Welcome To America

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The three-or four-room apartments were women’s province. Mamas prided themselves on being balabatisch—able to manage their households. Making do meant scrimping and schlepping. Careworn, fatigued from shopping, cooking, doing the laundry, tending the coal stove, carrying water from outlets on lower floors or in the back yard, looking after boarders, doing piecework at home, and worrying over the health, safety, and report cards of her children turned many a young woman quickly into a crone who took what solace she could from the old saying “God knew He could not be everywhere, so He invented mothers.”

No matter the heroic efforts of mothers, the airless, dark, and suffocating rooms were overrun with bedbugs and cockroaches. Old tin cans were cut down, filled partway with kerosene, and set under the legs of beds in hopes of warding off insects; the device was more successful making firetraps even more inflammable.

Privacy in the tenement rooms was as scarce as sunlight or fresh air. Each tenement was a human hive, often containing more than two hundred people, many of them boarders, some relations, many strangers, who slept on cots, tables, chairs, or the floor and took their meals with the family. Walls were thin and the air shaft carried all the sounds and smells of family life into every flat. Love, death, disaster, shame, exultation—all were shared with friends, family, and strangers.

The streetscape backgrounds of films like Crossing Delancey and Enemies, a Love Story have put Essex on celluloid, lively with pickleman, scribes, repairers of tefillin (phylacteries), and sellers of “Bar Mitzvah sets,” but they miss the tremendous bittersweet reality behind the facades.

PUSHCARTS

Sholom Aleichem might have been thinking of Hester, Ludlow, Essex, Orchard, or Rivington streets when he wrote: “Squeezing is a Jewish custom. If no one squeezes us, we squeeze ourselves.”

Hester’s pushcarts, shops, and street stalls were called the chazzer mark (pig market), an irony, for the only thing the shouting, straining independent businessmen and -women in the street would not sell was a pork chop.

Fruits, not always fresh, vegetables with a vintage, fish—carp was cheapest and most popular—crockery, clothes, eyeglasses, stationery, suspenders, buttons, linoleum, underwear, ties—all were for sale. You could buy a chicken leg or just one wing; you could buy the yolk or the white of an egg. Haggling was a tradition, an art form, and, for both threadbare seller and poor housewife buyer, a life-and-death struggle. Harry Golden remembers his mother trudging an extra mile to the pushcarts under the Williamsburg Bridge, where she could buy butter that was a penny cheaper.

Hester Street was called the chazzer mark (pig market): an irony, for the only thing you couldn’t buy there was a pork chop.

Gertel’s, on the north side of Hester just off Essex, is one of the older bakeries, like those Jacob Riis described, whose back-yard grates tramps would seek out for a warm place to sleep. On holidays and the Sabbath police ambulances rolled up and hauled away the frozen bodies of luckless Gentile wanderers from the Bowery who did not know that the ovens shut down on Friday and had paid with their lives for their ignorance of Jewish ways.

David Levinsky, Cahan’s representative immigrant, began his rise selling in the chazzer mark; anything he could get his hands on—remnants of fabric, scissors, cheap underwear—he would muss up to look damaged and therefore more likely a bargain. In real life the young Jacob K. Javits sold dented teapots and kitchenware from a cart he partnered with his mother, and he later said that street selling cured him of any fear of public speaking.

Pushy and loud, a peddler hawking his notions could be a show in himself, and a comedy too. A man of piety and learning, used to chants of talmudic argument in the study houses of the other side, might be too proud to do more than peep out his spiel, and his plight was one of the sadder shades of the tragicomedy taking place on the old cobblestoned streets. The pushy and the pious coexisted for a moment, and the European indexes of dignity and worth sold off at high discounts in the exacting effort to survive. Schuster (shoemakers) and schneider (tailors) could make their way where chuchim (sages) faltered.

THE GRANDNESS OF GRAND STREET