Larry Kaiser / by Michael Falco

Who is Larry Kaiser?

Larry Kaiser was born and raised in Battle Creek. He is a Jewish man and that has played largely into his identity: his mother escaped to the US from Nazi Germany when she was a girl. He went to the University of Michigan where he studied psychology and then worked at a mental health clinic in Battle Creek. He is married with two grown children who have both moved away from Battle Creek. He is currently retired and is on the better side of cancer bouts. He is an active member of the Jewish community. 

Excerpt from interview with Larry Kaiser by Whitney Dow, 2017

Q: How have you seen the Battle Creek community change in the racial dynamic since you were a kid? Because you have a big perspective on the arc of this community.

Kaiser: [04:20:00] Gee, I think I’ve seen an increase in decision making on the part of the community being given to black Americans. We’ve had, Battle Creek, for example, has had I think two black superintendents of schools in a row after never having had that happened ever before. Same thing with whether it’s leadership at United Way, or the City Council, or Kellogg’s, we’ve seen people who are black and Hispanic primarily get promoted, or hired, or— I’m not sure the term “headhunted”—to come to positions of responsibility in Battle Creek. There’s certainly more residential integration than when I grew up. Neighborhoods that were white are now mixed. I don’t remember if I mentioned my sister was here for a fortieth high school class reunion a couple of years ago.

And we stopped at the house we grew up in. And there was a Burmese family living there. And it smelled wonderful. It never smelled like that when my mother was cooking. They used totally different spices and had rearranged things to their needs. But it was the same bones, the same rooms, the same walls, the same kitchen was in the same place. And that sort of thing just never—I mean, when you walked in my mother’s house, you smelled onions, garlic and chicken fat because that as the basis of most of her cooking. That’s where it started. This was totally wonderful, and it’s because—I’m not sure—a thousand or 1,500 people from Burma now live in Battle Creek and have brought their own traditions, and their own festivals, and their own language. And I welcome it. There’s also been members of the community who are Japanese now.

There was maybe one Japanese family that we knew of when I was growing up. It wasn’t a particularly hospitable place here even though her father had served in the army. And the daughter was a friend of my older sister. It was kind of puzzlement of why would a Japanese family want to live here? And the answer was, well, I think he was a dentist, and mom was a school psychologist, and there was work here. In the workplace, that gradually became acceptable and sought out that the workplaces would become diverse. That followed with people being able to change neighborhoods. There’s still divisions. There’s still misunderstandings and still concerns. A few months ago, some idiot drew swastikas on the front of our synagogue, not in a scary way; in a very like six-year-old way. The swastikas were backwards. They were done with marker pen. Why the kid decided to do that, I don't know. There are still instances like that and exposure on part of our community, the Jewish community, that could lead to that kind of incident at any time. We don’t have a guard in place at our synagogue for example. But the misunderstanding exists and our response is to educate.

Interview Transcript