“Good Shabbos.” Friends and neighbors greeted one another as they passed on the street. “Shabbat shalom.”
It was the end of the week. Looking up, Delia could see little white candles glowing in the windows of nearly every tenement, as if the stars in the sky had come down to visit Lower East Side Her mama would wait until she got home to light their candles even though it would be well after sundown. The boss himself may have been a Jew but he wasn’t about to let anyone leave early just to light candles. “My competition is at my neck, Shabbos or no Shabbos,” he would snap at any girl who dared ask. Then, with a curl of his lip, he would invite her to step out onto the street where the hundred hungry others were ready to take her place that minute.
It was all right, she told herself. She had been lucky to get a big stint this afternoon, even if it took her until seven to finish. Mama still had not found work after many months of looking. Sometimes Delia could hear her crying late at night when she thought Delia was asleep. Mama wouldn’t cry tonight, though. It was Shabbos. They would light their candles, recite the bruchot, the blessing, and sing.
They would enjoy a fine dinner, too. Delia swallowed eagerly. No matter how tight their money, Mama always made sure they had something special for Shabbos. Perhaps at this very moment she was stewing a chicken with pearl-white onions and sweet golden parsnips while apples with cinnamon baked in the oven.
When she reached their flat, however, Delia didn’t smell any delicious onion-chicken or apple-cinnamon. Inside, she saw her mama sitting at the table with a man. The man’s back was to Delia but she realized instantly that this was no friend for she saw no tea cups set out between them. Nothing. And he was certainly no gentleman because he kept his hat on in the house.
“We live here for so long at three dollars a week,” her mama was saying. “Now the new landlord says four-fifty. For three little rooms, four-fifty?”
“No one forces you to stay,” the man replied. “A hundred families on the street would pay four dollars and fifty cents for three fine rooms such as these.”
There it was again, the hundred others who would take your place in an instant. Delia recognized the man now. He came every Thursday to collect the rent for the landlord. But what was he doing back again on Friday?
“It is Shabbat, Mr. Lowenstein,” Mama pointed out calmly, as if he wasn’t aware that Jews did not like to handle money on the Sabbath.
“It is four dollars and fifty cents,” he repeated.
“I gave you two dollars last night. I said I would have the balance next week.”
So that was it. Her mama had been short on the rent. That had never happened before. Delia reached into her pocket and brought out the pennies she saved from her pay to buy the Forward.
“No.” Her mama pressed the coins back into her hand and glared at the man. “Do you want to rob a child of her pennies?”
That shamed him enough to make him leave. “I will be back tomorrow after sundown,” he said and lumbered out without wishing them good Shabbos.
“Come.” Mama swirled her best shawl around her shoulders and pinned on her finest hat. “We’ll go to Bessie’s.”...
Shabbos always gave the streets a holiday air. Delia and her mama strolled hand in hand. “Good Shabbos.” Mama had a nod and smile for everyone. Now and then she would stop and chat. She acted as if she had forgotten all about the rent man. Only when they got to Bessie’s did Delia understand how angry her mother really felt
“He comes into my home like he owns it, without waiting for an invitation. Sits at my table without taking off his hat. Not a word of courtesy. No ‘Good Shabbos, how are you Mrs. Brenner?’ just ‘Where is the money?’” Delia’s mother paced Bessie’s front room like a lion in a cage. “Every week I have paid, even when I was sitting shiva for Jacob and the children. The old landlord was a decent man who knew his tenants by name. This new one is such a big macher, a big man, he sends his hired hands to collect for him. They demand the money like robbers, like thugs.”
“Nu?'’ Bessie nodded and sighed sympathetically. ”All over the East Side it is the same.” She set a big noodle kugel still warm from the oven, on the table. “Sit. Eat,” she told them. She was glad to have company. Her husband, who sold dress samples to department store buyers, was traveling in Yonkers and her daughter had gone with a fella to something called the Biograph Motion Picture Palace.
“On Shabbat?” Delia’s mother was not among the most religious, but still she was shocked.
“This is America,” Bessie replied as if that explained everything.
And maybe it did, Delia thought as Bessie served her thick slice of kugel fragrant with nutmeg and studded with raisins.
“Even so, I am sorry to ask you to lend money on the Sabbath,” her mama apologized.
“What am I?” Bessie exclaimed. “A rebbetzin? The rabbi’s wife? It’s no sin to help a friend. Besides, if I wanted to be a holy woman I would have married the Yeshiva boy my parents chose for me. Instead I ran off with a sample salesman.”
“And I with a socialist revolutionary.”
Delia’s fork paused in mid-air. She looked from Bessie to her mama waiting to hear more. But they only shook their heads and smiled. After that, they talked of their old home, Odessa, and people Delia had never met. Bessie made coffee and poured her a cup with half-milk and two spoons of sugar.
“Perhaps you should take in a boarder,” Bessie said to Mama. “Just until you find work. You could easily let out your back bedroom for a dollar a week.”
“I know. But it’s so hard to see roomers in a place where there used to live our whole family.”
“Things are different now,” Bessie said gently.
“You are right.” Mama sipped her coffee. “I shouldn’t put it off any longer. A boarder will bring money.”
They never had time to find a boarder, though. The very next night, Delia’s mother became so sick she couldn’t leave the flat for many weeks. The visiting nurse said the abscess in her tooth had traveled to her stomach. She needed oranges, soft boiled eggs, good food. Most of all she needed to sleep.
Delia told her mama to rest before leaving for work each morning. She tried to keep their money straight so Mama would not have to worry. So much money for the food jar, so much for the rent jar each week. But they had to eat and the rent jar just got emptier and emptier.
Delia worked late, until eight or nine every night. Still, they were always behind in the rent and she could not catch up no matter how hard she tried. Mama told her to sell or pawn their nicer things--the six blue flowered china plates, the copper plated tongs and ladle, the small mirror with the painted enamel frame. Delia quickly learned which second hand dealers and pawnbrokers would bargain you down to nothing and which would give you a fair price. Even the good ones, however, would not overlook a single chip or dent.
There were some things they couldn’t bear to part with--her mama’s wedding ring, her papa’s ebony fountain pen, the carved cedar wood sewing box which had belonged to her grandmother and her great-grandmother before her and would be Delia’s on her wedding day. Other than that, she peddled whatever she could. Each week the flat became more barren. Delia told no one at work what she was doing, not even Bessie. There was no shame in it, to be certain. Girls pawned bracelets and earrings all the time to make ends meet. But Delia knew her mama was proud and wouldn’t want anyone to know they lived as if they were poor now.
After she recovered a little, Mama began to take work in, hemming baby’s pinafores for two cents each. But by then it was too late to catch up. One Thursday, Delia emptied the rent jar and counted out only a dollar and seventy-five cents.
“Now it is nine dollars you are behind.” The rent man stood in the doorway and would not budge. Mama was sleeping. She had remained weak and Delia was terrified he would upset her.
“Wait,” she whispered. She dashed to the shelf and took down her father’s gold-tipped pen. She didn’t want to surrender it but she knew she had to. With a trembling hand, she held it out to him. Surely it was worth another dollar.
“Nu?” He stared, confused. “A pen?”
“And what should the landlord do with a pen?”
“Write.” What else should one do with a pen?
“Write!” He pounded doorframe so hard, she felt the entire flat shudder. “You think you will pay your rent with a writing pen?” He stormed off, muttering curses that made Delia’s eyes fill with tears of shame.
Three nights later she came home and discovered her mother sitting on the stoop crying like a child, with all their remaining clothes, pots and furniture stacked up around her. Evicted. The word hurt like a knife plunged into Delia’s side and twisted twice for good measure. “Bessie will help,” she tried to comfort her mother.
No, her mama protested, Bessie had done enough. They would go to Aunt Helga’s. Delia knew her father’s sister Helga lived down on Cherry Street with her husband Avram and their five children. She didn’t see them very often. Helga had come to her papa’s funeral but she and mama had not embraced as sisters. Something had happened between Helga and Papa a long time ago. Still, they were family and your family would not turn you away. Not on the Lower East Side.
Delia lashed as many of their possessions as she could into four bundles, two for each of them, and they set off. She led the way slowly, stopping to let her mother rest every half-block. Afterwards she would remember the journey from Hester to Cherry Street as if it were a thousand miles and took a hundred years, as if they had trudged halfway around the globe from one side of the world to its very opposite. Cherry Street was a pretty name but the street itself was narrow, dirty and noisy, even so late at night.
At number sixty-four, they recognized her cousin Ben, crouched on the stoop playing with a pair of dice. He eyed them sullenly from beneath his mop of dark hair.
“We have come to see your mama and papa,” Delia told him.
Ben was a couple of years older than Delia. He had never shown much interest in talking to her before and didn’t now. “Ma’s in. Pa’s not.” He tossed his dice.
The sight of him seemed to rouse something in Delia’s mother, however. Pulling herself up straight, she became once more the mama Delia knew. “Benjamin,” she spoke softly but sternly. “It is late. You should be inside.”
“No room.” He went on with his game, as if they weren’t there.
So Mama asked him to watch their bundles while they went upstairs. It would be less of a surprise, she told Delia, if they arrived without their possessions. She and Helga needed a chance to discuss things first. Delia was glad they didn’t bring their bundles inside. She didn’t want anything of theirs in this building. The stairway reeked of garbage and worse. She secretly hoped Helga would send them away and then they could go straight to Bessie’s.
Ugh! She was sure she had trod right on a dead rat. At home people kept the stairwell clean. But she and Mama didn’t have a home anymore, Delia thought bitterly. They had been evicted. And if they ever had a home again, it certainly wouldn’t be here.
She knew that as soon as they stepped inside the flat. Dirty dishes and rags were piled everywhere. Helga sat at a table elbow deep in crumpled lengths of blue striped fabric. An infant wailed from a wooden bin that served as a cradle. A little boy and girl of about one and two shrieked with laughter and toddled around in circles.
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Helga kept repeating when Mama explained why they were there. “Avram must decide. He works at night and will not be back until morning.”
“My Delia works in a shirtwaist shop.” Mama placed her hand on Delia’s shoulder. “And I can help with your sewing.” She nodded at the fabric. “We can pay.” So now they would be the boarders, Delia realized. That’s what her mama was telling Helga. They would pay to stay.
“Maybe. Maybe.” Helga sounded like she wasn’t used to doing much thinking for herself.
Someone stirred in the alcove at the far end of the room. Delia’s younger cousin Leah sat on the narrow divan by the front window with a book propped up on her knees looking at Delia as if she had just woken up. Delia had almost forgotten about Leah, which was easy because Leah always seemed to be lost in her own dreams. She had probably been so deep in her reading that she had not even heard them come in.
“What is it?” Delia indicated the book.
“Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare.” Leah let her look through it.
Delia had never seen anything so gorgeous in her entire life. The book’s cover was of purple leather, soft as velvet. Its pages were edged in gold and each story came with pictures painted in brilliant colors. One showed a beautiful woman with glass wings.
“That is the Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Leah told her.
Delia couldn’t imagine where Leah had possibly gotten the beautiful book. Had she won some kind of contest at school? Was it a gift from a teacher, she asked.
No, Leah replied. It was only a book from the Carnegie Library. As soon as she finished reading it she would take it back and get another. The library was an enormous building on Broadway, she told Delia. She used to watch people coming down the great steps with books in their hands. One day she had gotten up her courage and walked inside. It was like entering another world. The shelves reached up to the ceiling and were lined with books from top to bottom and end-to-end. The librarians gave you a card that said you were a member of the New York City Public Library for the rest of your life. All the books belonged to everyone and anyone could read them. She would take Delia there sometime and show her.
All for one and one for all, Delia thought. Just like the socialist revolutionaries in the Forward said it should be. Yes, she would love to see the Carnegie Library, she told Leah as she handed the book back reverently.
“Delia?” her mama called. “You and Leah must put the little ones to bed.” Her mama had started to stack the dirty dishes and place them in a tin basin, by which Delia understood that they were going to stay, at least for the night.
She was not used to being a big sister. As soon as she had caught both Gertie and Sid one or the other would squirm away. Leah was better at it. Quietly, she promised them that she and Delia would each read a story, as soon as they were in bed with the covers pulled up to their chins. “Two stories! Two stories!” The idea excited them so much they almost started spinning like whirligigs again.
Finally however, Delia and Leah got the two children into the big bed in the back room. Leah read the tale about the woman with wings and Delia read one called the Tempest about a shipwrecked girl named Miranda and her father. That’s exactly how she felt. Shipwrecked. But Miranda’s story ended happily. Delia wondered if that could possibly be true for her. After the others had dozed off, she slipped back out. None of the rooms had doors. Helga was sleeping with the baby in the small second bedroom. Her mama lay on the divan in the front room alcove. She didn’t see any sign of Ben, but their things had been brought up and arranged neatly by the door. Perhaps Ben was not so bad after all.
“Mama?” She stroked her mother’s cheek.
“It’s all right, Little Twig.” Her mama squeezed her hand. “Go back and sleep with the children. We won’t be here very long. As soon as we have enough, we’ll leave.”
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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