Poodle Skirts And Prejudice

Poodle Skirts And Prejudice

Martha Mendelsohn’s first novel looks at the subtle anti-Semitism at an Upper East Side girls school in the ’50s.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

Martha Mendelsohn’s first novel conjures up a time in New York when a handful of nickels could bring forth a generous slice of lemon meringue pie and steaming strong coffee at the Automat.

When “Bromley Girls” (Texas Tech University Press) opens in 1955, Jews aren’t welcome to live at certain Park Avenue addresses, join established clubs, or enroll in some of the city’s top private schools. Mendelsohn takes on the subtle anti-Semitism of an all-girls school, recreating a world just across Central Park from Herman Wouk’s bestselling 1956 novel, “Marjorie Morningstar.” Bromley sounds a lot like Brearley, the school Mendelsohn attended back then.

The novel’s backstory begins when Mendelsohn was contacted by a classmate planning their 40th class reunion. As the author explains in an interview, the classmate told her there were some girls she knew nothing about, and enlisted Mendelsohn to describe them. Seeing the list, she realized it included all the Jewish girls in the class (less than 10, including some with only one Jewish parent), with Mendelsohn having been the only one who would take off for all the Jewish holidays.

Brearley was known to admit Jewish students from its beginnings, yet the Jewish girls attended one dance school (the only way to meet boys) and the gentiles went to another. Mendelsohn remembers a random comment here and there, like a classmate asking about her (lack of a) Christmas tree, but didn’t feel anti-Semitism. Still, she was puzzled by her grown-up classmate’s questions about the Jewish girls.

She contacted a close friend from those days, who wasn’t Jewish, and the friend admitted that the gentile girls did have “this thing about the Jewish girls” — about their poodle skirts, television sets and new uniforms (in a kind of reverse snobbery, the wealthy gentile girls bought used uniforms). “We called them the Clothes Girls,” her friend told her, embarrassed at the thought.

Mendelsohn was inspired to interview her classmates — who were eager to talk — for an article titled “Poodle Skirts and Prejudice.” Then, when she read a young adult novel by a classmate of her son’s, “Nobody Was Here” by Alison Polett, which dealt with an elite private school, she realized that she wanted to return to her Brearley years and questions of anti-Semitism in fictional form.

In the novel, Emily Winter, 14, the new girl at Bromley, lives on Park Avenue in a building resembling a castle, with turrets and a moat-like driveway. Most of her new classmates’ fathers went to Ivy League colleges, and the girls wear the striped scarves of their schools in the winter. Emily’s father went to night school and worked in her grandfather’s stationery store before inventing Whirlex, a circular card file of enormous popularity.

After quickly making a good friend, Emily is dismayed when she learns that the girl is part of a secret anti-Semitic club that won’t allow its members to speak with her. Mendelsohn is particularly skilled at portraying the emotional lives of these girls; she says that those feelings have stayed with her over the years. With sensitivity, she deals with jealousy, loyalty, prejudice, anorexia and the power of friendship.

A lifelong New Yorker, Mendelsohn’s love for the city is evident on the page. Wouk’s “Marjorie Morningstar” is among her favorite books, and she loves John Cheever and John Updike. She thought about following her Bromley girls in a sequel, but instead has begun work on an adult novel.

Mendelsohn’s late father invented the Rolodex. While he was a worldly Modern Orthodox man, her mother was not religious at all but kept a kosher home. Throughout her life, Mendelsohn attended shul weekly. She began school at Ramaz and then, after her mother visited Europe and returned a Francophile, she switched to Lycee Francais, even though she didn’t speak a word of French. There, she faced absolutely no anti-Semitism and the school even had a rabbi giving the Jewish students instruction while the Catholics did catechism. When she moved to Brearley for high school, it was “a whole new world.”

On Saturday nights, she attended Viola Wolf Dancing School with the other Jewish students, and the Jewish young men wore white gloves (and Mendelsohn learned to fox trot, waltz and Lindy hop, even as the tall young woman towered over her partners). It was confusing, she says, going to a school where one of the main social events was Lenten Vespers at St. James Episcopal Church on Saturdays, and she couldn’t go.

But it was a school with academic rigor that gave girls a sense that they could do anything, and for that she’s grateful. After graduation, she fell in love in Israel on a summer visit and then attended Sarah Lawrence College.

Now living on the Upper West Side, Mendelsohn regularly attends the Conservative shul Congregation Or Zarua. She has worked as a translator for the French Embassy, as an associate editor of Tikkun magazine and she has published articles in The Jewish Week and elsewhere.

As the novel ends, Emily has a sense that everything is changing, that the pizza place, the Automat, their regular coffee shop might be gone, along with 1163 Park. “But not Bromley. Emily had a feeling it would last forever.” Brearley still flourishes, in the same location right off the East River, although the student body is diverse, and there’s usually a class mother who maintains a calendar with bat mitzvah dates. Mendelsohn’s granddaughters are students there.


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