We lived in a five room railroad flat on Pitt Street. It was lined with old tenement houses five stories high. The sunny room in the front was the master bedroom and nursery for the five of us children, born in seven years. Its two large windows provided all the light and air for the entire flat. In this room we were born, with the assistance of the well known midwife, Mrs. Frankel, who arrived carrying her brown leather medical satchel. She made an imposing figure in her tailored suit and sensible shoes. For many years we believed that babies came from Mrs. Frankel’s satchel. On May 27, 1927, when my youngest brother was born, Lindberg flew across the Atlantic. I remember shouting up at the sky, “Hooray for Lindberg, Lucky Lindberg, he’s a hero in the land.” No doubt, I was downstairs because Mrs. Frankel was upstairs. My sister recalls that she was upstairs when he was born, in the little bedroom off the kitchen.
The streets of the Lower East Side were always busy. I remember the peddlers and the clanging bells they attached to their wagons and horses to announce their arrival. There was the rock candy peddler, the sugar cane peddler, the shmatta (rag) peddler, the ice peddler and the Turkish taffy peddler. Their sounds were intimate and comforting. If I was down on the street I’d shout up to Mama on the second floor, “Mama, can I have a penny for candy?” She’d wrap a penny into a piece of newspaper to cushion the fall and throw it down to me. “Here, buy something,” she’d say.
With all the horses riding down Pitt Street, it was necessary to have sanitation trucks clean the cobblestone street with a wide water spray. I had to move fast to dodge the water on the narrow sidewalk. In the cold winter we would be petrified when the horses came running down the hill. Their horse shoes would slide around dangerously on the slippery cobblestone.
One afternoon on my way home from school for lunch, I remember passing a sad looking horse lying in the street with its legs broken. It couldn’t move. It was no longer there when I finished school in the afternoon. They had to shoot it and take it away.
The stairwell was dark, and though it was only one flight down, my older sister and I were afraid. When we went out to play we asked Mama to watch us down the stairs. Mama asked, “Okay?” “Not yet,” we answered as we walked further down the metal stairway to reach the lower landing. Looking to make sure no drunks were lying in the dark corners, we called out, “I’m out Mama,” as we caught a glimpse of sunlight out the front door and made a mad dash through the vestibule to the stoop.
The Yiddish theater thrived on the Lower East Side, but we hardly ever went. There was the actor Maurice Schwartz and the comedian Menashe Skolnik, who performed in plays that were supposed to Americanize the immigrants. I remember one title, “Ze vill nisht nemen der garbache” (She won’t take out the garbage) about an immigrant who moved to an upscale house in the Bronx where garbage was picked up by dumbwaiters. One day Mama and Tanta Chaya decided to see a show while Papa would babysit for the five of us. After the evening wore on, Papa heard an explosion and suddenly steam and smoke filled the building. He grabbed as many children as he could and ran to the roof and over to the next building to escape the smoke. Then he returned for the other children. It turned out the boiler in the basement had burst. When Mama returned home and found out what happened, she could barely forgive herself for not being at home to take part in the rescue.
In addition to explosions, we also had Jewish gangsters living in the building – Izzy and Joe, Bobby and Moe. However, they made it a point of honor not to harm anyone living in their building. They usually hung out at the corner candy store all day, where they received their phone calls on gambling tips, etc.
For relaxation and fresh air, Mama and her sister Chaya sat with other mothers on the street, near their baby carriages. Everyone was poor, on that there was complete agreement. About the relative merits of the Galitzyaners and Litvaks, there were barbs traded and much teasing among the women.
I spent most of my time at home with Mama in the kitchen. There was a tub there that served as the laundry center, bathing center and, when covered with a tray, became the dairy and meat counter top. It was Mama’s most prized possession. Square shaped, dark metal and about three feet high, it was impossible to climb into without Mama’s help. I loved to watch Mama cook, especially on Thursday when every other balabusta also began her Shabbos preparations. Everyone’s kitchen window faced the same narrow sun-less courtyard. Everyone would begin chopping the fish in unison in their wooden bowls and the chorus of chop-chops echoed throughout the building.
The chicken market was one block down on Pitt Street, under the Williamsburg Bridge, the largest kosher poultry market in the world. After choosing the best chicken, Mama would make sure that Isaac Chochet slaughtered it. At home, Mama kept a special zaltz keichel, a wooden board to salt meat. The salt was kept in a porcelain blue and white flower container marked ‘salt’.
After chicken and fish were done, but we still needed noodles, challah and cake. Mama’s job was a busy one, but her hands moved swiftly, and when she rolled her long and narrow rolling pin on a large square wooden board, there was no keeping up with her. That rolling pin was the color of the strudel dough she rolled out with such ease and it soon became well worn with age, ready for the Smithsonian. First, she placed some flour in a circle and the liquids into the center. With a dull knife she began to blend it together fast. Magically, she shaped and flattened it with the rolling pin into a large circle, all the while a gentle knock-knocking sound when the board and pin met. Mama lifted the dough gracefully, spread it out on the back of her hands and proceeded to stretch it until the dough became paper thin. Now for the fruit filling and it was ready to bake. Next she cut the dried dough to make thin noodle strips. I watched in fascination at the rapid cutting knife and hand movements. I wondered if I would ever be able to bake like that. “Mama, let me try,” I’d say, “gimme some dough.” First Mama cut a piece to take challah, then she said, “Here, some for you,” and cut a piece for me to hold and shape. It felt so good to touch the soft spongy dough.
Eventually we had to leave the Lower East Side, behind and with it our grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and a vibrant Jewish community. We moved to Bensonhurst for better prospects. But we brought with us our most prized possession. Our Yiddishkeit. Mama and Papa had made it a thing of beauty and no matter what our financial situation Judaism ensured we would always be rich.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.