Cold Storage

My wife tells a story that I never get right. The details don’t really matter, though it’s the moment that counts: A precious thing bonds her psyche to mine: the Yiddish inflection of older relatives (though hers was Bronx-ite and mine through parents who fled Philadelphia to live among the lost tribes in East Tennessee). Di goldene keyt, the golden chain, binds us, linking our pasts, adorning our days together.

It’s 1957. An 8-year old girl rides the D train to Manhattan from Yankee Stadium on a winter Sunday morning with her older and younger sisters. Back in the day it was nominally safe, no parents along. The three girls would sometimes spot a lady in a mink coat in their car. The upper middle class still flourished on the Jewish Grand Concourse, and automobile ownership was not nearly as widespread as today. A trip to “New York” on a Sunday morning might well involve the wearing of fur by an all-rightnik balebusteh, an older female member of the urban bourgeoisie. Of the three sisters, only littlest Ellen had the nerve to cozy up and surreptitiously feel the silky pelts, closing her eyes in a reverie.

Likely as not, that very same coat had made the trip uptown on the subway, from one of the retail fur shops that used to line Seventh Avenue from 28th to 31st Streets. And likely as not it had been sewn together in one of the huge, gray loft buildings towering on the very same blocks, by old Yiddish-speaking workers who lived in the Bronx. John Knubel’s skyscraper at 345 Seventh opened late in 1928, its 24 stories devoted to only one trade. (His surname means garlic in Yiddish, go figure…) Two generations of Jewish workers filled the work-rooms in buildings, spending long days matching and stitching the stoles and capes to bedeck those who had made it partway up the ladder. One wonders if Bergdorf and Goodman spoke Yiddish at home? (Probably not – those are yekke names, those of mid-19th century German -Jewish immigrants).

Starting with rabbit, ascending to sable, a fur coat in those days was much more a mark of wealth and achievement than it is today. No PETA activists disrupted the show; no environmental consciousness made goose down more trendy. A chinchilla, a fox: these were a woman’s goals.

A victim of ever-changing tastes, New York’s fur district is now a pale simulacrum of its former self, just as Yiddish has vanished from its midtown streets. The district once housed hundreds of adventurers in the skin trade, predominantly Jewish owned and staffed. Tanners, sorters, stitchers: the men and women turned out fox wraps and mink stoles for buyers across America from the early years of the 20th century onwards labored long hours in the dingy shops, seldom able, before WW II to afford the meals at Hershey’s Dairy Restaurant where their bosses from the Protective Fur Dresser’s Association and the Fur Dresser’s Factor Corporation gorged themselves on blintzes and noodle kugel.

Two cords helped the workers fashion the pelts together: Yiddish and Communism, interspersed with a healthy dose of mobbed-up labor “settlements.” The streets ran Red more than once in the early 1930s when disputes turned into violent confrontations with lead pipes and acid flung on faces with the help of the likes of Louis “Lepke” Buchalter and Jake “Gurrah” Shapiro. Poor Isadore Gelman got it bad: there he lay in Coney Island Hospital early in June 1934. Gelman was a foreman at Berchansky Sons Company at 345 Seventh and union delegate to the American Federation of Labor furriers union. Radical groups seeking control of his local were blamed when Gelman was attacked on the morning of June 3rd as he left his Coney Island home. His condition was listed as grave the next day. A police bodyguard instituted because of earlier threats and a bungled assassination attempt was suspended only two weeks before the latest attack.

Yiddish strike signs Union Square, Cornell

(N.B. The photo at the right is symbolic: it’s early 20th century, and is of Yiddish speaking strikers in a garment factory dispute from the Lower East Side)

Yiddish was the lingua franca of the district, as it was in so many other Jewish-dominated industries in New York after the waves of Eastern European immigrants first started to wash through the Lower East Side and other precincts in the 1880s. The furriers are now all but gone, a few shops and a few retail stores remain. The cadence of Yiddish is gone from the streets that used to hum with its music. The giant buildings are now filled with secondary office space and alternative uses: film and recording studios and editing rooms, internet businesses, small accounting a law firms, the mish-mosh of small outfits needing cheap space in a central location, close to so much public transportation.

Mamaloshen lives on, though, within these sooty piles of brick and stone. I found it after I answered a call, stuck to the walls, embedded in the plaster. All I had to do was scrape the surface and a chorus poured forth, high on the 16th floor at 345 Seventh. There, this past spring I stitched a new stole.

I’ve an acquaintance named Erik Anjou, a brilliant independent filmmaker with several credits to his name in the Jewish film world. Erik’s in post-production of authorized documentary about the Klezmatics, perhaps the most famous klezmer band in the world. Out of the blue came a favor requested of me. The question remains, though, who favored whom. Quite a bit of the footage involves Yiddish conversation among two members of the band, an older gentleman (recently deceased) named Pesakh Fishman, a revered leader of Yiddish language instruction, and a singer and translator of his generation named Teddy Schwartz. Poor Erik is Yiddish-impaired, as is his film editor, Lisa Palatella. So I was asked if I would come down to the cutting room for “4 to 5 hours” and lend a hand in manufacturing subtitles.

I instantly said yes and then started to worry. “Will I embarrass myself and be unable to understand all of the words?” My confidence swelled when I heard it would be mostly Pesakh speaking. I’d been in his classes and knew he spoke a clear, grammatical, Litvak, rule-book Yiddish. So I decided to take a stab. It appealed to my ego: I’d never been in a cutting room, ooh, vah ! I’d get a credit. But it had to be perfect, every word understood, every inflection massaged, every idiom and expression truly conveyed. No seconds, no imperfects, this mink coat had to come out Neiman-Marcus first class.

There we sat, Lisa and I, at a task Erik promised would be half a day. It ended up taking more like 20 hours, over four days, but what a pleasure, what a joy. And the very first day, I noticed where I really was. In a twenty-first century cutting room? Not. Gazing out the tall window in Radical Avid’s warren of studios, the dingy towers surrounding me like giant dirty parsnips turned on end, suddenly I located my cultural GPS. A mink coat would have come in very handy, something to take the chill away on those damp winter mornings, like the tens of thousands stitched together right where I was sitting, when 345 Seventh hummed with furriers’ machines.

In the quiet and all of the sudden it hit me: here I sat, doing with words, exactly what the lingering ghosts had done for decades. The Klezmatics have done so for 20+ years, and the film about them will for many more, linking generations in a culture of Yiddish words and song. Indispensable to a thorough enjoyment of their talent and the material is knowing what the lyrics mean, wrapping oneself in the cloak of memory, touching the delicate fabric, feeling its caress.. That’s where I’ve come in, the proverbial messenger, the stitcher of that inheritance: I the furrier, I the tailor, designing and fabricating a warm cloak of language in which those who watch can snuggle and stay warm.

There on the wall was the pattern to follow, the film’s storyboards showing the bias and cut. There in Lisa’s smile was the glow of appreciation. Now she knows him a little better: her husband Barry Sherman, nee Borukh Shevinsky sat with us unseen through the hours of work. Shleppers and ganefs may no longer teem Seventh Avenue’s precincts. Their curses have fallen silent, but their language lives on. Scratch the stone walls and you hear the music. Yiddish is everywhere. Yiddish lives on.

MORE from The New York Wanderer about wanderings in Yiddish land is at:

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