AMHERST – The Yiddish Book Center’s Christa Whitney had the special opportunity to sit down with Ed Asner for an interview as part of the Center’s Wexler Oral History Project back in 2018. The interview is part of the Yiddish Book Center’s growing digital collection of over 1,000 interviews about Yiddish language and culture.
In the 2018 interview, Asner reveals his humble beginnings growing up in his father’s junkyard, attending kheyder four afternoons a week while his friends were out playing ball. He reflects on his complicated Jewish identity, how his bar mitzvah kicked off his acting career, and his love of Yiddish. In addition to the video highlights, and you can also watch the full interview, search the transcript, and browse the photos donated along with the interview.
From the Forests of Eyshishok to A Junkyard in Kansas City: Ed Asner’s Father’s Immigration Story
“My father…so much I want to tell about him. He was orphaned…at the age of twelve, my dad was in the forests of Lithuania chopping shingles…he got to Kansas City somewhere around 1900. Settled in the West Bottoms of Kansas City, Kansas, which housed the packing houses, the railyards, the stockyards, all that, in Kansas City, and started a junkyard.”
Watch the video: youtube.com/watch?v=P78yS6La6gU
Ed Asner On Growing Up Working in a Junkyard Across from the Packing Houses in Kansas City
“Hot Kansas summers…spent my first seven years there…Well, you’re always aware of anti-Semitism: ‘He Jewed me down, he Jewed me down.’ But I call that gentle discrimination. It’s nothing fervid like other towns, other intensities. Much lower heat. So, you did what you could. You said you were a Jew and you kind of apologized for it when you said it, but you still finished your task.”
“It Probably Turned Me into an Actor”: Ed Asner’s Bar Mitzvah Story
“The day of my bar mitzvah came…and I started my haftorah. And my hands were clasped behind my back and my dad came along at one point and he brushed them, slapped them aside and said, “Kik nisht git [Doesn’t look good].”…in the middle of my performance. Then, I went on and I got into a very high tenor and—reciting very fast. And either my uncle came along or my dad and said, “Tsu shnel, tsu shnel [Too fast, too fast].”…having failed my first performance, I was determined to make better. I guess I’m still trying.”
Watch the video: youtube.com/watch?v=t5CFEjSLusw
Ed Asner’s Parents’ Reactions to His Acting
“At one point, when I called home and said, ‘I’ve dropped out of school and I’ll be coming home but I’m gonna stay here and do this play first’—and my father sent, through my sister, who was on the line — saying, ‘Well, tell him that if he didn’t make it as a success as a student, he’s not gonna make it as a success as an actor.’ And so, my simple response was, ‘I’ll be the judge of that.’”
Watch the video: youtube.com/watch?v=Y6uhDuGAAyI
Ed Asner on His Love of Yiddish
“[Yiddish] can never die…I’m sure it will continue to thrive…I think it’s a wonderfully interesting language.”
Explore the full 80-minute oral history interview (recorded 2018 in Tarzana, California) with searchable transcript and time-coded index, along with some great photos: yiddishbookcenter.org/collections/oral-histories/interviews/woh-fi-0001041/ed-asner-2018