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
truth my mother could have stayed longer in Mir since she was American-born,
but America 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 Aba and stayed
out of the country for more then five years would lose his American citizenship.
This being the case, we all returned to USA : mother, father, and two
little girls-- my sister Rivkellah, then a year and a half, and myself. America
We returned to
in 1935. At that time America
was very young in Judaism. The greatest concentration of Jews was on the
Eastside, where my grandfather lived. America ,
Flatbush, etc were not yet the center they are today. The first stop after Williamsburg Ellis Island was the Eastside.
We lived with my grandparents. It was through Grandfather’s eyes that I saw what
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.” America
We went downstairs. For me at that point,
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 America 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,
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 Jerusalem 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. America
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
They want to be American Jews, and not Jews living in . America
A Jew in
“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
. 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.” America
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
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
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." New York
My grandfather came to weddings carrying a poster which asked people to refrain from mixed dancing. A popular slogan in
is: "A family who prays together stays together." These Yidden, who
had come over from the America 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.
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
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."
"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
'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
is sitting and
learning. She’s sure that we don't have the 25 cents to pay for the
"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
did things change. Lakewood
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
when I was growing up. America
At the beginning of 1940. Rav Kaplan came to
and opened the first Bais Yaakov. The Rav knew America 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
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
Our neighbor Rav Erenfeld had been Rav of Mattersburg in
and in 1959 he founded Kiryat Mattersdorf in the hills near . We bought apartments on paper in
this new suburb. Jerusalem
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
at that time of year. Jerusalem
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.
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
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." America
It seemed everyone was buying beer. In
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
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." America
I went to the lady and complained that I had only ordered one kilo. "But you are American. In
there is money". In vain
did I explain I could not afford more then a kilo. She wanted me to ask people
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.."
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
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
Rebbetzin Altusky (Fruma Rachel bas Bashe) has been recovering from a serious accident, and prayers for her complete recovery would be very much appreciated..