Brooklyn in Love and at War

History of World War Two Told Through Letters

Borscht Belt

with 2 comments

(The last letter is surely one I will need to revisit, there is too much to process all at once.)

In the last letter Sylvia spent a long time talking about what Adrienne ate. She mentions the creamy milk and the quarter of a chicken that “Baby” happily devoured. The letter, written in 1944, indirectly addresses the rationing that the nation was dealing with during WWII. Families were issued ration books and points based on family size which served as a kind of currency for Americans. Meat and dairy products were parcelled out sparingly. Companies like Kraft gained popularity with their boxed macaroni and cheese to substitute for scarce fresh foods.  “The government also printed a monthly meal-planning guide with recipes and a daily menu. Good Housekeeping magazine printed a special section for rationed foods in its 1943 cookbook.” (http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1674.html) It also became a mark of patriotism to “go without.” You were supporting the troops by giving up a portion of the meat you might normally consume.  When possible, families started their own gardens (named, of course, Victory Gardens). Of course, as this picture to the right points out, a good housewife would never complain about her hardships. She is a cute domesticated Rosie-The -Rationer.

It is so difficult, sometimes, to understand how many different ways the war impacted people’s daily lives, how much everyone was forced to adjust.  The very basics –  family, food and shelter – could not be taken for granted. Even when you built a family, had enough food, and made yourself a home – it all teetered on a tentative foundation.

Sylvia also talks a lot about how Adrienne misses her father and is jealous of another young girl who is playing with her dad. This heartbreaking scene must have been as painful for Alex to read about as it was for Sylvia to watch. Adrienne is obviously aware of her father’s absence, even though she couldn’t, at that point, have any tangible memory of him. Sylvia must try to strengthen the bond between father and daughter with her letters  and stories (she even devotes a page of the letter to Cookie’s scribbles), while trying not to make the distance between them feel any more painful.

An unlikely father figure in this letter is the rabbi who sits in front of Sylvia and Adrienne on their way to the Catskills. A lot of Jewish people from New York traveled to the Catskills when they needed a vacation from the city in the middle of the 20th century (it was such a big phenomenon that it was dubbed the “Borscht Belt”).  The rabbi is so good-natured about Adrienne’s actions so it leaves me to ponder, once again, my family’s relationship with Judaism. Once again Sylvia is representing a group of people. She belongs to an era, a culture, a popular movement even though you could read this letter and feel like she is completely alone.

We can’t know what movements in history we are a part of right now.  Nor can we believe that we act independently of the world around us.  But I’m also beginning to understand that doing something that may be commonplace (like being a Jew and going to Catskills in the 1940s or, say … being a 20-something with a blog…) can’t be dismissed simply as a cliché.  An individual’s connection to a community, city, country, or culture makes it possible to relate to – and survive in – the world.

Written by Molly

July 26, 2010 at 8:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. These were two wonderful posts, Molly. Very moving and your comment today evokes that era beautifully. We have gotten so used to wars that have so little impact on the civilian populations that we forget how different World War II was in all the ways that you describe. I wonder, considering your last comment about a person’s place in the world, if Alex and Sylvia’s generation had a better sense of their place within broader communities that we do today. There is such a stress on individualism today, and a loss of the importance of community in our lives. Thanks again for this beautiful post.

    Jerry

    July 27, 2010 at 9:38 am

  2. [...] Right now there is an exhibit up called “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet.” On display they have Upton Sinclair’s letter to Teddy Roosevelt asking for regulation of factories and food, and many tidbits about rationing during WWII. Turns out that Americans ate more fruits and veggies during  WWII because sugar was tightly rationed (after all, it was needed for explosives) and people were working hard in their Victory Gardens (see previous post: Borscht Belt). [...]


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