Jan 25, 2007

A Yankee Girl in Southern Dixie Land

Valerie J. Steimle

After growing up in the northeast for 20 years, I found myself settled in Southern Alabama. Not a place I would have picked after living in the west for 15 years with my husband, but we moved here and stayed. Since my husband has passed away, I thought about writing of my earlier memories for my children so they will know what it was like for me growing up in a different world. My children have such a different lifestyle from what I was used to so long ago up north. They have no idea what it was like for me to live in Brooklyn and New Jersey during the 60’s and 70’s. So here are my thoughts to my upbringing up north:

Being born in Brooklyn, New York isn’t such a bad thing. Not such a bad thing if you are raised in New Jersey. New Jersey seems to take the rap for being the arm pit of the nation. It’s not really. It just houses the overflow from New York City. Like many New Yorkers, my parents left to move away from the city to raise a family in ‘62.

Brooklyn was still home to me. I spent many weekends there and played in the park as well as taking walks down its streets. In one of our walks to the park with my grandmother, I saw my first dead person sitting on a chair on the sidewalk. This is nothing to brag about, but I was only 7 at the time and it had a profound effect on me.

Both my parents were born and raised in New York City. My father’s father and mother were from Russia. They came over as teenagers, not knowing a word of English but they learned. They embraced their new country and learned all they could to live here while working and paying their taxes. My Grandfather became very wealthy from his ladies’ hat making business. The only language my father knew until he was five years old was Yiddish. He then started his education by attending kindergarten and learned English along with the other classmates in the same situation.

Almost all the family settled in the Brooklyn area and visited each other all the time. My Grandma Martha (father’s mother) would take me with her on her visits to the other family members. When they didn’t want me to understand what they were talking about, they would speak Yiddish to each other. They all spoke with European accents but I was used to hearing it, so I understood what they said. They cooked differently, they ate differently—no drink during mealtime—they dressed differently and they lived differently. All of which would be so foreign to my children’s nature now if they were to go back during that time. But I was used to it then, because that is all I knew.

By the time I got to high school in the 70’s there were distinct differences between myself and my peers. I wasn’t allowed to wear blue jeans to school. No denim whatsoever. Only dress pants and dresses. I stuck out like a sore thumb but that was the house rule. I didn’t actually own a pair of jeans until I hit college. The music my family listened to was the big band stuff and Frank Sinatra. My father liked classical too. So that is what I heard. When I wanted to buy my first Beatle’s album, it was voted down by my parents. And never mind watching them on The Ed Sullivan Show, as soon as they came on, the channel was changed.

Yearly family gatherings with the whole family—uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents were spent at restaurants popular for that day. There were several hundred family members that came and we had a good time together. As a teenager, I was embarrassed by the family’s behavior but now I wouldn’t care. Dancing the “Hora” at bar mitzvahs, carrying on the way they did; they all loved each other and it showed. Those days are gone now as well as most of those aunts and uncles I grew up with. Only a few cousins remain but I learned something important from all of that. I learned that the family was important whether you were from the north or from the south. Blood is always thicker than water as they say and taking care of each other is the right thing to do. So the next time I hear Hava Nageeta (song for the Hora), I’ll get up and dance.


  1. Fascinating! Thank you! Great stuff.
    Jennifer Griffith

  2. What wonderful memories, Valerie! Thank you for writing and sharing them.

  3. Oh, Valerie, you leave me wanting to know more. I want to see inside the living rooms of those Aunts who spoke yiddish. I want to know their names I want to know about the hat business. I'm lucky enough to have lived in the time that a woman didn't leave the house, and certainly didn't travel without a hat on. I can see how he could have thrived. I can see you have your work cut out for you to leave a legacy for your children.

  4. So did you grow up in a Jewish household? If so, when did you convert to the LDS church? My in-laws are Jewish and my kids' great-grandfather taught Yiddish at Duke University until he was in his 90's. We spent many a wonderful Passovers at his home. We miss him. Your family sounds wonderful. You really do need to leave that legacy for your kids.

  5. Wow, Valerie,
    You made me think of "Fiddler on the Roof" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding". I can see the two rolled into your memories. You have such a rich and wonderful heritage. How blessed you are. I hope that you share all of this with your children. I constantly love to remind my children of their pioneer heritage. Of course I hear, "Yes, Mother, I know...you've only told that story like a million and a half times." But keep telling them. They are a legacy that is powerful!

  6. Thank you all for your wonderful comments. We actually converted to the church when I was 10 but didn't tell anyone for fear the family would disown us. So we lived almost a double life. It was actually pretty exciting for a teenager but again, my family embarressed me. Especially when I got married. We had Passover and Chanakka too.
    It was just like My Big Fat Greek Wedding movie: my husband's family were the quiet ones and my whole family were the noisy, loud abnoxious ones. I think that is why I like that movie so much. It reminds me of what happened to me. Ha.

  7. Valerie,
    I am constantly amazed at all of your many layers! What an amazing woman you are! Actually, I am recognizing how fascinatingly unique each woman is. I love it! I can't wait to sit at our Father's knee and see the whole picture.


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