In the industrial city of Lodz, in Poland, a city dedicated to the textile trades, there lived towards the turn of the nineteenth century four sisters and a brother Moshinsky. One of them, Rebecca, turned out to be my grandmother and her sisters Annie, Chippa, and Etka my aunts. My uncle Max changed his name to Mays.
Known as the “Manchester of Poland” Lodz had one hundred seventy plants owned by Jews and one of which, the Poznanski, was one of the largest in Europe.
“Half our life we pass in the shadow of the earth, and the brother of death exacts a third part of our lives.” so wrote Thomas Browne
I slip into my dream time. To construct a visual narrative I cannot depend on any thing except that which avoids the taint of obligation of the expected or pretentious. The day is ours but the night is of the divine. The dreams that authenticate my life emanate from my sleep with some other consciousness at work, angelic I would say. Which is perfect in my grandmother´s case for my grandmother cared for me as an angel might tender the daffodils of the field. I can without effort conjure up one vision of my grandmother with some valid accuracy by first making my way through the veil of aromas and tastes that bedeviled my childhood., aromas of rolls , breads, donuts coffee cakes pies, tarts, poppy seed cakes and hummentaschen piled up on the counters, which were cleared away to make room to make luchshen noodles for the evenings chicken soup along with knoédle and kreplach dumplings. I weighed one hundred forty five pounds in fourth grade of elementary school. Along with the knickers she made for me, ever expanding like a grotesque simulation of the Zeppelins we occasionally saw above New York streets, these pants became the focus of the derision that passed for banter in the small gang of friends with whom I associated. Since my weight anchored me so firmly to the pavement and made me stationary I got punched or whacked a lot but never very badly, even by the Polish boys in the neighborhood..
My grandmother and her sisters had a small business called Eagle Embroidery. They sewed. They sewed dresses, shirts, jackets, tablecloths and best of all gowns and hats. The business had started in Poland,. in the home of my great-grandfather Moise Moshinsky, a turpentine maker. Now, you see I do not know my paternal great grandmother’s name. Such is the vagaries of remembrance.. While this may simply be a failure on my part of doing adequate research it does remind me of the fragility of memory. How quickly and eternally our lives pass into oblivion. So I will leave it at that.
The Jewish milliners dominated the millinery trade in Warsaw, Lodz, Lvov and Vilna.
Grandma Becky aspired to write poetry, serious poetry, so serious that one week in 1906 she traveled the eight hundred kilometres from Lodz to Czernowitz, Bukovina to listen to the readings of Czernovisti poets and then to read her own works. There she met David Leventhal, an itinerant Bundist, lately sojourned in a czarist prison, a lover of the spoken arts especially as in the enunciation of such a fine Yiddish, an operatic Yiddish, as emanated from the plump and graceful bosom of the lady from Lodz.
Itinerant and with nothing better to do he followed her back to Lodz, although who paid his fare is anyone´s guess for , as my father said he never had two nickels to rub against one another. There he pleaded his matrimonial case and perhaps because Rebecca Moshinsky was the fourth child and third female to be born to that family the union was joined. I will never know if Moise knew of my grandfather´s background, except that he had been a Yeshiva student destined for the rabbinate and he carried with him, in a small bag, the tools and advertisement of the journeyman barber.
To watch fine needlework is to be privy to the Divine. The signal operations of the hands with their small baroque arabesques, the sudden long pull on the thread and twirl of thread on the finger and then the breaking of the thread with a quick snap resonate as the structures of any number of Hadyn quartets.
I spent hours of my childhood watching my grandmother perform her tasks, while I counted the blood red buttons in their trays and distributed the ivory bone whites amongst them after an accounting of their numbers.
To watch a hat take shape, the felt armature wrapped over the wood form, the bits and pieces of ribbon or lace or feathers adhering to the object in a confectionery serendipity entranced me.
For quite a few years of my youth once the War ended, Friday night meant two things; the challah breads my grandmother had baked and the bag full of pieces of material my father brought home to his mother from his work; schmattahs we called them.
My father entered the textile industry as a designer. The needle trades belonged to his mother and his aunts for whom he bore an enormous affection and respect. In the World to Come the place, a glorified version of the house of Worship, the men sat together parsing the Holy texts in rapturous leisure.. While women are assigned certain important tasks and ceremonial obligations the Jewish woman entered the marketplace and the trades which were more an extension of the household than of the house of prayer study.
My father often expressed disdain for his father on account of his father’s devotion to study, in his case as a student of revolutionary politics after a short career as a rabbi.. My grandmother conformed to some extent with the traditional wifely role carrying the economic burden so that her scholarly husband, my grandfather, could pursue his studies. Never mind that his scholarship was in Marx and Engels, in Bakunin and Herzen and not in Talmud. For him my my grandmothers work was a mitsvoh.