Every seat in the People’s Theater was occupied. Those that could not sit stood in the back and along the walls. Delia peeked out from behind the curtain, nervously.
“They are here for you,” Lilly whispered.
“They are here for all of us,” she replied.
“But you most of all.”
What had Pamela gotten her into, Delia wondered. The faces in the back and along the walls, she knew well. They were the people she saw and spoke to every day, many of them from the union itself. Their lips would move as hers did, silently echoing her words, because they knew what she was about to say and their work-worn hands would shadow her every gesture. If they alone filled the theater, she would have had nothing to worry about. But the rest of the audience, especially those in the front, made her heart quake. She glimpsed them now, settling down in their seats, the men ceremoniously removing their top hats, the ladies shrugging off coats that fell from their shoulders like avalanches of ermine and mink. The whole front section of the theater contained more rich people than anyone had ever seen the Lower East Side, all in one place.
Behind her, Delia could hear Henry Mendelsohn drilling Reenie again. Reenie had learned how to pull flowers from a handkerchief, how to make a bird appear out of thin air. Now she practiced vanishing into a big steamer trunk.
“One two, one two,” Reenie hopped up and down. She didn’t want to vanish, she complained. She wanted to see everything. Before Henry could stop her, she darted through the curtain. For an instant she stood before the audience unable to move. Silence filled the theater. “Azoi tants men in Odessa.” She sang in a high, piping voice and started wild Cossack dance kicking her legs out, then cart wheeling completely head over heels before landing in a heap. Unfazed by her fall, she leapt up to take a bow.
Applause and laughter rippled all the way back to the balcony. People began to clap and stamp and for her. “Encore, encore.”
“Azoi tantsmen. in Odessa...” She had learned the old Russian song from Delia and insisted on singing it on every occasion.
Henry reached out and yanked Reenie backstage.
“Nu.” Delia and Pamela looked at one another. They had planned to start the performance with something serious, the singing of the Internationale by a chorus from the garment workers union. But why not let Reenie and Henry Mendelsohn perform first, Pamela asked, as long as Reenie had put everyone in a fine mood.
Delia watched them from the sidelines, holding her breath. It was obvious that Reenie had forgotten everything Henry had taught her the instant she stepped back onto the stage. She pulled the violets from her sleeve instead of the handkerchief and lifted her skirts to brazenly reveal the bird squawking beneath. And when it came time to disappear, she popped from the back of the trunk showing everyone the secret door with pride. In spite of all that, or maybe because of it, the audience adored her. Coins rained down on the stage. For once Reenie couldn’t make them disappear fast enough. Her hands had more than she could hold. “Enough!” She cried, wide eyed. At last, there was enough.
Of course, getting her to hand them over to the union’s general fund would be a slight problem, Delia knew. They would have to let her keep a little, because Reenie would never quite understand the concept of a Charity Gala, as Pamela called the performance.
After Pamela had successfully sold some of Leah’s drawings to her uptown friends, she and Delia had put their heads together to find other ways of raising money for the union’s shrinking coffers. There had already been a fund-raising gala sponsored by the Women’s League at a big theater uptown. Perhaps this time, Pamela observed, it would be good to invite the uptown audience down to the Lower East Side.
While Pamela convinced her papa to rent the People’s Theater, Delia had recruited the performers. Reenie and Henry would be part of it, that was a given. There would be singing and dancing too. And of course a well-known union leader to give a speech.
It was not hard to find people on the East Side who could sing and dance, Delia told Pamela, but the speaker might be a problem. Even though the strike was over, the union was very busy. The leaders were often away, traveling to other cities where the workers had only begun to organize. Still, she promised Pamela she would find someone worthy of their event.
“Delia,” Pamela had stared at her. “We have someone from the union. We have you.”...
Delia didn't know what to say. True, she had spoken at meetings both downtown and uptown. But that wasn’t the same as standing upon a stage in front of people who had paid to hear her, she protested.
Pamela only quoted back all the advice Delia had given her when they had first met. “I wanted to hide beneath the divan,” Pamela concluded “I was so sure everyone was laughing at me behind my back. But you told me to be angry. To raise my voice, to speak out. I couldn’t believe you were afraid of anything. And I didn’t want to be afraid either.”
Lilly, Josie, Mollie, and all the other girls thought it was a fine idea for her to give the speech, too. Nothing Delia said could convince them otherwise, so for several weeks, she had to get used to seeing her own face, or at least Leah’s drawing of her face, gazing out at her from posters for the gala propped in shop windows or pasted to telegraph poles. Even more flyers had been sent uptown Pamela told her. She was a person now, someone of influence, whether or not she wanted to be.
On stage, the chorus sang song after song and just when they were ready to file out, someone in the back balcony called for another and another after that. At last, the Star-Spangled Banner rang out in English and Yiddish:
O zog! konstu zen in likht fun sof nakht,
Vos mir hobn bagrist in demer-shayn mit freyd?
Di shtrayfn, di shtern -- in flaker fun shlakht
Fun di shuts-vent mir hobn mit bang in blik bagleyt...
They even taught some of the Yiddish translation to the rich people.
Un di fon mit di shtern, in zig vet zi zayn tsehelt
Iber land fun fraye un der heym fun held!
The theater resounded with a cacophony of strange accents as the Americans tried to twist their tongues around the familiar melody and foreign words.
After that, all the singers on stage formed a circle and did a dance from Romania called the Hora that Isaac had taught to the campers last summer. The boys wore loose peasant trousers and shirts. The girls had pinned their mamas’ flowered kerchiefs around their shoulders and donned heavy old-style skirts with five or six starched petticoats underneath to make them whirl out like umbrellas when they spun around.
Of course, this was not how they danced in their own dancehalls, Delia had pointed out to Pamela. When they went dancing among themselves, they preferred waltzes, ragtime two steps and the Spanish Dip, which some of the more modern couples had begun to call the Tango. But wealthy people liked old-fashioned things, Pamela reminded Delia. Why her own mama’s house was just filled with furnishings over a hundred years old, precious antiques. Lilly had rolled her eyes at that. She could never understand why anyone wouldn’t want the latest furnishings with guarantee.
They took Pamela’s advice, however, and did all the spinning, clapping, stamping dances they knew from the old country. Their arms linked around one another’s shoulders and their feet rising and falling in unison, they circled the stage, first one way than the other. Delia closed her eyes for a moment, secure in the knowledge that she would be born in the right direction by the whole group. She wished the singing and dancing could go on all night. Sometimes it was better to be just one voice in the chorus, one dancer in the circle. In spite of what Pamela believed, she was actually terrified of walking out onto the stage alone. She had rehearsed a speech, but it still did not feel quite right. The puzzled, distant faces she had seen in the drawing room rose up before her at every word. She had not been so successful talking to these rich people before, and to fail now would be ein katastrofe, a catastrophe in Yiddish and English, both.
As soon as the dancers had taken their final bow, Delia raced to the small dressing room back stage. With shaking hands, she changed into the midnight blue gown Rachel had provided from Ida Simon’s Fine Apparel. When she had first tried it on, it had fit so beautifully, clinging to her waist and sweeping out into a long, flowing flower-like skirt. Now it seemed to have a ridiculous number of buttons and clasps. Her fingers fumbled, making her feel like a little child needing a mama to dress her. “One, two, three, four....” She counted off the tiny jet-bead buttons as she fastened them, to calm herself.
Someone had propped a long mirror against the dressing room wall. The blue satin rippled like water with every movement. She had never had such a gorgeous dress before in her entire life, and might never again. Initially, she had turned it away without even looking at it. She would wear her ordinary working clothes, she told Rachel, because that’s what she was, a worker, like any other. Rachel wouldn’t hear of it. “You are a sheyna meydel, a young lady,” she said. “A pretty girl. You are standing for all of us, and you will not stand there in rags.” There was no use in agueing with Rachel when she sounded like that, and Delia was glad now she that she had given in. The dress was perfect. All she needed now were words.
Out on stage, the Italians took their turn, doing a tarentella in striped silk skirts and embroidered vests. She could hear the tambourines shiver and the concertinas pump as the dancers’ feet stamped faster and faster.
“Twenty-two, twenty-three...She finished fastening the buttons which traveled up the front of the dress and stopped just above her breast. A big lace collar swept out over her shoulders, setting off her neck. Lucy’s lace. She knew it as soon as she had touched it, the lace made in Italy by Lucy’s nonna, and given to Delia from Lucy’s own hands. “I thought you sold it,” she said to Rachel. “I thought is was gone a long time ago.”
“No. It was so lovely, I couldn’t bear to let anyone purchase it,” Rachel had confessed. “So I bought it myself. I have been saving it for just the right moment.”
I didn't want to be afraid either. Why had Pamela's words had such a familiar ring? Delia remembered the day she had led the walkout at Meir's old shop. Lucy wasn't afraid , she had told herself, so she would not be either. That was what had brought her here. To this stage at this moment. She didn't want to be afraid.
She could hear the applause as the Italians concluded their last encore. For a second she stood there listening. Then she squared back her shoulders, like Lucy, and started to walk down the narrow gangway leading to the stage.
By the time she stepped in front of the audience, her legs had stopped shaking, though she still had no clear idea what she was going to say. She had rehearsed a speech. Everyone had told her it was fine. Excellent. Yet at this moment it did not seem quite right.
The theater was not entirely dark and she could just make out the faces in the first few rows. These were the visitors from uptown These people had come because they wanted to be entertained, to be pleased. And that was the problem. Yes, singing and dancing were wonderful, and it was good that they loved listening and watching. But if they leave knowing only that we have amused them and nothing more, she told herself, then we will have failed no matter how much money they give.
She stretched out her hands. The seconds ticked away. The theater became absolutely silent. From the front row a young woman looked up at her with big dark eyes her mouth half-open as if she were about to smile. Her face wasn’t familiar, but it was kind, and her expression intelligent and lively. She didn’t appear haughty or distant. For an instant, Delia thought of Lucy, or what Lucy might have looked like had she been born and raised among those who wanted for nothing.
“Who made your clothes?” Delia asked.
A startled murmur spread throughout the front section theater.
“Who made your clothes?” It seemed an odd and even funny question to this well-dressed audience. “Who made your things? Your blouse, your skirt, your hat, your gloves?” “Delia spoke quite naturally. Not as if she were giving a speech but as if she were talking directly to the young woman in the front row the same way she might speak to a friend in a cafe or on the street. “These hands.” She held up her hands exactly the way her mama did, the palms facing inward, the fingers outstretched. “These hands made your things.” In the back of the auditorium she sensed a flicker of movement, along the sides of the theater, and far up in the last balcony, too. One by one, girls and women girls began to hold up their hands. “These hands.”
The wealthy people shifted and looked around with something close to alarm. “We don’t raise out hands to form a fist,” Delia reassured them. “Nor do we extend them to beg. We show you our hands so you will know who made your things.” The bosses, she explained, wanted them to believe that the machines made everything. But the machine was nothing without the girl who sat behind it. “Everything that you place upon your body was touched by the hands of a girl you might never have seen if you had not come here to our neighborhood tonight.”
She spoke English for the benefit of the uptown guests and paused every now and then while whispers in the back of the auditorium let her know that her words were being translated into Yiddish or Italian by the friends of those who did not know English. “Ye, ye.” “Si, si.” Approval echoed through the theater and gave her courage. Really, she thought, maybe it was not so different from the days when she had stood upon a crate at work reading from the Forward while Lucy translated.
She continued to speak to the young woman sitting in the first row. She talked about being a little girl and going to work that first day holding her mama’s hand. She told her about the pile of work beside the machine that was finished only to be replaced by another pile. The workers were even called hands, Delia said. A good worker was a ‘good hand’ as if people who worked were nothing more than their hands and what their hands could do. But they were people. And many of them were girls. “And now you see that we sing and dance, speak and laugh, that we want to be free as much as you do.” She couldn’t remember the rest of what she said, but when she stopped, the hands all came together, first in polite than in thunderous applause.
Young men from the union began to pass hats down the rows. She could hear the rustle of folded bills along with the clink of coins.
That had to be Gertie and Sid hollering from the baclony. Impulsively, she raised her hand to wave. From every corner of the theater, hands waved back at her. Those hands. All of them.
She smiled and made a small bow before running back stage. Suddenly every muscle in her body ached. She leaned against a pillar panting as if she had just moved a mountain. When she was speaking, she had felt like she was dancing, flying. Now it seemed like harder work than she had ever done before in her life.
“Mozel tov. Mozel tov.” The girls gathered around her. “Grazie.” Estelle leaned over and kissed her on the foreheadd. “Tu fai buono.“ You did well.
“You spoke for us,” Lilly said. “You really did.”
Yes, she had spoken for them, for all those girls who worked with their hands. And that was all that would really matter, she knew, after the rich people finally went home.
David and Leah also came backstage too, arm in arm. They both turned bright red when she saw them, but they didn’t move apart. Another exhibit of Leah’s drawings was mounted at the Cosmopolitan Cafe across the street, David told her. Everyone was going to meet there after the performance. They proprietor had given the entire place over to them for a post-performance celebration.
“She was here.” Leah leaned in and whispered in Delia’s ear. “Your mama was standing in the back of the top balcony. She heard it all. Every word.”
Still exhausted, Delia slipped away to the washroom to splash cold water on her face while the performance ended with another round of songs. Rather than push her way through the crowd to the front exit, she decided to use the back door, and go around through a side street to meet Leah and David at the Cafe.
“Miss Brenner! Miss Brenner!” As she reached the end of the alley, she heard someone running up behind her. “Miss Brenner!” The young woman from the front row of the theater grasped her arm. “I’ve been looking all over for you. They told me you had already left. Please, wait.”
As they stood face to face, Delia was aware of the blue satin dress she wore and how a stranger passing by might not any difference between. From their clothes alone, it was not clear who was rich, who poor. Whose hands worked and whose were made only to hold fine things.
“Here.” The young woman peeled of her elegant glove and yanked something off her finger. “I wanted so much to give something when they came and passed the hats at the end of your speech. My fiancé donated. But I have no money with me. Please, take this.” She seized Delia’s hand and pressed a ring into it. Delia stared at her palm. She knew little about jewelry, but something told her that this ring alone could easily feed half the Lower East Side for a week. It was a betrothal ring encrusted with fiery diamonds and glittering rubies. But she couldn’t take it. Even during the worst times, her mama had not pawned the ring her papa had given her. “No one asks this of you,” she told the girl gently and tried to give it back. “Not a ring like this.”
“No.” The girl waved her away. “I don’t want it. I mean, I thought I did but I don’t anymore. I want...I want...” She sounded as if she were about to burst into tears. “Oh I don’t know what I want, I just want to be...”
A motorcar honked. “Caroline!” A young man called.
“Yes. Free.” She turned and ran off.
“She doesn’t know what she wants.” Delia sighed. “Yet she wants to be free.” No doubt everyone had gotten something completely different from her speech. Here was another girl who wanted to be free. Soon the city would be filled with them, rich and poor. Girls in every shop, every neighborhood, and every street. Who knew what they might do then, these girls who were free?
She examined the ring more closely in the lamplight. Such generosity was more like a burden. Priceless indeed. What dealer or pawnbroker on the Lower East Side could even afford to purchase it? Someone in the union could bring it to a jeweler uptown, she decided.
She started to drop it into her pocket, hesitated, and gave into temptation slip it on her own finger just for a minute, just to see how it might look upon her hand. It didn’t even fit. “These hands.” She laughed softly. Her fingers were long and strong. Just like her mother’s. Far too big for such a little ring. Would they ever be the best hands in the shop? She dropped the ring in her pocket. Nu? Maybe.
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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