My father never felt sorry for himself because he had no memory of his father; in fact, he reveled in his semiorphaned state because it had brought him closer to his mother, Manya, and to the young girls and older women who doted on him. Born Abraham Jacob, he called himself Jack after he heard the name shouted on the streets of the Lower East Side.
He emerged a precocious, mimetic child who talked English in long paragraphs, Yiddish in short ones, taught himself to read, sing, dance and make up enchanting stories without being urged. When he was four, to keep him company Manya sent for her seven-year-old sister, Bertha, born in Odessa after teenage Manya and her groom escaped to America. Everyone assumed that Bertha was Manya's daughter. She had neither the time nor the inclination to correct them. In the crowded noisy streets of New York's Jewish ghetto, no one put too fine a point on dates of birth, names or truth telling.
Manya worked like a dervish to support the two children, starting at dawn in Greenspan's bakery, where she baked bread and scrubbed heavy pots during the day, and then racing to her night job at a gaming room on Forsyth Street, where men played dice, cards, chess and checkers and drank a burning substance concocted by the owner, aptly referred to as Tyvil, or the devil.
The sign on his window read Cold Drinks, which translated into Yiddish as bronffin
, prepared from rubbing alcohol, whose recipe he guarded with zeal. He possessed no license to serve alcohol but the seltzer was legitimate, splashed into glasses that could have done with more zealous washing.
Manya's white hair at the age of twenty fascinated Tyvil and he hired her because she was fast on her feet and aroused desire in every man who had blood in his veins. She carried a flyswatter to keep them at bay.
Tyvil's original intention was to have Manya steal bread from Greenspan's bakery to serve with his barely fermented booze--he had often spied her coming from work with a fishnet bag filled with unsalable odds and ends of rolls, pumpernickel and rye. She refused his request and almost pushed him off the sidewalk in her indignation.
"What are you, some uptown Yankee, you won't be an American goniff?" Tyvil said, laughing.
Her blazing tongue put Tyvil in awe of her forever. "If I steal from Greenspan, then I steal from you. You want a goniff, find one, but not me."
"You're a freethinker. A woman who works Friday nights and Saturday mornings and you make a shrei about stale bread?"
"Need breaks iron," she retorted. "I have two children to feed. You want to call me a freethinker because I work when others daven, call all you want."
"You they should also call Tyvil. I'd die for that fire in bed."
Manya swatted both of his hands with her flyswatter and ran off. He pursued her. "Wait. You have the job. You'll wash glasses, serve seltzer, maybe a little something to eat . . ."
Her reputation as a cook spread without her knowledge--for the soups she brought to the bakery in a lidded tin for her midday meal, for her stews, for the scraps of dough that she turned into what the Russians called pelmeni and the Jews kreplach, dumplings stuffed with chopped meat and onions. She prepared hot borscht with beef in winter, shchi or cold borscht in summer, chicken cooked with prunes or a tsimmes with sweet potatoes, carrots and prunes.
Tyvil decided to suppress his lust and opt for Manya's cooking--he was either a bigamist with two wives, or unmarried with two mistresses. He persuaded Manya to cook one dish each night; in exchange she could keep the tips and bring her son, Jack, with her. These last two concessions sealed the arrangement. Bertha, her baby sister, did not mind sleeping with their neighbor, Mrs. Molka, until Manya returned from her night job, but Jack let out such howls of despair that she brought him to her night work.
In theory, Mrs. Molka took care of the two youngsters during the day. In fact, they drifted away from her and regardless of the weather spent whole days in the street, running between the pushcarts, gorging themselves on unwashed soft fruit that fell from the carts, or trading the ends of bread from Greenspan's for thin slices of halvah, or for ice scraped from huge blocks and doused with red sticky syrup. On hands and knees they combed the crowded streets for lost pennies, which they squandered on salted pretzels, pronounced "pletzels," or a single baked chestnut that Jack divided scrupulously.
Bertha proved to be an excellent student. Jack insisted that she drop both Russian and Yiddish and speak English only. Within six months her past fell out of her head and she became as Americanized as Jack, who had been born on Ludlow Street.
Jack told time by glancing at the sky. Once it turned bluish gray, a sign of dusk, he grabbed Bertha's hand and raced her back to Ludlow Street, up four flights of stairs to their one-room flat that faced another dingy building.
The room was dominated by one bed in which his father had died and he, Manya and Bertha now slept; a shaky wooden table and three straight-backed chairs, none matching, that came from a Hester Street pushcart. A two-burner gas ring and a tiny cold water sink completed the amenities.
The first word Bertha had taught Jack was Siberia, the coldest area in Russia, a punishing ground for criminals. The children screamed "Siberia!" as they entered the freezing apartment.
Then, Jack filled the dented tea kettle with water, lit the flame and placed a basin and the cheap brown bar of kosher soap on the table. With the warm water he washed his hair first, stating as always, "I can't stand schmutz in my hair," and then scrubbed the rest of his body with a rag, making certain that his skinned knees and muddy feet bore no telltale signs of the street.
Bertha's turn to wash came next. She protested that in Odessa she bathed her whole body only once during the entire winter. Shooting her a look of disdain mingled with pity, Jack retorted. "There are people right in this building who don't wash either. But we're not them. We're different."
Meekly, Bertha complied; decades later she still remembered her first American lesson in Jack's dandyism. He soaked their soiled clothes in the sink, wrung them out as best he could and hung them on the line outside the window. Sometimes the clothes from the day before had frozen solid and had to be thawed on the backs of the chairs.
Jack changed into clean unironed clothes and the hated shawl that his mother wrapped around his shoulders to protect his weak lungs. Doctors who practiced in the neighborhood prefaced every illness with the term weak: weak eyes, ears, throat, heart, lungs, stomach, right down to the feet.
The prospect of losing her child to the same illness that had killed her husband kept Manya in a constant state of anguish. She bundled Jack into bulky sweaters, festooned him with shawls fastened with a diaper pin, and at night covered him with the major share of the feather-filled blanket spread over the bed. Much as it embarrassed Jack to walk to Tyvil's gaming room wrapped in a shawl, the price was small compared to the joy of being there, especially on Friday nights.
On Fridays, Manya served hot cabbage borscht with chunks of beef and boiled potatoes, ladled into deep soup plates with chipped edges and a variety of pans that included frying pans.
Every table filled quickly with customers, some of them Orthodox Russians who came to drink themselves into oblivion, banged on the tables and demanded to know how Manya cooked such a mouthwatering soup from an axe.
She stood in the middle of the room and explained. "First, I take an axe and boil it in water. It doesn't have much taste, so I beg Tyvil for a little salt. He doesn't like to spend much money, so I have to get on my knees and ask him for a few wilted cabbage leaves. The meat, it's the worst kind, fatty, hard to chew, maybe it even smells bad, but I put it in the pot with the cabbage and soft tomatoes and cook it for hours and hours. And that's how I cook borscht from an axe."
The story was an ancient Russian folktale and Manya recited it in Russian, in Yiddish and in a combination of the two plus ghetto-style English. During the course of the evening she recited it at least twice and the men, already lit up on alcohol, cheered, whistled and dumped their loose change for their charming chef.
Jack scooped the pennies and occasional nickels into a miniature drawstring clothespin bag that he hid in the folds of his shawl. The secret to his mother's borscht was brown sugar, thrown in by the handful along with rock sour salt. Every Thursday night she prepared split pea soup with flanken, fighting with Tyvil because she wanted a better quality of meat.
"If you cook an axe, you get an axe," she cried in protest. "God knows where you buy this junk. A starving dog wouldn't eat it."
Even as they argued about the quality of the meat, she was chopping the cabbage for the borscht; she cooked both soups simultaneously. The split pea soup vanished within an hour; the borscht had to marinate overnight and was reheated the following evening on a low flame. Not once did Jack eat there; Manya wouldn't allow him to taste such inferior food.
Not that the soups interested him. He loved Friday nights because Joe Bloom played chess on Fridays only.
Joe, slim, wiry and not much taller than Manya, had fingertips permanently stained black from the ink he used as a typesetter for the Jewish Forward. He wore a blue dress shirt and his sad eyes had dark smudges beneath them. Jack wondered whether Joe rubbed his stained fingers under his eyes to create those dark circles. As soon as Manya entered, Joe would raise his hands from the chess pieces to stare at her, a bloom of red coloring the pallor of his cheeks.
One Friday night he beckoned Jack over. "Come here, I'll teach you something."
"No, how to read a horse-racing form."
His chess partner left for home and Joe shut the chessboard and tumbled the pieces into a clean cigar box. Joe wouldn't use Tyvil's greasy food-stained games. He spread two newspaper clippings on the table.
"These are racing forms, one in Yiddish from the Forward, one in English from the Daily News. Take a look. First race, Jack the Giant Killer; second race Jack and the Beanstalk."
Jack peered at the words in English. "I don't see Jack written anywhere."
"So you can read?"
"Of course, whole books. These horses, you play them for their names?"
"No. I study the comment."
"It's the information about the horse. How old she or he is, where he ran before, how many times he won. Also who the mother is. Horses are like people. The mother is very important."
A sigh escaped Joe's lips. He rubbed his eyes with his inky fingers. No dye came off.
"Your mother is beautiful, intelligent, and her husband, your father, he read poetry to her. She doesn't belong here. It's a rough place, with rough men. She should quit this job as soon as possible and open her own restaurant."
Jack tweaked the black curtain that shrouded the store window. On Friday nights Tyvil closed the curtain and didn't turn on the outside light, pretending the store was closed so that the Orthodox on their way to shul wouldn't hurl curses at him or spit on his doorstep for allowing gambling on the Sabbath eve.
After a long pause, Joe said, "I'm walking you home."
In fact he carried Jack to Ludlow Street with Manya at his side, and up to the top floor. Manya collected Bertha from Mrs. Molka and tucked both children into bed. A ten-watt bulb sputtered in the hallway before it went out. That instant was enough for Jack to catch the two adults kissing. Then they were enveloped in darkness.
The moment his mother curled into bed Jack poked his elbow into her ribs. "I saw him kiss you."
"And you kissed him back."
"Are you marrying him?"
She hugged her son close to her. "Do you think one kiss means marriage? In Russia and in Europe, men kiss on both cheeks instead of shaking hands. At concerts in the park, people who know each other kiss. And men and women kiss to say hello, good-bye, thank you. I kissed Joe, he waited for me to finish work, he carried you all the way home and up the stairs. Don't you think a kiss is coming to him?"
"No. You should give him a few pennies from your tips."
"A grown man, a few pennies? I can't talk more--I'm tired. I've worked all day without a stop and while it's still dark I have to creep into Greenspan's."
Too exhausted to argue, Jack resigned himself to that kiss. He felt sorry that his mother had to slip into the bakery before the sun rose. She did this to prevent the Orthodox men from taunting her, yelling "Shabbas goy" because she worked on Saturday until noon. At the bakery she opened the large oven door where dozens of pots filled with cholent simmered lazily. She shifted some of the pots around so that none were overcooked while others remained tepid.
By ten o'clock, the hungry customers had lined up outside the basement door, old cloths in their hands to prevent their fingers from burning as they transported their cholent home. Cholent was a stew known the world over by different names and in existence since antiquity. There were countless variants--it derived its flavor from beef, chicken, potatoes, beans, barley, with or without vegetables, that simmered in low heat for about twenty hours. It was the traditional Shabbas meal.
In theory, Manya admitted three people at a time to select one of the pots that she pulled from the oven on a huge plank. In fact, the aggressive ones jumped the line, pushed and shoved, and amid the shouts and curses, pot covers flew, ingredients spilled and Manya's flyswatter went into action in an attempt to maintain order.
If she was tired when she entered the bakery under a cloak of darkness, she left with no energy at all after cleaning the mess on the floor and on the basement steps. She tucked her white hair under a shawl large enough to conceal most of her face, claimed her own pot of cholent and stumbled to her building and up the four flights of stairs. There she tore off her shawl, and in the Sabbath silence went to bed.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Up from Orchard Street by Eleanor Widmer. Copyright © 2005 by Eleanor Widmer. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.