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Where We Found Respite From Discrimination

No sooner have we taken our summer vacation than some of us have begun to plan the next one. Where we go and what we see are determined by any number of factors, from the flexibility of our calendars to the elasticity of our budgets. One thing, though, that no longer affects our choice of destination is our identity as Jews.

Not so long ago, American Jews weren’t quite as fortunate. Many of the nation’s resorts and hotels were off limits to those of the Jewish persuasion — so many, in fact, that in the mid-1950s, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) commissioned a study to determine just how widespread this phenomenon might be. Much to the ADL’s dismay, virtually every state in the union was found guilty of discrimination, with the sunny state of Florida and the equally salubrious state of Arizona at the head of the list. Even in those parts of the country where anti-discriminatory measures were on the books, restrictive practices continued, rendering the statutes a “dead letter,” as one ADL official noted publicly in 1957.

Well before the ADL’s involvement, vacationing American Jews had a sixth sense for what to avoid. Some, of course, were eager to test the limits of social acceptance by venturing to those places where their company was disdained. Others preferred to stay close to home, happily seeking out the companionship of their co-religionists in the Catskills. Still others, like the members of the Montefiore Congregation of the Bronx, knew to steer clear of any establishment that wouldn’t have them; their rabbi made sure they did. “The self-respecting Jew will not set up the cry of discrimination when vacation resorts make things unpleasant for him, but will refrain from attempting to go where he is not wanted,” the Rev. Dr. Jacob Katz admonished in an August 1928 sermon.

Even so, the majority of American Jews, I suspect, drew more on savvy than on self-respect when it came to selecting a vacation spot. Hoteliers did not have to post the words “restricted clientele,” or its more euphemistic equivalent, “churches nearby,” for American Jews to realize they would not be received with open arms. Thanks to a host of internal mechanisms, they knew exactly where their patronage would be welcomed and where it would be shunned. Word of mouth was one extremely reliable source; advertisements were another, especially when certain key phrases — “Dietary laws observed,” for example — were deployed, denoting a safe haven. “The Jewish Vacation Guide,” a publication of the Federation of Jewish Farmers of America, was yet another convenient, if short-lived, source of information. “Take a Vacation! For Your Health’s Sake!” it crowed in 1917, indicating that within its pages “you can choose either a first-class hotel, a quiet boarding house or a farm house, where you can rent furnished rooms for the summer season, and do your own housekeeping.”

American Jews in search of a summer “sauntering” could also trust the ethnic press such as the Forward or The American Jewish Chronicle to point them in the right direction. “We shall be pleased to furnish our subscribers with special information about any hotel whose advertisement appears in our paper,” the latter helpfully related.

The American Jewish community’s coverage of viable vacation spots was so comprehensive that it inspired the publication of The Negro Motorist Green Book, a national directory of commercial establishments — hotels, boarding houses and private homes, restaurants and taverns, service stations and barber shops — that put out the welcome mat for African-American customers. According to its introduction, the Green Book, as it was known colloquially, took its cue from the “Jewish press [that] has long published information about places that are restricted.” Between 1936, when it was first introduced, and the mid-1960s, when it ceased publication, the compendium sought to “ease the anxieties of the Negro traveler” by providing “information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments, and to make his trips more enjoyable.” Anyone headed for Hope, Alabama, say, knew he or she would find a friendly face at the Green Leaf Restaurant and the Louis Hotel.

Perhaps sooner than most Americans, the Green Book’s readers understood full well the possibilities of automobility, which freed them from the indignities of the railroads, where inferior, segregated conditions held sway. As Gunnar Myrdal noted in his celebrated 1944 study of black America, “An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy,” the coming of the cheap automobile has meant for Southern Negroes, who could afford one, a potential emancipation from Jim Crowism.” Their sense of expansiveness didn’t last long. The open road, as African-American motorists soon discovered, was no less fraught than the railroads. Securing a decent meal, much less a room for the night, was invariably problematic, a disheartening exercise in racial exclusion. “Carry your Green Book with you. You may need it,” they were told.

Still, the compendium’s publishers looked forward to a time when the Green Book would no longer have to be retrieved from the glove compartment. “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published,” its editors wrote encouragingly in 1949. “That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication, for then we can go wherever we please and without embarrassment.”

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