6. The Lower East Side


Parents and family in Europe are happy and relieved when Dora ends any lingering doubt she might be barren. Between 1912 and 1923 six children are born: Max, Isadore, Fanny, Elsie, Ida and Abraham, the last named for Louis’ father, who died during these years. These names eventually transform into Mark, Irving, Frances, Elsie, Ida and Albert. Louis invents Fersh as a playful name for baby Fanny and it sticks for life.

Max was born in a hospital, because Dora is modern and that’s the modern thing to do. But the hospital is expensive and for the remaining children Dora hires an old lady known as Chaiya the Hrubiechever Midwife. The midwife is busy so she doesn’t bother with birth certificates right away. She goes to city hall every few weeks and files them in a batch. Because she can’t remember actual birth dates, the midwife just enters the filing date on each. So the Brustman children celebrate their birthdays on days when business was slow for Chaiya the Hrubiechever Midwife.

In Europe this same period is marked by a World War. This is a source of anxiety about the safety of family back in Hrubiechev. Hrubiechev is on the front lines between vast German and Russian armies and the area experiences much fighting. Villagers, including Dora’s niece Hinda, climb to the roofs to watch nearby artillery battles. The village endures long periods of hunger and constant fear of destruction. The hunger is such that momentary relief in a piece of bread, given by a kindly German soldier, is an event Hinda will remember for life.

In the end, the war spares Hrubiechev but does bring change to the village: there is no longer a Tsar; postwar treaties rearrange borders and even form new nations. Hrubiechev, Tomaschev and Lemberg are in territory transferred into a newly formed independent Poland. Lemberg reverts to its Polish name, Lvov.

With the war in Europe over, Hinda can leave Hrubiechev and wants to come to America. Her father, Morris (Americanized from Moishe Mechel), does not want her here. To him she is a reminder of a prior marriage and will be another mouth to feed. Her Aunt Dora intervenes and promises to look after Hinda, Hinda comes to New York to join her American relatives. Dora, about ten years older than Hinda, becomes her big sister and best friend, a relationship that will endure as long as they live.

The 1920s, a decade known as the Jazz Age, is a prosperous time. The American economy hums and there is money to be made in the stock market. It’s fashionable to play the market, and even Louis and Dora eventually find a few dollars to dabble in it because that’s what worldly people do. For most immigrants a thriving economy means work is plentiful. Unfortunately the available work is still mainly in sweatshops, which are busier than ever.

For the Brustman family, earning a living these years still means long hard hours of work. Louis now operates a machine that presses clothing. Between a 12-hour workday and evening toil with piecework brought home in a basket, there is little time, energy, or money for entertainment. Perhaps Dora and Louis play cards with friends or on rare occasion see some Yiddish vaudeville or theater. The Sabbath is especially precious in this life because it provides the only regular relaxation in a seemingly endless treadmill of drudgery and toil.

Louis, Dora and their six children live in a two-bedroom cold water flat. The kids sleep several in a bed and the toilet at the end of the hallway is shared with other families in the tenement. Louis is a good-natured man with a sense of humor and a devoted father, but it is Dora who has the stronger will. She is the family’s manager, finances included. This is a common arrangement for Jewish families, which tend to be matriarchal. Louis turns his earnings over to her, keeping only a 25-cent weekly allowance. Half his allowance goes for cigarettes.

Dora and Louis open a small grocery store at 85 Willett Street on the ground floor of the building in which they now live. The idea is to supplement family income, but they also see the grocery as a chance to eventually break free from the sweatshops. The store only proves to be a different type of struggle. Competition is fierce and margins are razor thin. Dora works in it all day and Louis works there in the evening after returning from the sweatshop. The grocery provides some money but eventually fails. The final blow is a cheating wholesaler who defrauds the store.

Meanwhile the children grow. Their parents are too busy or too exhausted to talk and spend time with them. The kids fight with each other the way brothers and sisters do. They also take care of each other. Frances, age 8, has the job of caring for baby Al each day when she returns from school to make it easier for Dora who is tending both Al and the store. She takes Al for a stroll to the playground except when it rains; then she plays with him in the apartment.

By now Louis and Dora can speak English though it is limited and heavily accented. They prefer to speak Yiddish the tongue they are comfortable with. One can live in the lower east side and never use English. The kids speak to their parents in Yiddish, but to each other in English.

Around this time, Dora’s brother Morris rises to the presidency of the New York Hrubiechev Society. In addition to its other functions, the society serves as a channel for charity. Charity is important not only because these Jews regard it as religious duty, but also because charity sent to the old world is a form of ostentation. It helps validate the decision to emigrate. Each Passover the Society sends used clothing and money for purchasing matzoh to Hrubiechev. A Committee is appointed in the village to oversee the distribution of this largesse to the poor of Hrubiechev and vicinity — which is just about everybody.

As Society president, Morris brings much prestige to his aged father back in Hrubiechev. First, because being a “president” of anything, it didn’t matter what, was a big deal in the old country and, second, Morris appointed old Froy’m Chairman of the local Matzoh Distribution Committee.

It is about this time Dora’s original husband, Y’shayeh, comes to America. He poignantly still loves Dora and wants to be with her again. Of course, this is impossible. In New York he stays with the Brustman family one night. He inadvertently leaves behind a mustard colored robe that becomes the little kids’ plaything — they love to roll in it — for years to come. With Dora’s fecundity well proven, the New York community of Hrubiechev landsmen laughs Y’shayeh out-of-town. He goes west somewhere, Chicago perhaps, and is never heard from again. For years after, whenever the subject comes up, Louis will joke: “No, Y’shayeh wasn’t tim-tum, he just never discovered the place; when I found it, I found he didn’t.”

Among other events of the 1920’s, Dora and Louis become US Citizens. On Louis’s application he lists his daughters Ethel and Frieda as living with him in New York. Though they are still in Tomaschev, he hopes to bring them to the United States one day. After the World War the US closed its doors to open immigration, so this fib is meant to help secure the girls’ entry.

Also towards the end of the decade, Dora receives word that her parents, first Froy’m and then Tovah, have passed away. The news of each parent’s death stuns and deeply grieves her.

Photo: The Fine Grocer, circa late 1920s

Continue to Part Seven

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