Fiction By Shulamit Fagan
My grandparents came here from Latvia and Lithuania in the early 1900s.
So did many, many other Jewish immigrants.
So did many other immigrants who were not Jewish.
But it’s the Jewish ones I really want to tell you about.
When my ancestors were in Europe, living in the stetels, they were observant Jews. Actually, it was easy to be. Friday morning would find the women scurrying around, cleaning, cooking, getting ready for Shabbos. Every one got ready for Shabbos, not just some. Shabbos happened, and you needed to be ready.
But when these fine people came to America, things were a little different. They had brilliant dreams of money and freedom. Many of them expected the streets to be paved with gold. But of course we know that they were not. They weren’t even paved with silver. In fact, there were twenty people for every available job. So when Moishe arrived in NY he had a hard time finding employment. In Latvia he was a tailor with a fine reputation. He wanted to open his own tailor shop, but first he needed some money. And it seemed that all the jobs were taken.
Finally he got a job schlepping boxes from one barge to another or from a warehouse to a boat.
He worked well on Monday so they asked him to work on Tuesday. Of course he said yes. After all, there were two hungry children to feed, and his wife Chana as well.
Things went well on Tuesday, and Wednesday, and Thursday, and even though the pay wasn’t great, at least he could pay the weekly rent on the tiny walk up flat they lived in and they had a little soup, some bread and maybe even a chicken for Shabbos.
So Moishe was a little taken aback when the boss told him to report for work on Saturday morning.
“What do you mean report for work? It’s Shabbos.”
“If you don’t come to work tomorrow, don’t come back at all.”
OY, what to do. How could he work on Shabbos?
Well Moishe didn’t go back and on Monday he was looking for work again. On Tuesday he found another schlepping job and just like before all went well until Friday when they insisted he had to work on Shabbos.
“What do you think this is, the old country?”
Again Moishe took his weary body home and again he had to look for work on Monday. This week things were a little different. He didn’t find any work until Thursday and when he did, it was work in a factory making overcoats. This was a little more up his alley. His back didn’t hurt from the schlepping and he was happy to be making clothes, something he knew how to do well. But sadly, once again the boss was in his face on Friday afternoon insisting that he work on Saturday. This time Moishe gave in.
It’s like I said before, there were hungry mouths to feed and jobs were hard to come by and no one was finding the gold paved streets they had expected.
The work was hard, the hours were long. Moishe found that he needed to compromise even more. His boss stared talking about his hair.
“Why do you have to have those long curly things on the side of your head? Couldn’t you do without them? And that beard. This is America. Get a little modern why don’t you.”
More oy. After a while it was easier to just conform. The beard and the peyos went, his observance of Shabbos had already gone, and since he worked such long hours there was little time for his sons, let alone his wife. Eventually, even with so little time, there was another son, and Moshe found himself working even more hours. He didn’t get home until late at night, and occasionally he had to sleep at his sewing machine.
With out him home, his wife tried really hard to keep the boys in line, but it didn’t work so well. Shimon and Hershel both had bar mitzvah, but after that the old traditions didn’t seem very important to them. New York offered so many distractions for young men and Chaya just wasn’t able to insist that they continue to daven. With out Moishe at home Shabbos just wasn’t the same and soon the older boys were hardly around even then.
Judah was the exception. He was only 9, but he was deeply spiritual, and Judaism was very important to him. He couldn’t wait through the morning secular classes to get to his afternoon studies of Torah and Talmud. He loved to daven and dreamt of studying even more.
One day, about a week before Hanukah Judah was searching through his fathers closet trying to see if there was something there that was meant to surprise him in a few days. He didn’t find any presents, but he did find a small box with some surprises in it. First he found a wrinkled faded piece of paper. When he looked more closely he saw a pretty young woman, wearing a smile and a lace kerchief on her head and holding the hand of a young man with peyos and a full beard. All the people around them looked joyful and so did they. He instinctively knew that this was his mother and father, although he hadn’t seen them holding hands in ………….well he wasn’t sure he had ever seen them holding hands.
And in the same box was a worn tattered blue velvet bag, it’s draw string tightly closed. Judah wondered what might be inside, and being the curious boy he was, he gently coaxed the bag open. He turn it upside down and out spilled long leather straps with small leather boxes attached. Judah had seen the adults at his shul wearing these during shachrit davenen, he knew they were teffilin, that the boxes had special prayers inside, but he had no idea that his father had them or had ever worn them. He sat on the floor stroking the soft velvet wondering what it was like for his father when he wore them, wondering why his father didn’t wear them now.
He carefully wound the leather straps around the small boxes and put them back in the blue bag. He put the bag and the picture under his pillow. That night he slept with the bag in his arms while he dreamt of a young boy with dreams alive. Dreams of an America where hope lived, where families flourished and where Hashem filled hearts with joy. When he woke he had the beginning of a plan.
His mother had promised that his father and both his brothers would be home for the first night of Hanukkah. Judah was so excited he could hardly get through the next few days. He must have asked Emah twice a day “are you sure Papa will be here Thursday night? Are you sure that Shimon and Herschel will be here to light the candle?” Oy, he was driving her crazy. Chaya was busy herself. Not only did she cook and clean for her own family, she had two other jobs as well. She cleaned for a wealthy family two bus rides away, and sometimes she filled in for a friend who cleaned a store a few blocks away. Life in America felt harder to her than life in Europe ever had. She missed her Moishe, and lately she missed her boys as well.
Thursday finally arrived. Judah had polished the large silver menorah they had brought from Europe until it gleamed and placed the first candle and the shamas carefully in their places. His mother, as promised, had come home early to make potato latkes, his brothers had arrived as well, and they all waited to hear Moishe’s foot steps on the stair. Just as the sun was going down his father opened the door, tired and dejected. When he saw his family gathered around the menorah and felt Judah’s hands around his waist in a hug something stirred inside him. The family lit the candle together and old familiar songs just rolled off their tongues. Before his mother could gather the few presents they had for the boys, Judah ran to his room and emerged with two carefully wrapped gifts.
“What’s this?” he’s mother asked.
“Open it, open it” he pleaded…..and she did.
Judah had smoothed the old picture as best he could and made a frame with his own small hands. His mother could find no words as the tears ran from her eyes.
“Open yours Papa”.
When the old velvet bag was revealed his fathers eyes filled with tears as well.
“Tell me about them Papa. Tell me what your life was like before I was born when you lived in Latvia. Tell me what you dreamt of when you wore them.”
That Hanukah night went on and on. Judah and his brothers heard stories they had never heard before. Stories of life and love, of stetels and shuls, of good times and not such good times. And when the night was over, all of them knew that dreams had survived, that some of them might still come true and that their life in America would never be the same again.