Parents Left the Old Country as Teenagers

Looking for opportunities, mother and father separately made their way to the new world.

| Good Old Days

How did my father get from Ellis Island to a farm in upstate New York, when most young immigrant Jews became peddlers or worked at sewing machines in the garment industry's sweat-shops? I finally found out when I read that one of the many Jewish immigrant aid societies encouraged young Jewish men to go to farms, where they placed them in jobs to get away from the hardships and crowded conditions of the city ghettos. When I checked with my father he said that was indeed how he got to the farm. He loved farming and left it only because my mother hated life on the farm. My mother also escaped the sweatshops. She worked as a waitress at a hotel in the Catskills before they married. Since the clientele was largely Jewish, language was no problem.

Papa was the first of his siblings to arrive in America. There was no one here to greet him. A Jewish immigrant aid society filled that slot. When he left Poland his father said that he was sorry he hadn't given him a more worldly education to better equip him for the New World. The standard education for Jewish boys was heavily religious. Mama's brother was already here and married. She came into his home when she arrived and was expected to share in the work of the house and his little grocery store under the Ninth Avenue El (elevated train) in New York City. His wife was the "mean sister-in-law. She wouldn't let me sit down for a minute. Not even long enough to clean my finger-nails," my mother said.

They left the Old Country as teenagers, never to see their parents again. It took months for a letter to get across the ocean in the days before airmail. Mama would open the infrequent letters with trembling hands, pining for word of home. She read them over and over until the pages fell apart at the folds.

Papa and Mama were introduced a year or two after they landed on Ellis Island. Not by a shadkhn, or matchmaker, whom many immigrants still used to make matches for their sons and daughters, but through friends and relatives. They considered matchmaking part of the social requirements of the immigrant community where young eligible’s were strangers, unlike the homeland shtetl, or village, where everyone knew everyone else.

When I came along my sister was already 6 years old and my parents had been in the country for 12 years. By that time their English was adequate, albeit accented. They were active citizens in our town of 18,000; Mama went to every PTA meeting, and Papa was a small businessman. They always voted.

Papa drove a big truck 60 miles each way in the wee hours of the morning two or three times a week to pick up coops of fresh, live poultry at the Washington Market in New York City. He could sell these fresh-killed chickens in his meat and poultry store. He was not a kosher butcher, but the shochet, or ritual Jewish slaughterer, came to his market to slaughter chickens according to the dietary laws set out in Leviticus for the Jewish women who kept kosher homes.

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