Leah stayed for a week. When the campers heard that she could draw, they ransacked their packs for paper and pencils. All afternoon, Leah would sit on the hillside drawing a portrait of anybody who wanted one. Even David sat for her. Delia noticed that his face lost its habitually worried expression as Leah’s pencil moved swiftly and surely over the paper. His eyes seemed larger, serious but not sad. His mouth was set firm, but no longer pinched into a single angry line. When Leah presented him with his picture, he actually flushed with pleasure, something Delia was sure she had never seen him do before.
“You draw real people, now.” David reminded Leah of the time Delia had brought her to the meeting hall and she had drawn nothing but fairy tale pictures.
“I’ve been taking life drawing classes at the Art student’s League.” Leah caught Delia’s eye and smiled as trying to share a secret or joke, though Delia had no idea what it could be. When Leah drew all her cares disappeared. She forgot all the bad things that had happened, as long she had a pencil in her hand.
Delia begged her to stay, but she insisted she had to return home, to “replenish her portfolio.” The next time she went to Washington Park, she promised Delia, she would ask the advice of other artists and she would not visit the flats of any gentlemen alone.
Delia watched Leah go with both tenderness and envy. Leah’s drawing gave her a place in the world. She had something no boss, no landlord, no policeman, even no mama, could ever take away.
And where is my place, Delia asked herself. Which side am I on?...
It was no idle question. Everybody in the camp seemed to be taking sides. They had become split between the workers who insisted they should stay New York and fight for the union and those who claimed the Jews should learn to live off the land in the fashion of true pioneers. Isaac said he knew a group of Jews who had gone to the wild west of American, a place called North Dakota, where they had become farmers raising wheat, cattle and sheep.
By now he had collected a group of devoted followers, most of them girls. Lilly always seemed to be at his side. Much to Delia’s annoyance, she prattled on about planting wheat and milking cows, talking with an enthusiasm she hand never shown for anything else.
“As if you know anything about crops and cattle,” Delia remarked.
“So? I will learn. It is for the greater good of all,” Lilly added with an important air.
“You just copy Isaac’s words.”
“And you think you more about the greater good just because you read books?”
They all became spiteful to one another over the greater good. Everybody had an opinion on it. For David the greater good was the union and a strike, any strike. “We are not farmers,” he argued. “We are thinkers.”
“Do you think anyone has time to think in a shop?” Lilly shot back.
David looked at Delia, expecting some kind of retort. He wanted Delia to be at his side, the way Lilly was at Isaac’s. But Delia couldn’t gaze upon David the way Lilly gazed up at Isaac. Whereas living outdoors had made others brown and strong, the sun and wind only made David more tired. He called for one meeting after another, though he was never able to keep any order. Then he retreated to the tent to write alone for hours on end.
Delia studied him and thought of Leah, someone who was like a child one minute and mysteriously grown-up the next.
“Let those who want to go, go,” was all she could say. She was trying her best to be gentle, yet there was never any gentleness between them. Her words only wounded him again and he turned away, disappointed once more.
And then one morning they went. A whole group, led by Isaac, straggled down the hill with bedrolls and packs upon their shoulders. Lilly was among them.
“What will I tell your mother?” Delia ran after her, grabbing her and shaking her so hard the bedroll came loose.
“Look out what you are doing,” Lilly pushed her away. “Tell my mother nothing. Or tell her that my husband Isaac and I are going to a kibbutz in the mountains of the Dakotas. Or maybe it is on the Great Plains. Whichever.”
“Isaac? Your husband? That’s a lie!”
“No it’s not. We married ourselves last night. Isaac said that is how the ancient Hebrews wed. We don’t need a rabbi.”
“Free love? You didn’t. You couldn’t have.”
“And why not?” Lilly looked at Delia boldly. “ Oh Deelie!” She threw her arms around Delia, “I did it.”
Delia went stiff. She couldn’t believe this of Lilly. “And you didn’t fight, you didn’t even try?”
“Try? Why? Not everyone who touches you is like Gregor in the shop. Didn’t you ever want some one to touch you, just once?”
Delia looked down. She still dreamed occasionally of Henry Mendelsohn, but she wouldn’t admit that to Lilly for the world. Henry Mendelsohn was nothing but a child’s fancy compared to what Lilly had done.
“Well, all right, it wasn’t so wonderful to begin with.” Lilly began to reassemble her bedroll, rapidly and efficiently. “I thought it would be like dancing. But it wasn’t. More like bump-hop-bump. You know, the way we used to dance before we learned the steps.” In spite of herself Delia smiled a little. Bump-hop,-bump “It got a little better the second time,” Lilly continued. “I didn’t expect it to, but it did. Mostly, it was just knowing what I was doing that made me feel good. I felt like I was grinding my heel on everything I hated, everything that had a hold over me. On the shop, Mrs. Bloomberg and her boarding house rules, Rachel and her endless fashions, the Warsaw boarder and his prayer books--”
“And on your mama’s heart?” Delia couldn’t help interrupting.
“You step on your mama’s heart too,” Lilly countered.
“I have a reason,” Delia protested. “And my mama understands.”
“I too have my reasons even if my mama never understands.” Lilly tightened the rope around her bedroll and hefted bit back onto her shoulders. She was in a hurry to catch up Isaac and the others. “I just want to be free.”
“You are a sister to me,” Delia told her. “A sister, remember? Sister.” She repeated the word over and over as she watched Lilly leave “My sister.” What did that really mean? Everyone talked about sisterhood and brotherhood, fellowship, comrades and solidarity. Yet here she stood, alone once more.
She was the one who was always saying how they should all stand together, wasn’t she? What if it was all a lie? What if she was forever alone? The whole city might be crammed with people, but all she could think of were those she who were gone. How could there be so many people and such emptiness? Lucy was gone forever, Olivia might not come back, and now Lilly had set off for the wilderness.
“Lilly,” she called. “Take care with yourself.” Lilly had already gone too far to hear.
Slowly Delia walked back up the hill. The camp felt deserted without Isaac and his followers. Around the campfire fire, David, Greta, Millie, Ida and Sonia sipped coffee out of tin mugs and pored over a position paper for the union that David had been writing yesterday. They greeted Delia without a word about Lilly, as if nothing had happened, as if Isaac, Lilly and the rest had simply ceased to exist.
“What do you think of it?” David handed the paper to Delia. There was no rancor in his voice anymore. He spoke as if they had always been friends.
It was getting cooler at night and soon they would have to pack up their own bedrolls and go home. Sitting together on the ground while the sun set, they all slipped back into familiar patterns of question and debate. A meeting, Delia thought, always a meeting. Instead of feeling angry, however, she felt comforted, glad to be among them. She had a place here and she knew it. People shifted aside when she sat down and poured her a cup of coffee without her having to ask.
The factory owners had begun calling for workers again, David said. Many claimed that they were hiring more than ever. Crowds would assemble outside of those shops that promised work, only to stand there for hours. A dozen people might be let in. Or maybe only five or six. Sometimes twenty were hired, only to come back the next day and be told their jobs were gone.
If you were a member of a union, you would never get work. So people lied. They said they were not part of the union, though the bosses found out all the same.
“There are traitors everywhere who give the bosses our names,” Sonia complained. “Who can we trust?”
“One another,” David said. “Remember?” He raised his arm. The others followed. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” they recited in one voice. “And if I am only for myself, what am I?” It was an ancient oath, as sacred to the union as a prayer. “And if not now, when?”
Delia looked around the little circle. These were her people. The talkers, the thinkers, the workers. They might fight among themselves, they might disagree over a hundred things, and argue for forty days and forty nights on end. But she would not betray them.
“The general strike,” someone said.
They all reached towards the center of the circle and clasped hands. “If not now, when?”
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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