My dad (z”l), Hy, his brother (z”l), Murray, and two of their cousins, Kenneth (z”l) and Jerry-Lilly (z”l), were among my cousins and uncles who contributed to the power and diversity of the New York workforce and to its bustling economy.
(With two cousins named Jerry, my family felt it important to create a way of distinguishing who was who or which was which. Fortunately, one Jerry was married to Lilly, hence, Jerry-Lilly. Just as an aside, my parents had two friends named Miriam, so one was Miriam, the other Miriam de roiteh, or Miriam the redhead.)
We were blessed with four kosher butchers in our family. These men were respected and adored leaders of the communities that sprang up around their shops. Young singles, newlyweds, first-time parents, police officers, mailmen (no mailwomen yet) and some middle-aged women frequented their shops.
These butchers played the roles of tutors, psychologists, chefs, baby-sitters, mentors to the forlorn, comics, friends, financial advisers, marriage counselors, gurus of culture, parents and role models. They were at the center of their immediate communities.
Having a dad supplying his family with the best meat and chicken available did in no way guarantee a wife who loved to cook. When my husband and I joined my parents for Shabbat dinner, my husband ate at home first. Mom (z”l) kept saying to him, “No wonder you are as skinny as a shtecken (stick); you hardly eat.”
One of my uncles, who served in World War II, moved with his young family from the Bronx to New Jersey — a very big deal in those days — to run a restaurant in his wife’s family factory. They were the first to own their own home, also a very big deal.
Visiting them was always a delicious feast that knew no bounds. On one of our visits, I volunteered to help my uncle wash the dishes. He proceeded to inform me that germs do not like cold water. Therefore, if you wash greasy dishes or utensils with cold water, the germs die faster.
I totally believed him until I realized he was in a state of hysteria — laughing, not crying.
One of my uncles, whose family lived with my bubbe and zayde, owned a successful shmata store.
Sometimes on the way home from elementary school, I would stop and visit. On occasion, I would spot him from afar; he would be sitting outside his shop on his wooden chair. He often had a little snack for me.
I was fascinated with all the beautiful fabrics. My uncle would name the various fabrics and finishes. He explained why certain fabrics were considered fancy and some not, why some fabrics were perfect for a dress and others not. How much fabric I would need for myself to make a skirt.
He told me little stories, histories really, of where particular fabrics came from. He would show me how he measured the fabric for a customer. If there happened to be a customer in the store, he would introduce me as his favorite niece. I don’t know if that was true, but I loved hearing him say it.
I love to sew. I feel thankful to one of the aunts whose family lived in my apartment building. She loved to fashion items made of fabrics and sew. It’s quite likely sewing and creating are in my DNA.
Candy Store Owner
An aunt who lived with her family in my apartment building married a brilliant rabbi. Unfortunately, it was a great challenge to support a family as a man of the cloth, brilliant or not.
I remember the candy store he owned with his brother. Try to imagine this scene: all us cousins, and there were quite a few, descending on a store filled with more sugar than a sugar cane field and trying so hard to be respectful and polite but dying inside for that spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down or, in this case, makes the urge go away.
After selling the candy store, which I would guess threw all us kids into mourning, he worked in a slipper factory. Every Chanukah we would receive a beautiful pair of slippers. Mine were soft and cuddly and always in a color I loved.
That would be me. My mom hated the way I walked in my slippers. I was the ultimate slipper schlepper. Mom could not listen to the sound it made on our wooden floors.
I, on the other hand, loved that sound. (I would guess my favorite game to play with my mom was opposites.)
So did I stop schlepping? Of course not, not even when my mom would shout, usually in Yiddish, “What’s wrong with your feet? Are they broke?