Interviewee: PENNIE MICHELIN
Interviewer: Stacy Ziegenfelder
Interview Date: November 18, 2017
Location: Rochester, MI
Interview No.: 11.18.17-PM (audio digital file)
(Approximate total length 52 minutes)
Themes:Jewish Identity, Doctrine, Observance
Summary: Pennie’s Orthodox grandparents came from Poland and Russia eventually settling in Metropolitan Detroit. She grew up with a close and large extended family in a kosher Conservative house. Her life journey has taken her through all branches of Judaism. She has chosen the one bringing her the most fulfillment and spirituality: Reform/Renewal movement. Equally important are being welcomed, heard, and empowered as a person and a woman in the community.
Example of proper citation/attribution:
Ziegenfelder, S. (Interviewer) & Michelin, P. (Interviewee). (2017). Pennie Michelin: Jewish Journeys[Interview Index]. Retrieved from Jewish Journeys Oral History Collection of Congregation Shir Tikvah web site: https://shirtikvah.org/cstoralhistoryarchive
Note: Counter index corresponds to track times when loaded into iTunes
0:00 Pennie is 2ndgeneration of family from Metropolitan Detroit. Her mother’s parents came from Poland (around 1910-1920, spoke Polish/Yiddish) and father’s parents came from Russia (spoke Russian/Yiddish).
SZ: Did your extended family all live in Metro Detroit?
PM: Yes. My mother’s parents were first cousins, who met working at Winkelman’s in Owosso, WI. They lived there and then St. Ignatius, MI, where other family lived. Most of them then came down to Detroit area. My father’s father came from Russia to Detroit through Winnipeg, Manitoba and St. Paul, MN. He and his brother brought over rest of the family (parents and siblings) to avoid conscription in Russian army. My father’s parents met through his sister. My mother was the first child born to Abraham and Bertha Winkelman Weisner (born Sept. 11, 1924). My father was first child of Abraham and Gertrude Golden (born Jan 6, 1921 in Detroit). Detroit was a Jewish ghetto when my parents were born. They grew up in a small area, went to same schools. My parents met through a mutual friend. My mother was 19 when they married, young but common then. They married in an Orthodox shul. She had to fast before the wedding and didn’t get a chance to eat at the wedding.
There were 7 siblings that had come from Poland on mom’s side, and they all had children. All the aunts, uncles, and cousins on mother’s side were very close and loving. On dad’s side, they weren’t so touchy/feely or close. My dad’s cousins were introduced to this affection from my mother. Both parents grew up Orthodox (or close to it). Mom’s father was shamus in the shul. My dad’s father was a shoykitz, slaughtered the cows; he and his brother were Kosher butchers. Orthodox Rabbis would inspect the store to ensure meat and products were strictly kosher. Parents were raised strictly kosher and Jewish home.
09:00 I was raised strictly kosher home, with separate meat and milk dishes as well as Passover dishes and towels. I went to Conservative shul. My brother was Bar Mitzvah’d, my sister was first female Bat Mitzvah’d. All cousins had bnai mitzvahs. I was Bat Mitzvah’d, but because I was a girl I could not get close to the Torah. I had a Haftorah portion to recite, from Book of Kings. I led service on a Friday night.. I went to Hebrew school for 5 years, Bat Mitzvah training for just less than 1 year, and Hebrew High School for 4 years (United Hebrew Schools, affiliated with Conservative Judaism). I was reading Hebrew at 7 ½. Learned a lot from Hebrew school: read and write Hebrew, rituals, holidays, Torah, and history. I went to Hebrew school 2 afternoons a week and Sunday morning. It did take up a lot of my time, it was very much a part of my identity. We did not go to public school on the High Holidays, kept Pesach for all 8 days. This was all normal to me. Not eating meat outside of the home was normal to me. This was what it was like growing up Jewish in Metro Detroit for me. I attended United Synagogue Youth (youth group). Met many friends through USY and Hebrew school, which was a good thing.
13:10 SZ: Did your parents ever say why they moved from being Orthodox to Conservative?
PM: It was probably easier, what was available in the area.
There were a lot of kosher butchers then. My grandparents didn’t believe in taking time off/vacation except for the Jewish holidays. My father enjoyed going to the shvitz downtown, and providing the steaks. My father and his cousins would go to the clubs and run the barbeques, etc. Lots of family gatherings with good food/meats and family. Grandparents led close families on both sides.
15:10 SZ: You grew up in Jewish schools, etc. Did you have exposure to non-Jews?
PM: Absolutely, kids on the block, kids at public school. Was not an exclusive neighborhood. In fact, my sister told me to mouth the Christmas songs at school, and my mother once took me to see Santa Clause (I was very shy and it didn’t make sense to me). I knew my birthday was near Hanukkah and when jingle bells was song because it was in December. I very much identified with being Jewish.
16:45 PM: When I went to Wayne State University, they had a Hillel. I would go there. My sister was a cook there. Then I went to school in Battle Creek, and I found the temple there. I fell in love with Reform. That was my first time introduced to Reform. I loved it, it was fantastic. I have been Reform since I was 20. I liked it and being active with congregation in Battle Creek, for 2 years. Then I joined Temple Beth El when I came back to Metro Detroit, and sang in the choir for 12 years. Eventually found way to Congregation Shir Tikvah, which is Reform and Renewal, and I love it.
My aunt, mother’s 3rdsister, was active in Zionism. Found her way to NY and then a kibbutz in Israel. She met her husband there, her husband too made Aliyah from Africa. To this day, aunt is living on same kibbutz (Barchai), near Hadera. Many of people in Israel aren’t as religious as they are secular. These cousins are more secular. Holidays like Sukkot, harvest holidays, Tu B’shvat are big in Israel. These cousins didn’t have b’nai mitzvahs. They’re strongly Israeli, but secular. One of their kids moved back to California.
21:30 SZ: What about Reform Judaism made you move to that movement?
PM: It had much more meaning to me. While more was in English, it was more meaningful to me. Singing in a different way. I love the singing, music, and services. When I go to Conservative services, I have trouble following the Cantor and knowing where we are. Although I do prefer some of the Conservative melodies for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that I remember singing with my parents. It’s ingrained in me, like the Pesach seder and melodies.
Most of my cousins living here haven’t continued going to services or living Jewishly outside of their identity. One cousin intermarried and converted to Lutheran. She and I spiritually are more connected than I am to my other cousins because she loves the spirituality, and perhaps if we had been raised with more spirituality and less rituals, my cousins would have identified with it more. The other cousins look at me askance wondering why I’m so involved and in a Reform/Renewal temple.
Only my son and one cousin’s son had Bar Mitzvahs. The rest have not. Most celebrate Hanukkah. My sister found Zionism and lived in Israel for long time, moved back when my father got sick. She has dual citizenship, lives Jewishly. I have a clock with Jewish letters, one from my sister and one from grandmother.
26:40 The man I married was not Jewish, but he converted to Judaism. He was picky on what he did, I didn’t push him. Raised my son Jewish, he started going to services with me when he was very young. He grew up in our congregation, kindergarten through 8thgrade, as well as having a Bar Mitzvah. He then helped around the building. He absolutely identifies with Judaism and believes strongly in it, to this day. I have been a bit hesitant sharing that I am Jewish. As an adult, I never know how it will be received. There is a lot of prejudice and antisemitism. I don’t share it until I get to know the person. Whereas, my son tells people right away, especially with the December dilemma.
I have many Jewish ritual objects in my home: pesach seder dish, menorah, mezuzah, Hebrew blessing of the home and for travel, my and son’s Hebrew name written by Torah scribe, things from grandparents and parents. I believe in G-d, I believe G-d is within me and around me. I do love praying in Hebrew because it takes me out of the everyday into the actual prayers.
31:50 SZ: Are the songs part of what brought you to the Reform movement?
PM: I think so.
33:30 SZ: Did you grow up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood? And now?
PM: No. We were always a minority. I still believe I’m a minority.
35:40 SZ: When did you leave Metro Detroit? Why
PM: I left in 1975 and came back in 1977, mother moved to Royal Oak. I’ve been living in suburbs since 1977. Moved out to Royal Oak as normal neighborhood migration, racially based.
38:10 SZ: What brought you from Temple Beth El to Shir Tikvah?
PM: Lot of people, staff changes. I was like one from across the tracks among a rich congregation. But, I don’t feel that way at Shir Tikvah, have always felt accepted. I’ve read 12 times from the Torah here. Very proud of myself for having done it and helped my son with it. We have come very far as women with Torah. It used to be we weren’t allowed near the Torah. Women weren’t allowed to lead services, women weren’t allowed to vote in the congregation. Now there are women presidents, women are Rabbis, lead from the Torah. Even thanking our foremothers in the Amidah. When I tutor the kids, which I’ve done for 20 years, I tell the girls that this is major for girls. Women have come a long way, and it’s good. But, I find some shivas (Orthodox), women aren’t welcomed to pray and feel I should go into the kitchen. I’m used to singing all the songs and leading shiva services now (at CST).
At many Conservative and Reform temples, it’s the Chazan that does the singing and the community listens. It’s not as much fun as singing along.
…come a long way from being the only girl in my Hebrew school class to where girls/women can do anything at Temple, unless it’s an Orthodox temple. I feel badly how women are treated in Orthodox.
Eli Cohen introduced us to the Renewal movement, first to Rabbi Arnie. Then mentored Steve Klaper. Reb Aura ordained in Renewal movement. In Renewal was able to dovetail my beliefs in Judaism and my spiritual beliefs I started learning about at 20 in college, and finally they’re both in the same place now because it was always separate. And that’s why I love it.