Saturday, September 1, 2012

Rebbetzin Altusky Looks Back on Another Era


Based on a Shuir given by Rebbetzin Altusky and Compiled by Vardah Littmann©

From Mir to the Eastside
I have actually lived on three continents. I was born in Europe in Slonim where there was a small nursing home. My grandfather Mr. Herman (immortalized in All for the Boss) had instructed my mother, his daughter, that for the first birth she should be delivered by a doctor.  So mother traveled from Mir to Slonim where I first saw the light of day.
Till the age of four I grew up in Mir, and then I came to America. In truth my mother could have stayed longer in Mir since she was American-born, but Aba who was not American-born would have lost his citizenship if we had stayed longer. At that time there was a law that anyone who was not born in the USA and stayed out of the country for more then five years would lose his American citizenship. This being the case, we all returned to America: mother, father, and two little girls-- my sister Rivkellah, then a year and a half, and myself.
We returned to America in 1935. At that time America was very young in Judaism. The greatest concentration of Jews was on the Eastside, where my grandfather lived. Williamsburg, Flatbush, etc were not yet the center they are today. The first stop after Ellis Island was the Eastside.
America in the 1930s
We lived with my grandparents. It was through Grandfather’s eyes that I saw what America was in those days. It was Grandfather who took me down to play. My mother had just given birth to a baby girl a few weeks after we landed and was busy with the little ones. Grandmother was consumed in preparations for the numerous guests that were hosted in their home (read all about it in All for the Boss). What did a little girl of four have to do? So Grandfather took my little hand in his and said, “Come Maidelleh, lets go.”
We went downstairs. For me at that point, America was a wonderland. I had just come from Mir, a little village with exactly one shop – a Kolbo. Here in America I saw so many people of so many colors. Back in Poland, I was used to seeing Poles who are light skinned with blond hair and very, very light eyes. Here there were black skinned Negros, yellow Chinamen, and red Indians.
It was incredible to me. There were so many tall buildings with no place in-between them to put a hand. There is a joke: What is the difference between Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Bnei Brak? In Tel Aviv between two buildings, there’s a little garden or park. In Jerusalem between two buildings, there’s a frog for putting the garbage. In Bnei Brak between two buildings, there’s another building. In America at that time, there was not only one building between two buildings; in between two buildings, they built two buildings. It was extremely cramped and overcrowded. There were so many shops. For a little girl of four, it was amazing.
At the Sweet Shop with Grandfather
Grandfather was about to teach me a lesson that I have not forgotten to this day. He showed me the essence of America Jewry, and I remember each and every word he said. He took me into a sweet-shop and gave me a penny. A penny was a worthwhile coin at the time, for the average wage was $3 a week. That was if you could find work since it was only a few years after the Great Depression of 1929-1931.
Grandfather had given me a penny. “Here is a penny. You can buy whatever you like for a penny. Everything here is a penny”. What a choice. I was overwhelmed. Hershey’s chocolate kisses each in its silver paper competed with lollipops and other sweet delights. How to choose?
“Do they have toys here as well?” I asked as I spied a big round ball-like object.
“No, only sweets. You see the ball has a stick, and you can lick it all day. It’s called an all day sucker.”
In the end, I choose the kisses. I figured I could straighten out and reuse the silver paper for a game. Grandfather urged me to pay the penny to the shopkeeper. I paid and we left the shop with Grandfather holding the bag.  As we were sanding outside on the sidewalk, I eyed the bag.
“Will you make a bracha?”
“For sure.” I was ready to make as many brachos as needed to obtain the treasure.
“So say a loud bracha.”
“Zaide, ah… ah .. I'm shy.” I hung my head.
He dangled the prize way above my head “I want you to say a loud bracha so the people across the road in the Kosher restaurant will hear you.” 
“But Zaide I can’t shout so loud.” The bag was swinging slowly before me. I decided I would close my eyes tightly so no one would see me (that’s the way a child thinks), and I would shout with all my might. Then I would get the kisses.
I yelled out the brocha and Grandfather gave me one chocolate kiss. He said, "Maidelleh, you did a great mitzva. I wanted you to bless out loud for the benefit of those sitting in the eatery who are Jewish. They came from the alter heim in Europe. They want to be American Jews, and not Jews living in America.
A Jew in America
“I wanted them to hear you and learn that one can say a bracha here. One must not be ashamed and one must bless here in America. It could be that one of these Jews will remember that he once also used to say brachos. Now he does not make brachos since he’s afraid he will not be accepted because it’s not fashionable to bless here. You are a little girl, and you can show them. This may give them the courage to remain Jewish and you will have the reward of this mitzva.”
At that age I did not understand the exact nuances of what Grandfather meant, but I did understand that it was not a good thing to become an American Jew. One needed to be a Jew living in America.  
He also explained to me then that as mitzvos are precious and take effort to do. They might take money, time, strength, even shaming of oneself, but the result is always worthwhile. Grandfather was one who "Jafeh doresh, ve jafeh mikayem." - he practiced what he preached.
Grandfather was a well known businessman. The bank president of New York said about grandfather: "There is not one completely honest businessman, expect for Y. Y. Herman. If he would come into the bank and  request a enormous loan, I would give it to him on the spot, even if he had no credit in the bank." 
My grandfather came to weddings carrying a poster which asked people to refrain from mixed dancing. A popular slogan in America is: "A family who prays together stays together." These Yidden, who had come over from the Old World, had left almost everything behind, and they took the above catchphrase literally. So at the time, everything (seating, eating, and dancing) was together and mixed. There were no mechitzas. Even in shuls there was no separate seating.
“Shul Yidden”
Most Jews were "Shul Yidded" who dutifully went to synagogue, but the Yeshiva World was almost non-existent. There were only a few yeshivas in existence. My great-grandfather had opened the first yeshiva  "Rabeinu Yaacov Yosef" of the Eastside. His own three sons were the founding students with two friends. My father learned there when he first came to America.
Jews work very hard. Take, for example, our grocer-man, Mr. Segal.  Most Jews were mizvah-observing, but the symbols to identify them as Jews where absent. They did not have beards or wear skullcaps. 
Two non-Jewish families lived in our building, one floor above and one floor below. Three Jewish families resided on our floor. We were surrounded by non-Jews from all the countries of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Most of the immigrants were ashamed to speak in Yiddish. They tried to speak only in English-- one word in English, two in Yiddish, one in English, three in Yiddish, three in English, five in Yiddish— to show how enlightened they were.
Once a lady came into our butcher and stuttered out her order in broken English/Yiddish. I said to her "Here in the shop you can speak Yiddish, our butcher speaks Yiddish."
"No, that’s impossible. How will I ever become American if I speak in Yiddish?" This was the given mentality.
Our “Poor” Family
The attitude of the time  was that those who sat and learned were people who where shirking responsibility and trying to avoid supporting their families. They were called bank kvechers.
A personal anecdote will illustrate this point. I was nine at the time. Since there were no Jewish schools then, I learned in public school. When we went on field-trips, it was mandatory to wear pants because of the snakes and poison ivy on the way.
Mother brought me a pair of shocking pink pants covered in flowers. She reasoned that this color would make the garment look less like pants. When the teacher fist saw these pants, she claimed that no snake would dare approach such a color.
Part of the field trip was a trip to the zoo and the planetarium. The cost was 25 cents. After school my friends Shoshana (Americanized to “Susan”) and Eli (Ellen) walked home with me.
"Why are you happy?" said Susan.                                                                                         
"Aren't you? We have a trip" I innocently responded.                                                                     
"I suppose you won’t be coming."                                                                                                    
"Why, not?"                                                                                                                              
"Well, you guys are poor."                                                                                                   
Poor? The word, echoed in my mind. Us? Poor? No way, we always had all we needed and wanted.                                                                                                              
"Yes," continued Susan, "I heard my mother tell my father that the Scheinberg family is poor. Your father does not want to support your family. He wants to sit and learn and grow Torah on the back of his children. Your mother will not give you 25 cents for a trip."
"I do not think we are poor," I replied, but I really felt speechless.
Mother was happy to see me when I reached home, but she noticed immediately that something was amiss. "Why is your face as long as the Jewish gallus?"
 "We have a trip." I bit my lip and hung my head.                                                                  
"So why aren't you happy?"
I hadn’t wanted to tell Mother about what was being said concerning Father. We were so proud of Aba's learning. Even when he was not paid on time, Ima always said: "We will find a plan." One time mother bought us a used little dolls’ pram for five cents, but we had no dolly. My little sister volunteered to be the "doll." Ima's dictum was: "We always have a way to get around things. There is always a plan."                                                                                            
But now she was so worried about me and what the girl had said lay heavy on my heart.
 "My friend said we are poor because Aba is sitting and learning. She’s sure that we don't have the 25 cents to pay for the trip."                                                                                                                     
"Is that so? Well, here is 25 cents for the trip. And here is an additional three cents for soda. Buy one for your friend; her mother probably won’t give her extra money for a drink."
This was the general attitude about learning fulltime at in that era. Only after World War Two, after Rav Aaron Kottler set up Lakewood, did things change.
Bathtubs, Iceboxes, and Facilities
Because of financial difficulties, most Jews did not eat Shalosh Seudah because of the extra expense. Grandfather Herman used to distribute small rolls baked by my grandmother to all the shtibelach in the area, making sure that each congregant got a least one roll to fulfill the mizvah. On Friday, Grandfather also used to open box after box of sardines for the Third Meal. There were not many iceboxes at the time, but his sardines never ruined.
In our family's apartment, the bathtub was in the kitchen. A wooden board covered it and was used as a countertop. Since we didn’t have an ice-box, the bathtub doubled as a cold storage place. Ice was put in it to preserve food. The facilities were shared by two other families living on our floor. Cut strips of newspaper were hung on a nail and used as toilet-paper.  Wanting something more pliable I would ask the fruit pushcart vendor for some of the papers used to wrap individual oranges. This was the way most people lived in America when I was growing up.

Bais Yaakov   
At the beginning of 1940. Rav Kaplan came to America and opened the first Bais Yaakov. The Rav knew Aba from Mir, and he begged him to let me learn in his school. Until that point I was learning in a public school together with boys. I was required to sing Xmas Carols. Once when a teacher saw I was not singing, she came up to me and reprimanded me, saying that everyone had to sing both the carols and Hanukah (Chanukah) songs. This was, after all, the American Melting Pot.
Aba agreed to send me. And now I will tell you my real yichus and zechus.  If I have any importance, it is not because I am the granddaughter of the hero of All for the Boss who did so much for Yiddishkite in the USA. Also, it’s not because I am Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg 's daughter. Nor is it because I am the wife of a great talmid chacham who wrote 44 books on Shas (unfortunately, he is now in an old-age-home for the last seven years). None of these are my merits. No, my yichus is that I was the first student in Bais Yaakov in America.
 Our Move to Eretz Yisrael
Father eventually opened his own yeshiva. Then Grandfather Herman moved to Eretz Yisrael in August, 1939. Father came to visit and was so enchanted by the Land that on coming back to America, he decided to move his whole yeshiva to Israel
Our neighbor Rav Erenfeld had been Rav of Mattersburg in Austria, and in 1959 he founded Kiryat Mattersdorf in the hills near Jerusalem. We bought apartments on paper in this new suburb.
Nine families came with 60 yeshiva boys. Father rented space for the yeshiva in the Diskin Orphanage. My family came to Eretz Ysrael with five children and I was expecting my sixth. We came in 1965 to a rented flat in Bayit vegan because our apartment wasn’t ready.There were no windows or floors yet, and it would take time to complete. At that time Kiryat Mattersdorf was only two buildings on a hill with no road leading to it. There was no Rechov Ha Mem Gimel. Further away there were some Jewish families in apartments the government had given them.
Jerusalem’s Cold Nights
The rented apartment had no fridge, no stove, and no washing machine. There were iron beds with straw mattresses, each with its own shape. Each night with no luck, I tried a different one in the hope it would fit me. We came during the sefira time – spring. My husband had said for that it would be hot in Eretz Yisrael, but no one had told me how the nights could be very, very cold in Jerusalem at that time of year.
The first night I was not prepared with blankets and sweaters for the family, and it was literally freezing. I prayed it should warm up. I must have prayed too hard because a heat wave of over forty degrees that lasted two weeks followed.
I was told it is dangerous to drink the water. So I stood and boiled the water on an electric plate. A cousin lent us a sweet little refrigerator. It only had one small problem - no handle to open it. She was kind enough to supply a screw-driver to ply it open. It was 40 degrees outside, all the boiled water was inside the little fridge. You needed to find the exact spot and stick in the tool in order to pull it open. So all day I fought with the refrigerator to give my children water. When I was able to quench our thirst, my husband said your tefillot are powerful – keep; davening.
My Baskets
When I wanted to go shopping, the lady who rented us the apartment told me to take her basket. I replied that I didn’t need it since I would use the bags supplied by the makolet. If I was not convinced that the basket was necessary by her sharp rejoinder "this is not America here," my first visit to the store took all my doubts away. I was told to throw my potatoes and apples in the basket I had come with. "Surely you wash your fruits and vegetable," I was told. I was positive I would be given a bag for the bread, but I was told: "Lady, you have an arm, so put the bread under it."
It seemed everyone was buying beer. In America we just brought beer for Purim in order to get drunk. I asked a little boy if there was some sort of holiday the next day. "No holiday, it’s healthy". And so I found out that black beer was the national drink which people drank because it was healthy. I spoke my ashkenazit Hebrew and was hardly understood when I said "beirah."
“The ‘beirah’ (capitol)? Shushan HaBeirah?”
“No I mean Beirah leshtos.”     
I discovered Machane Yehuda. Being very organized, I would leave each day precisely at the same time on the same bus carrying my baskets, in order to reach the shuk. I was in my ninth month.
They driver said, "Lady, right you have a husband?" I nodded.
“So let him schlep your baskets."  I then changed my schedule.
The Meat Store
In America I was used to feeding the kids meat once a week. When I found a meat store with the right hechsher. I ordered one kilo of meat since that was all I could afford. The lady sent it to me with a person who, lets say, was deficient in his intelligence.  The first week he put out his palm and demanded: "Put here ten lirot." The next week the lady sent one and a half kilos. The messenger said "Put here fifteen lirot." The following week it was two kilos, and he insisted: "Put here twenty lirot."
I went to the lady and complained that I had only ordered one kilo. "But you are American. In America there is money". In vain did I explain I could not afford more then a kilo. She wanted me to ask people in America to pay the bill. In the end I told her strongly that she could send as much meat as she wanted, but I would only put ten lirot in here (the palm of her delivery man). She then delivered the final coup: "You are not an American.."
The Tirade
I came up; against this attitude so many times. When we were already living in Kiryat Mattersdorf, an inflated bill arrived that also taxed me unnecessarily. I paid the bill. Then I was sent a new warning. If I don't pay the bill, they will fine me.
I went down to the office and stood in a long line. When my turn finally came, I showed the man the warning letter. He asked why I had not paid. I tried to show him the paid-up receipt. He then asked me if I was an American, and proceeded to give me a full fifteen minutes shower of words.
He said that we Americans come here and expect to get everything on a golden platter. We do not pay and then we want everything for free. He did not let me get a word in edgeways. I could have told him of all the advantages I had left behind: 19 years of seniority at my job, a twelve story building with three elevators, a paint job on my flat every three years, and so on and so on. It had not been easy coming.
I desperately tried waiving the receipt in his face, calling out that I had already paid. He stopped a moment and looked at the paper it my hand. "What you already paid and you let me shout for quarter of an hour?"  He started another round of degrading Americans who let a person shout for nothing.
My Labor of Love
After we came my mother returned to America for a short while for a medical procedure. My father came to me for supper and he told me that the boys of the yeshiva did not have supper. He asked if I could cook for them once a week. I took on myself the job of preparing their supper six days a week. I used to make a tasty, rice pastiedah in three ovens-- my own and those of two neighbors. This was a labor of love which I did for six years.
Rebbetzin Altusky (Fruma Rachel bas Bashe) has been recovering from a serious accident, and prayers for her complete recovery would be very much appreciated..

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