Gert (Chernin) Silverman, 83, of Tucson, grew up in Nogales, Ariz., in an unusual situation: "For the most part, my family was the Jewish community of Nogales," she explains. Their numbers could certainly support that claim. Silverman's mother, Bessie Capin, was the oldest of eight children and Silverman herself is the fourth of eight siblings.
The family's colorful history begins with Silverman's grandparents, Dora and Hyman Capin. They were living in Harrisburg, Pa., when doctors advised Capin to move his wife away from the pollution of the eastern cities. They trekked west on an American odyssey at the turn of the 19th century. The Capins reached Los Angeles, but persistent health issues led them to seek drier climates.
After brief stays in other southwest border towns - where Hyman Capin, a tailor, found employment making uniforms for the military - they settled in Nogales, Ariz., in 1923. After building up a successful tailoring business, Capin moved into retail, buying a clothing store in Nogales that would provide work for his large family.
The Capin's oldest daughter, Bessie, met her husband, Harry Chernin when the family lived in El Paso, marrying him in 1915. Chernin was brought into the expanding family business. Additional stores were purchased and the growing clothing concern brought more members into the Nogales Jewish community when one of Chernin's brothers, in New York City on a buying trip, met Lillian Bracker, whom he married and brought back to Nogales. Bracker's brothers followed their sister out west and they, too, bought a clothing business, which remains a family operation today in Nogales.
Silverman has many fond memories of growing up in Nogales' Capin-Chernin-Bracker clan.
"At our seders in our homes we'd have 50 or more people," she recalls. "We came to temple [Temple Emanu-El, then on Stone Avenue] in Tucson for the High Holy Days and we'd hang signs on the businesses' doors saying we were closed for religious holidays."
To remedy the lack of Hebrew education, a teacher, Herman Novick, came to Nogales to prepare the boys for B'nai Mitzvah. Concerned that the girls wouldn't find Jewish husbands, the family moved briefly to Texarkana, Texas, where contacts were made in the Jewish community, Silverman says. "After graduating from high school, I went back to Texarkana to visit one of my sisters who had married there, and met my husband, William Silverman."
Asked if there were ever any difficulties being Jewish in a small Mexican border community, Silverman says, "Growing up in Nogales, I never felt different from the rest of the community - I never felt that being Jewish, I was on the outside." Indeed, her family was right in the middle of things, with Silverman's father, Harry Chernin, serving two terms as Nogales's mayor in the early 1950s.
In fact, the first issue of The Arizona Post (as it was then called), on Sept. 24, 1946, includes a column called "Nogales Notes" that describes this "unique community" of not more than a dozen Jewish families, "practically all related directly or indirectly." The column lauds Harry Chernin's successful bond-drive efforts during World War II, in which he and his committee surpassed their goal by 300 percent.
Silverman and her husband, a car salesman, were married for 60 years and raised their three children in Tucson. Widowed since 2001, Silverman recalls a very "wonderful marriage and a great family." She has nine grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, and frequently sees her siblings (all are alive except her youngest sister, Evelyn, who died in 2001). Silverman chuckles when she describes what it's like when the seven, now in their 70s and 80s, get together. "We just laugh and carry on, and talk about growing up in Nogales. We're quite a sight I imagine, in a restaurant, all of us boisterous and white-haired, and thoroughly enjoying being together."
Renee Claire is a freelance writer in Tucson