The Last Jews on Irvington Avenue
By Martin Elliot Jaffe
My intent in these slice of life vignettes is to capture the real world of Jewish working class life in non-suburban Cleveland, Ohio during the secular optimistic Eisenhower/Kennedy era of the 1950's and 60"s and look back to the stories I've carried forward from my grandparents and other relatives from the 1930's and 40's.No stories of great ideological struggles by heroic figures; no touching tales of inspirational wisdom ( well, maybe mildly touching).No, these characters are all too real with the prejudices, shortcomings, ranting and ravings that working class people of every age and ethnicity display sometimes, without the social/political sensitivities of those who have been in the middle class a generation or two longer. Who are the working class populating these stories? This will not be a work of sociology or political theory; I prefer the poet Carl Sandburg's definition of the working class "where nobody works unless they have to, and they nearly all have to."
That's the working class I come from and the family background that shapes the perspective of these stories. My family bought a small wood framed house at 12725 Irvington Avenue on the East Side of Cleveland in 1952 and many of these stories are centered there. My father entered the white collar world in 1955, when he became a salesman for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company ("the light that never fails") after post war work history as a kosher butcher, skilled machinist, and taxi driver. My mother was the only Jewish female square dance caller and teacher in Cleveland and possibly the known universe.
You will meet my parents, older sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and other motley characters in these tales of labor struggles, anti-Semitism, family squabbles- a vivid tableau of American life. Some names and details have been changed to protect the living and those of blessed memory. If you don't like a story just move on to the next one; they are all short reflecting my attention span and impatience.
My grandfather (mother's side) was a Polish immigrant, skilled tailor and charter member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. He was a union man to his core, close personal friend of David Dubinsky, (founder of the ILGWU and from same city in Poland), served as a union bargaining representative during 35 years of class conscious solidarity, fluent in three languages (Yiddish, Polish, English) and was proud to be able to retire in the early 1950's with an excellent union pension. My grandfather was the first immigrant in his generation to buy a single family house in a middle class suburb. (Cleveland Heights). His peers laughed at him for not buying a double or triple decker so tenants would pay your rent.
One March day in 1956 I was sitting in my grandmother's kitchen watching her gut and pluck the feathers from a very smelly chicken while my mother and grandmother slung chicken parts toward the sink and traded insults about some ancient family conflict in Yiddish that was long ago and mostly forgotten anyway but gave them something to kvetch about while they worked and in a language which I did not understand. My retired grandfather had taken the street car to Lyon Tailors on the West Side of Cleveland to walk an ILGWU picket line in support of a strike; retired or not the struggle for workers' rights was an ongoing cause in my grandparents house.
The front door burst open and I was treated to the scariest vision of my sheltered childhood so far - my grandfather stumbled into the kitchen, blood from a gash in his head pooled in his hat and his suit stained with mud and dried blood (my grandfather in my memory is always in a three piece gray suit, trade unionist in banker's clothes).
My grandmother calmly sat him down on a stool and while he ranted and raved in Yiddish ( so I would not understand) cleaned his head cut, which was mostly dried blood after he had sat on a street car for 15 miles covering his head wound by stretching his hat over it.
What happened? The Cleveland Police on horseback charged the picket line to break up the rally. My grandfather bent down to me as I stared at the bloody scene (actually the chicken cleaning was bloodier) and told me that he had something to say that I should always remember
he said it in Yiddish and told my mother to tell it to me when I was old enough to be sure to understand and remember.
My mother was not one to hold on to a story so she could tell it years later with some dramatic life changing hang on every word of this wisdom to tell your own grandchildren sense of generational mystery; she told me what my grandfather said on the ride home twenty minutes later.
"You know I'm not sure of the Yiddish wording exactly but it was something like this, don't tell your sister what he said either," my mother said.
My grandfather's message, loosely translated, "Just like in Poland, the bosses send Cossacks to piss on the workers, soldiers on horses there, police on horses today - the union stays strong, we step on their dicks next time they piss on us."
My first lesson in labor relations---I often thought of my grandfather's earthy perspective when I organized a union of public library employees in 1976 and negotiated our first contract facing a hostile management team. All I had to do to stay focused was to think back to 1956, the imagery of men on horseback swinging clubs at 72 year old retirees in three piece suits carrying picket signs.
CLASS STRUGGLE IN CANDYLAND
After high school graduation during the depression my mother was offered an art scholarship by the Cleveland Institute of Art, a rare opportunity to pursue fine arts and the life of the avant-garde, rare for Cleveland Ohio then (or now.) While my grandfather was progressive in his social/economic views and proud to live freely as an American citizen, radical free thinking ended at the door to his household where he was the sole support of a wife, three daughters and a son: my mother would be finding a job to bring money into the house, not a beret wearing, free spirited bohemian artist.
My mother began her working class life as part of a human assembly line for a candy maker on the East side of Cleveland, spending her days running around placing soft fillings into chocolate candy shells which were then whisked away to be packaged and exported to rot the teeth of penny candy lovers worldwide. As I recall her description of the work I see vast legions of young women running, running squirting cheap fillings into low grade milk chocolate on one side of a vast unheated, un-airconditioned room while on the other side of the room more vast legions take the finished chocolates out to be packaged and shipped out.
My mother soon became an enthusiastic participant in the social activism spurred by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and the impetus Roosevelt offered to unionization and collective bargaining for workers. Swept up in the swirling and vibrant social activism of 1936 working class life my mother was soon a leader in progressive labor and cultural circles in Cleveland, including a unionization drive with the Bakery and Confectionary Worker's Union and a role in the left wing social activist play of 1936 by Clifford Odets, Waiting For Lefty. ( I looked at it as I began this story, trust me a dated relic not likely to be a blockbuster on Broadway soon).
The women of Candy Land broke into two well defined factions: one faction, led by my mother, were the workers imbued with class consciousness, activism, agitation, and a feeling that they were part of a vanguard of workers/activists changing the world and spurred by the energy and hope of Franklin Roosevelt's vision.
The other faction were the women my mother called "paint your nails girls"they were a bit short of social consciousness, needed a job after high school, saw it as temporary before they got married, etc. While my mother's crew wrote manifestos and articles about the struggle in Spain, the paint your nails girls wrote notes to their boyfriends.. From my vantage point in 2008 I'm honored to think that most of my mother's faction were Jewish, Italian, or the children of other Eastern European immigrants, appreciative of the freedom and hope of America while the daughters of the more American (read Protestant, not immigrants) seemed a bit short of labor solidarity and vitality
with one major and embarrassing exception
..yes, my cousin Sandy Ehrlich.
Yes, the leader of the paint your nails faction was my cousin, Sandy Ehrlich (not really my cousin, she married my father's cousin Phil, not until 1941, but still
) Sandy and her "girls" were always opposed to anything my mother's group proposed regarding improvement in wages, benefits or working conditions. "This is a good job and Mr. Leib is a good boss," my cousin to be Sandy would tell my mother while she waved her nails to dry surrounded by her cronies. "Youse is kvetching too much and acting like Communists--- maybe you could do something with your hair and use some lipstick, get a date, I seen you in that Red play you was in, feh."
Now dear reader I warn you that this story will indeed take a tragic and dark turn. Read on only if you can stand the shattering of illusions and oppressive grimness ahead.
After a vigorous unionization drive the big day arrived and the workers were presented with a clear choice: vote for representation by the Bakery and Confectionary Workers union or live as a serf under the rule of capitalist plutocrats on your knees
the union lost the election, and my mother was shocked until she saw cousin Sandy and the ice cream cone.
One grim day soon after the lost election my mother came in for the second shift and found several first shift workers including my cousin to be Sandy still on the work floor just, after the end of their shift, taking a break and eating huge cones of chocolate ice cream. As melting ice cream dripped off her chins my cousin Sandy and her pals praised the free snacks and ice cream Mr. Leib had been offering at the end of first shift for the last couple of weeks since it was so hot in the shop. "Why do we need a union, give them dues when he have Mr. Leib as our boss? "she said. "Elsie, have some ice cream before you start the shift you look sweaty."
Mr. Leib and the bosses may have been the first capitalists to beat a unionization drive with ice cream cones but their labor troubles were not over yet; not after continued labor drives and production troubles these 1936 candy factory owners proved their true status as capitalist visionaries 70 years ahead of the curve they closed down in Cleveland and shifted production to China.
COMMUNIST ROSH HASHANAH COUP, CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, 1938
Before she died in 2004 my Aunt Sarah told me this story of the fiery family celebration of Jewish New Year, 1938 at my grandfather's house. No one actually present at the event is alive today, so I bear sole responsibility for the accuracy or fictional interpretation of the lively evening to follow.
As the immigrant patriarch of an American Jewish family in September,1938 my grandfather sat beaming at the head of the table bathed in soft candlelight and surrounded by a vivid and vigorous family tableau illustrating the promise and fulfilled dreams of America.
My Aunt Yetta was there, recently hired as a clerk for the Social Security Administration, one of the first employees of the new agency; my Aunt Sarah, recently finished with high school and working as a clerk at a well regarded Jewish law firm in downtown Cleveland; my mother, of candy factory fame, still a labor activist and beginning to learn square dance calling at a local community center; my mother's best friend Bessie and her fiancé, Freddy, a communist just back from service in Spain as a soldier with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade; my Uncle Alex, over six feet tall, first generation of American Jewish sons soon to proudly serve in the US military, currently building his muscles in a furniture warehouse and trying to decide who to favor with his engagement ring; my grandmother's brother Pinny (Philip), visiting from New York, a union painter and also a Communist.
Did I mention my grandmother? As I mentioned earlier in these stories, sex roles in the home of my grandfather were based on Poland in the early 1900's, not middle class America of the new millennium; she was carrying steaming bowls of chicken noodle soup, fragrant platters of brisket, duck swimming in oil and herbs, a spicy and bright orange carrot tsimmes - this holiday blowout of 1938 would be a bonanza for an unborn generation of cardiologists and surgeons treating these victims of Eastern European cuisine during the 1970's and beyond.
Imagine through my grandfather's eyes this family portrait of 1938 America and what life was for Jews in the Europe my grandfather read news of daily; Hitler was in power and refugees were beginning to arrive in England and the US, Kristillnacht, (night of shattered glass) was only two months in the future, fascist movements targeting Jews were ascending in Hungary, Austria, Croatia
.as darkness and chaos engulfed Europe my family gorged on brisket and freedom
.until dessert was served and Communism came to Cleveland Heights.
As my aunt Sarah described this dinner to me 50 years later everything was mellow until the men sat over cigars and the ruins of dessert while my aunts and my mother cleared the table. Surrounded by decimated mounds of sponge cake, bowls of sour cream and fresh peaches, piles of crisp chocolate chip mandlebrot, ( sort of Jewish version of biscotti) Uncle Pinny and Freddy lit cigars, pulled their shirts out over their paunches, and proceeded to describe the workers paradise of the Soviet Union.
"Not a bad meal tonight" said Freddy, "in Russia, the workers have everything they need, sour cream all the time, the vegetables and meat are better from the collective farms, cos' it's not produced for some rich owner like here, everything is shared, no rent, no landlords to harass you (in his twenties Freddy lived at home with his parents, his father a kosher butcher, too busy being a communist to have had a job.) "In Russia everyone has meals like this all the time, there is no unemployment, better health care, it's like paradise, that's what we fought for in Spain and the revolution that's coming here."
Puffing vigorously on his cigar Pinny added his wisdom on the glories of communism.
"There's no anti-semitism like here either, cause everyone is a worker and the bosses can't stir up the workers like here by blaming conditions on the Jews or the Negroes, communism has ended prejudice, increased production of food and clothes, some of my comrades and me are going to run a campaign to take over from the current painter's union leadership next election and run a real worker's union, not like the management flunky currently runs the union."
That was enough for my grandfather. He had been sitting quietly seething while Freddy and Pinny proclaimed the glories of the Soviet Union. As a unionist my grandfather had been in bitter disputes with communist attempts to take over democratic unions. He also read widely and had met refugees from both fascism and communism by 1938 and knew about Stalin's purges, anti-Semitism and the conditions of unions in the Soviet Union.
As my Aunt Sarah remembers that he stood up, still wearing his tie and vest, and with cold fury in a mixture of Yiddish and English, I know I can't do justice to, told my Uncle Pinny and Freddy what he thought of their politics.
"You should both make like a onion and grow your head in the ground" he began. (It sounds richer in Yiddish) "You're both luftmensch " ( something Yiddish, men with heads in clouds)." Workers Paradise? Russia is hell! Stalin is a murderer, it's all a prison camp, Stalin is the only one in Russia ever eats a meal like you had tonight, in Russia you'd both be in prison camp or Siberia, or shot--- you like Russia so much, gay gazhuent (go in good health) go now, go have Rosh Hashanah dinner, next year in Moscow, gay avek schmucks." (go away, schmucks).
That was the last visit to Cleveland by Uncle Pinny while my grandfather was alive. I don't recall any family holiday dinners with Freddy either.
HUNGER AND THE HUNGARIAN UPRISING, 1957
The waiter at Chin's Chinese restaurant stood poised at the head of the table, waiting for my grandfather to order on a frigid Saturday night close to midnight in January, 1957. My grandfather looked ill at ease, glancing quickly down toward the waiter's long yellow fingernails and swiftly back up to look over his stained jacket and grimy grayish white shirt with underarm circles of sweat acquired during a long shift. Finally, in a subdued voice and shoulders slumping in resignation my grandfather told the waiter, "Please bring me two hard boiled eggs, don't peel them and a package of saltine crackers."
The evening had begun with much excitement and anticipation of doing a great mitzvah at my grandparents house as we awaited the arrival of Zoltan Levetsky and his family, refugees recently arrived after the failed revolt against the Communist regime in Hungary and resettled in Cleveland to work as a cutter in the garment industry. At a union retirees meeting my grandfather had agreed to host a dinner for one of the resettled refugee families and my grandmother, mother and aunts' were delegated the actual work of cooking, table setting, etc.
I don't recall much about the Levetsky's except that there were quite a few of them, all dark haired and dark- eyed, and chattering excitedly in what I assumed was Hungarian; Mrs. Levetsky (Elka) shyly handed my grandmother a bottle of what I believe could be called home brew, a peach infused brandy; there were numerous children I vaguely remember as Elie, Sandor, Jakob, Lubya, all excited to be in what they must have seen as a mansion, welcomed to America with decent employment and a city where Jews were accepted, there were no secret police, and even after only two months in the country Mr. Levetsky arrived in a 4-door 1950 Plymouth.
Soon steaming platters of brisket, roast potatoes, kishka, and in honor of the Levetsky's, a dish my aunt Sarah devised a recipe for called Hungarian chicken, roasted in a spicy mix of hot paprika and caraway seeds began to rotate around the table, Yiddish, English, and bits of Polish/Hungarian conversation flowed and all was well
with one slight problem.
Perhaps it was the influence of Communist food shortages and deprivation but getting the Levetsky's to share food was a bit of a challenge. I remember a huge platter of Hungarian chicken that Mr. Levetsky placed in front of himself, took a huge portion for his plate, served Mrs. Levetsky most of a whole chicken, passed wings and drumsticks to the numerous Levetsky children
and then passed a decimated platter of bones and pooled oil along to my starving parents, sister, aunts, and grandmother. The same with the brisket, kishka, and ultimately a magnificent looking sponge cake with a layer of raspberry filling and dark chocolate icing that I remember as a fevered vision of desire but never actually got to eat . My aunt Sarah made it again for my eight birthday and my sister and I ate so much of it that my sister missed school the next day.
Finally the Levetsky's waddled off to their Plymouth and a sullen hungry group sat around the remains of what had been enough Hungarian chicken to feed most of Budapest. My grandfather stared into his glass of peach brandy and said, "Hungarians?, Aich Mir they ate like starving Armenians and with no manners. This peach brandy, slimovitz? Feh' - even Levetsky didn't drink it. I apologize to all of you, I brought this on my family, is Chin's still open?"
As we sat at Chin's eating won ton soup and chow mein my grandfather silently peeled his hard boiled eggs and spread them on saltine crackers, sighing wistfully now and then over remembrances of briskets past, as Proust might have said. My grandfather had the last word that night as well. When the same long finger nailed waiter came by he said, "Please bring me a tea bag, Lipton's don't open it."
from theMay 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine