Friday, October 07, 2022

With his long gray beard and somber clothes, Ruthie’s father resembled a rebbe or perhaps a mashgiach or a shoichet. He certainly didn’t look like a tailor, but that is how he earned a meager living. Ariel Pfeffer had learned tailoring in the Russian Army where he was trained to sew uniforms for the soldiers. Now, he sewed Kapotehs (long coats) for the few immigrants who could afford to have them made in his cramped shop on Houston Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

When he arrived from Europe, Tanta Fanny bought her younger brother Azriel a used sewing machine and some fabric and set him up in the little shop. Ruthie’s mother and brother died on the family’s long journey to America; her brother passed from chicken pox, her mother of heartbreak. Now they were on their own, four girls and their widowed father, trying to make their way in a strange new land.

Upstairs was home to Ruthie, where she shared an airless bedroom with her older sisters—until one by one they married and moved away. Her Poppa slept on the lumpy couch in the living room and when Ruthie needed some privacy she huddled in the narrow kitchen or the dank hallway. Ruth especially hated that the one bathroom was down the hall and had to be shared with the three other tenants on their floor.

She knew her Poppa tried his best, but she was ashamed of how they lived and seldom invited friends over to visit. Poppa’s idea of entertainment was reading the Yiddish newspaper. Ruth preferred drawing with marking chalk on the bumpy sidewalk outside of the store. Mostly though, she lost herself in books borrowed six at a time from the Seward Park Library every Friday. “Have a good weekend, Ruth dear,” Miss Israel, the elderly librarian, would call out to her, as she staggered under the weight of her treasures. “I hope you can finish your chores quickly and find time to read them all.”

Poppa on the other hand always shook his head in disgust. “More books? All you do is read that narishkeit. Nu Ruthala. No one likes a girl who is too smart. Better you should learn how to make a good chulent.”

Ruthie understood that it was difficult for her Poppa to raise his children in a world that was so alien to him. He barely spoke English and stubbornly resisted learning the language. Constantly on the alert for all the “American Meshugass” that was influencing his rapidly assimilating children, he discouraged Ruthie from participating in activities that seemed “too American,” whether it was going to a movie, reading a magazine or even playing punchball with friends in Hester Street Park.

Ruthie cringed with embarrassment when her father locked his store each afternoon and tried to drum up a minyan for mincha. “Mincha,” he would yell, going up and down his street as if he was still back in his hometown of Bialykomin. “Mincha tseit.” he would urge, while oblivious people rushed right past him. Oh why was her Poppa so stubborn and fixed in his old-fashioned ways?

“Pesach cookies?” he would declare dismissively. “We never had those at home and we won’t have them here.” What bothered Ruthie most of all was his attitude towards her schooling. “You want to go to high school?” he would ask incredulously. “Feh! What foolishness. I need you should help out and go to work. Girls don’t need to learn.”

Yet, even though they often disagreed, Ruth truly loved her Poppa and recognized how much he cared for her and her sisters Pauline, Anna and Rose. He tried his best for them even when it wasn’t easy. When her sisters married, Poppa managed to scrape together enough money to make them festive weddings.

He personally took charge of kashering the chickens for their wedding dinners, because he would never entrust such an important task to a caterer’s whims. Finally, since he knew it was so important to her, Poppa agreed to allow Ruthie to remain in school as long as she was able to work after classes and contribute to the running of their household.

Ruthie never let her Poppa know that she walked miles each day to and from work in order to save a few pennies of carfare. How else could she afford a new blouse or a hair ribbon that he thought so frivolous? She usually managed to complete her homework during lunch hour and recess, so that she could shop for groceries and cook for Poppa at the end of her long day. Ruthie tried not to complain, though, because she knew that her Poppa also worked hard. He was getting older and he depended so much on her now that her older sisters lived far away and were starting their own families. “Mein zeeseh kind,” he would often say. “You have it so hard. I wish things were different for you.”

But, then he would slip once more into the familiar litany. “I told you that girls don’t have to learn.” Each June, as Ruthie enviously watched the neighborhood girls in their white graduation dresses march proudly by holding their graduation bouquets aloft, he would laugh wistfully. “They make such a tzimmes over nothing.”

Ruthie, however, inherited her Poppa’s stubborness along with his sparkling, blue eyes. After four hard years of sacrifice and hard work she, too, stood poised to finally fulfill her dream. Today, she would be graduating from high school; the first in her family to do so. She tried not to think of her classmates and their new white dresses and graduation bouquets that she could never afford and her Poppa thought so foolish.

She looked just fine in her starched white shirtwaist and the skirt she had sewn herself from some sample fabric from Poppa’s store. The important thing was that she was getting a diploma, not the silly dress or extravagant flowers, she told herself firmly. As she rounded the corner to the school, Ruthie stopped short, transfixed at the sight that greeted her. For there, weaving his way through the crowd was her Poppa, his flowing white beard providing a startling contrast to the great, big, beautiful bouquet of snapdragons cradled lovingly in his arms.

To Ruthie, at that moment, it was surely the largest, finest, most elegant bouquet that any graduate was destined to receive that day or for a long time to come. Ruthie blinked through her sudden tears and linked her arms in her Poppa’s. As they both made their way into the crowded auditorium, Poppa murmured with a large, proud smile, “Ach, such Narishkeit.”

By Estelle Glass

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