I acquired my first pair of earrings at the age of 6 months when my mother, an Eastern European Jew, had my ears pierced and a miniature of her own gold hoops inserted. Many women I passed in my Brooklyn neighborhood wore gold hoops, often paired with tiny gold Jewish stars. By five or six I realized I belonged to a special club; girls with gold hoops. The members of my club, however, even in the same place at the same time, were not friends. I was a lonely child and I thought belonging to a club meant having friends to do things with. Gold hoops identifying us as club members made the exclusion seem unreasonable. The Hassidic women, who wouldn’t acknowledge us, seemed indistinguishable in stiffly curled sheitels (wigs), drab clothing, and clunky shoes. They were contemptuous of “modern women” like my mother with her stylishly bobbed hair, high-heels, and smart, second-hand, wool coat.
The lower East Side’s Essex Street Market, prime Kosher restaurants Ratner’s and Katz, discount shops on the lower East Side and Second Avenue, the Yiddish theatre; all were flooded with gold hoopers. It provided some reassurance that there would be a place to hide from the often violent anti-Semitism I encountered from the Polish, Hungarian and Irish kids that roamed the streets. Especially in the forties and fifties, probably always, safety was an important consideration to Jews. I believed those gold hoops identified my Landsmen, members of my tribe. Years later, an article I read in the Post affirmed I was, somewhat right: “The (Italian) authorities were worried about the ease of assimilation of Jews and non-Christians into Christian society, and wanted to set up sharp distinctions so that people would know a Jewish person on sight on the street,” Ford said. “And so there were laws that required [Jewish women] to wear earrings — — specifically gold hoops.” (2/6/21)
My single mother, who took a long train ride to her back-breaking file clerk job, then came home to two difficult children, wore the same gold hoops her entire life, a heavy pair from Romania decorated with slight incising. Before she died in the hospital after cancer surgery, she gave me those hoops. I never wore them, they were too fraught with memory, too laden with remorse at being so difficult a daughter, but my daughter-in-law has them tucked away for one of my granddaughters.
In my early teens, hanging out with friends in Greenwich Village, I noticed what had always been there; amazing earrings. Washington Square park teemed with folk singers, puppet shows, black clad poets reading aloud, children running around the fountain, war protesters, civil rights demonstrations, and earrings; massive brilliantly beaded copper hoops from Africa, dangling brass and tiny-beaded ones from India, sterling silver and turquoise Native American earrings, elegant parl and silver earrings from France, intricately designed ones by local craftspeople, emblematic of a young, changing culture that envisioned “one world.” I coveted every pair! I had just gotten my first job in a warehouse stapling price tags on clothes, a sweaty unpleasant job, and knew what I would spend every paycheck on.
I was tired of my neighborhood, my identity and paradoxically wished to both remain a member of the gold hoop club for security’s sake,but escape from what they represented to me: shut-in, poverty-stricken, banal lives, hoops a circle going nowhere. My first pair of alternate earrings were from an American craftswoman, large unknown-metal peace signs. The Vietnam war was raging and so was the one in the streets. Protesters carried signs and marched against those who called themselves true patriots; “If you don’t like it, leave the country.” My earrings identified me as a marcher, a member of the left and marked the beginning of my activist life. It was membership in a club that I felt had purpose and thus so did I.
My friends and I visited Greenwich village every weekend and sometimes after school, although I also went alone We hung out at the Café Feenjon, an Israeli coffeeshop that featured Greek, Arab and Israeli performers, Middle Eastern food and Turkish coffee. The women singers were filled with energy. I wondered if they were always prepared to leap into song. They sometimes played a tambourine, almost always a stringed instrument and wore long, shimmering silver and glass bead earrings that swung as they danced around the stage, even the sad songs were accompanied by swinging earrings. My daily uniform became tiered printed skirts from India, loose blouses with drawstring necks and tights no matter the weather. I was so small that the blouses never fit right, either bunched up like an accordion because the drawstring was too tight or exposed my skinny chest when it was too loose. I carefully put away my peace sign earrings and purchased pairs as close as I could find to those the singers wore. Because I’m so diminutive, four foot eleven, they always hung past my shoulders creating the strange appearance of earrings-necklace, neither quite satisfying. I loved the Feenjon, where some women did indeed wear gold hoops, but outrageously big ones.
I acquired more earrings from the village’s multiple shops, each pair larger than the previous. I thought of my earrings as notification of who I was, going to protest marches, handing out petitions, mingling with diverse groups of people. I felt myself transformed into someone worldly, involved, knowledgeable, all exemplified by my range of international earrings. With each purchase I seemed to acquire new knowledge: many women from India were illiterate thanks to a terrible educational system; Israel’s seemingly endless war with Arab Countries; protests in France with the demand, “Algeria for the Algerians,” the CIA’s role in assassinating the independently elected Patrice Lumumba, duplicated by us later overthrowing the democratically elected Iranian government and that of Allende in Chile.
I worked, but spent most of my spare time in the village at activist rallies although I met my first husband, a very conservative Cuban refugee, when I was nineteen through a casual friend. His desire to escape the ghetto mirrored mine, but he believed men ruled their families. I had no role model of what a successful marriage might be and surrendered, moving to a rural area way outside of the city I’d thought of as my lifeblood. I didn’t stop to think deeply about how my quest for a more inclusive, active identity was set back, symbolized by his demanding I wear gold hoops as all the women in his family did. My activism was confined to getting a neighborhood, library bookmobile and helping to coordinate a save the wild mustangs petition drive, important but different from the international rallies I’d been involved in. For eleven years my husband dominated my children and me, then the women’s movement happened and I remembered what group I wanted membership in; motherhood was good, but not the stay at home, on a strict allowance, no means of transportation out of the suburbs, cooking, cleaning keeping your mouth shut club. I thought about how easy it was to slip into what society expected. I became involved in the movement, learning from a local therapist how to conduct “conscious raising sessions.” I joined a group trying to establish a center for victims of domestic abuse.
I wanted my own money, not what my husband doled out grudgingly. The craft movement had exploded into shows every weekend. I decided to make jewelry and wall hangings. I used a part of my food allowance for beads, cords, jewelry findings, needle nosed pliers and a host of other equipment. Within six months a close friend and I were making the rounds of craft fairs and I was selling my creations! I was part of yet another club, craftswomen, and I loved it. I always brought my kids, as did my friend, and afterward we’d get pizza and discuss the next round of shows. I was earning my own money again and was flooded with feeling free. My own earrings were vibrant, intricate and large. I sometimes sold them right off my ears. I was occasionally commissioned to create particular wall hangings. It was the happiest I’d ever been in my life and my decision to go to college marked the end of my first marriage.
College began as a terrifying experience. I was certain I was not smart. It was clear that my income from jewelry or wall-hangings wouldn’t offer a viable living and I felt I needed a degree. I shielded myself from my feelings of inferiority by wearing the largest earrings I could make, a vivid, gaudy, mix of beads, tiny pieces of metal, silky cords. They attracted attention and opened a pathway into the college community. I was often the oldest student and suddenly younger students asked me about the “60s,” about politics, about ghetto life. It was the first time anybody had really paid attention to something I was saying.
My child-support money didn’t cover the bills and I got a work-study job as an aide to a handicapped student, which led to a part time job in the college handicapped counseling center. I became deeply involved in the rights of the handicapped, leading a march on administration for ramps on the college campus. I continued to make earrings and sell them. It still wasn’t enough money and I began baking bread and muffins for the college bakery. My parenting at that time remains my biggest regret. I had been “raised rough,” a lot of time spent on the streets. I knew that smart kids could survive and we were living in a rural, safe area. As more of my time was consumed by jobs, school and activism my sons fended for themselves a great deal. I struggled to graduate and have a more comfortable, less harried life. My first real paycheck after graduation my sons and I went out for a fancy meal, then bowling, purchased new school backpacks for them and a pair of enormous sterling earrings for me.
My divorce was not aimable. Our anger at each other had grown deeper as time passed. I decided to move to Maine and commute to Boston three days a week for a graduate degree. My sons were older now and we lived with a friend which made it a less guilt-ridden decision. My oldest son and I started school the same day. My younger son, a junior in high school, was popular and independent. I loved Boston. Flooded with bookshops, second hand stores, cheap restaurants and jewelry shops. Because I was in graduate school and interning in social work agencies and hospitals, I wore smaller, though still hand-crafted, earrings. My specialty became domestic violence. A counselor who was training me to work in batterer intervention groups told me I had a good “shit detector.” I liked the work – I was good at it. My background in the slums and later in women’s centers provided good training. My wardrobe, both clothing and jewelry, became more traditional when I was at work. After I graduated I worked in a hospital psych ward, but also helped establish a batterer education program in my home town. My younger son was in college by then, my older in graduate school. We spoke about my guilt, their feelings of neglect and for the most part strengthened our relationship. It was during this time that I met the man who would become my second husband. I had begun writing and, with the exception of jewelry making, I felt as though I’d found my true vocation. He encouraged me and when he proposed he presented a pair of native American silver earrings with dangling turquoise rather than an engagement ring. They remain the most beautiful pair I’ve ever owned.
Michelle Cacho-Negrete is a retired social worker and the author of Stealing: Life in America. She’s had 80+ publications, has four essays among the most notable, won Best Of the Net Net twice and won the Hope award. She is in five anthologies.