Parents Left the Old Country as Teenagers
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.
My cousin, Sylvie, came over when she was 10. Before she left Poland she saw a picture of my older sister with her American Buster Brown haircut. Sylvie wanted to look like an American girl when she arrived. She sneaked away and had her long hair cut off to match my sister’s, much to the chagrin of her mother and our grandmother. When she got here the family helped prepare her for school. My mother’s contribution was gym bloomers, which were the required clothing for the mandatory gym classes in New York City schools. Sylvie, apparently a woman of taste and one not easily imposed upon even at that age, made a face when she saw this unattractive garment. My mother, taking umbrage at her audacity, said, “K Kick nor un de greena,” which literally means “look at the greenie,” short for green-horn, the label given to immigrants. The clear implication was that Sylvia had no right to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Sylvie’s brother, Nathan, was 13 when they came. He went to high school in Brooklyn, where he played football. He was too timid to tell the teacher he could not see the blackboard. She called him to her desk and asked why he did so well on exams when they were printed on a page and so poorly when the questions were on the blackboard. He told her he had poor eyesight and could not see the blackboard. She asked if there was anything she could do to help him. He said yes, she could give him a copy of the questions when she put them on the blackboard. That was a turning point for him, and at age 85, he still remembers Mrs. Jonas. Shortly after, he was declared legally blind, but refused to accept government disability payments because he chose to be independent. He went to work as a copy boy and rose to become president of the company. Later he owned a printing company that printed the Financial Analyst Journal.
Papa was succeeded in his business by a younger brother, Joseph, and later two sisters, Fanny and Rose. The families stuck together and helped one another in their new country. The two brothers pledged to each other that whoever “made it” would always help the other. They both helped their sisters’ families in times of economic stress. When hardship befell Sylvie’s family she came to live with us. My father gave her a job in his store so she could work to send money home to her family, rather than having them feel beholden for family charity.
‘When my father lost his business in the Great Depression and Aunt Rose’s husband lost his job, they went to work for Uncle Joseph in the wholesale chicken yards at West Washington Market. They unloaded chickens coops from the trains that came in from the farms. A side benefit was the unending supply of eggs for our families.
Thirteen of my parent’s sisters and brothers stayed behind in Poland. They all perished in the Holocaust except for one cousin, who was hidden all through those years by a Christian woman whom he subsequently married. He asked his dead parents for forgiveness for marrying out of the faith.
Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.