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Oral history interview conducted by Katrina Grigg-Saito
December 09, 2011
Call number: 2011.019.004
KATRINA GRIGG-SAITO: OK, so today is December 9, 2011. I'm Katrina Grigg-Saitowith the Brooklyn Historical Society, and this is, where are we, we're here at the home of Natalia Zebkow in Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, and this interview is part of the "Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations," project. And would you introduce yourself?
ITAMAR GOLDSTEIN: I'm Itamar Goldstein, or Itamar Nini Goldstein actually, um,and um, what other information should --
KATRINA GRIGG-SAITO: Tell me your date of birth, and where you were born.
ITAMAR GOLDSTEIN: Oh OK. So I was born in, um, Jerusalem, Mount Scopus, and --which overlooks the old city of Jerusalem, which is quite beautiful, and I was born [date redacted for privacy]. Yeah, and now I live in Brooklyn, Lefferts Gardens.
KATRINA GRIGG-SAITO: So tell me a little bit about growing up in Jerusalem?
ITAMAR GOLDSTEIN: So I actually grew up -- I was born in Jerusalem, but mysister and I grew up in what we call a village, but for some reason people in 1:00the English language think is a town, but was a village, about half an hour southwest of Jerusalem, and it was fabulous, it was really great. It was a very charming, little -- kind of innocent community. Um, and it was great. It was a lot of (cough) people who, I guess, small communities in Israel have a certain culture to them, oftentimes, I guess remnants of kind of the pioneer culture of Israel, so intellectuals, hard-working people, also a lot of weirdoes of course. But, uh, it was a fabulous community, very small, and somehow very mind-opening despite the small size, and in Israel it's so small, even though you feel like you're in the middle of nowhere, you're half an hour from Jerusalem, which is a 2:00city of sorts. Yeah. Should I just keep on going? Oh OK. Yes? OK. (laughter) Yeah, so, um, and I mean I guess if this is in the context of "Crossing Borders" and all kinds of mixed mixes, of sorts, um, Israelis are a very mixed people because of all of the Jewish migration, to Israel. So I grew up with, it's kind of normal as a child to grow up with all kinds of different ethnicities, supposedly even though we all identified as Israelis, and so I -- my mother's family came from Yemen, they're Jewish Yemenite folk, and my father's family -- my father grew up in Connecticut, so they're Jewish Americans, who are mostly some European, so Germans, and Russians, and 3:00Lithuanians or something. Goldsteins. (laughter) And, um, yeah so I grew up with a bunch of people, people of my, I guess fiancée, if I may, is half-Moroccan, half-American, Jewish American, and there are Iraqis, and Kurdistani Jews there, and just a mix of all kinds of people. It was great, different ages. It was a pretty sweet childhood. And then we went to school in Jerusalem, and Jerusalem is just a completely different story. Just a complete mix of craziness, and monotheism, and spirituality, and conflict, and you know, what is it, decrepitude. (laughter) All kinds of good stuff, and it's beautiful, it's just an incredible city. I really love it. 4:00
KATRINA GRIGG-SAITO: And so, what were the divisions like in -- I mean, you knowyou said that it's pretty mixed, and everyone's kind of mixed. Were there divisions that were clear --
ITAMAR GOLDSTEIN: Not in my generation. So earlier -- well I guess, there arestill remnants. Earlier in Israel, which is really funny because it's such a young country, but you know, in the '50s, and '40s, there was conflict between the Sephardic Jews, and the Sephardic, and the Yemenites are the Jews that came from Morocco, and Yemen, and Iraq, and the Ashkenazi Jews, who came from Eastern Europe, and the Ashkenazi Jews came with more education, more money, and they kind of monopolized pretty much everything in the country, and there's a lot of kind of marginalization of the, what we call, the Mizrachi Jews, the Jews from the East, and that was my parent's generation, and there was a lot of frustration, but for me growing up, at least in my community, we were very mixed 5:00because, um, this was a relatively younger community, it was from the mid-'60s, um, so we as kids, we had no differentiation. We were all just kind of jolly kids. On the other hand, there were other communities just kind of a mile away, who were predominantly Kurdistani for instance, and they were obviously less-educated, more kind of backwards. You can see that their -- and also more agricultural on the other hand, which was -- which was great. So I can't say that it wasn't like an obvious, um, I guess, differentiation of people in Israel, but at least for my generation, going to school, there was no -- you'd never look at someone who's a Kurdistani Jew. We knew who was. But you'd never say that they're, you know, inferior, or stupid. Like everybody had pretty much 6:00equal, at least apparent opportunities, um, or I don't know, just equal -- we just befriended each other, to be quite -- I guess. I can't really, yeah. Um yeah, I -- so my sister and I, we went to -- I (inaudible) -- to an agricultural primary school, and middle school, and it wasn't very agricultural, but what it did is, combined all of the small communities from the area, the southwest of Jerusalem, and the Judaean Hills, which is where, you know, Samson, and all these great Biblical stories supposedly happened. So we had a great mixture, of although not kibbutzim, because they had their own schools. Um, we had a mixture of all of those kind of communities, even though they were segregated 7:00originally because they were started for specific peoples of, I don't know, the Diaspora of Israel, they'd bring Yemenite Jews, and they -- you know my grandfather actually, who's my Yemenite grandfather, who, his name was Israel actually, had a huge moustache, 22 centimeters, he was very proud. And, um, so many segues, and by the way, when he came to New York in the '50s to work with diamonds, people wouldn't let him into buildings because they thought he was with the Mafia because that was apparently a Mafia thing, a moustache. (laughter) He was a funny guy, he's an adventurer, of sorts. But when he was younger, he started working with the government, and he would take Yemenites who had just come to Israel, and just walk them to the mountains, and put them in a community, give them some provisions, and he had, you know, a dirt road going there, and just, that's how -- that's how they started all of these small and 8:00larger communities in Israel, but that's -- I mean, it wasn't that far in history because, I mean, I guess it was 40, yeah 40 years, but that's uh -- that's how they started these kind of separate communities, and he was -- he was so used to that, that when he came to visit us, when he wanted to go to Jerusalem once, he just started walking, and it's a -- it's like a 30, 40 minute drive, it's a mountainous, kind of mountain area, so he just started walking to Jerusalem. (laughter) So that's the type of people we grew up around, which is -- which is what I try to say with kind of the, you know, pioneers. They just have this, like, spirit that's really funny. And the community we grew up in was kind of, um, insulated in that way, they kind of tried to maintain that, obviously in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, less Jerusalem, but Tel Aviv, and most of 9:00Israel is pretty much like the rest of the world, the rest of the developed whatever world, whatever you want to call it, Americanized. Um, did I lose my train of thought? Was I talking about something else? Uh, oh yeah, so yeah, so we went to an agricultural school which was -- oh -- which was -- which was a great way to combine -- I mean in that sense, Israel is really good at kind of mixing different ethnicities, and people together, because everybody knows that when you're 18 you go to the Army, and you go to the Army, it really doesn't matter who you are, though. If you -- if you excel at something, you'll be placed in a specific type of unit, or position, and it's a really -- it's really 10:00nice melting pot. Um, um yeah. Should I just keep on -- keep on going with the -- oh on the --
KATRINA GRIGG-SAITO: Yeah I like it.
ITAMAR GOLDSTEIN: (inaudible) you should put down the window.
KATRINA GRIGG-SAITO: Yeah.
ITAMAR GOLDSTEIN: I doubt it. So never ----
KATRINA GRIGG-SAITO: Just loud.
ITAMAR GOLDSTEIN: Sorry.
KATRINA GRIGG-SAITO: What was your house like, growing up?
ITAMAR GOLDSTEIN: My house was tiny, so sweet though. It was -- so my motherstill lives there. We're actually considering selling it, is quite sad. But, so, this -- our community was kind of built by the Hadassah organization, which is a women's organization that builds stuff in Israel, like the hospitals, a couple. And it was just these small, very simple houses. We had two bedrooms, one tiny living room, tiny kitchen, tiny bathroom, and then pretty big piece of 11:00land, in the back which was just beautiful. I loved that. It's just -- it's really funny because my mother kind of cultivates. She made this beautiful garden with apricot trees, and olive trees, and um, what else? Um, what do they call it? Um, pome -- pomegranate trees, lemon trees, flowers, and she loves her garden, she just loves it. Uh, and then in the back, so the -- I'd say like 60% of the property is just kind of -- just looks like the whatever the nature looks out there, it's kind of, what they call, a semi desert, but kind of green trees, and most of the year it's kind of yellow undergrowth, and wild flowers, and these beautiful thistles, and it's really nice, it's really great. I used to walk out there to talk on the phone, privately, because the house was so small, and there was no privacy. (laughter) And um, yeah, and after my father left, my sister and I were growing up, we lived in the same room, and my mother wanted 12:00us to have separate rooms, so we got the two bedrooms, and she slept in the living room our entire life, which was funny. She always said it's to protect us, (laughter) but it's, you know, it's just stone, kind of cold stone floors, covered in carpets because it's just kind of very, whatever -- my mother loves carpets. And artwork all over the place, my mother's an artist, and does Jewish art, also known as Judaica. And so the walls are full of art, a woodstove that we never really used. That was kind of a remnant of my father's American person. He wanted the woodstove. It's kind of this quaint, homesteader, kind of woodstove, but we don't have enough wood in Israel, so we never -- we just burnt wood when we were younger, and then that kind of ended. We used to make chestnuts on it, it was nice. And, and a leaky roof that I climbed every -- 13:00pretty much every winter, and I'm going to do it in a couple weeks again to fix the leaky roof, and uh, oh the house, I don't know, there's one big window in front of my mother's um, her desk, that just looks out to the garden, and it's just so beautiful, you know. It just looks -- it looks like the Judaean Mountains. Trying to remember the names of the flowers in English or Latin, but I can't, and they're -- but they're -- they're just the most charming things. They're very simple flowers, I guess. They're not, you know, it's kind of -- it's hard to describe the landscape because it's not extravagant, it's not very traumatic, but it's just, um, I don't know, I think it's very romantic, it's simple, simple flowers, not too many trees, some caves that you need to find, some scattering kind of natural springs hidden under, you know, fig trees, 14:00that's the landscape. You can kind of see that out the window, and that's kind of what inspires my mother sometimes, besides my sister and me. But, um, yeah I can't really think of anything else, but the house, it's very small.
KATRINA GRIGG-SAITO: So what was it like when your mother and father met? Theywere from -- because you were saying (inaudible).
ITAMAR GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, that's such a -- I mean obviously such a complicatedquestion. It was, from what I understand, amazing because, you know, both my parents, my grandparents, so on my mother's side, my grandfather was born in Yemen, my grandmother's actually born in Palestine, in 1923, but she lived in a 15:00community that was pretty much Yemen, and they were all just like old, crazy, Yemenite woman who believed in ghosts. They're really funny. They're still there, a thousand years old. (laughter) And um, so my mother grew up in this very -- I mean the place changed so much within 40 years, that it was pretty much a different world, but my grandfather, because he used to travel, and he used to bring books, and they were kind of -- tried to expand their horizons, and when he went to, my grandfather, went to New York to work with diamonds, that's when they were introduced to the US, but still even when the family kind of moved to the US, they never felt a part of anything, at least back then. Um, and but then, so for my mother, my mother has two sisters and two brothers. Um, 16:00the two brothers married Yemenite women, like their mother, and the two -- the three sisters married Ashkenazi men, who the hell knows why, I don't know, but my mother, she was kind of a weirdo. She was the artist in the family, and she'd married an American man, and they met folk dancing actually at Columbia University, which is where I did my undergraduate degree, which is kind of funny. I used to walk passed that building, and you know, either -- depending on the day, I would either bless it, or kind of hate it for leading to my conception, but just (laughter) real hall. But they met doing Israeli folk dancing, which is funny. My mother, somehow, he used to be, I guess, a folk dancer with finesse. And, my family loved him, um. (cell phone ringing) 17:00
KATRINA GRIGG-SAITO: Always remember to turn your phone off. Oh, that was me.
ITAMAR GOLDSTEIN: Oh, that was you? (laughter)
KATRINA GRIGG-SAITO: Sorry everyone. Yeah.
ITAMAR GOLDSTEIN: My father, my father, my father grew up in Connecticut. Whatabout him? Oh, he was a folk -- he did Israeli folk -- he was kind of, you know, he was in the hippy, 1968 Columbia University, inspired by whatever was out there, not in, you know, doing a graduate degree in psychology. And, so he, I mean being Jewish, there was a very -- there was an odd, yet strong -- well there was a strong connection between Jews and Israel obviously. I say odd because for Israelis, being -- or at least for a certain subset of Israelis, being, um, connected to someone just because they're Jewish isn't readily 18:00obvious. I mean being -- we're Israelis. We grew up with a very kind of, I guess taking for granted the fact that everybody's Jewish, at least in our parts of the country, and it's fine, and it's normal, so you can open your mind to other things. And then we came here, um, so nevertheless, my father had a very strong connection to Israel, and unlike many other Jews, he chose to, you know, continue that connection. So he met my mother. He decided to marry this beautiful young Yemenite woman, quiet. Eventually, she used to be quiet, now she's verbose. (laughter) Yemenite women become very explosive, not explosive, just verbose at an old age, but um, so yeah he met her. They went traveling 19:00together. The family loved my father. My father's side of the family, I think, was pretty fond of my mother. I think, well, my father's father, Rabbi Leonard Goldstein, was a rabbi, so I'm pretty sure he was pretty happy about my father marrying an Israeli woman, um, and his mother too. I mean they're a complicated family, but um, pretty sure they -- they were -- I think there's a very happy, and beautiful connection. Um, and then they went traveling the world, and moved to Israel, and had this dream of homesteading in Israel. Found themselves buying a small property, and a little, what they used to call, in Hebrew, they called "chor hadassah," my cousin, which is the place is called Tzur Hadassah, but "chor" means hole, it's like a little hole of a place in the hills, and it 20:00was great. Um, yeah, so the connection -- I mean I guess the connection between these Eastern Jews, or Eastern European Jews, and the Eastern or Yemenite Jews, it was, I think, it was a very inspiring connection because there were so many differences. Obviously my sister and I are full of -- I mean, we're very grateful of that kind of diverse upbringing that we were kind of naturally-given, because our parents are so different. There are differences that I guess are harder to bridge because religion, and nationality, or upbringing, or I don't even know, I mean, what necessarily it is. It's just, there are certain things in kind of our, our core, I think, that -- or you know, 21:00that just have to match, and family values, friendship, um. My father came from a very kind of individualistic type of upbringing. He was a, you know, he left the house at 18, and you know, never came back. He went traveling for six years in eastern Asia, and you know, sold pots and pans in Korea, which we still have in my mother's house, it's really funny. My mother is so clean, just kept it perfect. And then my mother came from a very family-oriented, like a clan-type upbringing, and her siblings are still like that, they're just little, little clans living in big houses. It's really funny. Really funny. They're hilarious. Um, and, so I think that's what eventually was very hard to bridge, 22:00but nevertheless, there are two kids who are, I think -- I think my sister and I have taken a lot of the good parts from both sides of the -- we're both very individualistic. My sister's in Berlin actually, singing opera beautifully, and I'm in Brooklyn, studying medicine in Downstate, which is a Caribbean community, which is really something I'd never imagine I would, you know, find myself experiencing. So there's that, and yet, we're both very -- I mean I'm going to marry a woman who is somehow similar to me because she's, you know, in odd ways. I mean I'm half-Yemenite, half-American. She's half-Moroccan, and half-American. We both grew up in the same community. Um, she's a weirdo though. No, no. No, she's wonderful. (laughter) So, yeah, so we're both 23:00pretty family-oriented. So somehow -- somehow it stuck, you know, the mixture of these two crazy people, two just unique, talented, crazy people. Um, yeah. (laughter) KATRINA GRIGG-SAITO: So when was the first time you came 24:00 25:00 26:00 27:00 28:00 29:00 30:00 31:00 32:00 33:00 34:00 35:00 36:00 37:00 38:00 39:00 40:00 41:00 42:00 43:00 44:00 45:00 46:00 47:00 48:00 49:00 50:00 51:00 52:00 53:00 54:00 55:00 56:00 57:00 58:00 59:00 60:00 61:00 62:00 63:00 64:00 65:00 66:00 67:00 68:00 69:00 70:00 71:00 72:00 73:00 74:00 75:00 76:00 77:00 78:00 79:00 80:00 81:00 82:00 83:00 84:00 85:00 86:00 87:00 88:00 89:00 90:00 91:00 92:00 93:00 94:00 95:00 96:00 97:00 98:00 99:00 100:00 101:00 102:00 103:00 104:00 105:00 106:00 107:00 108:00 109:00 110:00 111:00 112:00 113:00 114:00 115:00 116:00 117:00 118:00
Oral History Interview with Itamar Goldstein
Itamar Goldstein was born in Jerusalem, Israel and raised in a nearby village. He was heavily exposed to the religious traditions of his mother's Yemenite Jewish family throughout his childhood, and visited the United States regularly with his father, an American Jew. He served in the Israeli army as a young adult and then moved to Brooklyn, New York to attend medical school at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in New York City.
In the interview, Goldstein discusses the distinctions in religious, cultural, and linguistic practices between different Jewish ethnic groups in Israel, in particular those of Yemenite Jews. He also speaks about his childhood, including travel experiences and extended family members, as well as discussing his own personal identity both as an Israeli and as a Jew. In addition, he discusses his time in the Israeli army, opinions about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and experience as an Israeli Jew living in in New York City.
CitationGoldstein, Itamar, Oral history interview conducted by Katrina Grigg-Saito, December 09, 2011, Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history collection, 2011.019.004; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Goldstein, Itamar
- Arab-Israeli conflict
- Education, Higher
- Jews, Yemeni
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)