Sunday, June 2, 2013

Early years

young Ross in Memphis
mid/late 1950s
(with Howdy-Doody ventriloquist doll)
Ross spent his early childhood in the south, first in Greenville, South Carolina, and then several years in Memphis in the mid 1950s, as his father, a social activist rabbi and World War II veteran, cared deeply about the civil rights movement, working collaboratively with clergy from other denominations in the Memphis Ministers Association to promote racial as well as religious understanding and harmony in a troubled time and place.  His father loved country music, which was easy to find in Memphis, but there is no record of any family encounters with Elvis, whose career was taking off while they were there.

He was an only child for the first eight years of his life until his sister arrived, so he got a lot of undivided attention from both parents.  Ross spent an unusually large amount of time with his father, thanks to the fact that many of a rabbi's duties were quite compatible with bringing a sweet young child along. He apparently charmed many members of his father's congregations, who were happy to help entertain him while his father attended to his duties.  His father had a study filled with books at their home, where he wrote several books of his own, including a widely used textbook on comparative religion. His mother's poor health for the first few years after his sister's birth likely meant that Ross spent even more time with his dad then.

Rabbi Milton Gerald (Jerry) Miller
Both parents, Jerry and Sara, had many adventures before Ross's birth.  Jerry was born in Brooklyn and loved the Dodgers.  He suffered from severe asthma and was hospitalized for several months.  Eventually his parents sent him away to attend school in Guatemala, where his mother had grown up, and where there were still relatives nearby, in order to improve his asthma.  At age 19, he entered the Army.  His military papers state that his occupation prior to enlisting was "male nurse" but I have found no record of his having attended nursing school.  Perhaps it was part of the curriculum in the military high school in Guatemala.  In any case, he spent the years from 1942 to 1945 in the Army as a medical lab technician.  It is not clear exactly where he served but his discharge papers indicate that he contracted yellow fever and cholera in 1943, so it was presumably not stateside.  After his discharge, he attended college on the GI bill, majoring in English, and then going on to rabbinical studies at a seminary in Cincinnati.  He served as a student rabbi in various places in the south and midwest, including Mississippi and Ohio.  After his ordination in 1953, he got his first pulpit as an assistant rabbi in Greenville, South Carolina.

Sara Stein Miller
Presumably it was during Jerry's time at the seminary when he met Sara Stein, since Cincinnati was her hometown, but she was certainly no homebody before their marriage in August 1951. With bachelor's and master's degrees in French and Spanish, she had gone into the foreign service in 1945. She worked as a clerk in at the US embassy in Montevideo, Uruguay for the following two years.  Stamps in her diplomatic passport show that during that time she roamed all over Central and South America--Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, and Panama.  Journals she kept indicate some hair-raising experiences on rickety buses on winding mountain roads with mudslides. After returning to the states, she worked as a multilingual clerk/translator for the United Nations in New York.

Ross grew up surrounded by his parents' intellectual curiosity about all things under the sun and beyond, with fond memories of travels in the family car (a Checker Marathon, which was just like one of those big old Checker taxicabs, but painted for use as a private car), listening to his father's favorite country music tunes as they traveled on daily errands around town for the temple or on cross-country trips to Sedona, Arizona and Cimarron, New Mexico, where he tagged along when his father served as summer camp chaplain.  The summer camps in the southwest must have been delightful for both of them, with its sunny, dry, and unpolluted air, since they both suffered from seasonal allergies and asthma, and Ross frequently recounted magical memories of those times together in the desert.  Father and son also took a very memorable trip to Washington DC together in August 1963 for the March on Washington, where they heard Rev. Martin Luther King deliver his famous "I have a dream" speech.

Clockwise from top left:
Rabbi Jerry Miller, Ross Miller,
Sara Stein Miller, Dinah Miler
(photo must have been taken shortly
before Jerry's death in 1964.)
Jerry shared his passion for baseball with Ross, who found fascination in the mathematical patterns in baseball statistics, as he figured out predicted batting averages and earned run averages for his favorite players based on alternative plausible scenarios.  As a result, he developed fluency and familiarity with such things as long division involving decimals well before such skills were taught in school.  He grew up curious about the patterns that seemed to be everywhere, whether in baseball statistics, musical compositions, or stock market fluctuations.

During his school years, the family lived in Elizabeth, NJ where Ross attended the local public schools and his father was the spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El.

Tragedy struck the young family on a snowy night in 1964 when Jerry was shoveling his driveway in order to go out to visit an ailing member of his congregation.  He was stricken by a heart attack at the age of 40, leaving behind his young family, a 40-year old widow still in fragile health herself, a toddler Dinah who never had the chance to get to know her dad, and a devastated ten year old Ross.


  1. This was very, very moving, Mary-- thank you so very much for writing this and sharing with everyone. I hadn't known Ross's family was Jewish-- fascinating (my husband Howard and I are Jewish...). The seminary in Cincinnati must have been the Reform Jewish seminary, Hebrew Union College (HUC).

    How very sad that Ross's father died so very young-- I have another homeschool friend whose husband died of a very sudden and totally unexpected heart attack in his mid-to-late 40's.... when just 2 1/2 that dear man had lost his own father, of heart trouble, and like Ross had been incorporating all sorts of healthy life choices and lots of fitness and good food and more into his life, again hoping to avoid that dire possibility. Like Ross, he did live significantly longer than his own father.... but he was so sorely missed by all his wonderful family, who loved him so much.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Susan, and yes, the seminary in Cincinnati where Ross's father studied was indeed Hebrew Union College.

      Here is a link to a biography prepared for Rabbi Jerry Miller late in his life.