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I saw no blatant anti-semitism at the "5 & 10" in Lilly, Pa.: Hy and Dorothy Lariff

Photo — Star of David

… Judaism never mattered to me

I never remember hearing the term “anti-semitism” in my early years in the classrooms in my hometown. I must have encountered it in high school history, but it was something that I related to the Middle East, not to our own community.

Growing up in a small coal-mining community in Western Pennsylvania, the ethnicities of the people who surrounded us were generally limited to those from Western and Eastern Europe. This included the Irish, like my ancestors; the Italians; the Germans; the Polish; the Slavish, and a few others like the English and the Scottish.

This meant that the population when I was a young lad in the 1950s and 60s was about 85 to 90 percent Catholic.

However, what I did not know until I was in my mid-teens was that we also had a Jewish family or two in our midst, ones whom we knew and liked. I had no idea that the owners of the Ben Franklin 5 & 10 store — one of our favorites — were Jewish.

The Lariffs

Hyman and Dorothy (Covitch) Lariff owned that store for 34 years according to Hy’s obituary from 2018. He passed away at the age of 92 in Harrisburg where his elder son, David, lives. They were parents of two other children, Debra and Jeffrey.

The 5 & 10 was a favorite place for people in Lilly to shop, particularly those young children who loved to buy candy there. I always spent time purchasing Christmas and birthday gifts there because they had a unique variety from which to choose.

All I knew about Hy Lariff was that he was an amiable man who appeared to be kind and friendly to all of us.

And I have no idea how I discovered that he and his family were Jewish — but during my high schools years, I did.

And I have no idea how Mr. Lariff and I started discussing his religion — but we did.

And I had no idea that there was probably some undercurrent of anti-semitism in our community, but if it was there, it was muted.

Virulent hatred brought to mind in Tree of Life devastation

I had written about Hy and Dorothy Lariff after the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, in 2018 — one that killed 11 Jewish people.

That, more than anything else in my life, brought home to me the virulent hatred of Jews in the United States — and throughout the world — and I still do not understand why.

Because for me, my conversations with Hy Lariff revealed that he was a fine, wonderful man — not a Jewish person.

2018 story

Here is what I posted after the shooting in Pittsburgh just over four years ago,

My introduction to a Jewish man

In our small town, we had what we called a “5 & 10.” It was a Ben Franklin store that had a little of everything in it. I started going in there as a child, and then continued as a high school student and finally as an adult.

It was owned by Jewish man and his wife, Hy and Dorothy Lariff. As I grew older and entered high school, I started talking with Mr. Lariff. I might have known that he was Jewish at some point, but it did not matter. He was a classy, personable man with a nice family and a nice business.

I would often shop there for Christmas decorations and Christmas gifts and birthday presents and all kinds of items.

It was a nice store. Hy would ask me about how school was going, and complimented me at times, particularly in college, when he said that he read my name on the dean’s list at Penn State.

That made me feel good, and Hy was that kind of person.

We talked about all kinds of things. I enjoyed our discussions. I never thought of him as Jewish man … just a great guy.

Blogspot, Hugh Brady Conrad, October 2018

Friend educated me at Penn State

During my years as an undergraduate at Penn State University, I became friends with a young man who was on the same floor that I was in my dormitory, Beaver Hall.

His name was Rich, and we talked a great deal about Jewish history and culture. Gradually, I was learning more about the Jewish people. I then would mention Rich to Hy Lariff, and we talked about some of the interesting points that I did not know about regarding Judaism.

Rich was a very bright young man from New York City. He had that hard accent of New Yorkers, but I learned about his family and how his ancestors came to America. Rich earned membership in the honors program in business, and we held very similar political and ideological beliefs.

I do not believe that Rich suffered any discrimination because most people did not know of his ethnicity. He did not hide it, but he did not wear the Star of David around his neck either.

However, what I learned from Hy and Rich was that they were both great human beings, worthy of my respect, regardless of what nationality or ethnicity they held.

Antisemitism in the 2020s

Today, many of my students will talk about antisemitism and even write about it. The anti-Jewish sentiment is horrific, as are the numbers of people who believe that the Holocaust never occurred.

Why do people hate one another because of their ethnicity or race? If indeed, God created all humans in his own likeness, we must love one another, just as Jesus says, “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Nevertheless, those horrible creature who marched on Charlottesville, Va. a few years ago chanted Nazi antisemitic sayings. Why?

Back in Lilly, I am not sure how many people even knew that Hy Lariff and his family were Jewish. Some may have been antisemitic, but it was not evident to me as a child — or as an adult.

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