Caitlin Haskett (00:00:01):
The following interview with Nona Abrams was conducted by Caitlin Haskett on behalf of Bryn Mawr College as part of the project Mid Century Jewish Martyrs: A Collection of Oral Histories. It took place on July 22nd at Nona's home, [redacted] Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. To begin with, can you tell me a little bit about your childhood and growing up?
Nona Abrams (00:00:25):
I was raised in a family where synagogue life was extremely important. It was definitely a part of our life. My father was the principal of the religious school at our conservative congregation for over 35 years. So, my growing up years, school age, I was at Adath Jeshurun in Philadelphia for everything important in my life. My parents were very actively involved Zionists. My mother became a ... What do you call that? A permanent member of Hadassah, life member. Life member, when those became available. And she was very involved also with the Jewish federations. Our father was the founder of a Jewish day school, the Solomon Schechter School, founder of the conservative summer camp, Camp Ramah, in the Poconos. And Judaism was a very important part of my life. But I also had non-Jewish friends, especially when I was in high school.
Nona Abrams (00:01:48):
As a matter of fact, one of my bridesmaids at my wedding in 1943 was Nancy Ingham, who was then engaged to the son of the Episcopal Bishop of Philadelphia. And we were very, very dear friends. And I never felt any discomfort being with any of them. I had cousins who lived in West Philadelphia, or in Overbrook, who said to me, when they heard that I had some non-Jewish friends, they had never met anybody who was not Jewish. They were really living in like a ghetto. We never were. Where we lived, there were many, many Jews. But there were others as well. And of course, in those years, what we called the colored people were the maids in the house. Other than that, I did have an experience with young black students in second grade when they closed the old Negro grade school a couple of blocks away from mine, and they put them in with us.
Nona Abrams (00:03:10):
And I fell in love with this one littler girl in my class. And I put her on my birthday list. And my mother looked over the list, and she said, "Oh, I know everybody here, but who's this?" And I explained. And she said to be very sweetly, "Sweetheart, we can't have her." And I had to tell her that she was not coming to my birthday party. But that's the way it was. So, anyway, but my growing up years were very much Jewishly based. Friday nights were ... We never did anything on Friday night except being home. We shared Friday nights with my parents, and my aunt, or always people in the family. And all the socializing, my best friends were my friends from Sunday School and Hebrew School. And I was confirmed and married at AJ. So there was no bat mitzvah in those days. So that's pretty much the way I grew up.
Caitlin Haskett (00:04:26):
Yeah. Tell me a little bit more about the synagogue you went to.
Nona Abrams (00:04:32):
Adath Jeshurun is 160 years old, maybe more by now. And it was founded originally by German Jews. And the early years, I understand the services were conducted in German. But over the years, it changed. And we were one of the founding members of the United Synagogue, which is the umbrella organization of conservative congregations in the United States. And I just loved it. It's always been a very warm and welcoming place. AAnd then some years later, we were one of the early ones to study the idea of having women be counted into a minyan, to allow a woman to be elected as an officer to serve on the board, for women to be able to sit on the bimah during services. That was a very exciting time for all of us. We learned a lot. And as I grew up, I got to be more involved. You only want to know about my college years, so I won't go beyond that.
Caitlin Haskett (00:05:55):
Tell me what you were going to say.
Nona Abrams (00:05:58):
When I was married a few years, and after the war, when my husband who was a naval officer came back from the Pacific, and he went to law school. And I was teaching. And when he graduated law school, our first child was born, Jonathan. We called him his graduation gift from law school. And he was hired my a court of appeals judge in the third circuit in Philadelphia. And he served one year there. Very, very happily. And at the end of that, he was asked to go to the Supreme Court in Washington, to serve as law clear to a Supreme Court Justice. So when Jonny was a year and a half old, we went to DC. And you can imagine what a thrill it was. And in those days, Caitlyn, there was no security at all. We used to go in and out of the Supreme Court. I'd wheel Jonny in, in his little carriage, right in and out of the main doors.
Nona Abrams (00:07:22):
I remember one day, Justice Frankfurter, or Felix Frankfurter, spied him. He was a little red-headed kid. Oh, could he wheel a carriage. He used to wheel a carriage. And it was an amazing time. And the Justice for whom Harvey clerked, his wife and he looked on the law clerks. They each has two at that time. Now there are many more. The chief had three at that time. And we were included in all their entertaining. So it was a very heady time for a very ... At that point, I was 24, maybe close to 25. And the wife of the other law clerk and I were junior hostesses at the major events that they gave. And President Truman, who was president then, was invited. They were very dear friends. Anyway, it was a very exciting time. And while we were in Washington, after Harvey served his clerkship, he went with a major law firm, Covington & Burling.
Nona Abrams (00:08:36):
And while we were there--while he was there, we bought a house in Chevy Chase, right over the district line into Maryland. And somebody knocked on our door one night. One of our neighbors who we did not know said he noticed our name, he is assuming we were Jewish, would we be at all interested in forming a conservative congregation in Bethesda, Chevy Chase. Well, we thought yes. So we were one of 10 couples who founded Beth El of Montgomery County, which is now a major conservative congregation. And that was our entire activity, outside of the legal stuff and everything. That meant so much to us. And that was really a great time. Nothing like being a pioneer. So, that's how much Judaism--And then of course I became the president of that group. And then when I came to Philadelphia, we came back, of course, went right back to AJ.
Nona Abrams (00:09:43):
And in a couple of years, I became president of that sisterhood. Then I went on the national board. Then I became the national vice president, at the same time that I was getting very involved in federation. So all those things are in the past. I'm now an honorary board member here, honorary board member, you know. But I treasure those times. They were a very important part of my life, at the same time that we were very involved with local politics and everything because we just cared about all that. So we did a lot of work for that as well.
Caitlin Haskett (00:10:29):
Wonderful. All right. Before we shift to talking about your years at Bryn Mawr, tell me a little bit about your education before Bryn Mawr, the high school you went to, things like that.
Nona Abrams (00:10:37):
I went to the Philadelphia High School for Girls, which it was not a district's ... It was in the Philadelphia School District. Didn't have boundaries. So you had to apply. It was all academic. And there was another girl's high school that time. I think William Penn was still there. But that had academic and commercial. So we were the only academic one. So we really attracted people from everywhere. That's how I got to know so many people, including wonderful African American ... we didn't use that word then ... in our classes. And when I went to Bryn Mawr, we had our first chapeling in Goodhart. And President Parks said to us, she was giving a description, profile of the entering class. She said, "85% of you prepared at independent schools, private schools." She said, "I am included in that number those of you who prepared at the Philadelphia High School for Girls." That's how it was thought of. I'm sure Joanie told you also wonderful things about Girls High. And that was my education.
Nona Abrams (00:12:04):
While I was in high school, I was in high school, I was taking piano lessons, you know, that kind of thing. And after I was confirmed at my synagogue, I entered Gratz College, which is a Judaic Studies, and I was there until I went away to Bryn Mawr. And I loved that. I did that. Interesting, in those days, we went to classes at night, using the Broad Street subway, standing on dark corners in the worst section of the city that became. And yet it was like that subway was like our private car. We always ... We used it to go to school, come back from school. So that was basically my education. Of course, I also loved music. And we used to get tickets. Our father would go in the middle of the summer to stand in line so that we could get tickets to the youth concerts of the Philadelphia Orchestra that they had during the year. And, I don't know, we just always loved the theater. And I must say, the ballet was not a part of my experience then. And very little opera. But orchestral music was very big. And I always loved singing, and we enjoyed dancing. Is that the sort of thing you wanted to know?
Caitlin Haskett (00:13:48):
Yeah. You mentioned that you went to Gratz College a little bit. Tell me a little bit more about what that was like.
Nona Abrams (00:13:55):
I loved it because everybody there was there because they wanted to be. You didn't have to go. And so I took classes in ... Well, you know, I guess there was some Hebrew. But we did mostly a lot of discussions, sort of like autonomous study, but not a forum. It was a forum. I mean, we had classes, and we got grades and everything, and our professors ... We didn't call them teachers. They were professors. And they were brilliant Jewish scholars. And Julius Greenstone, whom I remember very well, was outstanding. And it turned out that he was the person who had married my parents in 1918, and other names that probably people from that era would know. And of course, being there, I was with lots of boys because there weren't too many girls there. And I loved that. I made many good friends there, whom I kept over the years when they went to colleges in the area. You know, Temple, Penn. We kept in touch.
Caitlin Haskett (00:15:19):
Lovely. All right, maybe you can tell me now about how you ended up going to Bryn Mawr, and what that decision process was like.
Nona Abrams (00:15:30):
I had to take the SATs, which I remember my mother ... As I told you, I was married at 18. I actually didn't start dating at all until I was 16 at least. So I actually had about a year and a half of dating within that period. In those days, Caitlyn, there was no such thing as dating with one person. It was in a group. And you were seeing a lot of people. And you didn't kiss them. Maybe you held hands occasionally, but even that was a big deal. Yeah. And I forget what the question was.
Caitlin Haskett (00:16:20):
Well finish telling me about dating. You were saying that you wouldn't even really hold hands with people.
Nona Abrams (00:16:25):
Right. But we knew people. We would see people quite often. At the time that I told Harvey that I would accept his proposal, which I did not do instantly, because it was a shocker to me. I was actually seeing, off and on, nine different people. But my parents had a summer home in Ventnor. And it became a gathering place for not only their friends, but Joanie's friends and my friends. And Joanie was such a baby. Not a baby, but she was like 10, 11 years old. And I was in high school, getting ready, thinking about college. And it was a wonderful time. So I took the SATs in ... I think in June. Oh, yes. Because I was going out most Saturday nights. Never allowed to do anything on Friday. Sunday was really a school night. There was one person that I really liked very much.
Nona Abrams (00:17:31):
And my mother gave me ... my mother and dad, that I was forbidden to see him or go out with him for six weeks, so that I could study for the SATs. And when I took the ... I had applied to Bryn Mawr. But I did not know about whether I would be accepted or not. And I knew that my dear friend Nancy Ingham, I told you about her, was also ... She was the main one in line for the Girls High School Scholarship. And I don't know if you realize, but board and room together at Bryn Mawr, which was considered one of the most expensive colleges in the country, for my entering year, was $1000. And was actually $600 tuition, $400 for room and board. And my parents would have stretched to do it, but made it much easier without it. I mean, with it.
Nona Abrams (00:18:47):
And we got word, in the mail, on a Monday, in the middle of the summer, saying that they were happy to announce, it was Bryn Mawr, that I was accepted. Great joy. Couldn't wait to call my grandparents, who had been waiting to hear. And my grandfather died that day. So he never found out. And that always makes me cry, always made me very sad. And then we found out that Nancy got the scholarship. Well, the joy of being accepted, everybody was thrilled, mother and daddy said, "You're going. It'll be wonderful." Then Nancy finally decided she didn't want to go Bryn Mawr. She wanted to go to ... Oh God, I always knew the name of the ... a Christian college, a nice one that she loved. And so she withdrew her name.
Nona Abrams (00:19:50):
And since I was the next, I got it. And that was amazing. And yeah, that was really something. So that's how I got to Bryn Mawr. But what I wanted to tell you is that I got a phone call sometime after the SATs. We took them in a big room at Penn, I think. And I got a phone call from some guy. And he said, "We've never met. But I saw you at the SATs. And I copied your name down from your paper." He said, "I'd like to meet you. Is that all right?" And so he had applied for Haverford. And he was from a little town in New Jersey. Elmer, New Jersey. Not Jewish. And so I never told my mother. Because he did get in touch with me and came to the seashore because we were already the seashore for the summer, in our house.
Nona Abrams (00:21:03):
And he had the last name ... I can't remember his last name. But it could have been anything. You know? I never told my mother. And we had a very nice time. But it was very clear it wasn't going to be continuing. It was nice to meet him. To this day, I still can't believe how he did that. But that's exactly what happened. And I met him at one of the get togethers that we used to have when the Haverford ... I think it was during orientation week when they brought over the Haverford freshman. I don't know if they still do that. And we saw each other then. It was like, you know, "Nice to see you." That was it. But that's one of the sidelights of my getting into Bryn Mawr. Now you want to know what happened when I got into Bryn Mawr?
Caitlin Haskett (00:21:56):
Nona Abrams (00:21:58):
I had seen an old ... The old brochure that we had at Girls High was a lovely thing about Bryn Mawr. And I had decided that I wanted to be in Rockefeller.
Nona Abrams (00:22:16):
I think Joanie was in Pembroke, Pem East. Anyway, when I got my notice that I was assigned to Rhoads North, I cried. I said to my mother and dad, "It must be so far away." I never heard of it. It never was ... Anyway, it was an old brochure which didn't include the new ... Because it was only like two years old at that time. I forget, but in the late thirties. And when we drove into Bryn Mawr, my father was driving my mother and me. And we followed the directions to go down into Rhoads. And I remember the last things I said to them, "If we get to it, and it's not nice, I'm going home." I said, "I'll commute." You know, I was from Philadelphia.
Nona Abrams (00:23:12):
Well, we pulled up to this mansion. You know what Rhoads is. And in those days, of course it was almost new and it was [inaudible 00:23:19]. Well, I couldn't believe it. Not only that, but I get to my room and it's the end of the first floor, which is the end with the big bay window and the two beds. It was a suite, you know. And that's where I'm going to live, looking out over all these fields. I met my roommate, Irene Spiegelberg. And I met her mother that day. And she was from New York.
Nona Abrams (00:23:53):
But she had come to New York, I think like about a year before from Germany via Belgium. And that's how we started out. [This section has been redacted until Nona’s death. During this part of the discussion Nona’s son Jonathan Levin enters and is present for the rest of the interview.]
Nona Abrams (00:30:46):
Oddly enough, I was trying to remember when I knew you were coming, how did I get to know the Jewish girls in my class? Because we didn't have anything Jewish going on. But I guess somebody must have told us about each other. And we had this group of about six or seven. And then Sue Lichten transferred the next year so we were like eight Jewish girls.
Nona Abrams (00:31:18):
And we all became each other's best friends. Before this happened with Irene, she invited us to visit her in New York. And one of my good friends, trying to remember her first name, Litvan, whose father was a principal of a school of a junior high in Brooklyn, invited us to her house. We stayed overnight in her home. But on the Sunday before we came back, we were invited the Spiegelberg place. Had no idea we were going. We only knew the address. None of us really knew New York. Turned out they lived on 5th Avenue, the most gorgeous apartment. In the hall was a long chest, cedar chest, which Irene opened to show us, loaded with lines and silver and jewelry. They came in like '38, '39.
Jonathan Levin (00:32:32):
But she was suffering.
Nona Abrams (00:32:33):
And they had means. And really, her mother was like a countess. She always pulled back hair, pearls, and black dress. Anyway, that was an experience. So what's the next story?
Caitlin Haskett (00:32:52):
Well, can you tell me a little bit more about what the group of Jewish friends and you would do, and what kind of things would you get up to on campus?
Nona Abrams (00:33:00):
Caitlin Haskett (00:33:01):
Nona Abrams (00:33:02):
No. No, I can't think of anything, other than the fact we would talk about if we had a family member of something who was having a bar mitzvah, or a bat mitzvah. No, there weren't even any bat mitzvahs. Bar mitzvahs, or if there was a family celebration. All my Jewish friends there were synagogue connected. I seem to remember that they were all very happily committed Jews. But there was no Hillel, there was no club. It just so happened, on the floor that I lived, on the first floor of Rhoads North, there was Norma Spielman, who was a senior. And next to me were two girls. One happened to be Jewish, one not. They were dear friends. One was from York, Pennsylvania, which is where my first husband came from. And her roommate was Jocelyn Plough from Memphis, Tennessee, whose family ... Oh, God. They were so rich, became multi, multi--
Jonathan Levin (00:34:21):
Nona Abrams (00:34:23):
Jonathan Levin (00:34:23):
Plough Pharmaceuticals. St. Joseph's Aspirin.
Nona Abrams (00:34:23):
ICat all started with St. Joseph's Aspirin. So Joce was my next door neighbor. What I loved about Bryn Mawr was that there was not a freshman dorm. Everybody's mixed up. I love that. And then on the other side of us, we were at the end, was Dottie Lewis, from West Virginia. Jewish. And Very Jewish. I mean, she was involved in a lot of things. And so we did lots of things together. Then I took them to my synagogue in Philadelphia, because they were not from Philadelphia, occasionally. And they were all at my wedding.
Jonathan Levin (00:35:08):
And what about, uh, Saydar?
Nona Abrams (00:35:11):
Saydars? I don't really know--everybody went home.
Jonathan Levin (00:35:15):
Nona Abrams (00:35:16):
Jonathan Levin (00:35:16):
Caitlin Haskett (00:35:17):
I hate to interrupt, but I would really prefer if we could just keep the conversation between Nona and I. I think it'll create a better recording.
Jonathan Levin (00:35:25):
Caitlin Haskett (00:35:25):
And then you'll get a copy of the conversation later on.
Jonathan Levin (00:35:29):
Okay, that's fine.
Caitlin Haskett (00:35:29):
Thank you. So you would take them to synagogue with you sometimes, you were saying?
Nona Abrams (00:35:35):
Only if there was a special occasion, which may have happened once or twice. Remember, I got married in the middle of my sophomore year. From then on, I was very involved with my husband and his war service. Because I had to leave college to go to be with him on the West Coast, both my junior year and my senior year. Because the senior year, he was already in action in the Pacific, on an aircraft carrier. And a small carrier. And they were hit by a kamikaze, which took out all of his young men. He was the ordinance officer on the ship, in charge of all the guns and everything like that. And they were badly hurt. And they were escorted back to San Francisco to go into dry dock to be repaired. Once they repaired them, they pushed them back into the war.
Nona Abrams (00:36:45):
So I went out. I got permission from the head of my ... You want to hear this story?
Caitlin Haskett (00:36:51):
Nona Abrams (00:36:52):
Jon, he knows this. The head of my department, I was a politics major because I was pre-law. And Dr. Wells, he said, "Fine," he said. Because the year before, I had gone. And he understood what it was. The only one who was not happy about it was my English literature professor, Dr. Hurbin. I had stupidly left one of my ... I don't know how I did that, but I left one of my required courses that I had to take, in my senior year.
Nona Abrams (00:37:36):
Well, I figure it's English lit, I'll read some books, right. So he did not like the idea that I was leaving. And when I came back to Bryn Mawr, I was a little late to take my comprehensives. Dr. Wells gave it to me. I did well. Dr. Hurbin gave his to me ... I had lugged a lot of books out to California, which I hardly looked at, I have to tell you. When I came back, I took the exam. And he called me in. And he showed me that ... What do they call ... I got a condition. I was conditioned. 70 was passing. And he gave me a 67. And he said, "But don't worry. You'll take it over again." Fine. I said, "When should I do this?" So he gave me the date. And I looked in my little calendar. And I said, "Dr. Hurbin, that's the day after graduation."
Nona Abrams (00:38:53):
He said, "So it is." And I said, "Well, I would like to take it before because I'm graduating." He said, "No, you're going to take it the day after." We then called my father, who was ... You can imagine how upset they were, my parents, who were so thrilled to have a daughter graduating from Bryn Mawr. Anyway, so daddy came out to campus. It was the second time that he did. I'll tell you about the first time. The second time, Dr. Wells was there, Dr. Hurbin, who was married to Professor Robbins, who had been my history professor. And the dean, I forget who the dean was at that time, and Dr. Hurbin, of course. And we're all talking. And they are literally, except for Dr. Hurbin, begging him to give my the exam before I graduated. And Dr. Robbins said, who is his wife, she said, "She is fine student. She was doing the only thing she could do when her husband was involved, he was at war." And he sat there. He said, and he kept saying ... What's that thing they keep saying? Immunity. [inaudible]
Caitlin Haskett (00:40:22):
Nona Abrams (00:40:22):
No. But he was relying on the fact that he had--
Caitlin Haskett (00:40:27):
Nona Abrams (00:40:28):
His tenure, and his ... Yeah, he was just basing everything that nobody could question him because this was his authority.
Nona Abrams (00:40:39):
And I remember my father crying. And we could not budge him. The dean of the college could not budge him. And his answer was, what he would always say, "She made her choice." I never, ever, until I knew that you were coming, I have never thought that it might have anything to do with anything Jewish. And I'm not sure, to this day, that it did. But as I think about it, if that had happened today, we would immediately be questioning, right? But I don't remember. I know daddy never said anything about it. Nor did I. So what I have to tell you, Ms. McBride, who was by then the president. Ms. Park, and then Ms. McBride. And I spoke ... She saw me the day before when they were having graduation rehearsal. And she came over to me. And I didn't even know that she knew me.
Nona Abrams (00:41:40):
And she said, "I want you to be here tomorrow." And I said, "I don't know that I can do that." Anyway, I did come. My parents came. My mother-in-law came. My sister came. My aunt came. And everybody's standing in line with the academic procession. And everybody's wearing the hood. I was the only one marching without a hood. And can you ... I can't believe I did it. And I'm marching down this path. We pass by Ms. McBride, who's standing. She left her space to come over just to wish me congratulations.
Caitlin Haskett (00:42:31):
That's really lovely of her.
Nona Abrams (00:42:36):
Caitlin Haskett (00:42:37):
Nona Abrams (00:42:42):
I never wore a hood until I had my 70th reunion, when at that time Kim was being installed as president of Bryn Mawr. And so I went to that. And Elizabeth, my granddaughter, was working at Bryn Mawr. You heard about that.
Caitlin Haskett (00:43:07):
Nona Abrams (00:43:07):
Oh, well. Yes, so this picture--
Caitlin Haskett (00:43:11):
Oh, I see it behind you. Yeah.
Nona Abrams (00:43:14):
That's Elizabeth, after she put the hood on me when I was getting dressed to walk in the procession.
Caitlin Haskett (00:43:24):
Aww, that sounds lovely.
Nona Abrams (00:43:24):
So because of him, I had to go out the next day. We all went for lunch. We had a beautiful lunch. But in those days, the evening bulletin always had a little block on the front page, at graduation time, of people in Philadelphia who had graduated from local colleges. And my mother was just waiting and waiting for my name to appear under Bryn Mawr.
Nona Abrams (00:43:50):
And all of her friends were waiting. And it wasn't there. And she had to field all these questions. And my parents were amazing. They never faltered for one second. And they held their heads up the hold time. But it was horrible. So the day after, I drove out to Bryn Mawr, went to his office, and he gave me the Blue Book and the questions. And I sat there. He moved away a little bit. And I wrote what I had to write. And I turned, I handed it to him. He said, "No, well, no, wait a minute. Wait a minute." So I waited. I could hardly look at him.
Nona Abrams (00:44:38):
So he looks at it. He looks at it. And I forget what he wrote on it. Something ridiculous. You know, we get numerical grades. Nobody ever gets high grades. You're lucky if you ever get an 80. And he writes on it, 90. And I looked at it, and I looked at him, and I tore it in pieces and threw it in the basket and left.
Caitlin Haskett (00:45:02):
Good for you. Yeah.
Nona Abrams (00:45:06):
And of course, I ... And you know I'm a crier. I cried all the way home, driving, thinking. So I got my diploma mailed to me the next year. So I used to be listed as 1945/46. But I was the only one, because he said, "You made your choice."
Caitlin Haskett (00:45:28):
Yeah. Were there other people in your class who did similar things like you did? Taking time away from the campus to go see husbands or boyfriends who were in the war?
Nona Abrams (00:45:36):
I was the only one married.
Caitlin Haskett (00:45:37):
Nona Abrams (00:45:37):
As a matter of fact, this is interesting. After I married Harvey, he was assigned to the Midvale Company in Philadelphia, which was transforming from a machinery manufacturer to ordinance manufacturing. And as a newly appointed ordinance officer, he was assigned to the Midvale Company. So he was still in Philadelphia when we were married. And we needed ... Oh, you'll love this. Falls in with your story. I forget what I was going to tell you about it.
Caitlin Haskett (00:46:20):
You were talking about after you married your husband, and the job he got.
Nona Abrams (00:46:25):
Caitlin Haskett (00:46:26):
And you mentioned earlier something about an apartment? Is that what it was?
Nona Abrams (00:46:30):
Oh, right, right. And we needed a place to live because I was going to be a junior. And I had given up my room. And by then, I had a single room. And so Harvey and I, he in his naval uniform, naval officer, very good looking, wonderful guy, me as a Bryn Mawr college junior, we get in the car, and we go out to the main line to take an apartment. We went to every single apartment between Overbrook and Bryn Mawr, all the way out, Montgomery Avenue. And in every one, we were turned down because we were Jewish. It was so blatant. And we got to the area right near Bryn Mawr, even crossed past Bryn Mawr into Rosemont a little bit. And we had no place to live. And it was getting very close. And so I said, "Let's drive into the college,
Nona Abrams (00:48:00):
and maybe they know something." I really didn't know what we were going to do. And so we got into the college. I went into Taylor And there was somebody in there, in the office, I don't remember who. And I explained that we could not find a place to live, and that we needed someplace. Now I know what I wanted to tell you. And so she said, "Well, you know, we have a graduate house on Old Gulph Road, which used to be the rectory of a church, of the church there, right across from the old gym. Mrs. Shumway boards that house. And maybe there's something available. Why don't you go over and talk to her?" So even though we were desperate, the house sat right next to cemetery. And I said to Harvey, "I could never live next to a cemetery."
Nona Abrams (00:49:09):
He said, "You could live next to a cemetery. They're interesting places. We'll go for a walk, we'll read what's on there." So we went up to the door, this old house, and met Mrs. Shumway. We explained what we were looking for, and she said, "Actually, I have an apartment on the first floor that's available." "It's available?" "Yeah." So she showed us. And, you know, it's an old house. We had almost the whole first floor. You know, sparsely furnished and everything. But who cared? With a dining room, and a kitchen, and living room. I guess there must have been a bedroom too, but I don't remember. And she said, "I have to tell you, the rent is $50 a month." "Well, okay." So we decided. We were so elated. And you would love this, Caitlin. My husband was very smart. And he kept up with everything all the time.
Nona Abrams (00:50:17):
And every Sunday, the New York Times had a front page box that said the 10 questions of the news of the week. And so we would invite all my friends to come to the house. And I remember on Sunday afternoon, they would sit on the floor. And Harvey would be sitting in a chair with the newspaper, asking questions. He used to say, "I can't believe it. You're all in college, and you're supposed to be so smart. How can you not know these things?" Can you believe it? That we really were not too smart in those matters? But that was an interesting time. But what I wanted to tell you, after Harvey got his orders to go to the Pacific, it was about half way through that year. We didn't have a full year there. And so I wanted to go back into my room, which had not been rented.
Nona Abrams (00:51:27):
It was vacant. You know why I loved it, Caitlyn? It was a little single room on the right as you go down the hall. And it was right near the bathroom. And you could always hear the water running and the toilets flushing. And to me, it was like being at the seashore. It was like the ocean was ... I used to tell her, "I love it. I'm right near the water." Anyway, so I thought, "Well, I'll just move right back into my ..." Did you know that Bryn Mawr had a rule then that no married student could live on campus?
Caitlin Haskett (00:52:01):
Nona Abrams (00:52:01):
Because we were going to poison everybody's lives. Believe me, married, I knew a lot less than some of the people I knew at Bryn Mawr. But that's the first time that my father came out to make a plea, to change the bylaw, whatever it was. And they did. So I was the first married girl to live on campus. But do you know I used to walk down paths, and some of the girls would go around me like I--
Caitlin Haskett (00:52:37):
They'd avoid you?
Nona Abrams (00:52:40):
Caitlin Haskett (00:52:40):
Just because you were married?
Nona Abrams (00:52:42):
Caitlin Haskett (00:52:42):
Nona Abrams (00:52:45):
It was a very different time.
Caitlin Haskett (00:52:48):
Nona Abrams (00:52:48):
Anyway, so that told you a lot, really.
Caitlin Haskett (00:52:51):
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Nona Abrams (00:52:51):
Caitlin Haskett (00:52:54):
Yeah. Tell me a little bit more about your social life at Bryn Mawr. What you mentioned, playing bridge in the smoking room. What other kinds of things would you do?
Nona Abrams (00:53:04):
Oh, I loved our freshman show. Did a lot of work with that. I mean, we sang, we danced. We had so much fun. Loved it. I never felt any distinction religiously at all. I never did. As a matter of fact, a rabbi, who was very prominent, my mother had a talk with him before I went. And she said, "You know, we've always kept a kosher home. I still do. And my kids do too. But she's going to be living at college. And I don't know what to tell her." And Rabbi Klein said to her, "You know, Elizabeth, there is nothing more important than education and learning." He said, "If she doesn't drink a glass of milk with a meat meal, she needs ..." How did she put it? "She needs her sustenance." So he said ... When he gave me permission to eat, you know, nothing forbidden. And that was amazing.
Caitlin Haskett (00:54:27):
So you just ate in the dining hall with everyone else?
Nona Abrams (00:54:30):
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Do you know how we were treated when I came in? Have you heard about the early days of Bryn Mawr and how women were treated?
Caitlin Haskett (00:54:40):
Why don't you tell me your perspective on it?
Nona Abrams (00:54:45):
One of the first things you got was a maid. And Anna was my maid. And she was the one who did the hems on our dresses. We didn't wear pants. The hems on our skirts. Took our phone calls. Were just ... They were wonderful. Dinners ... Oh, and we were not allowed to make our beds. Because M. Carey Thomas, who as you know, there's been all that discussion about. Now they've just put her name up with a plaque. Didn't want anything to distract from studying. So we were not allowed to make beds. Our maids made the beds.
Nona Abrams (00:55:30):
And then we went up to this baronial hall, the dining hall. And there were six, you know, two, two, two, two. Eight. Eight of us the table. And we were served by porters who were dressed like waiters, whatever they wore. We had maids and porters. Matter of fact, at Christmas time, they did the maids and porters performance, a show. And that's when I learned all the etiquette things that we didn't do because it was usually family style eating at home. You know, the platter would go down, we would help ourselves. Anyway, so we learned about serving from the left and removing from the right. And then they would refill our water, and then they would take us whatever we wanted, they would bring us. And they would stand behind ... You know, we each had one or two at each table. It was a very formal kind of thing.
Nona Abrams (00:56:39):
And most of the people there had never lived like that. We'd all lived nicely, but never like that. It was really quite something. And then came the war in December. And by the end of that Christmas vacation, when we came back, everything had changed. Many of the professors had gone off to serve in the war, or to serve in Washington, or serve the government, the way effort. And I had very few professors in my time at Bryn Mawr, had mostly graduate students. And so the professors I had were already older at that time. Dr. Wells, one of his daughters was in my class. And one of the granddaughters of President Taft was in my class. Shows you how long ago that was. And Helen Taft Manning was a professor of history. I had her for a short time. Then I had Mrs. Robbins.
Nona Abrams (00:57:55):
And it was totally different. And when I went back to reunions and these housed in road, and I set up the food and everything. Oh, we even had hall dances. Oh my golly. We had my freshman ball dance the spring of my freshman year. That's when everything really started with Harvey.
Caitlin Haskett (00:58:18):
Nona Abrams (00:58:18):
Caitlin Haskett (00:58:23):
Tell me more about that.
Nona Abrams (00:58:24):
Well, that was interesting because my mother and dad knew him because he was from York, Pennsylvania, but his parents came to the seashore, Ventnor, New Jersey, near Atlantic City, in the summer time. And my parents had a house there.
Nona Abrams (00:58:44):
And they got to know his parents, got to know him. And when they realized he was going to be in Philadelphia, my mother said, and he was five years older than I, "We have to find an older girl for Harvey." II thought that was a great idea. I hadn't really thought about anything with him. I knew his younger brother, who I'd gotten to know at the shore. He was at Harvard at the time. And so I thought, "Hmm. Dottie Lewis, who is a junior, would be a good person." So I spoke to her. I said, "Would you like to meet somebody?" Yes, she would. I said, "Well, you know, I know somebody really nice. Would you want to go to the dance with him?" "No, no." She didn't want to do that. But she'd like to meet him. So I thought, "Well, I guess I'll invite him to come to the dance."
Nona Abrams (00:59:58):
And my parents had invited him for Friday night dinner, to our house. And after dinner ... They did that quite often. And I happened to be home for that one. And I told him we were having a hall dance. Would he want to come? And he jumped at it. He said, oh, he'd love that. Fine. So I told Dottie that Harvey was coming. And the way it was arranged was that when Emma would ... We still had our maids. When Emma would let us know that my date had come, Dottie would go out to greet him, tell him that it would take me a little while, so she could visit with him. And then she'd come back, and then I'd go out.
Nona Abrams (01:00:57):
So I'm all ready, and I'm waiting. And I'm waiting. And I'm waiting, and I'm waiting. She doesn't come back. All of a sudden, she shows up. And he first words to me were, "Are you crazy? You're giving this one up?" She said, "You don't give this one up." So I thought, "Wow." So I went out to greet him. And we went up to the dining room, where the dance was. And we had a full orchestra. I mean, it was really terrific. And everybody formal. He was in his Navy whites. You know how gorgeous they are. And we're in the middle of the first dance. And he said to me, "We really fit together very well." That was it. So, anyway, that all happened in Bryn Mawr. You know an awful lot about me now.
Caitlin Haskett (01:01:58):
Yeah. Can you tell me a little bit more about traditions at Bryn Mawr. Did you participate in any of those while you were there?
Nona Abrams (01:02:06):
Well, we did a lot of step singing. And of course, Lantern Night. I loved Lantern Night. Something interesting happened for me my freshman year. Norma Spielman, who was a senior on my floor ... The senior tradition, I think it still is, that they have a garden party.
Caitlin Haskett (01:02:34):
Nona Abrams (01:02:34):
And each senior asks somebody to be a garden party girl. Usually it's a junior. Mostly, it's a junior. I was a freshman. And Norma asked me to be her garden party girl. Well, it became the talk of the dorm anyway. Because they'd never had a garden party girl who was a freshman.
Nona Abrams (01:03:05):
So it makes you like the unofficial hostess for her family. So I got to meet her whole family. She was from Chester. Drove down, met her whole family. I was with her all through graduation. So that was an interesting thing.
Caitlin Haskett (01:03:25):
Yeah. Why do you think she chose you?
Nona Abrams (01:03:32):
We had become very close friends. When I was having all my problems, I would talk to her. She became a psychiatrist. She was wonderful for me during my freshman year. And she later married Joan's brother-in-law and changed, became a little different. But when I knew her, she was very, very sweet, kind, unaffected, very bright, and somebody that I could really unburden myself to. And she was great help to me. So we had a special connection, which she realized. She just died this year. But the family, her family ... You're not ... I'm eating all of these, and you're not having anything?
Caitlin Haskett (01:04:34):
I'll have a few.
Nona Abrams (01:04:38):
Sure. That young man could have some too.
Jonathan Levin (01:04:40):
No. No, thank you.
Nona Abrams (01:04:47):
Yeah. All right. Is there any other memory or anything that you want to tell me about Bryn Mawr? I'd like to end with talking about your life since then. But if there's anything else you want to say about Bryn Mawr?
Nona Abrams (01:05:00):
Is that we did not do the Maypole during the war. Joanie had that. But we learned the Maypole dance.
Caitlin Haskett (01:05:09):
Even though you weren't going to do it?
Nona Abrams (01:05:10):
Right. We would have fun in our own room. You know, one, two, three, one, two, three. And at every family event, Joanie and I do the Maypole dance all the time.
Caitlin Haskett (01:05:12):
Nona Abrams (01:05:18):
We do. And my children will tell you that they know it. And I kept a card from Harvey, my first husband. It was a birthday card.
Jonathan Levin (01:05:41):
Nona Abrams (01:05:42):
Mother's Day Card. And I don't know where he found it. I've never seen it since. And it said everything about Mother's Day. And then you open it up, there's a big maypole. "To the queen of the May," and they're all doing the Maypole dance. And he wrote on it, "Love to my Bryn Mawr girl."
Caitlin Haskett (01:06:02):
Nona Abrams (01:06:03):
It was. It was very lovely. So you've had it on for that, right?
Caitlin Haskett (01:06:07):
Nona Abrams (01:06:07):
Caitlin Haskett (01:06:08):
What was the--do you remember how it was decided that the Maypole wasn't going to happen your year? No?
Nona Abrams (01:06:16):
No. So much of what happened that year ... Excuse me. We were so naïve. We were so innocent. It was such a different world. We weren't even ... During the year, several of the girls in my hall had their debuts. It was very big then. And we were all, we Jewish girl, all knew that they were having their debuts. Because big flowers would arrive, and there was never any interaction at all. But it wasn't mean or anything. It was just that's the way it was. I don't think we ever questioned it.
Caitlin Haskett (01:07:15):
Why do you think you never interacted?
Nona Abrams (01:07:19):
Because that's just the way it was. We interacted with everything that we did in college, in the shows and the Lantern Night. And I forget what day it was. It was a day that people would leave little gifts at your door. What was that?
Caitlin Haskett (01:07:42):
Maybe Hell Week? Or Flower Day?
Nona Abrams (01:07:47):
We didn't have hell week when I was there.
Caitlin Haskett (01:07:51):
Maybe it was the night before May Day, seniors leaving presents?
Nona Abrams (01:07:54):
Maybe. It was something that, oh, you got so excited if you got anything. I really enjoyed it. But of course, as you know, I was away a good part of my junior and senior year, half of each year.
Caitlin Haskett (01:08:20):
Yeah. How did that absence from campus affect your social life or anything like that when you were back on campus?
Nona Abrams (01:08:30):
When I was back on campus, my friends were still my friends. As a matter of fact, I had wonderful times with them. The two girls from Massachusetts, one was Shirley Helman, who became Shirley Eisenberg. Now I can't, my mind, with names. Terrible. And anyway, nothing changed. They were very interested in what I was doing. I was very interested about them. I was a little bit envious of the fact that they had so much more connected with the college than I did at that time. But that was not my top priority. But I loved it there. And as I told you, when I met that other woman on LBI, it was a shock. So there must have been things that happened on campus that I was never aware of.
Caitlin Haskett (01:09:50):
Yeah. Was she from your same era at Bryn Mawr?
Nona Abrams (01:09:58):
Mm-hmm (affirmative). But I didn't know her. She may have been a little later. Everybody's a little later. I think I'm one of the oldest ... Well, I know I'm one of the oldest now.
Caitlin Haskett (01:10:11):
Nona Abrams (01:10:12):
Do you love the president?
Caitlin Haskett (01:10:14):
Yeah, she's lovely.
Nona Abrams (01:10:14):
I love her. I really love her. And she's a doll. But anyway, I started to tell you about my granddaughter, Elizabeth, who graduated from Penn and got her law degree at University of Southern California. But when she came back, she decided after being with a law firm for a short while, and then let go because there was the downturn. 34 people were let go the same day she was. And then she decided after looking at everything she really didn't want to do that anymore. But she adored Penn. So she applied to Penn to see if there was anything open. She started working for the Alumni Association. And she did a great job.
Nona Abrams (01:10:57):
She's wonderful at things like that. And she was recruited by Bryn Mawr. And so she went to Bryn Mawr, was there seven years, loved every minute. And if you mention to anybody who works there in that field, and you can say that you met Elizabeth Schwartz ... That's her married name, Schwartz. Elizabeth Kimmelman Schwartz's grandmother, her nana, they'll know exactly what you mean. They miss her very much because she was then, she was not recruited. She looked. It was too long a commute for her, once she had children, to go from Newtown in Bucks County to Bryn Mawr.
Caitlin Haskett (01:11:42):
Yeah, that's far.
Nona Abrams (01:11:42):
And so she is now working at the George School, which is a private Quaker School for ... It used to be just boys, but it's all co-ed. And she's very, very happy there. But she misses the people that she worked with and the alumni at the college.
Caitlin Haskett (01:12:07):
So we've been talking for a while. And I'd love to hear some about your life after Bryn Mawr. But if you're getting tired or have anything else, we can cut things off here as well.
Nona Abrams (01:12:18):
I think I told you most of that.
Caitlin Haskett (01:12:20):
Yeah. You mentioned your involvement with your synagogue.
Nona Abrams (01:12:23):
And with the women's league. And with federation.
Caitlin Haskett (01:12:27):
Nona Abrams (01:12:27):
And with ... I was active with [inaudible] and I'm trying to think.
Jonathan Levin (01:12:41):
Caitlin Haskett (01:12:41):
Nona Abrams (01:12:41):
Caitlin Haskett (01:12:44):
He's saying Israel Bonds.
Nona Abrams (01:12:46):
Oh, yes. I forgot about that. After I was widowed. Oh, and I did a lot of teaching. Because after I graduated Bryn Mawr, Harvey went to law school. But I had started teaching before he got home. Because he came home in the fall, and I graduated in May, and started teaching in September. And I loved teaching. And I taught until I had Jonny. And then I didn't do any real teaching. I was mostly a volunteer in all these good things. But when Harvey died, he was only 52. It was very, very sad. I was looking for things to do. And I had gone back to school, even before he died. He had made me do this, that I should get certified. Because Bryn Mawr offered nothing for teaching credits. So I enrolled at Temple and took a couple of course there. And loved it because I was in with these young kids. Oh, I just loved that. And Lisa, my youngest, was in fourth grade when I did that. And then I got a phone call from the principal of Jonny's ...
Caitlin Haskett (01:14:27):
Nona Abrams (01:14:28):
No, junior high. And he said, "You know, we're going to be introducing Great Books to the seventh grade. In order to do that, you need two people. It's a team that runs it." And he said, "I'm going to be taking the course. And I'd like to invite you to do it with me."
Nona Abrams (01:14:53):
And I said, "Ooh, that sounds very interesting." I was still married. I mean, Harvey was still alive. I mixed up the timing. This was before I went to Temple.
Caitlin Haskett (01:15:09):
Nona Abrams (01:15:09):
I was up there, and I loved it. I took the course with him. We worked together. At the end of the time with this one seventh grade, he said, "You know, this has been so successful, we're going to be having a meeting, a faculty meeting, to determine if we should introduce this again on a continuing basis, maybe even with the eighth grades." He said, "And I'd like to invite you to sit in on this." I was so flattered. I told my father on the phone. I said, "Hey, you won't believe they really want me to sit in with them." He said, "Sweetheart, that's wonderful."
Nona Abrams (01:15:54):
He said, "I just have one question." He said, "Aside from you, how many people at that meeting will be unpaid?" I said, "Nobody, just me." He said, "Go back to school." And that's what my husband had been saying to me. So a combination of my father and my husband. So I went to Temple. That's when I went to Temple. But I never got certified because I was immediately taken on as a full time substitute in the Springfield Township Montgomery County Schools. And I got the assignments for long term. People would be away for maternity. They'd be away for other reasons. And so I loved it. I taught in high school. And mostly English and history. And then ... Yeah. So I did that for 10 years. I loved it. But after Harvey died, I was still doing this. But things had started to peter out because there was a budget crunch.
Nona Abrams (01:17:08):
And so I had been the number one long term sub on the list. But a couple of the teachers who had been let go went on the substitute list. So I was pushed out. And then I get a phone call. I had been very active on the board of Israel Bonds. Get a phone call from the chairman, I mean the Israel Bonds person in Philadelphia, asking if I would be interested in becoming a full time paid person, as the director of the Women's Division of Israel Bonds for Philadelphia and Delaware. Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Delaware. Well, I had not actually had a full time job. You know, from morning, eight to five kind of thing, ever. And so that was a big decision to make. But I knew that I needed to make a little money because things were ... You know, it was difficult. And so I went for an interview. And in order to get that job, since you're handling foreign securities, you had to take a choice, to take the exam, to become a registered representative of the securities people. National Association of Securities Dealers, NASD.
Nona Abrams (01:18:48):
So I went to Pace University in New York, took the exam, and studied hard for it, and learned that I adored learning about finance. It was just like a new world. I just loved it. I still love it. And so believe it or not, I got one of the highest grades that they got that year. And so I was given the job. And I kept that for a few years until I got married the second time. And I loved that. And I moved over from the lay board, where I'd been co-chairman of that, to become the professional. I know I was one of the earliest people who made that move because it was not common for people who had been board members to become paid. And you'll get a kick out of this. Our office had a hall where we had offices off one side. And on the other side were all the secretaries.
Nona Abrams (01:20:03):
And our side was carpeted. The office side was linoleum or whatever. And I would come in, in the morning, and I had a secretary. And in those days, she would bring me my coffee, and I would light a cigarette. And we would do our business before anybody came in. We didn't have meetings that early. And one day, I get a visit from one of the men who worked in the office. Said to me, "Nona, we're bringing an action against you." "What are you talking about?" The union, I had been charged that I was ... What's the word? Not cohabiting, but I was mingling, or whatever. Said, "Every morning, when you come in, you go over to the other side, and you greet everybody. We don't do that." I said, "I do." "No. We don't." What do they call that? There's a word.
Caitlin Haskett (01:21:03):
Jonathan Levin (01:21:03):
Nona Abrams (01:21:07):
Fraternizing. "We don't fraternize." So they said, "And you better tell your secretary. She can come to you. You can call her on the phone. You do not have to go over to see her." I would see everybody, and I loved all those people who were over there. Anyway, they did. They had a hearing that I had to attend, which, very nicely, they held in my office. And after I explained everything, I was just censured. But I was still allowed to stay a member AFSCME, which is the big union for government workers anyway.
Nona Abrams (01:21:52):
Was the issue that the secretaries weren't part of the union? Do you remember?
Nona Abrams (01:21:55):
I guess, no, I don't think they were. Maybe they were. I truly don't know. All I remember, it was really awkward. I was also called ... The last time that I substituted before Jonny was born, I was assigned to the Philadelphia High School for Girls. And I taught in my own high school. And it happened to be the spring term, when my sister was a senior graduating. And the only yearbook that I ever had my picture in as faculty member is her yearbook. So I was teaching Modern European History. And I was floater. I didn't have my own room. And I was in the room of Ms. Fitzpatrick, who was a very ... I don't know [inaudible 01:22:52] woman. Very strong Catholic. And she was always anxious that I should erase everything from the board when I would leave the room so it would be pristine for her.
Nona Abrams (01:23:08):
One day, apparently, I left something that had to do with the Russian Revolution. And little did I know, that I get a phone call from the principal of the school, that somebody from the FBI had called to ask about me. Little old me. I was just like 23. I was 22 years old. Maybe 23. It was well before he was born. And they sent somebody to the office. And Helen Bailey was the principal. And of course, she was a dear friend of my parents. And I explained that it was all a history lesson. It was not presenting anything. But she was ... Oh, she said I was desecrating her room by putting on all this godless stuff on the board. And anyhow, it ended up being nothing. But I had forgotten all about that until today.
Nona Abrams (01:24:17):
That was a scary thing. Yeah. I tell you, Caitlyn, you very young people, I think it's very hard for you to understand what life was like in those days. For example, the Philadelphia High School for Girls, a very open liberal place, where I belonged to a club, where we went to different religious places, different churches. We went to a Catholic Church. They wouldn't let us in if we were not Catholic. So they were very strict. But we really had ... We had a peace club, where we would fight because nobody wanted war. It'll come to me why I'm telling you this. Oh, well. Talk about something else.
Caitlin Haskett (01:25:09):
You alluded to getting to know your second husband in that marriage. But tell me a little bit more about him and that phase of your life.
Nona Abrams (01:25:18):
Well, Harvey, as you know, was a lawyer. And he was at the Supreme Court. He was a brilliant, wonderful person. And then, you know that Jen's husband was an orthopedic surgeon. And of course, we were all very close. And because of Harvey's work, and knowing Milton, and other people, we knew all the doctors, especially at Einstein, where Milton was. And I did not know that one of Milton's friends, Dr. David Sparrow, had a little black book where he kept the names of people who were alone for one reason or another. And he was older. And he had my name in his book. And he also had Henry's name in his book because Henry was getting a divorce. And Dave decided that we would be a good combination. And actually, my son Jonathan was involved in getting us together. Because we were breaking fast. Jonny and Sharon used to come up from Virginia, where they were living, to run the youth services at our synagogue for the high holidays.
Nona Abrams (01:26:42):
And they were staying with me, but we broke fast at Joanie's house. And they would put Netanya there, the oldest, into her sleep [inaudible] things. And they were going to be driving home right from Joanie's house. And in the middle of the dinner, Sharon suddenly realizes that they had come away with her Binkie, a blanket that she always slept with. Well, she had to have it. So Jonny and I went back to the apartment. I just lived a few blocks away. And we went in the back door she would always used because we parked right back there on that street. As we're going in, and Jonny is going to look for what he left, the phone is ringing. I answered the phone, and it was Henry, who was breaking fast with the [inaudible] at their house. And Dave's wife had said to him, "If you don't call Nona now, you can never come to our house again."
Nona Abrams (01:27:47):
And so Henry had said, "Well, if she doesn't answer, I'm not going to try again." So if i had not been in the house with Jonny to pick up Netanya little Binkie, I would not have met Henry. That's how we made an arrangement to meet. Isn't that something? And that was that. I never expected it because I had a wonderful marriage, a fabulous family, I was very much involved in the community. And I wasn't looking. And this--
Jonathan Levin (01:28:33):
Can I say something?
Caitlin Haskett (01:28:33):
Sure. Go ahead. You turn. You can ... You can add--
Nona Abrams (01:28:33):
Turn it off. Turn it off.
Caitlin Haskett (01:28:33):
It's okay. It's okay.
Nona Abrams (01:28:33):
Jonathan Levin (01:28:33):
It's just interesting stuff. Henry was, what, 12 and a half years older than you?
Nona Abrams (01:28:41):
Jonathan Levin (01:28:43):
Okay, so, tell--
Nona Abrams (01:28:46):
Well, wait a minute. Henry would have to tell you.
Jonathan Levin (01:28:47):
Tell how people reacted.
Nona Abrams (01:28:48):
Henry--wait, oh yeah. But I have to tell you that Henry was an ophthalmologist. And he was from Princeton. And one of this favorite patients was Professor Einstein. I'll show you the picture. Anyway, he adored whom he called The Professor.
Nona Abrams (01:29:13):
Now you wanted me to say--
Jonathan Levin (01:29:14):
Not about that.
Nona Abrams (01:29:16):
Jonathan Levin (01:29:17):
Just about how much older he was, and how people said, "What are you going to get? 10 years out of this? What's the point?"
Nona Abrams (01:29:24):
Oh, that's right.
Jonathan Levin (01:29:24):
Yeah, tell her.
Nona Abrams (01:29:26):
They would say to me, "What do you want with somebody older?" And--
Jonathan Levin (01:29:32):
No, you said, "If I can get 10 years, it'll--" [crosstalk]
Nona Abrams (01:29:32):
That's right. "If I get 10 years with somebody wonderful ..." Because he was a wonderful person.
Jonathan Levin (01:29:44):
And how many years were you with Dad?
Nona Abrams (01:29:47):
The first year, first time, I was married to Harvey for 29 years. Married to Henry for 31. [laughter] Well, I remember, I think it was Lisa who spoke to me. You spoke to me, speaking for the three of you, my three children. "Mom, we met Henry. He's very nice. We like him. But we don't want you to marry you."
Jonathan Levin (01:30:14):
Nona Abrams (01:30:14):
Because he's too old.
Jonathan Levin (01:30:16):
Oh, yeah. Ain't that something? [laughs]
Nona Abrams (01:30:19):
And then I told them that, what Henry had said to me, that he always thought of himself as 10 years younger than his chronological age. And it worked. He was very young looking. And that's what happened. And I'll tell you a story about Jonny. After our wedding, Jonny comes through the line, and he says to me, "Well, mom. We don't have the same last name anymore." So that's when I made myself Nona Levin Abrams.
Jonathan Levin (01:31:06):
Were you going to tell her about the connection with Einstein?
Nona Abrams (01:31:10):
Jonathan Levin (01:31:10):
The connection with Einstein.
Nona Abrams (01:31:11):
I just told her.
Caitlin Haskett (01:31:11):
Jonathan Levin (01:31:12):
Oh, you did? Oh, okay. Because I thought you were going further.
Nona Abrams (01:31:12):
Also, his son's godfather was Albert Einstein, who actually came to the bris. And Henry and The Professor used to be co-chairmen of Israel Bonds in Princeton. They worked together. You know an awful lot about me.
Caitlin Haskett (01:31:53):
Yeah. I just have two more questions to wrap up.
Nona Abrams (01:31:56):
Caitlin Haskett (01:31:56):
So first of all, what sort of influence do you think Bryn Mawr has had on your life?
Nona Abrams (01:32:05):
Oh, I think it's tremendous. I really think it's tremendous. First of all, the pride that I feel, having gone there. That's never gone away, even with all the problems. What Bryn Mawr offered to me, was my first time to be away from home. I never went to summer camp. So I'd never been away from home. Even though I was not far away, it was away. And I never thanked my mother, when they left me at college, at the hall that I didn't know existed. You know that story. Oh yeah, well, anyway, I said, "Don't worry. Please pretend like I'm far away. If I don't call you for a while, please understand." I think two hours after they left, I was on the phone with them.
Nona Abrams (01:33:04):
But first of all, I learned simple things, like I told you. Certain foods. For example, I grew up in a house where we had tea and cocoa. I never saw coffee in life, until I got to Bryn Mawr. So to me, coffee, to this day, is kind of like a guilty pleasure. Cinnamon toast. Never had cinnamon toast until I went to the inn at Bryn Mawr, where they served cinnamon toast. Overwhelmed. All the ways of being treated, you know. I learned a way of living that was different from mine.
Nona Abrams (01:33:53):
I also gained a great respect, not just for all women, but sounds very immodest, but I had much more confidence in myself because they made you feel like you were worthy. And I don't give much thought to that, but I think that was pretty important to me. And I was tested there a lot. I mean, I told you Jonny doesn't know that I lost my scholarship. That was heartbreaking. And then the experience that I had with my freshman roommate. And then what I had with the graduation. It's amazing that I still think of it warmly. And yet, all the good things, I loved being a part of that community. I have to tell you one funny story. When I entered my senior year ... You asked a question that I was going to give you this answer.
Nona Abrams (01:35:05):
When I came back, what it was like. I not only had left the English Lit. But in order to graduate, you had to pass the swimming. And I had started during orientation to do that. In my senior year, I was still in the pool with a bamboo pole because I couldn't stay afloat for seven minutes, which we had to do. And in order to graduate, which I eventually didn't do, I had to get my pediatrician, Dr. Williams, wrote a note excusing me from swimming. But when I was living in North House on Old Gulph Road, I remember going home soaking wet.
Nona Abrams (01:35:52):
Oh, no. It was when I was back in the dorm. Back in the hall. Because then I had to go down the hill all the way to Rhoads. And it would be in the middle of the winter. And I had just gotten out of the pool and out of the shower. And I had to walk down freezing, freezing cold. Oh, my God. That was crazy. But no, and I think because I have been so positive about Bryn Mawr, it's kind of carried over to my children. I think they appreciate it also. And I do think a lot of who I am can be traced to that experience. I learned a lot. I was tested a lot. Oh, I know what I wanted to tell you. We were, during orientation week, chose our courses. And my father was a mathematician.
Nona Abrams (01:36:44):
I think I told you that was one of his three professions. And of course, in high school, gee, we all had A's in all this stuff. So I signed up for a math course. And I get into the first class, and I'm sitting there like for five minutes. And he's talking about something I never heard of. And I'm thinking, "Oh, gee. I think I'm really going to have a problem." And we're there, I think on the third day. He hands out the Blue Books. A pop quiz. And I thought, "Oh, God." And I sat there, and I wrote what I could. But I did not even understand the questions. And the bell rings. We were in Taylor. And he says, "Ms. Piwosky, would you wait a few minutes?" I said, "Sure." Mr. Oxtoby. He was a graduate student. Lovely young guy.
Nona Abrams (01:37:51):
Anyway, I wait for him. Everybody leaves. And he says to me, "I have a question for you. Why did you take this course?" I said, "Well, my father is a mathematician. He's head of the math department at [inaudible] Boys High School. And I wanted to make him proud of me." He said, "You really want to make your father proud of you?" I said, "Oh yes, I do." He said, "Then drop the course." He said, "If you drop it now, it won't appear anywhere. And you can choose ..." He said, "I can tell you're a very bright young woman." He said, "But choose something else. This is not for you." Anyway, for the rest of the time, whenever he would see me on campus, he would shout out to me, "Is your father proud of you?" Well, when I went to Kim's installation as president, the main speaker was Dr. Oxtoby, who was the father of my teacher, who was the president of Pomona College in California. And I couldn't wait to talk to him. I never had a chance. And when I told Kim this story, she said, "You've got to tell him that story." But I never had a chance, yeah. But isn't that something?
Caitlin Haskett (01:38:53):
That's a wonderful story.
Jonathan Levin (01:38:53):
Did she tell you about these things?
Caitlin Haskett (01:38:53):
Jonathan Levin (01:38:53):
Oh, both of them?
Caitlin Haskett (01:38:53):
Jonathan Levin (01:38:53):
Caitlin Haskett (01:39:20):
All right. Last question. If you can think back and imagine yourself as a senior at Bryn Mawr. You know, it's approaching your graduation, you're looking forward to your life. What do you think that version of yourself would be surprised about in what your life has gone since then?
Nona Abrams (01:39:40):
I think the surprise mainly would be that I didn't become a lawyer. Because that's colored my feelings. My sister went ahead and did it, and never really practiced. And that always was like a "oomph". And then, when I married Henry, he used to say to me right at the beginning, before we even got married, "Why don't you go now?" And I would say, "No, I'm too old." I was 53. And I realized, when he died, I could have been in practice 25 years already, had I done it. And I know people who do that. But it never ... But I had a very full life. I don't have any regrets about all my volunteer work. I loved it. And yeah, but that would be my main regret.
Caitlin Haskett (01:40:32):
All right. Is there anything else you want to tell me about or add before we finish up?
Nona Abrams (01:40:40):
I think we've covered a lot.
Caitlin Haskett (01:40:42):
We really have.
Nona Abrams (01:40:44):
Did you get a feeling a little bit about what life was like?
Caitlin Haskett (01:40:47):
Definitely. All right.
Nona Abrams (01:40:51):
It was very different. Very different. But I think that ... You have to tell me. Are the girls, the young women, or you, what is your feeling about the people at Bryn Mawr?
Nona Abrams (01:41:12):
Let me just thank you for sitting down with me and having this conversation today, and for sharing all your memories. And then I'll turn off the recorder and tell you. Sound good? All right.
Approximately 6 minutes of audio between minute 24 and 30 have been redacted per Nona Abrams' request and will become accessible after her death.
Nona Abrams interviewed by Caitlin Haskett, July 22, 2019
Oral history interview of Nona Abrams (née Piwosky), Bryn Mawr College Class of 1945, conducted by Bryn Mawr College Class of 2020 student Caitlin Haskett on July 22, 2019 at Abrams' home in Philadelphia.
Haskett, Caitlin (interviewer)
Abrams, Nona Piwosky, 1924- (interviewee)
1 online resource (1 audio file (80 min.))
North and Central America--United States--Pennsylvania--Montgomery--Bryn Mawr
North and Central America--United States--Pennsylvania--Philadelphia--Philadelphia
Jewish Mawrters Oral History Collection--http://archives.tricolib.brynmawr.edu/resources/bmc-rg12-ohj