Bella Vivante was born Bella Zweig in the Bad Reichenhall displaced persons camp in Germany in 1946. Now a professor emerita of classics at the University of Arizona, Vivante recently started Ariela, LLC, a travel and educational touring company that celebrates ancient Greece. She’s traveled a long way as the daughter of Polish Jewish parents who met at a farm-labor camp in Siberia during World War II.
In December 1998, “I had a very powerful dream in which I changed my last name. I was acting at the time so I used Vivante as a stage name. Then, in June 1999 while taking a computer course I tried to force myself to use my natal name, Zweig,” she says, “which just didn’t seem to be me anymore so I legally changed it.”
The Zweig family emigrated to the American South from Germany when Vivante was 4½. They first spent a year in France and two years in Cuba before coming to the United States, sponsored by her father’s brother who had been sent here before the Nazis invaded Poland. “Atlanta was supposedly a safe spot for Jews in the South,” Vivante told the AJP. That was prior to the bombing of The Temple on Peachtree Street in 1951. She recalls her mother lamenting after the tragedy, “‘Oy, what have we got left?’ My parents tried to maintain their Orthodox stance, which put us on the margins of the margins.”
Even as a young child, “to me American Jews were not even Jews,” says Vivante, now 68. If she was introduced to a Jewish child “to me she was not a Jew but an American.” Later, “one way for me to be successful was to do well in school like white Americans growing up in the South. I felt like my family was from medieval Europe.”
Her father’s first job in Atlanta was darning socks at a factory, working next to a black man. “My dad kept inviting him to lunch and he kept refusing,” notes Vivante, whose father finally asked the man, “Why not, don’t you like me?’ [My dad’s] coworker educated him. There were no blacks in Poland” and her father wasn’t familiar with racial segregation.
“My parents adopted racist views. It didn’t take very long for them to take on the common cultural view,” she says. “It was very sad. My mother said, ‘It took the pressure off Jews.’ Once, my brother and I sat on a bus next to a black person when I was around 12 and he was 5. Everybody was staring at us. Regular weekend activities included watching the Ku Klux Klan on the steps of the state capitol.”
Vivante’s parents ran a grocery store in the black section of Atlanta, eventually moving to Los Angeles. “My dad owned a grocery store in the heart of the LA Jewish section of Fairfax. He was robbed there by his landsmen (fellow Jews) more than by blacks in Atlanta. He was shocked,” she says.
In 1964, Vivante went off to college at UCLA, although her parents had moved back to Atlanta. At age 18, “I was visiting them, wearing my UCLA t-shirt in redneck Atlanta. If looks could kill. Martin Luther King was visiting a local amusement park with his family” after it was desegregated. “My father was jumping up and down and was all excited to meet MLK. It was okay because he was famous” although he was black.
Vivante dropped out of college in the mid-’60s and went to Israel. “Literally on my touching down I realized the militarism of Israel. I went to live on a kibbutz and that was fine,” she says. “I decided to stick to America but realized that every country had problems.”
When Vivante returned to the United States she was 21. She studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre in New York but decided she was too shy to be an actress and worked as a legal secretary for a while before finishing college at Columbia University. “Would I be a French literature major or go to law school? After the Kent State shooting” of students protesting the Vietnam War on May 4, 1970, she says, “I wanted to be a productive member of society.”
It occurred to her that “anything prior to World War II depended on ancient Greece. I have a facility learning languages. Maybe it’s because I heard so many languages [as a child] in the displaced persons camp,” says Vivante, adding that she learned Greek, loved it, and returned to graduate school at Stanford University in California for her Ph.D. in the classics. “I cried every night,” she says. “I felt at home in New York.”
Her first teaching job was at Emory University in Atlanta in 1982. Vivante came to Tucson to teach at the UA in 1987 — and has been here ever since. “I loved the multiethnicity here,” she says. She retired from the UA in May, but is still teaching at the UA Humanities Seminars where participants asked her to lead trips. Her first trip organized by Ariela, her new company, is “A Study Tour of Greek Spaces and Performances,” July 13 to 28.
She was asked in grad school, “What’s a Jewish girl doing studying the classics on the West Coast?”
“I took on a field that’s served me. The last few years I look back at everything I’ve done and feel I can take pride in what I’ve accomplished,” says Vivante, looking at the path of her life so far. Quoting a Bob Dylan song, she adds, “I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.”