Written Note: Fetter Velvel should be Fetter Arril
The principal object I had in putting these words to paper was to afford my progeny and their descendants a factual account, so far as I can remember, of the background and forebears of those who shaped our lives and our heritage. It should, as well, provide some historical perspective of an age whose culture and mores you may only perceive indistinctly through the bare accounts of historical records.
You may also find, by reading of the events and personalities which touched me throughout this narrative, some knowledge of my character, discovering therefrom the modus operandi which impelled my actions.
There is nothing more revealing about a person’s nature than the manner in which he reacts to the incidents which form the record of his life. I have found that not too many remember with clarity or perceive the importance of those events. I thank my genetic background that I have been blessed with a retentive memory, especially of my early years. Thus, before age may dim my view of things remembered, I have set myself the task of writing this narrative, so that you may derive therefrom a sense of continuity in your future lives.
Of the twelve tribes of Israel, I had been informed by my father that we belonged to that of Benjamin, the youngest son of Jacob, our biblical ancestor. Pop could not have been too far off the mark in this respect, since we have been told that the descendants of ten of the others can no longer be traced, having been scattered and absorbed among other peoples at the time of the Disaspora, the dispersion occasioned by the Babylonian exile. The one other tribe remaining, and the eponymous ancestor of the Jewish people, is the posterity ascribed to Judah.
Another historical fact, which Pop always recounted with some pride, although it is probably apocryphal, is that his mother, whose maiden name was Nisdotny, was descended from Israel ben Eliezer Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760), the revered founder of the Hasidic movement in Jewish theology.
The next progenitor, of whom I have any knowledge, came from my father’s side of the family. This was his great-grandfather, Lazar (Eliezar), who was probably born circa 1800. Aside from the fact that he was a fish dealer in the town of Lisinka (?), some twenty or thirty miles from Boslov, and sired our next paternal ancestor, Yosef Shiah, I have nothing to add.
The record of the life of this gentleman is somewhat more revealing than that of his parent. According to Pop, Yosef Shiah was a lively little man with a long beard. He also had an engaging sense of humor and was possessed of such amazingly quick reflexes that he could catch flies while they were in flight.
Pop always claimed that his grandfather was a rabbi, but I have another report from inside the family that he was engaged in some sort of commercial enterprise, perhaps a continuation of the one brought into being by his father. It is also quite possible that he was the leader of his own congregation, as well as a businessman, since all his sons became Talmudic scholars. From all accounts, he was a highly respected member of his community.
Since Pop had a recollection of visiting his grandfather while just a boy, Yosef Shiah must have lived until 1895 or 1900, when he would have been 65 or 70. Before he passed on, however, he had married three wives and sired seven sons and two daughters.
Pop’s father, Shmuel (Samuel), after whom Stuart is named, was probably born circa 1856. His mother died when he was three, most likely during childbirth, which was the usual cause of early female mortality in that time and place.
Like the rest of his father’s sons, Shmuel’s early years were given over to a study of the holy texts and the commentaries thereof. There was a period of time during which he attended a yeshiva presided over by the Talna (Talnoye) Rebbe. This would be similar to an academy in which advanced students were enrolled, after having completed elementary Jewish studies in a heder at the age of thirteen.
The Talna Rebbe was one of several members of the rabbinate in Russia who enjoyed a wide reputation for scholarship and saintliness. Such gentlemen enjoyed great following, and their judgments with respect to ritual and civil law were accepted without question. An example of such an individual in our own country would be the leader of the Lubavicher Hasidic movement, Rabbi Schneerson.
Among most of the Jewish population in Eastern Europe, to acquire a son-in-law who was a scholar was a prize devoutly sought by most fathers of eligible daughters. Accordingly, when Yoylik Nisdotny met with Yosef Shiah and discovered that he had a son of marriageable age (20), he proposed a contract of marriage between Shmuel and Sarah, his daughter. When Yosef Shiah agreed, their pact was solemnized by the breaking of a dish.
Thus, without prior consultation with the principals, the marriage of Shmuel and Sarah was arranged and duly celebrated. Thereafter, the newly-wed couple lived with the bride’s parents in the town of Cherkassy (?), near Odessa. Under the circumstances, it is possible Shmuel could have been saddled with an ugly wife, but I am told Sarah most resembled my late Aunt Rifka (Ruth), who had excellent features. In addition, she was blonde, blue-eyed and fair-skinned. And, to be worthy of the religious scholarship of her mate, Sarah was altogether devout and accomplished in Hebrew, a training not usually afforded to females.
Shmuel remained in his father-in-law’s household for some ten or twelve years, during which time Sarah bore him six children. Throughout this period it does not appear that he pursued any gainful employment of his own choosing, mainly applying himself, it seems, to scholarly studies. However, it may well have been that he taught in the local heder (elementary school) or assisted Yoylik in whatever enterprise he was engaged in.
At some point near the close of this interim, Shmuel took an occasion to visit his father in Lisinka. Also, while there, he called upon an aunt (his mother’s sister), who, with her husband, operated a mill for grinding wheat into flour. There was a crisis in the household, it seems: The brick oven, which was used for heating the house, as well as cooking, was desperately in need of repair.
In this emergency, Shmuel volunteered his services. Apparently, the oven was rehabilitated to the complete satisfaction of his aunt, for when his work was completed, he announced he had a new occupation: bricklayer.
By this chance introduction to a field of work for which he was now able to remove himself and his family from the household of his father-in-law and take up residence in Boslov.
As to why this town as opposed to some others, I do not know. It may have been because of the sizeable Jewish population there. Then, again, other members of his family may have settled there, inducing him to do likewise.
From all accounts, Shmuel managed to support his family with great difficulty through his newly-found vocation. But he apparently would not have had it otherwise, for it probably grated against his pride to depend upon his father-in-law’s bounty for the bed and board required by his family. While they were undoubtedly not living as well as formerly, Shmuel now, at least, could hold his head high among his neighbors.
The severe Russian winters must have been well nigh unbearable for this young and growing family. This was because no brickwork could be undertaken in freezing weather. Eventually, however, Shmuel hit upon a plan to provide himself with additional income during such slack periods: He would sell hot tea in the town’s open-air market to the peasants who came to buy there. This he accomplished with an oversized samovar (tea urn) he possessed, from which the tea could easily be dispensed. It is also quite possible he may even have supplied some stronger beverage, if the occasion warranted.
As the sons reached an age when they could assist their father with his work, they were enlisted and trained in the bricklaying trade. Also, there must have been times when Shmuel would undertake a general contract, involving other construction trades, whereby the boys could be grounded in these skills, as well. This is evidenced by the fact that Uncle Max later became a plastering contractor, and Uncle Abe was to become a general contractor, which embraces all trades.
As Shmuel became more widely known in the community of Boslov, it was inevitable, given his background of religious scholarship, that he should become a respected member among the worshippers in his synagogue. According to my father, he became a rabbi or, perhaps more accurately, the one who led all others in prayers and sacred rites for a congregation which included the most select and wealthiest Jews of Boslov.
Some members of the family dispute this allegation, stating that he was merely a hazen (cantor). Still, from what I have read, touching upon this matter, it would not have been uncommon for members of one synagogue to secede from the parent group and form a separate entity with a different rabbi of their choice. Given Shmuel’s qualifications for the post, I think it is not beyond the bounds of credibility that such had been the case in this instance.
Meanwhile, with the passing of every second or third year, the family would see the addition of another child to strain the living accommodations available. Whenever such an event loomed in prospect, Sarah would travel to the home of her parents in Cherkassy so that her mother, Friedel, could assist in each birth. This she had done on the three other confinements since moving to Boslov, and now, in her forty-second year, there was a tenth to be delivered.
With Rifka, her eldest daughter, then about 16 or 17, as a travelling companion, Sarah boarded a horse-drawn coach and journeyed for two days until they reached her mother’s house. Shmuel was not to see her alive again, for complications associated with her pregnancy caused her death. The child, itself, was stillborn.
Following this tragic event, and, after an interval of perhaps a year, Shmuel took to himself another wife, a widow with three young children. His children were outraged at this alliance, which they considered disrespectful of their mother’s memory. But Shmuel was only forty-five, in the full vigor of his manhood, and he had three children under the age of ten who needed a woman’s care.
Aside from those three youngest, the others were able to shift for themselves. Yoylik, the eldest, was serving in the armed forces. Mechel, the next in age, was already married or about to be. Rika, who was 18, decided to marry her cousin, Ishika (Joshua), in order to remove herself from her new stepmother’s house. Harry decided to join his aunt, Esther (Shmuel’s half-sister by the third wife of Yosef Shiah) and her husband, who were childless, in emigrating to Argentina. Dave found other quarters, and went into business for himself as a bricklayer. Chaika (Ida) moved in with her Mimma (Aunt) Dubba (Shmuel’s sister). Remaining with the father were Abe (9), Esther (5) and Oodel (Helen) (2). Those, who by reason of age and dependence were forced to abid with their step-mother, were joined by her three children, as well. Later, three more siblings, the issue of Shmuel and his new wife, further increased the household population.
According to Aunt Chaika (Ida), the stepmother beat Shmuel’s children by Sarah unmercifully whenever they committed infractions against her rules of conduct. Her punishment seemed to be especially directed toward Aunt Esther, who was forced to submit to beatings with a leather strap whenever she displeased the lady of the house. Eventually, tales of her treatment of the children reached the ears of Yoylik, the eldest brother. It was said that he became so enraged at receiving this intelligence that he administered a whipping to the stepmother with the same strap she used upon the children. Whether this punishment had any salutary effect upon this lady’s future behavior, I am not certain, but it must have delighted the three children who were the recipients of her discipline.
From this point on, the fortunes or misfortunes which attended the life of Shmuel, after the dispersal of the children by his first wife, can only be a matter of speculation now. For a period of perhaps fifteen years or so, during which the First World War engulfed Europe and the Bolshevik revolution placed its repressive stamp upon Mother Russia, no word was received concerning Shmuel’s existence.
Finally, however, when I was ten or twelve (1927), I recollect that members of the family here in Philadelphia received a communication from him in which he complained of the hardships he and his family were enduring/undergoing. He must have been in his early seventies at the time—a time when the Communists were consolidating their dominion over all functions of the state in Russia.
Along with his letter, Grandfather Shmuel enclosed a 3×5 black-and-white photograph of himself. The image presented here was of a grim, dark-visaged, elderly man, the white beard upon his face sparse and untended. He was seated alone upon a chair, a hand upon each knee, his trousers inside knee-high boots.
I was surprised at the swarthiness of Shmuel’s complexion, for none of my aunts or uncles was of such a coloration. It was, of course, possible that there was insufficient light available at the time the picture was taken. At any rate, if I were to compare him with any of this children, I would say he most nearly resembled my Uncle Abe, having the same thin face, piercing gaze and birdlike nose.
In response to the missive from Shmuel, every member of his family here contributed toward a parcel which was forwarded to him with items of which he might have a need. I do not recall if money was sent along as well, but it is entirely possible that it was.
Following this, I do not remember that any acknowledgement was ever received from him as to the fate of the parcel or the money. Considering the state of affairs in the Soviet Union at that time, it is quite probable the package was never delivered, having been either confiscated or stolen.
After this one communication from Grandfather Shmuel, I do not recollect that any other letter was ever received from him. It was as though he had been drowned by the tide of events then engulfing the Soveit Union. In addition, lack of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union at that time helped to compound the difficulties in establishing contact. Subsequently, from Cousin Sarah (Isaiah’s) I learned that she remembers Uncle Max breaking the news to her mother (Rifka) that Grandfather Shmuel had passed away. The year was 1932 (?), making him about 76 at the time of his death. As to the cause of his demise or the fate of his family, I have no knowledge. Suffice it to say, we must all feel a sense of gratitude that he was spared the atrocities of the Hitlerian era.
Pop always spoke in glowing terms of the accomplishments of his father: how without prior training, he could make shoes for the children, and even cut patterns and sew dresses for the girls. From all accounts, he was like another Robinson Crusoe, who managed to survive and provide for his family on the desert island of his poverty.
There were other tales of Grandfather Shmuel’s ferocity and great strength when his anger was aroused, of his strictness as a parent, of his unflagging dignity and pride. What else can remain for the life of a man, except that he be remembered fondly.
My mother’s genealogical knowledge extends only as far as her parents, who died when she was a child, leaving her to be raised by an aunt. Beyond the fact that the family name was Levin, that I was named Ben Zion after her father, that he was a hazen (cantor) and that he was learned in the Sacred Books, I have nothing more to add. As to my grandmother’s maiden name, it was probably Tonsky, for my mother had a cousin of that name who was a doctor here in Philadelphia.
The date of my father’s birth, as with most Jews in Russia, was not always a matter of official record, as it is here in our own country. And, to further obscure the true date of his nativity, the Hebrew calendar does not coincide with the one in use in Russia, which is itself somewhat different from the Gregorian used in Western countries.
The method most often used to fix the date of birth among Jews of that period was to recollect the number of days preceding or following the celebration of a religious festival when the child first drew breath. Thus, an individual might designate his birthday as being the tenth day before Tisha B’av. But since the Hebrew calendar is based upon lunar months, festival dates vary from year to year, as opposed to the Western system of computing the passage of time.
Faced with this incompatibility in determining birth dates, most Jews were satisfied if a particular year could be established. And if a family member could recollect the season in which the event took place, that was usually as close as one could come to the true date.
There was one other practical method of computing age among siblings, and this was to compare an established date of one with those who came before or after. Thus, if the year of my Uncle Harry’s birth was known and Father was born a year later, whatever age Uncle Harry would be at a given time, Pop would then be one year younger.
He was probably born around 1888, for, according to his certificate of naturalization, his age was recorded as 28 on February 4, 1916. The town where he was born and grew to young manhood was known as Boslov, among the Jewish population, but its Russian name, he informed me, was Boguslav. It was located in the province of Ukraine, in eastern Russia, near the provincial capitol, Kiev. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, Jews had been living there from the beginning of the seventeenth century, becoming predominately Jewish after 1793, when it became a part of Russia.
Pop departed from Russia around 1906, when it appeared likely that his number would be called up in the military draft. Harry, his older brother, who emigrated to Argentina some years earlier and had subsequently entered the U.S. from that South American country, provided him with the ticket for his passage.
My father never spoke too much about his experiences of those days, but he probably had to bribe border officials to allow him to cross the border into Austria-Hungary, which, before the first World War, abutted the Russian frontier. From there, he probably made his way to Liverpool, England, boarding a ship to America from that port.
Interestingly enough, Pop was not one of the millions of immigrants to first tread upon the soil of America at Ellis Island. His ship took him directly to Philadelphia.
It was a good thing he left Russia when he did, for World War I followed in 1914 and the Communist Revolution in 1919. In addition, if he had continued to reside in Boguslav, he, in company with the rest of the Jewish population, would doubtless have been annihilated during the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine in 1941. Thus, by choosing to emigrate to America, the direction of my father’s life and that of his descendants was significantly altered and preserved for all generations to this day.
Pop was a small man, not above five foot five in height, with a thick crop of curly, honey-colored hair on his head. In his latter years, his hair turned absolutely white, but it never became thin, as it has with me in later life. His eyes were blue and his skin was exceedingly fair, except for his face, which was bronzed and deeply wrinkled through long and constant exposure to the sun and outdoor weather.
When he was a boy, Pop told me his friends called him “Whitey,” because his hair was almost platinum-blonde in color. Later, as a young man, when his hair was profuse with curls, he bragged that young ladies of his acquaintance would beg him for snippets of his hair to attach to their own.
My father was thoroughly outgoing in his attitude toward others, devoted to his many friends, but totally unyielding toward his enemies. His one great talent, which stood him in good stead in his relations with others, was his ability as a story-teller. Whenever he related a humorous anecdote or personal narrative, his listeners became completely enthralled an attentive. His talent, in this respect, was equal to that of any monologist I have ever heard in my life, including Will Rogers or Myron Cohen.
These stories were often bawdy in nature, but most times they served to stress some point he wished to convey, perhaps even a moral lesson. The ribald humor was usually reserved for those times when he was with a group of friends, especially on festive occasions, such as weddings, bar mitzvahs and the like. Then, when “Dudie” as he was known, arrived upon the scene, the ordinary hum of conversation among the guests gave way to the loud laughter of the men and the screeches of the women greeting the humorous remarks or observations issuing from his lips.
Not only could he hold his audience spellbound with his reminiscences of the life and characters in his home town of Boslov, but he also joined in the Old World folk dances with alacrity. To add to the amusement of his audience, he would often feign the unsteadiness of a drunk while dancing.
I remember being somewhat ashamed of Pop at such unbecoming displays of frivolity. Perhaps it was because I could never get into the spirit of the occasion. Neither could my mother, for she was as introverted as I. However, she seemed to enjoy the hilarity and the wild movement of bodies from the sidelines. Sometimes she could be persuaded to join the dancing, but it was never with the wild abandon of the others. Most often, she was content to sit aside, in a dignified manner, accepting the admiration of men and women alike for her beauty and regally observing the enjoyment of her subjects.
The story-telling talent of my father came into play most often for me at the dinner table when I was a child. Here, because I never seemed to have much of an appetite, he would sit beside me and spin his tales, and, while I gaped in astonishment, he would stealthily slip a spoonful of food in my open mouth.
The characters of Boslov, who were most frequently the role-players of my father’s stories, were never identified by their proper Russian surnames; every individual was introduced by his given name, and, so as not to confuse him with others having the same appellation, each had a qualifying attribute attached to it. Thus, he would speak of “Avrum der Balagula” (Abraham the Drayman) or “Yosel der Blinder” (Joseph the Blind One) or “Yankel der Schneider” (Jacob the Tailor) or “Rifka mit der Farcrimpteh Foos” (Ruth with the Crippled Foot). The narrative was in the style of Shalom Aleighem, but the events related to the life of Dudie Toll.
Pop loved to speak of his exploits as a youth: how, on a dare, he hung from the roof eaves by his toes, how he rode a horse bareback and was thrown when it bolted, breaking his nose, how he prevailed upon the daughter of the bathhouse proprietor (who doted upon him) to allow him to spy upon the female bathers when it was Ladies’ Night, his mischievous antics in chaider (Hebrew school) and how the melamed (teacher) raised him off the floor by his ears when he was caught.
I remember once reading an account of the lie in Boslov written by my father for a yearbook published by the Boslover Beneficial Association. This was a group, much like many in the city, to which the immigrants of that time gravitated for social contact with others of similar background. Additionally, these brotherhoods provided sickness and death benefits for its members and secure burial plots in Jewish cemeteries among friends and family.
The piece to which I refer was penned in Yiddish, of course, and described the people who resided in Boslov on the “brickeerte gass” (paved street), the main passage through the town. Sad to relate, the copy of this publication was somehow lost or mislaid, and, although I made inquiries to the successor organization of the original Boslover, I was unsuccessful in securing the copy I remembered. Had I been able to preserve this bit of writing, I could better give some indication of the subject-matter of his stories. Of course, his style of delivery would be impossible of replication through the written word.
Almost all of Pop’s social life was centered upon the Boslover. Most Sundays were spent there at general meetings, where he always seemed to be in the midst of some vigorous debate. And, because Mom dislike being left home alone, it was inevitable that I, as a child, would be required to accompany them to the meetings and social affairs of the association.
The meeting rooms were always filled with smoke, either from cigarettes, which irritated my eyes and made them red from rubbing, or from cigars, whose heavy fumes made it difficult for me to breathe. The constant debating and the hammered gaveling for order was for me entirely boring and depressing.
The social affairs my parents attended were equally as obnoxious to me. Usually I was the only child in attendance, and this had the unwanted virtue of singling me out for attention and insincere compliments. After my presence was duly noted, I tended to gravitate to some obscure corner of the room where I could sulk and pout unobserved.
Pop could never understand this posture of shyness I presented before his friends. Under such circumstances, he would voice his displeasure by berating me as a “Shimindigger” (Bashful one). I could understand how his pride would be hurt to have a son who would stammer and blush when addressed by strangers, when he was so outgoing and friendly. But I couldn’t help myself at such times, and I would feel like a fool or an idiot as my face became suffused with a reddish glow when a stranger—especially a woman—should single me out for attention.
Because Pop gave up so much of his time to the Boslover, it was inevitable that he should receive some measure of recognition for his efforts. It seems as though he was a member o the association’s advisory board for as long as I can remember, serving as chairman of that committee on a number of occasions. And once he attained the pinnacle of his ambitions: he was elected and installed as president of the organization.
At the completion of his term of office, a photographic portrait of Pop was hung in the office of the Boslover building. His picture was larger than that of any other president who preceded him, and beneath it was engraved the words: “Our Most Active President.”
It was intended that Pop’s portrait should hang in that office for as long as the Boslover should be in existence. However, when membership began to drop precipitously downward, a group within the lodge, with which my Uncle Abe had associated himself, asked for authorization to invite other immigrant societies to merge with them. Pop was strenuously opposed to such a course of action. But the will of this group prevailed, and, Pop, too proud to accept defeat gracefully, resigned from his beloved Boslover, in company with many of his supporters.
It was while I was seeking the yearbook with Pop’s account of Boslov that I came upon his picture. It had been gathering dust for years in some cellar or storage closet, its facing glass broken into jagged shards. The secretary of the successor organization, which whom I had been communicating concerning the yearbook, invited me to take it off his hands. I was only too glad to accept his offer, and, as an added bonus, he gave me a similar, but smaller, portrait of my Uncle Max.
Since the glass and frame of Uncle Max’s picture were still intact, I cut down Pop’s picture to fit these lesser dimensions, and hung it in the basement near my desk. It is not, in my estimation, a true representation of his features at the time it was made. The many wrinkles on his face were erased, his hair seems much darker than it actually was, and his unsmiling lips lend to his countenance a domineering presence which was not so stern in real life.
During my father’s most energetic and productive years, the regularity of his routine was unswerving: During weekdays, after returning home from work and having dinner, he would read his newspaper. Following this exercise, he would sleep for about an hour on the living room couch. From this he would awake refreshed, and, on most nights, Pop would dress for an evening out with his friends.
Monday nights were always reserved for meetings of the “Corporation.” This was similar to a savings and loan association, the difference being that only members were to be awarded loans. Dividends were also available to members, based upon the value of the shares they held. After business transactions were completed for the evening, a poker game and refreshments usually followed.
There was another day of the week usually set aside for meetings of the Boslover advisory board. Other nights were sometimes taken up with other Boslover business or social get-togethers with friends. It was a rare evening when Pop was too tired to go out “on the town.”
Pop’s outgoing nature and aggressiveness in business affairs seemed to be common attributes among most immigrant Jews. When I was growing up, he was always disdainful of the business acumen and artlessness of native Americans. “Yankee tuchas (buttocks),” he would sneer at them derisively.
Pop would often recall for my edification his own early years of poverty, and he took great pride in reminding me that he went to work as a bricklayer when he was but nine. In addition, he would boast, he was a contractor, in business for himself, when he was only fourteen.
The disdain for American naivete which Pop frequently voiced was probably occasioned by his observation of the freedom of opportunity and universal education available here which seemed to give the natives an easygoing attitude toward the business of earning a living. Coming from a much harsher environment, as he did, it had been ingrained in his character, from his earliest childhood, that earning a livelihood was a dog-eat-dog affair. In later years, however, he began to adopt the manners of his host nation, becoming a full-fledged Yankee himself. Nevermore did I hear him utter such inelegant phrases as “Yankee tuchas” again, for he seemed to have come to accept the American principle of giving honest value for services rendered. This change in attitude came about, I believe, through the influence of Cousin Herman Toll, who always preached honesty and morality in the conduct of business affairs.
There was another form of intolerance which Pop gradually learned to overcome, as well. This was the derogation which Russian Jews were wont to express toward ethnic Jews emanating from other lands. It was surprising for me to find that Jews, who were themselves the subject of worldwide intolerance, should be themselves intolerant of their fellow Jews.
It was quite common to hear disparaging slurs against “Litvaks,” or Jews who had their origin in Lithuania. When I asked Pop the reason for this prejudice, his only explanation was that they were “free thinkers,” a heresey unacceptable to orthodox Jews. This bigoted notion was unacceptable to me, as well, for I had seen many such Jews who were altogether pious and observant of the tenets of Judaism. On the other hand, he would say that Litvaks were among the most intelligent and gifted of all Jews. And yet I have encountered Litvaks who were quite the reverse.
“Galitzianers,” natives of Galicia, Poland, were also fair game for disparaging remarks, as were most Jews indigenous to Poland.
Probably the greatest feelings of intolerance among Eastern Jews was reserved for the elitist population of Jews who were native to Germany. This bitterness of feeling was echoed in kind by the Germans, who looked upon their brothers from the East as uncouth and uncivilized aliens. Many of these considered themselves to be much more German than they were Jews.
A great deal of the ill feeling which Eastern European Jews felt toward those from Germany stemmed from the introduction there of the Reform Movement in Jewish religious practices. Eastern Jews, with their pervasive background of orthodox theology, looked upon this unwelcome trend as a form of apostasy or a gentile form of worship, even though mention of Christ was omitted.
They also resented the superior attitude adopted by the Germans toward them, although most Jews could not gainsay the fact that German Jews were among the cleverest in the world and the most generous in their benefactions toward their poorer relations.
Nonetheless, many Jews of Eastern European origin were wont to express satisfaction at the humbling of German Jews during the Hitler regime. Their gloating turned to concern, however, when it was discovered that all Jews were considered to be fuel for the gas chambers.
The only formal education my father ever received was in the “cheder” (Hebrew school) he attended as a child. Here he was instructed in the reading and writing of Hebrew and Yiddish. The principle subject of study at these sessions was the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Jewish Scriptures, and the reading of the prayer books which were used during services at the synagogue. Even if it had been available to him, secular education would have been frowned upon in those insular towns and villages of Czarist Russia.
Pop left his Jewish classroom when he reached the age of nine, at which time he started working with his father in the building trades. The ready inference from this early departure from the halls of academia is that Pop was needed to assist in propping up the family budget. My feeling in this is that Pop was probably a restless and mischievous student, and was removed from the academic environment in order to channel his energies into more constructive directions.
Despite this early disassociation from formal learning, Pop had, throughout his life, an avid interest in wide-ranging topics which touched upon matters far removed from his own immediate interests. These subjects he pursued in the Yiddish newspapers which were delivered to our house—the Jewish World every day and The Forward, published in New York, which came on Sundays. The Forward had a rotogravure section which I enjoyed leafing through.
While current events were naturally intrinsic in such publications, they also presented feature articles devoted to history, literature, science and the like. Thus, through his reading of the Yiddish newspapers, he received a broad, though cursory, education. As far as I can recollect, he read very little in books.
Although Pop never attended any school here that I know of which might have instructed him in the reading of English, he could understand the printed word surprisingly well. He was also unusually adept in simple arithmetic, being able to compute figures in his mind faster than I could do the same by written calculation.
Pop could also scale the measurements on architectural plans, from which material and labor quantities were estimated. These figures led to the bid price for his specialty: Brickwork.
His usual method of procedure in preparing a bid was to have the specifications of the project read to him. Then, as he scaled the perimeter of the building, he would dictate each measurement aloud to an assistant. When these sums were duly totaled, they were multiplied by the height of structure, which game him the gross square footage involved. From this would be deducted the area of openings and the like.
Once the net footage of the planned project was calculated, there were standard units of bricks, mortar and labor applied to these figures, usually on a thousand-brick basis. Multiplying these sums by prices for each category, adding overhead costs and profit, and he was ready to submit a written proposal for his line of work to a general contractor or owner-builder.
Of course, Pop never estimated any work more detailed than residence or apartment-house jobs, and he probably received more work through negotiation than by strict bidding. Still, what he did was an enormous accomplishment, given his lack of education in the basics of English and mathematics.
While Pop could only write his name in English, he had little difficulty in dealing with this business associates and earning their respect and even admiration. During the 20’s and 30’s, until the Depression years spelled an end to most private construction, the firm of Toll Brothers performed work on contracts totaling several hundred thousand dollars a year. And, in 1926, at the time of the United States Sesquicentennial, being celebrated then in Philadelphia, Toll Brothers received a certificate of excellence for workmanship from the Employing Bricklayers Association of Philadelphia.
For about four years after 1933, almost no contracts of any size were forthcoming. Immediately preceding this period, Pop and Uncle Harry dissolved their business partnership. There was no point in going on as before since there was not enough income from the business to support even one family. During this time Pop eked out a precarious livelihood by working for others as a supervisor on the job or even by laying bricks himself. When this sort of work was not available, the equipment accumulated over the years was sold to other contractors at a price far below cost. His savings in shares in the Boslover Building and Loan also went down the tube. Even the house we lived in was taken away for non-payment of interest on the mortgage. We continued to reside there, however, when an arrangement was made to pay monthly rent to the mortgagor. Finally, it was only through the largess of friends that we managed to survive to the end of those four years, most particularly from Joseph Blumenthal, whom Pop always cherished thereafter for his generosity toward him in his time of need.
Eventually, in 1937, private work began to show itself again, in dribs and drabs at first, but then in fairly respectable jobs. For that first year, I have records of work performed amounting to as little as $30 and $50. The largest contract that year was for $4690, a movie house. There was another movie house job for $3450 and a Woolworth store for $1550. The rest were for piddling amounts below $1000. For the entire year of 1937 Pop worked on 23 jobs with a total value of just under $15,000.
Pop’s business went on in this fashion for another ten years, until 1947, when our war economy was displaced by a peace economy, and when steel and other building materials could be diverted from the uses of war back to the pent-up needs of the civil sector. In that year Pop obtained a number of jobs from Food Fair on a cost-plus basis, the most profitable being a store at 53rd & City Avenue, from which he realized a gross of some $10,000.
In 1950, working for Ralph Bodek on a job that was awarded to him on a bid which I had prepared, he grossed $16,000 on an apartment house at Long Lane & Walnut Street. On the following year, on another bid I prepared, we received the contract for the apartment house at Long Lane and Sansom Street. On this Pop grossed $19,000. From this high point, the business gradually began to retrogress until Pop eventually retired, because of ill health, in 1956.
As long as I can remember, Pop had suffered from shortness of breath, especially when he had to climb several slights of stairs at a time. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was an indication of the progressive nature of the disease—emphysema—which was to finally lay him low.
Pop had always been a heavy smoker of cigarettes, especially of the Turkish variety. These, together with the dusty conditions under which he worked, conspired to clog his lungs and impair their pliancy. Toward the end, he would find himself being suffocated by the lack of air in the house, and he would often need to open the outside door in order to breathe. Eventually, a canister of oxygen had to be made available to him when such seizures came upon him.
At one time, when he was placed in Graduate Hospital for treatment of this disability, I remember being surprised when visiting him, to hear him speak of the distant past as though it were the present. Events that happened thirty or forty years ago were related to me as though they were occurring today. It did no good to point out to him the obvious facts. Apparently, insufficient blood was reaching his brain, making relevant to him only that which had been engraved upon his consciousness long ago. His mind returned to normal, however, once his stay at the hospital was completed.
The day before he died, Hilda and the boys decided to pay him a visit at home. They said he was in fine spirits and altogether lucid. It was a Wednesday, and I probably did not accompany them because I was working. In any event, there did not seem to be any sense of urgency at the time. However, the brightness of his disposition seemed only to have been an aura, which sometimes revitalizes certain individuals just before they die, for late that same night he passed away in the hospital to which he had been taken for emergency treatment. The date of his death was May 18, 1961, in his 74th year. The cause of his demise was given as heart failure, but we all knew his lungs gave out due to emphysema.
Until the time of his last illness, Pop always treated my mother as though she were an adornment to his person, to be displayed by him on social occasions. I never heard him discuss with her any matters concerning business affairs or serious topics touching upon their married lives. To him she was a lovely child, not to be troubled with worldly problems or concerns of a sordid nature. I think, in those times, this was the attitude of most European men toward their wives, except in those cases where the women had actively joined their husbands in operating family businesses.
Signs of public affection between my parents were exceedingly rare, and only displayed in my presence at a time of leavetaking or on being reunited after an absence, such as when Mom spent her summers at the seashore. On the other hand, during all the years I was living at home, I hardly ever saw any signs of disagreement or disharmony between them.
In matters of substance Mom always tended to defer to Pop’s discretion. However, if she meant to have her way, it was not through protest or angry confrontation; it was, rather, through summoning up the manifestations of a lifelong indisposition: severe headaches and constant, loud belching. These usually had the effect of blunting any opposition Pop may have presented against her wishes.
Mom also had her will with Pop through those feminine traits which appeal to the male ego: dependency and weakness. She enjoyed being treated as a child and being fawned over; it gave her a great measure of control over most situations presented to her.
My mother rarely projected herself before others, so as to be recognized as an active, intelligent individual in her own right. Seldom do I recollect seeing her offer her services to another, extending invitations on her own, giving gifts freely on her own initiative or being demonstrably affectionate to others. Mom always seemed to prefer basking passively in the reflected glare cast by Pop’s personality or to enjoy the admiring gazes and kudos extended by others toward her. This appearance of vanity probably stemmed from the fact that she was the only daughter among four children, and had been deprived of a mother’s image and care during her growing years. Because of this, she was probably over protected and made the constant object of affection. An indication of how dearly she was held by family members and intimates is from the name she was usually addressed by: “Bobtsy,” (Little Grandmother).
Because of this background, Mom never had to actively seek the love of others; it was always at hand for her. Probably, it was for this reason and her own natural reserve that she never had the capacity to reach out toward others with any warm show of feeling.
Mom was not what might be called a “home body,” as were most of the Jewish ladies I have known. While the house was kept reasonably clean, and she tended to the other traditional womanly chores associated with maintaining a home, she was not devoted to enhancing its appearance; she preferred being out of it and into other people’s homes.
As far as cooking was concerned, when I was growing up Mom made little effort to enhance the quality and taste of the meals she served. Simplicity in food preparation was her forte as a cook. Canned salmon and potatoes was the customary entrée for Monday dinners, and, for Fridays, there was chicken soup, the chicken from which the soup was made (this was only made palatable to me by the addition of ketchup) and a meal-closing compote of prunes and raisins. I cannot recollect ever eating steak during those early years. If there was any meat on the table, it was usually boiled or made into a stew.
Fish was the item most often in evidence at our dinner table. In the main, Mom boiled such comestibles, making a bland preparation which was utterly unappetizing to me. But, after a while, she began to offer me fried butterfish, which I enjoyed, followed by an excellent sweet kugel, made of noodles and cream cheese. She also learned to make a hot sweet beet borscht, with a beef stock, which I heartily enjoyed on cold winter evenings with fresh rye bread. Later, because I used to rhapsodize about my Aunt Minnie’s potato-barley soup and chocolate cake, she was induced to get the recipes for these viands.
For as long as I can remember, Mom suffered from what had euphemistically been called “women’s troubles.” It was not until I was in my forties that I learned the reason for this malady. It seems it was within a year or two of my own birth that she became pregnant again. For whatever reason she had in mind at the time (whether she dreaded being tied down by the rearing of another child or losing her girlish figure, I have no way of knowing), she enlisted the services of a woman who was engaged in the practice of abortion for a fee. As a result of this indiscretion and the inexpert termination of her pregnancy, the subsequent damage to her reproductive system proved irreparable.
After this experience, Mom underwent four other pregnancies, all of them short-term and unsuccessful. When I was five or six, she gave birth prematurely to a son. This took place in our home, and Pop later told me that the delivering doctor raised the baby above his head. Being so elevated, the infant stretched its arms and expanded its chest. Pop thought it would live, after such an expression of joie de vivre, but the baby only survived for another day. All the rest were undeveloped fetuses. One I remember in particular, because I witnessed the flushing of the embryo down the basement toilet.
During all the years I was living at home, Mom constantly complained of severe headaches. She also suffered from seizures of loud and constant belching. This latter indisposition I cannot believe was induced by swallowing air when eating, because she was always thorough and slow in masticating her food. Besides, she usually had her meal after Pop and I had eaten, thus she had little occasion for talk which might make her ingest air with her comestibles.
These, and other complaints made her a constant visitor to physician’s offices and the out-patient sections of local hospitals, although none seemed to benefit her in any way. One doctor, who specialized in nervous and emotional disorders, felt her ailments were neurotically induced. Pop, thereafter, seemed to dismiss Mom’s complaints as being imaginary. He did not know then, as we do now, that such illnesses can be as real to the sufferer as any actual disorder.
When she was in her thirties, however, Mom did develop an undeniable disease: diabetes. But she never suffered from its pernicious effects, because she was always a good patient, administering insulin to herself with unfailing regularity, initially by injection and later orally.
After Pop’s death in 1961, Mom sold the house at 59th & Larchwood and moved into the house of an acquaintance in Wynnefield. Later, she shared an apartment in the Northeast with another lady-friend.
She seemed to adjust very well to her change in circumstance. Apparently, once the years of caring for a family and then a sick husband were over, her sense of freedom seemed to revitalize her spirits. I don’t remember her complaining of headaches or illnesses after that.
Mom suffered a heart seizure, without warning, shortly after the first of the year in 1967. She fell into a coma shortly thereafter, and died on January 8, 1967. The cause of death was given as myocardial infarction.
Beyond the fragmentary knowledge forefather Lazar’s existence, I know of no other kin who lived during the time of his generation, the early 1800’s. After Lazar, there was, of course, his son, Yosef Shiah, who as the common ancestor of my grandfather, Shmuel, and his issue, as well as of the great-uncles and great-aunts, who were his brothers and sisters, together with their children.
While Yosef Shiah, the family patriarch, undoubtedly had brothers and sisters of his own, only one brother, Avrum (Abram), has been mentioned up to now by Aunt Ida, the source of much of our ancestral history. Actually, I am not especially curious about such extraneous relationships, unless they were to lead to personages who had distinguished themselves in some manner. Since I am not aware that such had been the case respecting such offshoots from the family tree, so far as I can ascertain, I do not mean to delve too deeply into connections of this character.
However, with respect to Avrum, it should be a matter of some interest to recount his story, for it highlights some of the oppressive measures under which Jews existed in Tsarist Russia.
At the time of which I write, circa 1840, there was a quota set within the Jewish population for induction into the armed forces. The term of service then was twenty-five years. However, if the quota, for some reason, was unfilled, the usual practice was to kidnap children for this purpose, some of these being as young as eight or nine. If such boys were under the usual age for induction, they were given preparatory instruction until they were old enough to undergo regular training.
While serving thus in the army, Jewish boys and young men were constantly under pressure to renounce their religion, even being subjected to floggings and other cruelties to make them accept baptism.
Avrum, so the story goes, was one of such youngsters, being snatched off the streets when he was but fifteen, and inducted into the military. However, Avrum was notably stalwart in his resolve against proselytization, never surrendering himself to the whippings and taunts of his superiors. This attitude which he displayed seems to have been especially courageous and noteworthy, since I doubt few children could have withstood such treatment without succumbing to the demands made upon them.
After being shanghaied, Avrum was unable to communicate with his parents, and, after twenty-five years or more, they must have given him up for dead.
Finally, at the expiration of this period of service, Avrum returned to Lisinka and to the home of this parents. He did not disclose his identity to them at one, but spoke of himself as one who had been acquainted with Avrum in the army. He took this means of gentle inquiry and roundabout reference, so that the shock of recognition might not too greatly affect his parents. Eventually, Avrum was able to lead them to the point where he could say, “I am that same Avrum who has been missing these many years!”
Naturally, there mush have been great rejoicing at this revelation, and, if Lazar, the father, had the means, I am sure he would have awarded some benefaction to his synagogue as an offering of gratitude to the Divine Being for the safe return of his son.
After Avrum’s return, he did not remain in Lisinka, but settled with his family in Kiev, where he operated a restaurant. The license to dwell in Kiev was usually denied to most Jews, permits for this privilege being given only to the wealthiest or those who had seen service with the military.
According to Aunt Ida, there was a time just prior to the Passover holidays that her father, Shmuel, travelled to Kiev to visit Uncle Avrum. It was customary at this time of year to clothe the family in new attire, but there was not enough money to buy yard goods for this purpose. As an alternative to this dilemma, Shmuel prevailed upon Avrum to accompany him to the marketplace in Kiev, where he was able to buy a quantity of old clothing. By opening the seams of this material and turning the unexposed faces inside out, Shmuel, with the aid of Rifka, his daughter, was able to fashion suits and dresses for the children so they might present a fresh and clean appearance for the holidays.
It is such an incident as this which brings into focus the poverty and restrictions our forefathers were compelled to endure in the shetl’s (small towns) of Russia, and with what ingenuity and improvisation they managed to overcome such obstacles. For, by all accounts, Shmuel would not have been permitted into Kiev, if it were not for the fact that his uncle resided there. Also, it must have been the same perceptiveness of intellect which discerned the intricacies of bricklaying through observation that enabled Shmuel to make patterns for dresses and stitch a seam.
To put in perspective the collateral relationships established by Yosef Shiah, I think it is necessary to list the children according to which of this three wives/gave them birth (names unknown).
As far as I can determine, Yosef Shiah’s first wife bore him five sons and one daughter: Itsy, Moishe, Pacey, Israel, Shmuel and Dubba. Wife Number Two gave birth to Velvel, dying at the time of delivery, much in the manner, I suspect, of Number One. Wife Number Three produced Pinny, Yankel and Esther.
Great-Uncle Itsy never emigrated to America, although four of his children did manage to settled here. The first of these was probably Joshua, who had married Aunt Rfika at the time her father, Shmuel, had taken a second wife.
Joshua was at that time serving in the armed forces, and, because he was so straight and tall, he was selected to become a member of the Tsar’s honor guard in St. Petersburg (Leningrad).
This was obviously a high distinction and doubtless gave him the freedom of movement which enabled him to slip across the Russian border and take passage for America. This was 1902. Once settled here and earning a livelihood (he was a harnessmaker, by trade) Joshua sent for Rifka. The time was probably around 1904.
When I was about ten years old, I remember being taken for a visit to the place where Joshua and Rifka resided. The harness shop, as I recall, was on the street level; the living quarters on the upper floors. But, in the back yard, to my surprise and delight, they kept a chestnut pony with a long mane and tail.
The next thing I remember, I was led into a U-shaped wicker wagonette that had been hitched to the pony, and, with Nisil holding the reins and Sarah the other passenger, we set off on one of the most exhilarating rides I ever experienced. The pony seemed not to be concerned or hampered in its progress by the flow of auto traffic encountered at every hand. From 2nd & Poplar, the location of the harness shop, Nisil guided the pony directly into the center of town, where we circumnavigated City Hall and then returned to our starting point. The pony never faltered from its rapid pace, and seemed to enjoy the outing as much as we.
The union of Joshua and Rifka produced four sons and a daughter. Joe, the eldest, had been a merchant seaman in his youth, having visited many foreign lands during this period. Indeed, on one occasion, while on leave in Russia, he had the heady experience of shaking the hand of Leon Trotsky, one of the original Bolshevik leaders, after he had addressed a crow in Moscow’s Red Square. He was also said to have visited Uncle Harry during the time of his stay in Argentina.
Nisil (harry), the next son in point of age, was a bakery worker during most of his adult life. Then there followed Abe, who was a graduate of the old Central High School at Broad & Green Streets. I remember attending his commencement exercises, in company with my mother, Cousin Sarah and Aunt Rifka. The most memorable aspect of that experience to me was the recollection of passing by the huge Baldwin Locomotive Works which was located nearby. This factory was to move away to Delaware County some years later.
Abe also felt the urge to move out of Philadelphia, and within a few years after his graduation, he settled in San Francisco, where he became some sort of salesman.
Leon, the youngest son, never seemed to be engaged in any steady occupation. I would say he was, more or less, a peripatetic entrepreneur, who bought and sold products or services as they presented themselves.
Sarah, the daughter, sat next to me in home room and some of my other classes throughout my attendance at West Philadelphia High School. At the passing away of her mother, Rifka, she gave up thoughts of a career for herself in order to keep house for her brothers. None of this family ever married.
To return to the other progeny of Great-Uncle Itsy, there were three beside Joshua, and they had settled in New York City. I recollect only seeing them once when I was a child. This was 1925, during a particularly severe winter when building operations were at a standstill because of the weather.
It was at this time that Pop decided to pay a visit to his cousin, Eeta, the sister of Joshua, and her husband, Meyer, who I think was engaged in a laundry business.
I was nine years old at the time, and when we headed out toward the Lincoln Highway, which then the principal route to New York, I remember we drove by Pop’s job, a temple at 33rd & Diamond, which was then in a dormant state of erection because of the cold.
Eeta, Meyer and their daughter, Sonya, lived in a semidetached dwelling in Brooklyn, near Coney Island. To me, Sonya was the interesting member of this family, for she had attended the Columbia School of Journalism, and was, at the time of our visit, a working newspaperwoman. I remember in particular one item of conversation with her in which she corrected my pronunciation of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which I had spoken of as the “Inquire,” with the accent on the first syllable. This was what most Philadelphians called their newspaper, but since that time I have never mispronounced the name again.
I had another reason for remembering Sonya, and this was because I had been put to sleep in her bedroom. I had already gone to bed for the night, and I remember being awakened by her entrance into the room a few hours later, when the light was switched on. The idea that a young woman was undressing for bed in the same room I was occupying caused my body to stiffen, because I did not wish to betray by any movement that I was aware of her presence. I was thankful I was facing the wall and not in her direction, and yet it was difficult to maintain a normal breathing pattern because of my excitement. Finally, she was in bed and I could go back to sleep.
Although I was only ten years old, I suppose those feelings of titillation I experienced were induced because I had no sisters of my own. In addition, I had a lively imagination which could glamorize any object or incident. To this day, I am sure Cousin Sonya never realized what trepidation she caused within my breast.
When I arose in the morning, Sonya had already departed. I did not see her again until perhaps a year later, when she paid us a short visit in Philadelphia. She was in the company of another young woman, and both were wearing khaki-colored riding breeches. This was unheard-of attire for women at that time. In addition, these two early women-libbers were on their way or returning from a hitchhiking jaunt across the continent. This would have to be an unusually daring adventure for those days, considering that it was only 1925 or 1926 and there were much fewer cars around and the roads were then/not of a type to encourage travel.
I was not surprised to learn recently that Sonya is now a resident of Israel, thus continuing to give evidence of that pioneer spirit she displayed in her younger days.
While in New York at that time, I met two brothers of Eeta and Joshua: Lazar (Louis) and Herschel (Harry) Toll. I have now forgotten what activity Lazar pursued, but I am led to believe it was the laundry business. I also met his son, Percy, who was about my own age. Cousin Sarah has informed me that Percy is now living in Israel, having served with the armed forces there as an aviator during the fighting which broke out when Israel was proclaimed an independent state, and also during the Six-Day War.
Herschel was engaged in the construction field and specialized in the erection of store fronts for specialty shops. I remember bidding on one such job for Cousin Herschel when he was awarded a contract for an existing store here in Philadelphia. I also remember seeing him once more when we were vacationing in Atlantic City.
To return to the remaining offspring of Yosef Shiah’s first wife, aside from Itsy and Shmuel, of whom I have already made reference, there was Moishe, Pacey, Israel and Dubba. Of these only Pacey emigrated to America. As to the others, I have no knowledge of their progeny or what befell them in their lives. The only thing I know about them, which is according to Aunt Ida, is that they were all melamadim (teachers of Hebrew and related subjects).
With regard to Pacey, he was probably the first of our family to settle in the New World, probably in the early 1890’s. He was also the first to assume the shortened version of the surname most of our family now use: Toll. This latter bit of information came from my father, but I have recently spoken to a granddaughter of Fetter (Uncle) Pacey, Dorothy Gilbert Grossman, and she has told me the name her uncle used was Tolins.
At any rate, according to Pop, our family name in Russia was Tuchinsky, and not Tolchinsky, as might have been supposed. Pop was very definite upon this point.
I recently discovered that a place called Tuchin actually existed. It was located in Poland, near Rovno. An early ancestor, having settled there, probably took the name of the town as his official appellation. However, among his fellow-Jews, he would continue to be identified by the biblical name he was given at birth, as well as by a distinguishing attribution of occupation.
Tuchin is now no longer in existence, having been laid waste during the Nazi siege of World War II. There was once noteworthy act about the place which was related in a Jewish Encyclopedia: Its Jewish inhabitants, learning of the doom which awaited them, did not stay to be carted off like cattle to their slaughter, but fled to the woods, where they armed themselves and joined others in fighting their would-be murderers.
Returning to Fetter Pacey, I learned from my father that he was one of many thousands of Jews who were encouraged to emigrate from Russia to the New World by the Jewish Colonization Association, a group organize in 1892 by Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a Belgian financier and philanthropist. This benefactor of the Jewish people was the first to plan a large-scale resettlement of Jews from those lands where they were oppressed and constrained in their activity. He had hoped to induce the Russian government to allow as many as 3,250,000 to emigrate over a period of 25 years.
In any case, because of the prolific birthrate of Jews in Russia at that time, such a number as was planned to be permitted to depart would only have been equal to the natural increase in their population. Thus, the number of Jews remaining in Russia, over the long term, would not actually be reduced.
I have seen no records which might substantiate how many Jews were enabled to being new lives in other lands through the program instituted by Baron de Hirsch. The particular stress of his plan had been to concentrate the settlers mainly in Argentina. But once the doors to America were opened wide to emigration, a veritable floodtide of Russian Jews came over to the United States and Canada in the twenty years before World War I.
As a result of Fetter Pacey’s affilation with Baron Hirsch’s association, he ultimately found himself, together with his family, on a farm located in Jersey, near Vineland. The name of the town was probably Norma. Here he was introduced to the skills and physical labor relating to the cultivation of the soil and animal husbandry. A Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School had been established to introduce the novice to the various aspects of farming. Fetter Pacey was probably one of such students, for up till then he only been prepared for the sedentary life of a scholar.
In all likelihood, it was because he was physically unsuited to the rigors of such a program that he abandoned the agricultural life. Aside from the frailty of his body, the sandy subsurface of the soil in South Jersey limited the scope and yield of crops subject to cultivation, so it was a constant struggle to earn a livelihood under such circumstances. In any event, Fetter Pacey gave up the life of a farmer after three years, and moved with his family to Brooklyn.
The idea of a Jew being involved in agricultural pursuits is even today looked upon as something extraordinary. This has been so because, throughout the ages, Jews were only permitted to engage in crafts and commerce. Land which could be purchased for arming was forbidden them. Yet, as has been demonstrated by their success in reclaiming arid wastelands in Israel, Jews are quite as adept as any other people in farming, and perhaps better than most, if such an avenue is open to them, and they have the aptitude and inclination for such work.
I remember, as a small child, spending several summers on a farm operated by a Jewish family, which may have been acquired through the auspices of the Jewish Colonization Association. It was located near a small community called Monroeville, some seven or eight miles from Vineland. The farmer’s name was Mike Mosenthal, and I can still visualize his lean, muscular body and friendly smile with which he greeted all visitors. His wife had the look of a typical Russian peasant—full of figure and of face, red hair tied in a bun atop her head, a wide grin expanding her figures.
There was a broad veranda extending in front of the farmhouse upon which guests would sit to enjoy the cooling shade. Some fifty yards distant, on the same lane which led to the farmhouse, stood a small, white, frame synagogue, similar in style to a New England church, except it had no steeple. Apparently there were enough Jews then living in that community to support such as house of worship.
In recent years, I have had occasion to drive through this area a number of times. I have never been able to discover the synagogue I remember seeing as a child. Evidently it had been dismantled, there being no need for its existence when its parishioners moved away. Life here, as well as in those other early Jewish communities, had been too difficult and unrewarding; no doubt, and the Jewish element had removed itself to seek likelier prospects in this “land of opportunity.”
When Fetter Pacey moved to New York, he took with him Mimma (Aunt) Bruha, his wife: three daughters—Sarah (Gilbert), Bessie and Beckie; and three or our sons—William, a post office employee, Bib (?) in advertising, and one or two others whose names are unknown to me—one having studied law and sevrving a time as a New York alderman and the other going into some form of manufacturing. These men all adopted the surname Tolins.
The second wife of Yosef Shiah produced Fetter (Uncle) Velvet, and reportedly died in giving him birth. He was also involved in scholarly pursuits, I assume, until he emigrated to the United States, where he earned a livelihood operating a grocery store.
I think I met Fetter Velvet only once while he was living, and this was at the occasion of my thirteenth birthday and my bar mitzvah. I recollect it was a Saturday or a Sunday, for Pop was home that day, and we were seated together on rocking chairs on the open porch of our house on Larchwood Avenue, when Pop called my attention to the approach of a slim, elderly gentleman. His face was clean-shaven and his stature, I should judge, was below medium height. In his hand was a package—a gift from him to memorialize the forthcoming rites and festivities in conjunction with my bar mitzvah. It was a prayer book, bound in ivory, with religious symbols carved in its face. The date of its publication was 1857, in Vienna, and, oddly enough, it included an English translation. The next time I saw Fetter Velvet was at his funeral.
The viewing and obsequies in connection with Fetter Velvel’s funeral took place in Cousin Jack’s house in Overbrook. At that time, I met Jack’s brother, Robert, who was a practicing physician in New York and rather successful, I suspect, since Pop said he resided on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. According to Cousin Sarah, he interned here in Philadelphia, but his success was assured when he married his wife Julie, who was a wealthy heiress from Scranton.
Jack’s two sisters must also have been in attendance at the time—Esther and Rose, although I do not recollect them at all. In addition, there was Doctor Robert’s son, Lionel, although I do not remember him, either, except I was given to understand he had written several plays which were never produced. Cousin Sarah think his ultimate career was in the publishing field.
Jack Toll, himself, now retired and residing in Cherry Hill, was a factory representative for a furniture firm. I remember receiving from him a Swedish-Modern coffee table as a wedding gift. He was also very helpful to us in securing certain items of furniture at a discount.
With respect to the third wife of Yosef Shiah, who undoubtedly outlived her husband, she was said to have had three children, one of which—Yankel—managed to emigrate to this country. I understand he managed to sustain himself by teaching Hebrew, but he could not have been too successful in this profession, for he lived for a time with Aunt Ida in New York.
A daughter, Esther, also emigrated to the New World with her husband, but they settled in Argentina. They took Uncle Harry, then about 15, along with them, since he did not wish to stay in the same house with his father’s second wife. Harry posed as their son, since they were both childless.
It is altogether possible that this journey was financed by the Baron Hirsch Jewish Colonization Association, for most of the lands acquired by that group for resettlement were in Argentina.
Fetter Pinny, the third child, never left his native soil to emigrate to other lands, but from the tales told of him by my father, he was easily the most glamorous figure of all the offspring of Yosef Shiah. It seems that Pinny had such a great love of learning that he was unwilling and unsatisfied to confine his studies to Torah and the commentaries of our sages alone. He yearned to reach beyond the limitations imposed by ghetto traditions, and explore a realm of learning outside those narrow frontiers.
This was difficult to accomplish in those days, for not only was secular knowledge frowned upon by the religious orthodoxy, but the State itself severely limited enrollment by Jews in recognized academies. Perhaps 5% of Jews were admitted to Russian schools at that time, circa 1878, and these were restricted to the wealthy and exceptionally brilliant.
The field Pinny set himself to explore was in the sciences: astronomy, in particular. And, because he was unable to matriculate in a Russian school, he travelled to Germany and Austria to be instructed in this branch of learning.
Ultimately, I understand, he found a position as teacher in a gymnasia (secondary school). Where this school was located, and what befell Pinny after this recognition of his scholarship, I cannot say. At any rate, by ignoring the possible ostracism by his fellow townspeople in seeking to escape the rigidities of ghetto education, as well as by travelling abroad in search of forbidden knowledge, he demonstrated a trait of independence which seems to be common among members of our family.
There is one other branch of my father’s family who go under the name of Tollins. These cousins probably derive from a great-uncle whose name I have merely mentioned in passing, because I have no knowledge of his life or progeny.
A person I knew of that name was Israel Tollins. When I was about ten years old he lived at 57th & Hazel, a street immediately south of Larchwood. He was then employed as a civil engineer with one of the departments of the City of Philadelphia.
A short while later I became aware of his existence, I was told he moved with his family to New York City, where he assumed a similar position with that city’s government.
I have now recently learned from Cousin Sarah that Israel had a brother, Avrum (Abraham) who came to America, as well, and a sister (name unknown), who remained behind in Russia.
Israel, I have been told, had three sons who distinguished themselves in their respective fields: Alfred, a civil engineer, residing in Virginia; Itsy (Irving), a professor of physics at American University in Washington; and Paul, a cardiologist located on Long Island.
Cousin Sarah has also provided me with an interesting sidelight concerning the brothers of my grandmother, Sarah: Israel and Avrum. It seems these two played musical instruments professionally, Avrum having been a violinist with a large orchestra. In addition, Aunt Ida was deemed to have such an exceptional voice as a young girl that efforts were made to persuade her father, Shmuel, to have her undergo training for an operatic career. However, Shmuel would not give permission for such a move, for, according to the puritanical mores of that time, it would have been unthinkable for a respectable girl, particularly a Jewish girl, to display herself in theatrical productions. From these indications, at any rate, if any musical talent should crop up among family members, there is this background to account for it.
With respect to collateral relationships on my mother’s side of our family, apart from her siblings and their progeny, I have only knowledge of one great-uncle who came to America and resided in Wilmington where I knew him. This was Fetter (Uncle) Arrel, and I am not entirely clear which side of Mom’s family he represented.
I remember meeting this elderly gentleman once when I was eight or nine. To me, from the perspective of prepubescense, his body seemed inordinately huge and fat and was topped off by features which included a square jaw and jowls laced with colored capillaries.
At the time of our introduction, Fetter Arrel had come to spend the night with us. And, since there was no guest room available and my bed was of an adequate width, it was only natural that my accommodations should be shared with him.
My recollections of the night we shared a common mattress were memorable to me because of the discomfort and annoyance I experienced in finding myself continually rolling down the incline formed by the excessive weight of my bed-partner. The unwanted propinquity of Fetter Arrel’s body caused by this declivity, added to his loud snoring, kept me awake during much of the night.
With Fetter Arrel, the knowledge of my antecedents (aside from the immediate relations o my parents and their issue) draws to a close. Perhaps a future interview with some relative may shed further light upon the dark recesses of the past, and disclose to view some fact hitherto unknown. In that eventuality, I should be pleased to attach addenda to make more complete this family history.