learned a lot from him.
Interviewer: Are there files on the original Fiddler on the Roof?
Chenfeld: No. There are notes. It was mine. It may be different now. I spoke to Jared and he said that now it is built into the script that they have to use the original choreography, which I can’t even believe, because that was with the Jerry Robins.
Interviewer: First of all, they had a huge stage and three times as many people.
Chenfeld: And every one was an incredible dancer. I really don’t know what is going on there, but now I just wouldn’t have the time. It really took a chunk of your time.
Interviewer: Have you worked with any other people in the arts locally?
Chenfeld: Steven Anderson is my boy, and Michael Rosen. Steven, I go back to before he even started and the JCC Early Childhood Program was going to start with 3-year olds. Up until then it was 4-5 year olds. They asked me who I knew who would be a good toddler teacher? Now we start with 6 weeks old, Jody. You should come. I said “Steven, how would you like to work with toddlers?” He said “What, I never did that in my life.” He ended up for a year or two being the first toddler teacher in the childhood program at the JCC. From then on, it is history.
Interviewer: When my son was still working at the JCC, he was a couple of years older, already in regular school, maybe older like 6-7. Steve developed a film class for my son when he was that little and his little neighborhood friends. Every week they would get together after school and make movies. Steve did it. It was great.
Chenfeld: I wonder if he remembers.
Interviewer: Yes, I see him and he remembers.
Chenfeld: When you see a story like Steve’s and Michael Rosen, those are great stories.
Interviewer: What are your plans for the future?
Chenfeld: Everything I’m doing now, I’ll keep doing it. Stay vertical.
Interviewer: If you could give a lesson about life to your children and grandchildren in generations to come, what would it be?
Chenfeld: Be kind to people. Be happy every day to be alive. Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. Take nothing for granted. Appreciate everything.
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.