How Our Ancestors Learned to Drive…by Leora Freedman

How Our Ancestors Learned to Leora FreedmanFor our ancestors, learning to drive meant that they were American, not hungry, and they had places to travel to rather than places to escape.  Joseph Baum imagined himself gliding on a country road in upstate New York, the wind teasing his wife Charlotte’s hair and his children, Flora and Edwin, in the back seat with a large picnic basket between them.  Although there were no drivers’ licenses back then, Joseph took driving lessons from the man who sold him the second-hand Model T.  He also bought a big book about engines and learned every detail about the combustion process.

The first time Joseph backed the car down the driveway next to their Brooklyn house, he smashed into the large maple tree at the edge of the lawn.  Horrified, he never again got behind the wheel of a car.  The Model T sat in the driveway until one summer morning when his sister Irene—who had never driven or taken a driving lesson—decided she would be the one to drive.  Irene piled the children into the back seat, a large picnic basket between them, backed down the driveway, and drove everyone out to Coney Island.

When they grew up, Edwin learned to drive very well, and Flora also learned with some misgivings.  She used to drive her family out to the country in summer, where they fixed up a ramshackle house on a winding road in Connecticut.  Flora always inched around the turns, beeping constantly to warn oncoming cars.  In between listening to the Green Hornet on the radio, her sons laughed at her in the back seat.

Flora’s husband Morris almost never drove except for early Sunday mornings in Connecticut.  He would get up before anyone else was awake and drive down the winding road to the town deli to buy fresh rolls for breakfast.  It seemed like only a few years ago he and his friends in dental school had made ends meet by eating the free–but terribly salty–food in the New York bars and then rushing out to drink water.  Now, Morris was delighted to leave his own house, drive his own car, and buy food for breakfast.  The Connecticut deli owner saw Morris’ delight and offered him a job in the deli so he wouldn’t have to return to work in his dental practice in New York during the week.  To the deli owner, all that traveling looked like a hard life.

Copyright © Leora Freedman 2016

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The Daughter Who Got Away…News!

The Daughter Who Got Away-by Leora Freedman-coverAn article about both my forthcoming book and its publisher just appeared in the Edmonton Jewish News.

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Miracle at Konotop…by Leora Freedman

Miracle at Leora FreedmanThis is a story that’s embedded in my forthcoming novel, The Daughter Who Got Away.  The novel will be published in March 2016 and can be pre-ordered from Amazon.  Please forward this link to someone you know!

Miracle at Konotop

 “We do have a tendency toward miracles,” Celia began. The room got quieter. Her guests knew that she did not offer them homemade gefilte fish chopped in a big wooden bowl, but she would offer them well-seasoned stories. She considered that the duty of a hostess, something she’d learned in her parents’ home.          

“We had an ancestor who was a tzaddik, a type of saint,” Celia said. “He wasn’t the showy sort of tzaddik, with a court and a following, but a simple sort of person, an artisan, perhaps. And he lived in a town called Konotop, which means, ‘the-place-where-horses-sink,’ because the main street of this town had the reputation of being so muddy when it rained that horses could hardly walk through.

“One very rainy afternoon, it was time for our ancestor to go and pray in the synagogue. However, he had no shoes to wear that day because he’d given them to some poor soul who needed them more than he did. So he had to walk to the synagogue in his white woolen stockings, through Konotop. And the miracle was this: When he arrived, there was no mud on his feet at all. His stockings were as white as when he’d left his house.” Celia paused, thinking of Sharon alone in the woods, facing a landscape harsh as the steppes. She saw her daughter walking barefoot beneath the huge Canadian pine trees, the snow not chilling her feet at all; then Sharon flew across the crust of snow, buoyed by angels.

“That’s marvelous,” said Maxine.

“He must have been an extraordinary personality,” said Bernard. “I imagine that’s a type of repeating folk tale, told about each great man through the generations.”

“I like it because it’s not about anything flashy,” Celia remarked. “Just a nice, homey, unpretentious little miracle.”

Copyright © Leora Freedman 2016

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Perfection and Good…by Leora Freedman

Perfection and Leora FreedmanMenachem Goodman was descended from a long line of rabbis whose dearest goal was a personal and spiritual perfection they knew they would never reach.  From the day of Menachem’s birth, his family planned that he too would become a rabbi, immersed in religious scholarship, ethical debates, and spiritual growth.  But when Menachem was a young man in 1890, the “enlightenment” was overturning tradition in the Jewish villages of Eastern Europe.   It was exhilarating to be freed from the obligation to attend meticulously to the religious commandments.  Menachem also loved to read secular books, and he decided that becoming a rabbi was not in his essential nature.

Menachem then quit his yeshivah studies and immigrated to America.  He worked many odd jobs in New York, along with other immigrants who couldn’t always pronounce Menachem and nicknamed him Good—which stuck.  After some time, Good established himself in the dry-cleaning business.  Good’s Dry Cleaners became known throughout several neighborhoods for the meticulousness with which stains were removed, rips were mended, and dresses, shirts, and pants were pressed.

Good married Liza, and they had five sons.  Good’s dearest goal for all of his sons was for them to study in a university and earn a PhD.  He imagined himself as the proud father of a PhD in History; a PhD in Literature; a PhD in Exotic Languages, and so on.  But when his sons became young men, they were captivated by the entrepreneurial spirit in America.  It was exhilarating for them to be freed from the confines of school, and they realized they could be successful without spending years attending meticulously to thousands of footnotes.  They decided that PhDs were not for them. Instead, Good’s sons expanded Good’s Dry Cleaners into multiple neighborhoods in New York.

Although he wasn’t a rabbi, Good had a great deal of patience and an intuitive wisdom.  Many people in the neighborhood, as well as his own extended family, flocked to him for advice on personal, business, and even spiritual matters.  He was disappointed in his own sons so he could sympathize with anguished parents; he had struggled to establish his dry cleaning business, so he tried to help other immigrants with advice and whatever money he could spare.

As he aged, Good became physically weaker but still had enormous influence on his family, friends, and business associates.  Even after he retired from the dry cleaning business, he took great pleasure in meticulously ironing his little granddaughter’s dresses so that the skirts stood out in the style of that time. Due to her grandfather’s efforts, her collars always lay perfectly flat.

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Herman Goodman & Company, Inc… Leora Freedman

Herman Goodman & Leora FreedmanDebby was not a “soft” person, but she was not bitter, either.  Her mother had died in 1912 when Debby was a baby, and her fairy-tale stepmother, whom she and her brother referred to as “Horse-face,” beat her and forced her to iron clothing three to four hours a day.  Her father was a charismatic “ne’er-do-well” who could always get the best herring by mimicking the regional Yiddish of any shopkeeper.  During this time, he was out pursuing other women.

Debby’s biological mother was a Charlop, descended from King David and the Exilarchs of Babylonia, and Debby was tall, with unusually deep-set brown eyes.  The relatives she was later sent to live with considered her an attractive addition to their households and taught her to weave Yiddish into her conversation.  She often said, “I’m good at living in other people’s houses.”  Her older brother Morris became a successful dentist and wanted Debby to go to university, but she went to a business college instead and fell in love with Herman Goodman, a traveling hardware salesman.

After Debby felt ill for several weeks without realizing she was pregnant, Herman was called into the office of Debby’s doctor, a forthright woman who campaigned with Margaret Sanger for women’s access to birth control.  This doctor ordered Herman to marry Debby.  Yet neither Herman nor Debby ever regretted the marriage, and they made a good team.  During the Great Depression his salary dropped from $200 a week to $20; she wore, without complaint, cotton housedresses that cost $1 each.  He continued his sales rounds in the New York winter even though he didn’t own a coat, telling his family he was warm enough in his sweater.

In the 1940’s Herman went into business for himself as a wholesale hardware concern, travelling the Eastern and Midwestern states and putting 100,000 miles a year on a succession of Packards.  To make his life easier, Debby decided they should publish a mail-order catalogue—an innovation in that era.  Unlike Debby, Herman was “soft” or sensitive, so she wove her suggestion into a discussion in such a way that he was always convinced the catalogue was his own brilliant idea.

Herman Goodman & Company occupied a large loft on Chambers Street in lower Manhattan.  At the front were two desks, but the rest of the loft had floor-to-ceiling shelves holding boxes of hammers, screwdrivers, hoses, files, drills, drill bits, clamps, and many other items.  Debby’s innovation, the mail-order catalogue, meant that no one had to travel or meet clients in person.  To create the catalogue, she sat for hours rubber-cementing tiny pictures of drills and saws, along with their specifications, looking down at the page through the half-glasses she wore on a necklace.  Cuttings would be spread over the desk, and her self-imposed deadlines were sacred and pressing.

Debby also had a gift for getting along with people, which was good for business.  After Herman died of a heart attack, she managed Herman Goodman & Company alone.  She’d talk on the telephone to the owners of midwestern hardware stores and tell them that Herman was away on a trip, never revealing that Herman was dead and the business was run by a woman.  Occasionally a travelling salesman appeared unexpectedly at the door of the loft on Chambers Street, and she’d say that Herman was out at a meeting.  The salesmen joked with her and gave her samples for her grandchildren:  a pen that wrote in twelve different colors, or keychains with dangling compasses.

Debby never retired, as she wanted to continue the business that she and Herman had started.  She did not re-marry, but instead worked full time and spent her leisure hours with her friend Marion, who had also lost her husband.  She and Marion went to dinner, theatre, or museums in New York; took cruises in the Caribbean in winter, and traveled together to Europe and Israel.   Debby retained her aristocratic beauty and elegance.  She and Marion were spoken of as a unit:  “Debby and Marion saw a new musical last week,” or “Marion and Debby are in Amsterdam.”  At one time, Debby’s close friend Milton, whose wife had been killed in a car accident, proposed that she marry him.  The proposal was giggled over by Debby and Marion, discussed seriously, but ultimately refused.  Debby said that no one could replace Herman Goodman.

Copyright © Leora Freedman 2015

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Open Your Closed Door….by Leora Freedman

Open Your Closed Leora FreedmanYedidja and his siblings grew up in Jerusalem in the 1920’s and 30’s, speaking Ladino at home, Arabic in the market, English at school, and Hebrew in the synagogue.  Closest to their hearts was Ladino, the language of the Jews exiled from Spain, but their own children grew up speaking Hebrew in the new state of Israel.  Ladino became a medium in which the older folks relived warm memories and talked of intimate things not meant for children.  Sometimes they still sang the Ladino romances, like “Open Your Closed Door.”

Gradually Ladino was pushed aside, and when they wanted to speak it, sometimes its beautiful words and sentences, related to medieval Spanish and Hebrew, had to be brought back from semi-forgetfulness.  Some words were misplaced and never found again, like the key to the front door of the family’s home in Spain.  Their ancestors had taken the key along with them when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled them from Spain in 1492.  Yedidja and his sister Sharona knew this key had been passed down for generations.

Sharona had actually seen the key once, or thought she had, in her mother’s bureau.  After her mother’s death, they looked for the key among her possessions, but they didn’t find it.  Sharona finally concluded that she might just have been born with the memory of seeing the key already inside her.  She had a strong feeling for Sephardic culture, which she passed down to her daughter Tamira, who was born in 1948, the same year that the state of Israel came into being.

When Tamira was a university student in the 1970s, she won a scholarship to study in post-Franco Salamanca.  There, she saw the church that had menorahs carved on the frieze around the ceiling, revealing what had once been a synagogue.  Tamira was tall, with long dark hair, and was always told that she was Spanish-looking.  When she said she was a Sephardic Jew, Christian Spaniards asked if she had brought along the key to the door of her family’s home in Spain before 1492.  They also requested to feel her horns.  When she told the few Jews she met that she was from Jerusalem, they were entranced and looked at her as if they saw a halo around her head.

Tamira loved the beauty of Spain, but she also felt strange there.  It was as if she were not herself but some immortal being made up of many other beings who had sung the romances and longed for the sun and dry hills, the oranges and flowing rivers of Spain.  It was not easy to do this century after century, especially living in cold places like Sofia, Bulgaria, where her grandmother was born.  Tamira carried within her these people who were so determined never to forget a Spain they did not really remember.  She sometimes wondered why she was the one who finally got to see this place after nearly 500 years.

At the end of Tamira’s semester in Spain, Sharona went to visit her; it was her first time ever to set foot in this homeland that she’d felt as part of her being for her entire life.  They went touring around, and while Tamira could speak modern Spanish to people, Sharona could speak only Ladino.  This was no problem; everyone understood her and loved her funny way of expressing herself.  “You sound just like Cervantes!” a woman on a bus exclaimed.  Sharona felt very good about that.  She always said that she felt very well in Spain.

Copyright © Leora Freedman 2015

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Giving and Getting at School…by Leora Freedman

Giving and Getting at School bIn the late 1920’s Flora got her first teaching job at a Sunday Hebrew school for Jewish children in New York.  Since the children were poor the education was almost free, though each child had to pay a nickel per week.  The school administration thought that the families wouldn’t value the education if they didn’t pay something for it.

In Flora’s class there was one little girl who answered every question.  Her hand went up before anyone else’s and she always talked for a long time, monopolizing the class.  One day Flora solved this problem by not looking at this pupil.  Instead, she looked in the other direction and waited until someone else’s hand finally went up.  This worked beautifully and many other children had a chance to answer questions that day.  At the end of the session, the girl she’d been ignoring came up to talk to her.  “I didn’t get my nickel’s worth today,” the girl complained to Flora.

Being a teacher didn’t get easier, even later on when Flora was training teachers at Hunter College.  These students were already teaching but they needed to upgrade their credentials.  Many of them also had families at home and they were tired all the time.  “Why should we have to do homework?” they complained.  They felt they had already paid their dues.

Among all the complaints, there was also appreciation.  There were students who wrote poems for Flora and became lifelong friends, and there were students who collaborated with her on projects.  Together they explored using free-verse poetry, audio-visual material—anything to stem the flow of complaints about school being dull or irrelevant.  Yet part of becoming educated was learning how to complain, and the students’ resentments prompted many innovations.

Flora was tolerant about the complaints because she knew that she herself had received a good education at an unusually happy institution.  Her high school principal had been a poet–not well known, but he’d published several books of poetry.  So all the parents flocked to that school and fought to get their kids in.  It was a public school and people didn’t pay anything for the education.  However, the principal’s published poems convinced both parents and students that they were really getting something.

Copyright © Leora Freedman 2015

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Singing Romances to the Snake…by Leora Freedman

Singing Romances to the Snake by Leora FreedmanFlora’s friend Yedidja grew up as an eighth-generation Jerusalemite in a Sephardic family that spoke Ladino at home.  His family had frequent get-togethers which lasted long into the night, and the children were allowed to stay up as late as they wanted.  Yedidja remembered falling asleep on cushions in a corner of the room while the adults told stories and sang one Ladino romance after another.  These romances were the beautiful ballads of the Jews who were exiled from Spain; songs of both earthly and spiritual love and longing.

When Yedidja’s mother was young, she was known to have the most beautiful singing voice of any girl in Palestine.  Once, her parents came home to find her sitting on the stairs and singing romances for a large crowd of young men who had gathered worshipfully around her.  Later on, when Yedidja was a boy, he witnessed his mother charming a snake.  The Torah tells us, Yedidja said, that Aaron’s rod, cast down before Pharaoh, turned into a serpent and ate the rods-turned-into serpents of the Egyptian sorcerers.  Perhaps modern people were a bit skeptical about all this.  “But even my own mother,” Yedidja told Flora, “had the skill of charming a very large snake.

“It happened in the old days in Jerusalem, when I was a boy.  In those days everyone lived in a quarter, where the houses were built around a courtyard in the center.  One day, a woman of our quarter was hanging clothing to dry outside in the courtyard.  Suddenly, this woman saw a large snake with the design of a Palestinian viper, which is very poisonous.  This snake was lying near her in the courtyard, and it frightened the woman so badly that she was standing like a stone.  Then all the other women and children, and I and my brothers and sisters, were looking out of our windows at the woman and the snake.  Everybody was greatly alarmed.

“But my mother was very brave.  She went out into the courtyard where that snake was, and she sang to it the romances of the Spanish Jews.  These sad and beautiful songs about love she sang one after another to that snake.  And he stayed curled up where he was and did not harm anyone!  The other woman got back inside, but my mother stayed there singing all afternoon, until the men came home.  Then they killed the snake.”

Copyright © Leora Freedman 2015

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“Infidelity” and Other Practical Jokes…by Leora Freedman

Infidelity and Other Practical Leora FreedmanBack in the 1920’s, Joseph and Charlotte Baum and their friends loved practical jokes.  Once, as a new bride, Charlotte was sent a picture postcard, forwarded from a friend of theirs who had supposedly received it from Charlotte’s new husband Joseph.  The picture showed Joseph sitting in a rowboat with a young woman in a sequinned flapper dress and a tight hat with a big artificial rose.  Their friend sent this picture to Charlotte enclosed in a letter saying how sorry he was to break this news.  On the back of the card, Joseph had written a warning not to show it to Charlotte.  Their friend wrote that he felt it was only right to inform her.  Charlotte found all of this hilarious and kept the card for the rest of her life

Their daughter Flora was sensitive and literal, and she couldn’t understand her parents’ love for practical jokes.  She found them silly and frightening; more than once they made her cry. One afternoon her mother approached her, looking worried.  Charlotte said she’d been gathering Joseph’s jackets for the cleaner and inside the pocket of one she’d found a frilly red garter, which she showed to Flora.  “I don’t know what to do.  What will I do?” Charlotte repeated, until her daughter burst into tears in front of her surprised mother.

Even Flora’s tears did not stop these jokes.  One evening, the frilly red garter was “found” again by Charlotte as she was hanging up the jacket of their good family friend, Rabbi Berkovitz.  Charlotte pulled aside Rabbi Berkovitz’s wife, Sallie, pretending to be very upset at what she’d found in the rabbi’s jacket pocket.  “I’m so sorry, Sallie.  I feel so terrible,” she said.  Flora couldn’t keep from crying even though she knew it was a hoax.  Sallie laughed and said, “Joseph must have put it there.”

As a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Flora was swept along in a practical joke devised by her classmates for their Bible teacher.  The young women in the class were mostly new brides, and they were fond of this teacher.  However they and their husbands resented the staggering loads of homework he assigned.  So they invited him to a fancy dinner in one couple’s apartment.  They prepared a wonderful meal and set a fine table, but in place of a tablecloth underneath the dishes they spread pages of the teacher’s assignments.  More assignment pages covered the floor and the walls, and some were even stuck to the ceiling.  The teacher took it very well.

Later on, Flora tried to teach manners to her three boys while the family was vacationing in a seaside hotel on Block Island.  The boys learned how to open the door and wait for her to walk through; which forks and spoons to use at which times during the meal; and how to push in her chair as she sat down.  After a few mishaps, Flora made sure to grasp the edges of the chair so that no prankster could pull it out from under her before she sat down.  By that time, she did not ask herself how her boys could find it funny to see their mother plop onto the floor.  The practical jokes seemed to have skipped a generation.  Flora tried to take them in good humor.

Copyright © Leora Freedman 2015

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There’s No Such Thing as a Curse…by Leora Freedman

There's No Such Thing as a Curse by Leora Freedman
Flora was always superstitious about interfering in anyone’s love life because she knew what had happened to her grandmother.  Back in czarist Russia, this grandmother was engaged to marry her beloved.  However, he had tuberculosis, so her parents forced her to break off the engagement.  Eventually she married someone else and did not know what had happened to her first fiancé.  After she’d been married for some years and had a family, her husband also contracted tuberculosis.  She thought she’d been cursed because of what she’d done to her first fiancé.

They were Lubavitcher Hasidim, so she went to the Rebbe and told him she was afraid her marriage was cursed because she’d broken off a previous engagement to someone with tuberculosis.   Although the Rebbe was a very mystical person–or perhaps because in his mystical insight he knew what each person needed–he gave her a very modern answer.  “There’s no such thing as a curse,” the Rebbe said.  He added, “If you feel badly about what you did to your former fiancé, go find him and ask his forgiveness.”

After some investigation, Flora’s grandmother found out that her first fiancé was still living, though in a far-off town.  She traveled there alone, first taking a train and then going the rest of the way in a horse-drawn wagon.  Finally she found him:  He was married, with children, and completely well!  He was cured of his tuberculosis.  She asked his forgiveness for having broken off their engagement due to her parents’ insistence.  He forgave her.  Then she returned home and her husband died of tuberculosis.

Copyright © Leora Freedman 2015

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