A SHTETL IN AMERICA
I grew up less than 100 miles from New York City, in an American shtetl (a small town or village, particularly associated with the Old Jewish hamlets of Eastern Europe). My grandfather, along with a few other Jewish immigrants who had come to the United States before World War I, had bought a farm and a business in Sullivan County. There they created an American extension of their European lifestyle.
Grandfather's land was a 100-acre spread, three miles from town, purchased
in 1917. Almost every farmer on his road was Jewish; Yiddish was their
language. I remember my grandfather's friend, Yakub Kubitsky, who owned a farm
nearby. He always conversed with grandpa in Yiddish. One day I asked why Yakub
didn't go to shul on Saturdays and holidays. Grandpa responded,
But he speaks Yiddish, I protested.
That's because he grew up among Jews in Poland and prefers to speak the
language we all use.
My grandmother came to the United States in 1914. When she died, more than 60 years later, she still hadn't learned more than 10 words of English. Her world was practically the same on her farm in America as it had been in Europe, except for the indoor plumbing and electricity.
Everyone of importance in the village was Jewish. The unofficial mayor of the town was Meyer Levine. When anyone needed a political favor, he asked Meyer. In 1924, my grandfather wanted to become an American citizen. Meyer told him:
The judge will ask you three questions. Say 'Yes' to anything he asks.
When my grandfather went before the judge, the dialogue went as follows:
Was George Washington the first president?
Was Abraham Lincoln the president during the Civil War?
Is the Constitution the Law of the Land?
At this point, my grandfather stepped away from the bench and Meyer Levine congratulated him on his becoming an American citizen.
My favorite tradesman was the village blacksmith, a Sabbath observer who closed early on Fridays. When I was a child, the forge, the shop, the white hot metal and the flying sparks all fascinated me. He repaired the wagons and wagon wheels, for every farmer owned a horse and buggy.
The few people who owned automobiles were merchants and politicians. On election day, cars were sent to each Democrat's farmhouse, to bring voters to the polls. The farmer would vote, eat kosher delicatessen sandwiches provided by the Democratic Party and then have two hours to shop before being driven home. It was much better than the horse and buggy ride to and from town.
The ways of the old country were continued by many. One neighbor walked to and
from town every Saturday, to go to Synagogue. His wife walked about 100 feet
behind him. When I asked my grandfather why they didn't walk together, he
In Europe, the people in their town always walked that way.
No one questioned; everyone accepted the other person's idiosyncrasies.
My grandmother never gave up her European ways. She fasted twice a week -every Monday and Thursday, until she died at the age of 95. She awoke at 2:00 A.M. each Friday morning to start preparing for the Sabbath. The challah was baked, the floors washed, everything cooked and the house ready for Shabbos by 10:00 A.M.
Another old country custom was the manner in which we planted potatoes. The April day when we planted had to be wet and rainy. The midnight before, grandmother would cut the potatoes into pieces -each piece having one eye. At dawn, my grandfather and I would start up the field, one guiding the horse and plow, the other walking behind, dropping the potato eyes. There was no school on planting day. Potatoes were more important.
Although most things were done
the way we did it in Europe, there were
occasional breaks with tradition. My grandfather's best friend was
old man Porter
whose family had farmed their land since the Revolutionary War. The two men
would help each other cut trees and draw logs for lumber, cut cakes of ice from
the lake during the winter, and do other heavy work that could not be done by one
When the old man died, my grandfather wanted to attend the funeral, but the Rabbi
said he should not go into the church for the funeral services since
to Orthodox Law a Jew may not enter a Christian church under any circumstances.
Nonetheless, grandpa attended the funeral. This friendship had transcended my
grandfather's religious commitment.
The Rabbi of the community, of necessity wore
many hats, including Baal
Koray (Torah reader), the only Hebrew School teacher, and the town shochet (ritual
slaughterer of poultry and cattle). Last year, I revisited the Synagogue and found
that he was still the leader of the Congregation, having served over 40 years.
Many farmers didn't go to the synagogue on Saturdays but prayed at home before they did their chores. As farmers, they were obliged to tend their animals seven days a week, which meant milking cows every morning and evening, collecting eggs, and feeding and watering cows, horses and chickens every day. The one day a year we didn't milk cows was on Yom Kippur, when our neighbor was hired to do the chores.
My grandmother was a vegetarian from the time she came to live on the farm. She
claimed that she had seen a kosher butcher kill a cow by himself, rather than having
it slaughtered ritually. Her thoughts ranged from,
There are no good Jews in America
America is full of Communists.
There were a few Communist sympathizers in town. One was a man everyone called
Cohen the Soldier, a veteran of World War I who had been gassed. During the
Spanish Civil War, he had everyone in town saving silver foil from cigarette packages
so he could send the foil to be made into bullets. The other was a man whose son
went to school with us. All the students called the boy
Trotsky because of his
father's Communist leanings.
The high school was the center of activity for the teenagers in town and we were all
associate members of the volunteer fire department. If there was a brush fire during
school hours, we ran across the street to the firehouse, rode the trucks to the fire
and fought the blaze with the same vigor as the men, for which we were paid a few cents
an hour. Our basketball team, the only all-Jewish one, had more stamina than any other
team in the league. One of our substitutes was named Glick, a brilliant student, but a
poor player. Near the end of one home game, the coach decided to put him into the
lineup. Our Jewish announcer called out over the loudspeaker,
Now entering the game
for the first time tonight, Number 14, Umglick.
Our world of the American shtetl lasted for 25 years (1915-1940), passing from the scene with the coming of World War II. The few who were part of it are older now, and, sadly, the American shtetl will soon pass from memory as well as from reality.