Interviewee: William Hoffman
Interviewer: Adena Collen
Interview Date: February 13, 2016
Location: Troy, MI
Interview No.: 02.13.16-WH (audio digital file)
(Approximate total length: 57 minutes)
Themes: Jewish Identity, Anti-Semitism, Conversion, Doctrine, Jewish Gentile Relations, Upbringing
Summary:William Hoffman’s Jewish identity is a microcosm of the American Jewish diaspora’s path to Reform and Renewal practice. Born into a traditionally Orthodox family of Kosher bakers in Pittsburgh, Hoffman drank deep at the well of tradition before his thirst for debate and different styles of Judaism led him to the reform movement. Along the way he moved to Michigan and found a reconnection to his liturgical past at Shir Tikvah. Hoffman also details his family putting down roots in America.
Example of proper citation/attribution:
Collens, A. (Interviewer) & Hoffman, W.(Interviewee). (2018). William Hoffman: Jewish Journeys[Interview Index]. Retrieved from Jewish Journeys Oral History Collection of Congregation Shir Tikvah: https://shirtikvah.org/cstoralhistoryarchive
Note: Counter index corresponds to track times when loaded into iTunes.
1:30 Mother’s family came to the United States from Romania between 1910-20. Grandfather came over to avoid conscription in Russian army but then enlisted to fight in World War I. Married Hoffman’s grandmother who was from the same town in Romania. Hoffman’s grandmother had carried her Shabbos candlesticks with her to the boat, are still used by the family.
4:46 Father’s side arrived from Lithuania. Grandfather was said to have killed the mayor of a town to prevent a pogrom from occurring and had to make his way through various means - both in pickle barrels and dressed as women - to make their escape. Settled in Butler, PA after living in New York City and helped found the butcher’s union there. Later, William Hoffman met union members in Cincinnati who hadn’t realized his grandfather was Jewish.
10:04 Mother’s father was brought over by “Uncle Jake” - a member of the family who had done well and would bring over extended family members. Kosher baking was the family business: Herman Brothers Bakery. Eventually William’s father became a partner in the bakery after his career in butchery. Went back to school after retiring from baking and became a vocational teacher for baking and cake decorating.
13:30 Mother’s father and father’s father both supportive of local synagogues, founding and supporting. Mother’s father a tough man but was known for his tzedakah across a range of philanthropic efforts from catholic baby homes to Jewish charities - joke was if one had a beard they should knock on his door and get a contribution. Anonymously supported local businesses when people were struggling. Supported three orthodox synagogues. With family owning the only kosher bakery it was hard for young Hoffman to get away with anything in a tight-knit community.
17:14 Demographics of Squirrel Hill (Pittsburgh) Jewish community - workers close to the river and more affluent as one went up the hill. All socio-economic levels at the same high school but overall so Jewish that Jewish holidays were observed. Proximity to a Catholic school prompted fist fights, especially around Easter time.
23:12 Upbringing with backdrop of kosher bakery and catering, mother was president of sisterhood at shul Shaare Torah. Shul was an all week affair with school and services throughout the week. Was at the shul as it was being built, joke was cinder blocks were the children’s desks. Powerful impression and conversation from one teacher who was a concentration camp survivor.
27:10 Became very close with the cantor during his preparation for Bar Mitzvah, led entire service from beginning to the end. Cantor was invited to other synagogue to present Hoffman with a boy scout award (troop was hosted at other synagogue).
30:04 Attended National Jamboree of Boy Scouts in Valley Forge, PA. Since they were sponsored by kosher oriented shul they were separated out from the other 15,000 or so troops - had special food, other troops were jealous. When on tour in Philadelphia other troops received boxed lunches, they were taken to a Jewish home and given kosher lunch and dinner.
32:32 Turning away from orthodoxy - rigidity overall and unwillingness to translate Hebrew pushed Hoffman away. Didn’t enjoy early experiences at Hillel day school as part of post-Bar Mitzvah schooling. Domineering headmaster did not help situation. Years later at Temple Emanuel, during his graduate studies, he appreciated being able to ask the Rabbi direct questions but was disturbed with “just believe” type answers.
38:35 Moved to Detroit in 1967 - warm outreach from congregants at Beth El was welcomed. Was able to find good opportunities for tzedakah in the same style as his grandfather, supporting direct needs of the community. Is uncomfortable talking about it but feels it is an important part of being Jewish.
44:08 Met wife during college in Ohio, wife converted prior to their marriage. Wife became involved in preschool and sisterhood, raised their children at Temple Emanuel. Appreciates the traditional liturgy at Shir Tikvah, more comfortable than other shuls, reminds him of his childhood experiences and friends. Likes doing more in Hebrew but also appreciates having learned meaning in English.