Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Samuel Elliott Halpern, March 30, 2015

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:02 - Personal background

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Partial Transcript: Good morning.

Segment Synopsis: In this introduction, Sam Halpern discusses his birthplace and the farmhouse he grew up in, which is near the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Kentucky presently. Halpern also discusses the Appalachian practice of sitting up with corpses, which his father was doing at the time of Halpern's birth.

Keywords: 1936; Appalachian culture; Corpse sitting; Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc.

Subjects: Appalachian Region--Social life and customs; Families.; Georgetown (Ky.)

GPS: Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc., Georgetown (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 38.2610322, -84.5317628
00:02:53 - Childhood as a sharecropper during the Great Depression

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Partial Transcript: Um, can you tell me a little bit about your childhood and what it was like growing up on the farm and?

Segment Synopsis: Halpern discusses his childhood and his experiences growing up as a sharecropper during the Great Depression in Kentucky. Halpern discusses the use of horses on the farm instead of tractors, as well as the activities he enjoyed outside of farming. Such activities included fishing, hunting, and running around barefoot with his friends.

Keywords: Agrarian; Great Depression; Horses; Idyllic; Tobacco

Subjects: Agriculture--Kentucky; Childhood; Depressions--1929--Kentucky; Family farms; Farm tenancy; Poverty--Appalachian Region; Recreation; Sharecropping; Traditional farming

00:04:47 - Dangers of the farmhouses

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Partial Transcript: The old farmhouses we lived in were, were, were firetraps of course.

Segment Synopsis: Halpern briefly discusses the dangers that fire presented to farmers living in the farm houses. These farm houses were typically shoddy structures that presented a great danger to the sharecroppers living in them. Halpern also describes the freedom he enjoyed as a worry-free child living on the farm.

Keywords: Farm houses; Fires; Firetraps

Subjects: Agriculture--Kentucky; Childhood; Family farms; Farm tenancy; Sharecropping; Traditional farming

00:05:55 - Relationship between landlords and sharecroppers

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Partial Transcript: Uh, the landlords, which, uh, none of them were exactly, uh, the warmest, uh, kindest people in the world.

Segment Synopsis: Halpern discusses the social structures of Depression-era Kentucky. In particular, he details where his family fell in relation the landlords. He briefly talks about relations between the landlords and the sharecroppers, which he compares to a feudal system with the landowner taking the place of a feudal lord.

Keywords: Feudal; Great Depression; Landlords; Rent; Sharecroppers

Subjects: Agriculture--Kentucky; Childhood; Depressions--1929--Kentucky; Family farms; Farm tenancy; Poverty--Appalachian Region; Sharecropping; Traditional farming

00:06:40 - Racial divisions in Depression-era Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: The society in those times, of course, was, uh, racially divided...

Segment Synopsis: Halpern explains segregation and racial divisions among children during the Great Depression in Kentucky. He also discusses often being the only Jewish student in his schools. Halpern also recounts that his friends were almost exclusively Christian, and he had very few Black friends.

Keywords: Anti-Semitism; Baptist; Christianity; Fundamentalism; Great Depression; Pentecostal; Protestant; Protestantism; Racial divisions

Subjects: African Americans--Segregation; Depressions--1929--Kentucky; Jewish children--Kentucky; Jews--Kentucky; Race relations--Appalachian Region; Racism; Religion

00:07:57 - Parents' immigration and religious practices

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Partial Transcript: When did you or how did you become aware that your family was Jewish and that that was different?

Segment Synopsis: Halpern relays the story of his mother and father immigrating to the United States. Halpern's mother immigrated to Brooklyn from Kovno, Lithuania at age 2, while his father immigrated from Kovno at age 16 to New York, where he attended college. Halpern also discusses the educations his parents received regarding Judaism, with his father being very educated in the Jewish religion and his mother being educated in the social aspects of the Jewish culture.

Keywords: Brooklyn (N.Y.); Hogs; Jewish education; Kheyder; Kovno (Lithuania); Lithuania; Orthodox Judaism

Subjects: Agriculture--Kentucky; Childhood; Emigration and immigration.; Farm tenancy; Immigrants--Kentucky; Jews--Identity.; Jews--Kentucky; Poverty--Appalachian Region; Religion; Sharecropping; Traditional farming

GPS: Kovno (Lithuania)
Map Coordinates: 54.8985207, 23.9035965
00:11:42 - Jewish education

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Partial Transcript: So almost all of my education until I got off on my own, uh, came from discussions from my parents.

Segment Synopsis: Halpern discusses his experience of being a Jewish young man in Kentucky. Halpern also discusses his lack of exposure to the synagogue and hands-on experiences with Judaism and Jewish culture. Halpern then goes on to state that he was the only Jew in school, and speculates that his family may have been the only Jewish sharecroppers in Kentucky.

Keywords: Bourbon County (Ky.); Education; Fayette County (Ky.); Paris (Ky.); Scott County (Ky.); Synagogues

Subjects: Agriculture--Kentucky; Childhood; Farm tenancy; Jewish children--Kentucky; Jews--Identity.; Jews--Kentucky; Religion; Sharecropping; Traditional farming

00:15:58 - Interactions with the Lexington Jewish community

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Partial Transcript: Can you tell me a little bit about your interactions with the Jewish community?

Segment Synopsis: Halpern discusses his very limited interactions with the Jewish community. Most of his interactions came on the high holidays, but he and his family were not often seen at the synagogue. Halpern felt different from the other kids at the synagogue because there was a socioeconomic distinction between him and the others. Thus, Halpern and the other Jewish kids did not co-mingle due to the separation he felt. However, Halpern felt much more connected to his friends that were gentiles.

Keywords: Agnostic; High holidays; Holocaust; Ohavay Zion Synagogue (Lexington, Ky.); Rosh Hashanah; Secular; WWII; World War II; Yom Kippur

Subjects: Childhood; Families.; Holidays--Kentucky; Jews--Identity.; Jews--Kentucky--Lexington.; Poverty--Appalachian Region; Religion

00:18:46 - Father's journey to Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: Um, what--can you tell me a little bit about--you said your dad wanted to enjoy the freedom of being out west.

Segment Synopsis: Halpern tells the story of how his family ended up in Kentucky. Both of his parents found themselves in New York, then Halpern's father went to Oklahoma to work, then joined the wheat harvest, and finally arrived in Lexington to work with his aunt and uncle.

Keywords: National Agricultural School; Oklahoma; WWI; Wheat harvest; World War I

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Jews--Kentucky--Lexington.; Lexington (Ky.).

00:21:50 - Family connections in Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: Then we had, uh, family in Lexington, Kentucky.

Segment Synopsis: Halpern describes his aunts and uncles that lived in Lexington at the time his father arrived. He also recollects the names of several of his cousins that lived in Lexington at that time as well. Halpern also describes the paths his father's brothers and sisters took upon coming to America. Halpern especially mentions his uncle I.J. Schwartz, who wrote the poem "Kentucky" in Yiddish.

Keywords: Aunts; Connections; Cousins; Family; I.J. Schwartz; Uncles

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Jews--Kentucky--Lexington.; Lexington (Ky.).

00:27:45 - Mother's childhood and early life

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Partial Transcript: Yeah. Did her family react positively? Negatively? In general?

Segment Synopsis: Halpern describes his mother's upbringing as an orphan. His mother began working in the Lower East Side at 13 years old sometime before 1910. Her job at the factory was to place ostrich feathers in hats for women.

Keywords: Brooklyn (N.Y.); Child labor; Factory; Gefilte fish; Hats; Jobs; Kentucky River; Southern cooking; Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire; Work

Subjects: Childhood; Emigration and immigration.; Employment; Immigrants

00:29:18 - Mother's cooking / typical day on the farm

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Partial Transcript: Anyway, he married her and took her to, uh, Kentucky.

Segment Synopsis: Halpern's mother married his father and they moved to Kentucky and entered into the sharecropping lifestyle, which included southern cooking. He also explains how the sharecropping community would socialize by stopping in for food and sharing work with one another. His mother also prepared gefilte fish, a Jewish dish, fairly often and they would serve it to their neighbors while they were entertaining them. Halpern discusses early morning chores, work, and eating on the farm. Halpern also discusses the importance of meals not only for socializing, but also to keep up their energy to work in the fields.

Keywords: Chores; Entertainment; Food customs; Gefilte fish; Labor; Swapping work; Tobacco; Work

Subjects: Agriculture--Kentucky; Appalachian Region--Social life and customs; Cooking; Farm tenancy; Food habits; Immigrants--Kentucky; Jews--Kentucky; Sharecropping; Traditional farming

00:34:49 - Kosher food and synagogues

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Partial Transcript: And, oh yeah, we used to buy matzo, uh, for Passover.

Segment Synopsis: Halpern discusses the local butcher, Mr. Goller, a bearded man who he remembers fondly. Mr. Goller was a kosher butcher who was very involved in the conservative synagogue, as he was a cantor. Halpern's family bought matzo from him and were very fond of him in general.

Keywords: Cantor; Kosher delis; Matzo; Mr. Goller; Passover; Shul

Subjects: Childhood; Food habits; Holidays--Kentucky; Jewish children--Kentucky; Jews--Identity.; Jews--Kentucky; Religion

GPS: Location of Mr. Goller's butcher shop.
Map Coordinates: 38.0517437, -84.4913736
00:41:54 - Sundays and Sabbath

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Partial Transcript: So you kind of took us through a typical working day in the sharecropper's life. Can you tell us a little bit about what a typical I guess Sunday would look like with folks dropping in or--

Segment Synopsis: Halpern discusses what a typical Sunday was like during his childhood. Sundays began with chores at 5:30 a.m. and then Sam would go off and fish once his family had their own farm. Conforming to the surrounding culture, Sam's family used Sunday as their Sabbath day.

Keywords: Chores; Dropping in; Fishing; Shabbat (also Shabbos, Sabbath)

Subjects: Childhood; Jewish children--Kentucky; Jews--Identity.; Jews--Kentucky; Religion

00:43:18 - Educational path

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Partial Transcript: I want to switch gears a little bit to talk about, um--

Segment Synopsis: Halpern discusses his journey from the farm to college. He was inspired by his sister's boyfriend, who was majoring in physics, and decided to major in physics at UK. After having little success in physics, he changed his major to archaeology, and then to physiology. He then attended medical school at the University of Louisville.

Keywords: Archaeology; Physics; Physiology; Vietnam War

Subjects: College students--Conduct of life.; Medical education; Physicians; Universities and colleges.; University of Kentucky; University of Louisville

GPS: University of Louisville, where Halpern attended medical school.
Map Coordinates: 38.215019, -85.760222
00:48:47 - Early career and life after college

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Partial Transcript: So I did my internship and then the Vietnam War, uh, started cranking up.

Segment Synopsis: Halpern describes his career path after he graduated from medical school. He first took an internship year, then joined the Navy during the Vietnam War, then went into internal medicine. However, an opportunity in nuclear medicine came up, so he took a year researching that. Finally, he took a job at UCSD and spent his career there.

Keywords: Careers; Clinicals; Fellowships; Internal medicine; Nuclear medicine; Physiology; Research; University of California at San Diego (UCSD); University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

Subjects: Medical education; Physicians; United States. Navy.; Universities and colleges.; Vietnam War, 1961-1975

GPS: University of California at San Diego
Map Coordinates: 32.881, -117.238
00:51:03 - Student life at the University of Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: Can you tell me a little bit about what life was like at the University of Kentucky in the fifties?

Segment Synopsis: Halpern goes on to discuss what life was like as a student at UK during the 1950s. He had very few interactions with the Jewish community of UK, but knew a few people that were in the Jewish fraternity. Halpern also discusses a house he lived in with other pre-med students, which they called their own fraternity. He also discusses the application process to medical school, describing the southern schools as being easier to get into. He goes on to describe the demographics of his medical school class at the University of Louisville which included 5 Jews, 1 woman, and 1 Black person out of 100 students.

Keywords: Fraternities; Lambda Alpha Delta; Medical schools; Socializing; Student life; University of Louisville; Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT)

Subjects: College students--Conduct of life.; College students--Religious life; College students--Social conditions; Jews--Identity.; Medical education; Physicians; Religion; Universities and colleges.; University of Kentucky

GPS: University of Kentucky
Map Coordinates: 38.0389023, -84.504929
00:56:50 - Thoughts on Kentucky's development

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Partial Transcript: Now that you're talking about how things have changed and how they've stayed the same, I, I wonder what, what's it like to be back in Kentucky now, having grown up here?

Segment Synopsis: Halpern discusses how Central Kentucky has changed since his childhood, as opposed to Northern Kentucky, where his family farmed. He views Central Kentucky as being southern. He reflects on the corporate aspects of Lexington and how Central Kentucky was originally built on tobacco, horses, and the agrarian lifestyle. However, he thinks Kentucky has moved away from the agrarian lifestyle. Halpern also describes how different the University of Kentucky is from when he attended and how it is so "built up" now. Halpern also recounts the numerous famous horses he met in his time living in Kentucky, such as Man O' War and Coaltown.

Keywords: A Far Piece to Canaan: A Novel of Friendship and Redemption (Book); Authors; Central Kentucky; Coaltown (Racehorse); Horses; International Business Machines Corporation (IBM); Man O' War (Racehorse); Novels; Writing

Subjects: Agriculture--Kentucky; Lexington (Ky.).; University of Kentucky

GPS: IBM plant in Lexington (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 38.0746285, -84.4875736
01:02:51 - "A Far Piece to Canaan"

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Partial Transcript: Many, many of the things that you're talking about right now kind of make an appearance--

Segment Synopsis: Halpern discusses his interest in writing, which began with writing on the walls of his house as a child. He continued to write in college as a freshman. Halpern then relays his various weaknesses in writing such as grammar and capitalization. He began writing a book while he was a professor at UCSD, but eventually stopped writing for a while. Nearly 20 years later, he wrote the rest of the story in his original novel, which became "A Far Piece to Canaan."

Keywords: A Far Piece to Canaan: A Novel of Friendship and Redemption (Book); Books; Literature; Writing

Subjects: Authors.

01:08:03 - The context behind "A Far Piece to Canaan"

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Partial Transcript: Well, so its--this commitment to writing, I, I mean, you describe it as an early childhood commitment, literally onto the walls of your parents' house...

Segment Synopsis: Halpern discusses the close relationship he has kept with his high school classmates, whom he had his 60th reunion with recently. He also relates his real life experiences to the ones he writes about in his novel, which he thinks are hard for young people to imagine these days. Halpern also states that his novel is his way of stating how he sees life. He wants readers to gain an insight into what it was really like to be an accepted Jew on a sharecropping farm.

Keywords: High schools; Jewish life; Sharecroppers

Subjects: Authors.; Childhood; Farm tenancy; Jews--Identity.; Jews--Kentucky; Sharecropping; Traditional farming

01:15:28 - Current outlook on his identity

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Partial Transcript: So you have many different identities.

Segment Synopsis: Halpern discusses his identity, which he does not feel can be described solely as a sharecropper, Jew, Kentuckian, doctor, or father. He instead views himself as just being a human being, and not a defining label.

Keywords: Human beings; Identity; Jewish identity

Subjects: Agriculture--Kentucky; Farm tenancy; Jews--Identity.; Jews--Kentucky; Physicians--Kentucky; Religion; Sharecropping

01:17:27 - Sh*t My Dad Says (Twitter, book, and sitcom)

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Partial Transcript: One of the more recent things that has happened is your son and his column.

Segment Synopsis: Halpern talks about his son and the popularity of Sh*t My Dad Says, a Twitter feed which reached internet fame and cultural influence. He also goes on to discuss the book his son wrote about him, as well as the sitcom that came about starring William Shatner as Halpern.

Keywords: $#*! My Dad Says (Television program); Books; Isolation; Justin Halpern; Pop culture; Sh*t My Dad Says (Book); Shit My Dad Says (Twitter); Sons; Twitter; William Shatner

Subjects: Authors.

01:26:39 - Writing across generations

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Partial Transcript: So from your great uncle I.J., to you, to your son it--

Segment Synopsis: Halpern discusses his own writing, the writing of his niece, his father, great uncle, and son. Almost all of the people he mentions have been published, himself included. He goes on to discuss his father's memoirs and how his wife helped him write them.

Keywords: A Far Piece to Canaan: A Novel of Friendship and Redemption (Book); Books; Memoirs; Writing

Subjects: Authors.; Families.; Publishers and publishing.

01:27:55 - His father's influence on the sharecropping community

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Partial Transcript: He was--interestingly enough, uh, he had more education than any of the other croppers around.

Segment Synopsis: Halpern discusses the role his father played as a "judge" in the sharecropping community due to his level of education. He often would settle disputes between his neighbors due to both his education and reputation of being an honest and decent person. He claims that his father's decency was the best thing he passed down to Sam as a person.

Keywords: Adjudicate; Disputes; Education; Lawyers; Opinions

Subjects: Agriculture--Kentucky; Families.; Family farms; Farm tenancy; Jewish leadership--Kentucky--Lexington; Sharecropping; Traditional farming

GPS: Lexington (Ky.), where Halpern's family lived
Map Coordinates: 38.029722, -84.494722
01:33:27 - Most vivid memories of the Lexington Jewish community

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Partial Transcript: Maybe, uh, uh, one last question kind of--what's your most vivid memory from your experiences, limited as they were, with the Jewish community during that time?

Segment Synopsis: Halpern recalls his most vivid memory of the Jewish community. His memory was of being excluded from his own people at the synagogue during Yom Kippur as a child. His most vivid and fond memories of the Jewish community are of his interactions with Mr. Goller, the butcher, whom Sam was very fond of.

Keywords: Exclusion; Jewish communities; Memory; Synagogues; Yom Kippur

Subjects: Holidays--Kentucky; Jewish children--Kentucky--Lexington; Jews--Identity.; Jews--Kentucky--Lexington.; Lexington (Ky.).

01:35:00 - His advice for humans

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Partial Transcript: So the, the experiences in "Far Piece," they're loosely fictionalized? More autobiographical? How would you describe them?

Segment Synopsis: Halpern expresses his feelings towards the future of the human race. He agrees with Stephen Hawking in that he believes we are "hell-bent" on destroying ourselves. He also states that people have so much potential and can do such great things, yet continue to partake in barbaric behaviors and acts. He goes on to comment on how quickly technology is moving, and that it's hard to keep up with. Halpern says that would like people to think more about the things they are exposed to and not just accept them at face value. He also wants people to think whether they want the things they see to exist in the world that they desire. He mainly emphasizes the power of thinking and believing in the type of world you want to live in.

Keywords: California; Destruction; Human race; Jewish Kentucky; Siblings; Stephen Hawking

Subjects: Technological innovations

01:43:49 - Siblings

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Partial Transcript: So a couple follow-up questions about your family, Sam. Can you tell me how many, uh, members of your family did you live with here in Lexington in your house?

Segment Synopsis: Halpern shares the names of his three siblings: Bob, Debbie, and Naomi. Sam was the youngest, with 12 years between him and Bob, 10 years between him and Debbie, and 7 years between him and Naomi. Bob became an engineer and both Debbie and Naomi became nurses. Sam also reflects on the effects Judaism has had on his life. Sam views Judaism's effect on his life as changing his outlook to be more humanitarian. He also reflects on the effect that Jewish people have had on the world despite their small numbers as a group.

Keywords: Brothers; Siblings; Sisters

Subjects: Families.; Jews--Identity.; Jews--Kentucky; Jews--Kentucky--Lexington.; Lexington (Ky.).; Religion