In the communal spirit of the camp, they decided to combine their shelters, making two long sleeping tents, one for the girls and the other for the boys, side by side. After that, a night never passed without plenty of calling back and forth, whispering, and shadows slipping in and out through the flaps. In the morning, everyone stumbled out, half-awake, to splash their faces with buckets of brackish water hauled from the river. The water was filled with bits of soot from the passing ships and never left you clean, but no one seemed to mind as long as there was a pot of weak coffee and a few slices of left over cake or cold potatoes for breakfast.
Some of the boys would stand around bolting down food, their shirts hanging open, revealing which ones did or did not wear woolen vests underneath. More and more the girls didn’t look away from the half-dressed boys. Delia saw David’s chest, pale and nearly blue in the early chill. She felt embarrassed for him, and worried over him, the way she worried about Leah. Consumption could sneak up on you while you weren’t looking. He appeared smaller than he had in the meeting hall. Yet when she tried to tell him to put his under vest on, he scowled and began to button his shirt so fast he yanked two of the buttons loose.
Isaac, on the other hand, would emerge from the tent with his rough woolen shirt hanging loosely from his shoulders. If one of the girls gazed at him a little too long, he’d make a move to button it, but he never seemed to get it fastened all the way up. He dressed like a Cossack or Russian peasant in wide woolen pants and worn cuffed boots...
He didn’t even look like a Jew, the girls said. One of them insisted he wasn’t a Jew at all, but the son of Russian peasants abandoned like Moses in the bull rushes. Others said, more likely he was the child of a Jewish girl and a Russian gentile. A half-breed.
Isaac, however, claimed his parents were completely ordinary workers. His father had made men's hats is a village outside St. Petersburg until he died of an enlarged heart. His mother took in sewing to support her nine children. At sixteen Isaac had been conscripted into the Czar’s army. When he said that the girls gasped and tears welled up in their eyes. In the Russian army Jews were treated worse than the lowest prisoners or slaves. For a Jewish boy conscription often meant death. Many families had stories of uncles, brothers, nephews and cousins who had been hauled off by force to the barracks and never seen again. But Isaac had miraculously escaped from his garrison in Mongolia. For two years he had wandered alone across the wild steppes of Asia. It was there, he told them, that he had learned everything--how to hunt with a knife and homemade bow, how to fish with a spear, set a trap, and dig a den in the ground with his own bare hands. He claimed that wolves sometimes came and curled up beside him, accepting him as their brother. “I learned more in those two years, than I would have in ten at the university,” he said.
Every eye around the campfire was upon him, every mouth dropped open in wonder. They all stared, uncertain how much of his fantastic story they could believe. David pelted Isaac with questions about names, dates, and geography “How could you say you were freezing in the snow when you just said you escaped in the spring? How could you fish in the Black Sea when your garrison was thousands of miles away in Mongolia?”
“Zol zein shah!” Lilly hissed at him. “Shut up. Isaac speaks from here,” she pressed her hand to her heart. “Not here," she pointed to her head and made a face. Isaac rewarded her with his best smile, showing all his fine teeth, white and gleaming.
David shrugged and stalked away muttering something about those who refuse to think reason. Delia almost wanted to follow him. Somehow Isaac did not make her heart beat the way Lilly’s did at his words. Was there something wrong with her she wondered? She stayed with the group to listen, hoping that her heart would catch fire too.
Jews spent too much time with their books, Isaac told them, with a scornful glance towards the empty place left by David. Their backs were stooped from study, their arms weak. “We must be strong.” He hammered the word down with his fist. “Strong as the Cossacks. Stronger.”
To prove his point he led them on long hikes across the open spaces of Washington Heights up to the northernmost tip of Manhattan and back. They spent whole days tramping through meadows and along the riverbank, sometimes stopping at the small farm they had passed on the first day.
“Shalom-hello comrade behomeh-cow!” Lilly would call out while the farmer’s wife gawked at them, unable to comprehend a word they said, but always willing to sell a few brown eggs and a crock of fresh cheese for a nickel.
“Oh beautiful my country,” they sang lustily as they returned to the camp, limping with swollen feet, the soles of their cheap boots half gone. Isaac taught them new songs—songs about the earth, the trees, the winds, the stars. “Oh beautiful my country, thy harvest waving fair.”
They discovered they were not the only ones living outdoors at the end of the line. People came to the riverside to escape the sweltering tenements of the city or because they simply had no place else to go. Irish, Poles, Germans, Swedes, and the dark-skinned people Americans called Negros made their own camps where whole families cooked over open fires and did their washing in the river, just like the gypsies of old country. Isaac said that in America people who lived in the open like this were called ‘pioneers’ not gypsies, and he knew many Jews who choose to live off the land, not just for fun, but all year long.
They also met several groups of American college students--cheerful, sun-browned young men who had nothing to do all summer but hike wherever they pleased, ride their bicycles, row their boats, and read.
One evening, a half-dozen of these students from Columbia University dropped by the camp. At first it seemed they had come to laugh at the strange makeshift tents and at the workers with their even stranger ideas. But if there was one thing the Jews did know, it was books. They had scholars in their ranks too, and not a single volume in the university library would have surprised them.
Delia listened with pride. It was not so bad to have a head after all, she thought, looking around for Isaac. For once he was nowhere to be found. Now it was David who held everyone’s attention. For every important name the Americans tossed out, he could throw another back, and one more after that. From Socrates and Plato to Marx and Hegel, he could tell you how Darwin had sailed to the South Seas and turned the Bible upside down and how the doctors in Vienna could cure your soul, whether or not you had one. He jabbed the air with authority every time he made a point. The workers nodded and swayed with approval. And the Americans who had come to make fun, ceased laughing, settled themselves upon the ground, and stayed to discuss the fate of the world far into the night.
The very next morning Isaac woke everyone up well before dawn for an hour of gymnastic exercises. Lined up outside their tents, they did arm circles, knee bends, and ran wild relays, dashing down to the river and back. Delia couldn’t see the sense in it, but Lilly loved it. She led the girls in all the races and out ran many of the boys. For the first time she was the best. “I cannot read like you or sew like Rachel, but I can run. Isaac says I am the strongest girl here.” Her eyes glowed. To Delia this was a new Lilly entirely. She dismissed her parents as middle class, petit bourgeois. “My mama thinks only of her fashions. She wants nothing more than to pretend she is a rich American. I will never go back.”
“Nor I.” Delia echoed. She was immediately overtaken by shame, though. She had become more concerned about her own mama than she wanted to admit. At night, when she gazed up at the stars, she didn’t see this infinity the scholars talked about, she saw a thousand little white candles in the windows of the Lower East Side. Instead of the great universe she saw her mama trying to scrape together a Sabbath meal, the inevitable sewing piled on the table, the children crying, fighting and clinging to her skirts. Who would earn money now that Delia was gone? Once more, she may have been free, but she certainly didn’t feel it.
“We have our land.”
She could hear David, deep in an argument with Isaac again. “It is the Lower East Side.”
“The city? Is that your idea of the promised land?” Isaac scoffed. “Do you think Moses would have led the Jews to the sweatshops of New York City?”
“Moses was a communist,” someone broke in, ready to join the dispute in an instant.
“How so?” others demanded.
“The manna that rained down into the desert from heaven was collected by all and distributed to all according to need. He was the first communist in history.”
Did this prove that those early Jews wandering the desert were true communists, someone asked. Or was the story of the manna merely a fairy tale, as others claimed?
This debate, which might have gone on all day, was abruptly silence by the arrival of one of the older girls, Berthe, with her bicycle. She had been boasting of this bicycle all week, telling them how she had rented one in the Catskills last summer at another workers’ camp. She had loved it so much that she had saved her money and purchased a second hand one from a machine shop in Brooklyn. Enthralled, everyone had begged her to go home and fetch it so she could teach others to ride too.
Delia had spent hours sitting on the hillside watching the Americans who bicycled along the narrow road by the river. The men wore stripped jackets and stiff-brimmed straw hats, the girls, skirts cut short enough to show their calves. They sat up very straight on tiny seats, ringing little silver bells or tooting tin-horns strapped to the handle bars, as they flew by on their wheels like angels on wings.
Berthe, though, did not fly. Perhaps her skirt was too long or her boots too heavy. She wobbled and tottered, and couldn’t seem to steer straight. Delia trotted alongside. “Let me try,” she begged. That was even worse. As soon as she mounted the bicycle, she pitched forward. Berthe tried to hold her up, but the bicycle fought back and they both went over. “It’s the wrong kind of bicycle,” Delia said. “It’s not an American bicycle.”
“It is too,” Berthe straightened the twisted wheel, gazing at it sadly. “I just have not had time to practice on this bicycle. I rented one last summer and I rode perfectly then. Everybody in the Catskills rides bicycles. All the Jews.”
At her words, a tantalizing vision filled Delia’s mind. She imagined a whole army of workers, boys and girls, socialists, anarchists and free-thinkers, all peddling along, sitting up high and proud, ringing their little silver bells and calling, ‘Look out, look out,’ as they rode off into America. Bicycles were better than socialism, she decided, even if she could never figure out how to ride one.
Lilly couldn’t ride either. She toppled off over and over, her skirt flying up in the air. “Oh my aching tuchas,” she complained. Her language made Delia blush. Worse than cursing it was to shout about one’s backside in public. Isaac only laughed and pulled Lilly to her feet. “Oh my aching bum,” she repeated right to his face, which made him laugh harder, and caused Delia to turn away, angry at Lilly without really knowing why. Lilly only liked to have a little bit of pleasure, didn’t she? What was wrong with that? Everything, Delia told herself. Whenever she began to enjoy life, even a little bit, something was bound to come along and make things worse.
As if to confirm her suspicions, David came up shooing them away from the battered bicycle. “Enough,” he said. “Enough of the bourgeois toys.”
“Bicycles are not bourgeois,” Berthe replied defensively. “Socialists ride them in the Catskills.”
“You sound just like a boss,” Delia pushed herself in to the argument. She knew what she said hurt David. He pulled back with shame on his face, more like a child than a man.
“I didn’t mean—“ Before she could finish apologizing, she was startled by the sight of Leah running towards her.
“Delia!” They hugged one another tight.
“Where? When? How?” Delia gripped Leah by the shoulders, almost unable to believe her cousin stood before here. Leah laughed. In response to Delia’s barrage of questions, she explained that she heard about the encampment, and had decided to come herself. She said this quite casually, as if having to change trolleys and ask directions from Americans along the way was nothing to her. Delia knew Leah had never been so far from home, yet she didn’t seem at all nervous or frightened. She just stood looking out over the river, poised and slim in her white skirt and light blouse which clung against her chest in the breeze. Delia knew the outfit came from the charity barrel, but the way Leah wore it could put the American ladies to shame.
“It’s so beautiful. This landscape is just like Homer.” Leah extended her arm, tracing her finger along the line of opposite shore.
“The Greek poet?” David asked puzzled.
“The American artist,” Leah turned and looked at him as if for the first time. “Winslow Homer. He painted the countryside. A famous American artist.”
“I must have forgotten to study American artists,” David retorted, still stinging from Delia’s earlier comment. “Just like I never studied bicycles.”
At the word bicycle, Berthe returned to her tirade. “It’s broken.” She rattled the well-worn machine. “People ride it who don’t know how.”
“Let me try,” Leah coaxed. “They taught us at the settlement house.”
“They did not!” Lilly was consumed by envy. “Where could they get so many bicycles for children?”
“One of the teachers brought hers,” Leah said. “Just one for all of us. We took turns going up and down the sidewalk. I did it five times and I didn’t fall off at all on the last ride, even on the bumps.”
Gently, she took the bicycle from Berthe, who released it, resigned, “Everybody breaks it, why not you.”
The bicycle teetered dangerously as Leah mounted. With a determined expression, she grasped handlebars, steadied herself, and began to pump the pedals. She started to roll away, slowly at first, but picking up confidence and speed as she mingled with the other riders. After the first minute or two, Delia had to admit that Leah did indeed look as if she had been sitting on a bicycle all her life. They all watched, speechless, as she glided along the path by the river, then slipped out of view.
At that moment Delia almost believed that her cousin really had ridden off into America. Without either working or going to school, Leah had found a way of becoming American. It wasn’t just the settlement house lessons or the Art Students League, it was something else, something inside Leah. The bicycle may have been a pair of wings, but it was Leah who knew how to fly. And Delia was still stuck on the ground. What had she missed? There was something she wanted that always seemed just beyond reach.
After a half-hour Berthe became anxious. “Where is my bicycle?” Delia began to get worried, too. Suppose Leah was lost?
She reappeared few moments later flushed and triumphant, three university students also on bicycles, trailing behind her. The American students had paid little attention to the Jewish girls up to this point, except to argue politics with them, as if they were men. Now they gathered around Leah, one of them holding the bicycle as she dismounted. Was she from the Lower East Side, they wanted to know. Yes, Leah replied. She had seen the boys sketching by the riverbank, she told Delia, and had stopped watch. One of them had lent her some paper and charcoal to sketch too.
“My cousin is always drawing,” Delia told them. “She takes her pictures with her wherever she goes.” She pointed at the pack Leah had left on the ground. “Show them.” She prompted.
Leah only hung her head. She didn’t have her drawing book with her this time, she explained. She called it her ‘portfolio’ and she seemed near tears as she said so.
“You will bring your drawings next time then?” One of the Americans asked gently. He came from Hyde Park, he told her, and studied art history at the university. Had Leah been to the Metropolitan Museum? Did she like the Impressionists?
She had been to the museum many times, Leah answered. But she liked the old masters, mostly.
Before they could talk any further though, David intervened, insisting it was time for a meeting.
“Meeting?” Delia exclaimed. “Why another meeting?” The camp, which had started out as nothing but pleasure, had become fraught with rivalry on every side. Everyone had their own idea of how things should be done.
Isaac had refused to try the bicycle, but insisted they should all learn how to swim, though none of them had brought bathing costumes. He, Lilly, and a few others were now splashing shamelessly in the river in their underclothes, along with the children of the families who camped nearby. They came back up the hill to the camp, dripping wet, tussling and wrestling one another to the ground, mocking David with names like ‘Comrade Clam,’ or ‘Marxist Mollusk.”
Delia drew Leah aside so they could be alone for a few minutes. Was everyone at home all right? And what had happened to her drawing things?
“You have to come home,” Leah began to cry softly, becoming once more the little cousin, the child Delia knew, instead of the young lady speeding away on a bicycle. “I can’t do it anymore. I can’t take care of everybody by myself.”
“What do you mean?”
“I looked for work, but I have no experience and the shops aren’t hiring. So I thought I could sell my drawings. I went to Washington Park where the artists meet and spread my pictures out on a bench. A man wanted to know how much I was selling them for, but I had no idea. I hadn’t really thought about a price. He asked if I had any more. I told him I had many drawings at home. So he gave me his card and said to bring them to his flat the next day.”
“And did you?”
“He acted so nice,” Leah sat down upon the ground and wrapped her arms around her knees. “He really liked my drawings. I mean, I thought he did. He lived on the fourth floor of beautiful building way up on Grand Street. The woman across the hall said something I couldn't understand when she saw me knocking on his door. ‘He wants to look at my drawings,’ I tried to tell her, but she went back into her own flat and slammed the door. So there I was out in the hall alone, and when he opened his door I was so glad to see him. He invited me in and called me his little Rosa Bonheur, and it made me feel happy because Rose Bonheur was a famous French artist.” Leah paused and took a deep breath.
“And?” Delia asked with a growing sense of dread.
“At first we sat on the couch looking at my drawings. He put his hand on my knee, but lightly, as if it was nothing but an accident. But when I reached over to show him another drawing, something happened. He pulled me on top of him.” Leah closed her eyes as she spoke, but she didn’t cry. Her voice was cold and completely clear. “His hands were underneath my petticoat. I tried to scream. He covered my mouth with his, so I bit his tongue. He howled. I screamed. The woman next door began to pound on the wall, yelling that we had woken her baby up. She wasn’t angry at him, but at me. ‘Can’t you whores go about your business quietly?’ That’s what she said. Another voice called out, ‘I’m going for the police. This building is no place for streetwalkers.’ He got up to shout something through the wall and in that instant I was out the door. I ran screaming all the way down the stairs. I thought for sure he would chase me, and who would stop him in that building? They were all yelling at me. But he only stood on the landing cursing.
“When I got to the street, though, I remembered my pictures. I had brought almost everything I had. I wanted to keep running home, but I couldn’t. Those were my drawings. What would I do without them? So I stood on the street and shouted up to him as loud as I could, ‘Give me my pictures back. Bring them down,’ I hollered over and over. A crowd began to gather around me and others began to shout too, without even knowing what it was about. At last he came to the window. I could see that he had my drawings in his hands, all crushed together in big pile. Then he let go. He lifted his hands palm up, like he’s saying ‘Nu?’ and my drawings are gone. They started to blow all over the place. I ran to catch them. Some kind people helped. They picked up whatever they could and handed it to me. But the wind was so strong that day many of my pictures got caught up on roofs and fire escapes and flew away. When I got home, I had to sneak in quiet, so your mama wouldn’t see my dress all torn and my hands filled with crumpled drawings.”
“You’re all right now.” Delia put her arms around her cousin, shaking with rage at the man, at what he had done, and, worse yet, at what he had tried to do. Someone should have told Leah not to go to the flats of strange men. Someone should be looking out for her. Leah was becoming a young woman and Delia had no idea how to help her. She could scarcely help herself. “You got away from him,” she squeezed Leah harder, as if trying to make sure she was safe forever. “That is the most important thing.”
“Is it?” Leah pulled away. “What about my drawings? What about them? I keep thinking maybe if I had stayed--” She dropped her head upon her knees, hiding her face. “I’m not saying I would have, but if I did, if I hadn’t run away, I’d still have my drawings and now I have nothing.” She began to sob. “Nothing.”
“You have everything.” Delia hugged her again. “You have me and your mama and my mama, you have Sid and Gertie.”
“They blame me for all their troubles. I can do nothing right. I wish I was like you.”
“Yes,” Leah wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “Your mama is always saying how hard you work. ‘Why can’t you be like Delia?’ she asks me. ‘Delia has such good hands. Delia works all the time. She is a leader in her union. All the girls in her shop look up to her.’”
“She says that about me? My mama says those things about me?” Delia stared at Leah. “What else?” she asked. “What else does she say?”
“That you stand up for your rights. Always when she and the man who brings her work fight over the wages, she says, ‘You should meet my daughter Delia, she lets no one beat her to her knees. She stands up. She stands to everyone. Even to me.’”
“She says that?” Delia repeated softly. “Don’t cry,” she rocked Leah. “Everything will be fine. You can spend a few nights here. We have extra blankets.”
“But what about my drawings. My drawings are gone. ”
“There will be plenty of time for drawing.” Delia soothed Leah like she was a little girl. She was bathed in the warmth of her mama’s words. Perhaps she had been wrong all along. Her mama did not hate her at all. Far from it, she made her mama proud. At that moment she felt nothing but love for the entire world. Perhaps everyone would be happy after all. They would all ride bicycles and go swimming and somehow the union would make the bosses listen and all workers would all come to peace. “Don’t worry.” She stood and pulled Leah up too. “Come have dinner and we’ll listen to the rest of the meeting.”
Like many Americans I am the descendant of immigrants. I have always been fascinated by their stories. I hope you enjoy reading about Delia and her adventures growing up on the Lower East Side. If you want to learn more about the historical background, please take a look at the About and Resources sections. If you want to learn more about my other books for children and young adults visit my website.
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