Tuesday, January 13, 2009

March 26th, 1930 - New York City


March 26, 1930.


It is 8:30 now and I am writing this
at the store, I chalked up two alts. 1
there is a lull now, nobody in the store
I hope I am interrupted with a few
more jobs, but it seems that I'll be
able to finish this note without any

Tomorrow at this time we will be
at Mecca Temple 2 honoring the memory
of the greatest friend the Jews had in
modern history, you will at the same time
have the opportunity to listen to some
very interesting adresses. 3

I may not be able to call you up
tomorrow (Thursday) at noon as I
expect to be detained settling prices.

At 6:15 P.M. I shall be at the
appointed place to meet you and
to take you in my care until you are
safely home.

God Bless You Beloved
and countless kisses

Your ardently loving



This is the only kind of paper
at the store, Forgive for using
such plain paper to write to you 4


Matt’s Notes

1 -  In a letter he wrote a few days prior, Papa told my grandmother  “it is 7:50 P.M. now I am at the store and already registered job #1”, and now he writes “It is 8:30 now and I am writing this at the store, I chalked up two alts.”   “Alts.” almost certainly means “alterations,” so he must have been working a few nights a week as a tailor in a retail clothing store and getting paid by the job. (As I've mentioned before, I don't think "the store" had anything to do with Papa's longtime employer, the Lion Costume Company.  I've questioned whether it was the same store he intended to buy and run with my grandmother and if he was working there to do some advance scouting of its customers, but if that was the case he would have written about it differently.  I think he just had a straightforward night job, and unfortunately I don't think I'm ever going to find out where it was.)

2 - Mecca Temple, located on 55th Street and 6th Avenue, was originally built and managed by the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, a.k.a. the Shriners, who opened it in 1924 for their own use and for rental income.  The Shriners ran into financial problems shortly thereafter, and New York City eventually took over the building and turned it into City Center, the well-known performing arts venue that's still there today.

3 - When Papa refers to “the greatest friend the Jews had in modern history,” he means Lord Balfour, the statesman whose famous Balfour Declaration articulated British support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”  Papa felt genuinely attached to those world leaders he admired (remember how loyal he was to President Wilson) and, considering his powerful belief in the Zionist cause, would have been deeply affected by Balfour’s passing. 

Balfour’s memorial service was organized by the Zionist Organization of America, a group Papa had been involved with for many years. (One of the "interesting addresses" was delivered by the now-famous writer Maurice Samuel, who Papa secured to speak at a Z.O.A. district meeting back in 1924 and thereafter knew as “Maurie”.) When Papa surveyed the 5,000 attendees, he must have seen scores of the comrades with whom he’d campaigned in the streets, laid plans in crowded apartments and offices, and spent countless, coffee-filled nights reflecting on the countries they’d lost and resolving to make a new country of their own. Perhaps, despite the melancholy circumstances, this gathering felt something like a family affair.

4 - This composition on “plain paper” is one of the last of Papa’s letters, and because it comes toward the end of his written narrative it feels to me like it has additional literary weight, as if some unseen author had placed it toward the end of a book for closer examination. But is this book about the American Jewish experience, with Papa standing in for all Eastern European Jews as we watch his progression from emigration to assimilation? Or is it a more intimate work, meant to examine the trade-offs and decisions one man has to make to find his place in the world?

I suppose Papa’s narrative can serve both purposes: When we first meet him, he is a lonely tenement dweller, sleeping on someone’s couch and laboring in a garment factory, longing for the simple confines and the familial comforts of his Eastern European boyhood. He devotes his time to organizations and the landsmanshaftn where he might find safety among others like himself, but glimpses and tests and samples a little more each day the vibrant city, the young country he finds himself in: baseball games in three different stadiums, opera, movies, boxing on the radio, Election Day, the Democratic Convention, automobile rides in the mountains and the boardwalk of Coney Island. Still, when his father dies back home and the old world is finally, clearly lost to him, he learns that without someone else to love as much he cannot make the new world his own.

The story continues and claustrophobic depictions of tenement life and factory work give way to wider vistas and brighter thoughts: Papa meets a woman, falls madly in love, and begins a long campaign to win her affection. (But is he, a devotee of self-sacrifice and hard work, more fascinated with her or with the fortitude he must muster to pursue her?) His boss gives him more responsibility, his co-workers look to him for guidance. He becomes an American citizen and crosses international borders at his leisure. His Zionist work takes him to Atlantic City, where he moves and socializes with surprising ease among its wealthy goyish visitors (and learns that, perhaps, all boardwalks are more alike than he thought).

And so we arrive at this latest milestone, where he joins hundreds of friends and thousands of fellow Jews in the strangely American exercise of paying open tribute to an English lord in a huge Midtown Manhattan auditorium named, oddly enough, for the city of Mecca. All this with his fiancee in tow, as if to announce: I am here, I am going to build my family in this city, I am going to make its vast and varied streets my own because it is, after all, where I live.



Image source: Mecca Temple postcard at Wikipedia

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