Chapter 1. A Shtetl in America

I grew up less than 100 miles from New York City, in an American shtetl (a small town or village, particularly associated with the Old Jewish hamlets of Eastern Europe). My grandfather, along with a few other Jewish immigrants who had come to the United States before World War I, had bought a farm and a business in Sullivan County. There they created an American extension of their European lifestyle.

Grandfather's land was a 100-acre spread, three miles from town, purchased in 1917. Almost every farmer on his road was Jewish; Yiddish was their language. I remember my grandfather's friend, Yakub Kubitsky, who owned a farm nearby. He always conversed with grandpa in Yiddish. One day I asked why Yakub didn't go to shul on Saturdays and holidays. Grandpa responded, "Because he isn't Jewish."

"But he speaks Yiddish," I protested.

"That's because he grew up among Jews in Poland and prefers to speak the

language we all use."

My grandmother came to the United States in 1914. When she died, more than 60 years later, she still hadn't learned more than 10 words of English. Her world was practically the same on her farm in America as it had been in Europe, except for the indoor plumbing and electricity.

Everyone of importance in the village was Jewish. The unofficial mayor of the town was Meyer Levine. When anyone needed a political favor, he asked Meyer. In 1930, my grandfather wanted to become an American citizen. Meyer told him:

"The judge will ask you three questions. Say 'Yes' to anything he asks."

When my grandfather went before the judge, the dialogue went as follows:

"Was George Washington the first president?


"Was Abraham Lincoln the president during the Civil



"Is the Constitution the Law of the Land?"


At this point, my grandfather stepped away from the bench and Meyer Levine congratulated him on his becoming an American citizen.

My favorite tradesman was the village blacksmith, a Sabbath observer who closed early on Fridays. When I was a child, the forge, the shop, the white hot metal and the flying sparks all fascinated me. He repaired the wagons and wagon wheels, for every farmer owned a horse and buggy.

The few people who owned automobiles were merchants and politicians. On Election Day, cars were sent to each Democrat's farmhouse, to bring voters to the polls. The farmer would vote, eat kosher delicatessen sandwiches provided by the Democratic Party and then have two hours to shop before being driven home. It was much better than the horse and buggy ride to and from town.

The ways of the old country were continued by many. One neighbor walked to and from town every Saturday, to go to Synagogue. His wife walked about 100 feet behind him. When I asked my grandfather why they didn't walk together, he answered, "In Europe, the people in their town always walked that way." No one questioned; everyone accepted the other person's idiosyncrasies.

My grandmother never gave up her European ways. She fasted twice a week -every Monday and Thursday, until she died at the age of 95. She awoke at 2:00 A.M. each Friday morning to start preparing for the Sabbath. The challah was baked, the floors washed, everything cooked and the house ready for Shabbos by 10:00 A.M.

Another old country custom was the manner in which we planted potatoes. The April day when we planted had to be wet and rainy. The midnight before, grandmother would cut the potatoes into pieces - each piece having one eye. At dawn, my grandfather and I would start up the field, one guiding the horse and plow, the other walking behind, dropping the potato eyes. There was no school on planting day. Potatoes were more important.

Although most things were done "the way we did it in Europe," there were occasional breaks with tradition. My grandfather's best friend was "old man Porter" whose family had farmed their land since the Revolutionary War. The two men would help each other cut trees and draw logs for lumber, cut cakes of ice from the lake during the winter, and do other heavy work that could not be done by one person. When the old man died, my grandfather wanted to attend the funeral, but the Rabbi said he should not go into the church for the funeral services since "according to Orthodox Law a Jew may not enter a Christian church under any circumstances." Nonetheless, grandpa attended the funeral. This friendship had transcended my grandfather's religious commitment.

The Rabbi of the community, of necessity wore "many hats," including Baal Koray (Torah reader), the only Hebrew School teacher, and the town schochet (ritual slaughterer of poultry and cattle). Last year, I revisited the Synagogue and found that he was still the leader of the Congregation, having served over 40 years.

Many farmers didn't go to the synagogue on Saturdays but prayed at home before they did their chores. As farmers, they were obliged to tend their animals seven days a week, which meant milking cows every morning and evening, collecting eggs, and feeding and watering cows, horses and chickens every day. The one-day a year we didn't milk cows was on Yom Kippur, when our neighbor was hired to do the chores.

My grandmother was a vegetarian from the time she came to live on the farm. She claimed that she had seen a kosher butcher kill a cow by himself, rather than having it slaughtered ritually. Her thoughts ranged from, "There are no good Jews in America" to "America is full of Communists."

There were a few Communist sympathizers in town. One was a man everyone called "Cohen the Soldier," a veteran of World War I who had been gassed. During the Spanish Civil War, he had everyone in town saving silver foil from cigarette packages so he could send the foil to be made into bullets. The other was a man whose son went to school with us. All the students called the boy "Trotsky" because of his father's Communist leanings.

The high school was the center of activity for the teenagers in town and we were all associate members of the volunteer fire department. If there was a brush fire during school hours, we ran across the street to the firehouse, rode the trucks to the fire and fought the blaze with the same vigor as the men, for which we were paid a few cents an hour. Our basketball team, the only all-Jewish one, had more stamina than any other team in the league. One of our substitutes was named Glick, a brilliant student, but a poor player. Near the end of one home game, the coach decided to put him into the lineup. Our Jewish announcer called out over the loudspeaker, "Now entering the game for the first time tonight, Number 14, Umglick"(in English as an athlete, a "born loser").

American shtetl parents had lofty aspirations for their children. As they grew up, the children left town to study for such professions as medicine, dentistry, law and education, and never returned. It was this upward mobility which led to the demise of the village.

Our world of the American shtetl lasted for 25 years (1915-1940), passing from the scene with the coming of World War II. The few who were part of it are older now, and, sadly, the American shtetl will soon pass from memory as well as from reality.

(first published in "Outlook" Magazine, Winter, 1984)