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What I Remember
By Eli Zimmerman (a Kurenitz native)
As told to Morton Horwitz
Most of the original members of Sheveth Achim [Synagogue in New Haven] came from the Kurenitz area of Russia. Kurenitz in pre-revolutionary times was in Vilna Gubernia (state) so the were Litvaks as well as Lubavitcher Chasidim. In fact, when I was a little boy of six or seven in Kurenitz of the 1980s, I remember that the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself came to our synagogue for a Shabbos. What a crowd greeted him! But no one was impressed with the way he chanted the haftorah. Although we all were Lubavitcher Chassidim, we did not wear black kaftans or suits or hats the way the Lubavitcher do in Crown Heights, just regular clothes. Of my family, my father came to this country first and brought me over in 1906 when I was sixteen. The rest came over a few years later. Everyone wanted to come to American because there was absolutely nothing to keep anyone inside Russia in those days. Most people couldn't make a living and the Czarist government didn't let Jews budge from here to there if they wanted to improve themselves.
THE KURENITZ CONNECTION
The Statue of Liberty celebration in 1986 was a special celebration for me too. It was just eighty years since I first saw the Statue when I passed it on my way to Ellis Island on the ship which brought me to America from Russia. I could see it only from a distance then, but it meant so much to me that I made up my mind that I would pay it a visit as soon as possible. So it was only a couple of weeks after the train had brought me to New Haven that I took the excursion train back to New York.
Relatives in New York showed me the way by subway and then the ferry. There I was, staring up at the Statue of Liberty. I climbed it all the way to the top. I would like to try to climb it again some day soon. The Statue meant, and still means, freedom for me; freedom from Russia, freedom from the Czar, freedom from poverty, and freedom from the old life of Kurenitz.
If, in Fiddler on the Roof, you could erase the name Anitevkah and substitute Kurenitz, you would have a good picture of my home town when I left it in 1906. For a long time already the struggling Jews in our Kurenitz had been keeping their eyes on America. Life was hard and bitter in that part of Czarist Russia in those days as I suppose it always was. To us it was Russia although actually we were Litvaks from Vilna Gubernia living among Lithuanians, Poles, Russians and, of course, Jews. Not just Jews, but Lubavitcher Chassidic Jews!
We were rich in religion, rich in Chassidism, rich in synagogues, rich in children, rich in Yiddishkeit, but oh, were we poor! But then almost everyone was poor. And it looked like things never would get better.
Things weren't so bad in Kurenitz, come to think of it. We had a bedroom, a living room, and of course, a kitchen. The only trouble was that all of this was in only ONE room! At least the bathroom was outside. But there was nothing about which to complain. We did have a floor. And the rent was cheap.
Our family had a well-rounded diet, too. Mostly it was potatoes made this way, that way, or another way. To back up the potatoes there was p'chah and herring and fried onions plus cholent and chicken and soup for Shabbos. Bread, however, was cheap and plentiful, good and fresh. The bagels were real bagels made of special white wheat, not like the goyishe bagels of America made with holes in them.
Those who lived in the "suburbs" had it a little better than we did food-wise. Because they had more room, they were able to raise chickens in the back yard with even a goat or two running around. We envied Zavel Estra's family and others like it who lived in the suburbs (shtetlach) and who had chickens and goats. But they didn't have a real floor! There were little fishing towns like Zaneritz in the Kurenitz area. There was plenty of fish to eat in Zaneritz but not much else. And there was trouble even in selling fish. Ask the Horwitz or the Zanrotsky families.
The residents of Anitevkah, I mean Kurenitz, constantly talked about "dos goldeneh lahnd - America" even in their sleep. Way back in the 1880s, some pioneers like the Krivitzkys, the Cohens, the Aldermans, and the Hoffmans had made the first move towards the New World. I can't figure out why or when these Kurenitzers first decided to settle in a city called New Haven. Maybe it was the "New" part of the name which made it sound almost like the famed New York. How they got to New Haven from the boats, I don't know; but soon these first settlers started bringing over their relatives and landsleit from that area. That was how New Haven came to be settled by the Kurentiz pilgrime.
Kurenitz in 1903 had a lot of synagogues and Hebrew Schools, but when any students showed some promise they were sent out to yeshivahs in Shmagun (pronounced Smagun by Litvaks). The yeshivahs there were not exactly Ivy League like the yeshivah in Lublin, but they were a step up in the way of traditional learning. So at the age of 13 off I went to Shmagun by horse and cart.
I didn't want to be a tailor but somehow I found myself in the shneider's yeshivah which was reserved for boys up to age 18 who were working to become tailors while studying. I could have gone to the shuster's yeshivah but I did not want to be a shoemaker either. Some of the fellows were very good students but they sure were shoemakers as tailors!
There were no scholarships or loans available then but yeshivah bochers did manage to get their meals free. By being on kest we rotated among different families who fed us because they felt it was an honor and certainly a mitzvah to do so. However, the problem with most of those generous people was that they hardly had enough to eat, themselves.
The only relative I had in Shmagun was an elderly aunt. All she could provide for me was a bed and some encouragement. It wasn't a pleasant life and soon I was lonesome for home. Shmagun probably was as far from Kurenitz as Bridgeport is from New Haven but it felt as if thousands of miles separated us. The Russians hadn't invented the telephone yet and there were no automobiles, railroads, or telegraph offices there either. And I don't remember whether or not there was a functioning postal service. We did not bother to mail letters. We sent them personally whenever someone was headed in the right direction. But it seemed that no one ever was headed to or from Kurenitz. For over a year I did not know what was going on at home. I had to get back to Kurenitz.
It took a few days to get to Kurenitz going mostly tsu foos (walking) and hitching wagon rides. When I opened the door of my home I received the shock of my life. Not only had my father left for America but also hut ongeton a shtickel on my mama. He had left her pregnant.
THE NEW HAVEN CONNECTION
In 1906 when I came to the U.S.A. to join my father alone in New Haven, we had to live as boarders. With so many greeneh coming in, almost every family housed boarders until rooms could be found. I joined my father at my aunt's house (flat) on Commerce Street. But as our situation improved, we moved up the ladder. Next, we lived with Chaim Winik's family righ above his blacksmith shop. Prominent attorney, Alexander Winik, was born there about that time. But soon we moved in with Leib Dimenstein, the father of Sam Dimenstien, and his family. It sounds like a lot of moving but actually it was done within the same group of tenements on the same street. As a matter of fact, Shamos Mordche Alderman was another neighbor. Only later when my mother cam from Europe in 1909 with my two brothers and sister did we get a place of our own on Lafayette Street.
Most families were large and so was ours, but we managed to find rooms on Lafayette Street. Almost all of the Jewish families lived nearby within walking distance. The Aldermans, the Levines, and the Kazdens already were prominent in our shul [Sheveth Achim] when I first started to go to services there. However, Max Gingold of the New Haven News Service was the gantze macher and later became president of the synagogue. Mordche "the Shamos" Alderman was busy and did most of the work just as he did for many years to come.
As I remember it, BÕnai Jacob, better known as the Russisher Shul was on Temple Street and there were synagogues on Bradley Street and off Dixwell avenue. Bikur Cholim was at the bottom of the Factory Street hill and we were on the top. But the most beautiful shul of all was the one on Rose Street. The reformed temple Mishkan Israel had its own rabbi but all other congregations were covered by shtot rabbis who did not mix in the affairs of individual synagogues. In 1906, I remember the names of two rabbis, Rabbi Rosen and Rabbi Fromer. None of us knew much about Mishkan Israel and we didnÕt care either.
On holidays, during the period 1910 and 1920, Sheveth Achim always was packed especially on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Most people lived nearby and were Orthodox. Even those who were socialistic or freethinking in their leanings attended the synagogue. The women climbed to the balcony without protest even when they were handicapped ill, aged, or just tired. ThatÕs the way it was Ñ no questions asked. The men were dedicated, religious Jews at Sheveth Achim, and fought to protect their own brand of orthodoxy, which meant keeping the Sepharidic nusach (order of prayers) as favored by Chassidim.
The front eastern wall was dominated by fiery men who were nothing like the easygoing synagogue leaders of today. How could I forget I. Hershman who founded the waste paper company, and another Mr. Hershman, he of the red beard, grandfather of Abe Silverman. These were strong opinionated men who could stand up to and alongside of the male Aldermans, Kazdens, Levines, and Perlmans.
The first hazan that I remember as leading the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, was a Mr. Levine. He not only was a fine hazan but a first-rate shochet and mohel as well. In fact, when doctors wanted a male patient circumcised for health reasons, they would call upon this Mr. Levine instead of a surgeon. Of course, in those cases, no blessings were recited.
After Mr. Levine, we had an unusual hazan for the Holidays. He was so short that I actually towered over him. But he had a big voice. Only much later did we have such fine hazanim like the Rev. Mr. Kurhan and Mr. Yardani. Mr. Kurhan wa a powerful shochet who had a great beard which made him look like pictures of Moses. Mr. Yardani was an import from Israel and thrilled everyone with his accent and youthful appearance. Every now and then, some of us would break away from the services and walk downhill to Bikur Cholim. What drew us there was the hazan who happened to be completely blind. He would perform all the difficult, long chanting entirely from memory. His name IÕve also forgotten.
My father brought me over from Russia at the age of sixteen not only to be with him but to help bring to this country my mother and the other members of the family. But it was hard for me to get a decent job. Finally, I passed myself off as an experienced mechanic, which I wasnÕt, and was hired by I. Newman and Sons. I. Newman had a corset factory which was on the corner of Oak and Commerce Streets and was a Jewish concern. The work force was 80% Jewish with a great number of women handling the sewing machines.
It turned out to be a steady job and, in fact, I became so expert in the specialized field of corset machine repair and later brassiere machines that I was never again at a loss for a job. After Newman, I helped Strouse, Adler straighten out its machine problems until just a couple of years ago when I was well past my 90th birthday.
Simchas Torah and the Hakofoth always were great fun at Sheveth Achim. Everyone attended with no exceptions. The men would bid furiously for the honors of leading the reading of a posuk (sentence) or the parading with the Torahs. Bids of $50 or $100 were not unusual even in those low income days.
The children of course, jammed into the Torah parades with their flags topped with lighted candles. ItÕs a wonder that we didnÕt have any accidents or fires. However, around 1915 or so, we were stopped from using lighted candles because of stricter fire laws. It seems that a Fourth of July celebration on the New Haven Green caused a panic among about 10,000 people who had gathered to hear speeches and watch a fireworks display when some exploding fireworks started a fire. After that, apples took the place of lighted candles on the flags.
In 1918, many New Haveners were drafted for service in World War I. Some of them, bachelors from our synagogue, went to war to save the world for democracy. After the war, when everyone came back, there was a big party held for them in shul.
My small size didnÕt keep me out of the army. DonÕt forget the men of that time were not as big as their children or grandchildren later. Besides, they needed me for the war effort. You see I was an expert on machinery used to make girdles, corsets, and brassieres. With that background, they trained me in New York and then sent me to my main post in Akron, Ohio. No, I was not to work on corsets or girdles; but I had to help produce something close relatedÐgas masks! The war ended after I had been in service for eight months and I was back in New Haven. I still have my army uniform in good shape, but I donÕt fit into it anymore. IÕve grown a lot since then.
At the end of World war I, most of the Sheveth Achim men in uniform came home early. They were the ones stationed in the U.S.A. like I had been. A few like Max Hurwitz, Morris Alpert, and Izzy Alpert did not get back until much later in 1919 having been overseas in France.
While waiting for our discharges, some of my buddies and I were sent back to New York and placed in barracks. There was little or no anti-Semitism within this group and we got along fine. My future bride, Anna Alpert, was the girl I left behind for the duration of the war and now, with New York so easily reached by train, she wanted to see me as soon as possible. Of course, I was lonesome for her company, too.
There was one problem, however. She would not come unless I guaranteed her a separate single room for herself. Being tied down with the details of trying to free myself from the service, I had to inquire from my fellow soldiers where I could find my wife-to-be a nearby place to stay. What did they answer? "A separate room! What kind of greenhorn are you?" Anna, like most of the Alperts in New Haven, was from my home town of Kurenitz but she was no greenh. Needless to say, I found a nice room for her as she wished. Otherwise, I wouldnÕt be telling you this story today.
Coming back to New Haven, I found things pretty much the way I left them. Sheveth achim was thriving with many newcomers joining. There were full quotas of men for the Chevreh Mishnayeth and the Chevreh Tehillim but, as always, there was trouble making a minyan. The women of the shul had plenty of organizations and auxiliaries to keep them busy.
I went back to work at NewmanÕs, and like everyone else, worked from sunrise until late in the evening. That is why, even in those supposedly more religious times, a minyan was not easily to be gathered. Oak Street became alive by six oÕclock every morning except Shabbos. Bakeries like the Bronx Bakery and TicotskyÕs were selling their hot rolls and breads by five AM. Even the grocer stores and fruit stands were ready for business at dawn. Closing hours had no set time with Thursday night and Saturday night practically all night affairs. Friday evening through the end of Shabbos found most stores shut tight except for a few non-Jewish places.
We young blades, in 1919 and after the war, were not as involved with the shul as we became later. We attended on all holidays and on Shabbos in order to please our parents and not become goyim. When not working, we were looking for fun, but the fun we had seems tame by todayÕs standards. It was before prohibition and Oak Street boasted of a number of "Jewish" bars, or should I say saloons. My favorite watering hole was Max PriceÕs place, but believe me, we didnÕt sip cocktails.
Max would allow no wild shikurim or drunken sprees and often would take men who had become ungetrunken and toss them right through the door. The doors were swinging doors so there never was any damage.
Not being married and pushing 30 by the end of World War I, I already was being considered an alter bocher, an old bachelor. But even though I had a girl, Anna Alpert, whom I intended to marry, I didnÕt want to go to the chupeh on a shoe string. I wanted to save up a lot of money first and get married as a rich man. And I did. As soon as I had put away $1000, a magnificent sum, Anna and I were ready to set a dateÐbut where was the chasineh to take place?
Sheveth Achim, on top of the Factory Street hill, like most synagogues of the time, was built up and down. The balcony for the women was on top; the shul was on the main floor; and there was a basement hall on the lower level. The hall was put to good use, but because of the whole building wasnÕt too wide, a large wedding reception was out of the question. A kiddush with herring, kichel and some whiskey or a small party by the Chevreh Mishnayeth or the Ladies Auxiliary filled the space tightly.
Larger affairs had to be moved to a more spacious spot. The brand new Hotel Taft ballroom was the favorite for the "alllrightniks", but other well0used halls were spread from the top of Kilday Alley to private dining halls and to other places long erased form my memory.
After considering all the possibilities just mentioned, we headed into another popular direction, an open-air affair. Religious people usually wanted the ceremony to take place under the sky, especially during warmer weather. Besides, the fans of those times were not as good at cooling off indoors as air conditioning is now. The worry was "what if it rained?"
Our wedding was performed not by a rabbi but a schochet, Mr. Einhorn, and it was outdoors. By 1920, my folks were living on Orchard Street as most immigrant Jews started to move upscale towards upper Oak Street, which later was separated and called Legion Avenue. There was a lot of good yard space between Orchard and Elliott Streets, which often was used as a path to connect the streets. It was there, on the same spot where Joe Alderman, brother of Abe and Sy, had been married just a couple of months earlier, that I finally broke the glass.
That great sum of $1,000 that I had saved up for our wedding did not last very long. I had planned for the wedding and for getting furniture and for the rooms we had rented on DeWitt Street. But I did not expect that my bride, Anna, would want to keep up with her neighbors and friends, and with the Joneses. She insisted that there was just no way that she would start up a home without a new sewing machine. She got the sewing machine and we had our honeymoon at Savin Rock!
Anna was delighted with the flat we had rented on DeWitt Street. After all, the street was in a nice neighborhood in the Hill and we looked forward to spending our early years blissfully there. However, the rent was pretty steep, $21 a month and we only took it when we saw that all the rooms had radiators, a sign of luxury, which meant central heating from a furnace.
Even though it was summertime, I immediately ordered a couple of tons of coal to be dropped into the bin. But lo and behold! When the coal was ready to be delivered, we found NO furnace. It had been removed. We had radiators but no furnace and no heat. I had been tricked by that goniff of a chicken dealer whose name I wonÕt mention.
Now we had purchased a gas range but no [heating] stove. After all, we thought that we had a furnace. So for the next couple of years we got some heat at night during the winter by dropping coins in the gas meter and using the gas range. That was only at night. In the daytimeÐwho needed heat?
Even though I was earning god money at NewmanÕs, $27 a weeks, it was tough keeping up with expenses. After a while, even my rent, without the furnace, went up to $23 a month. To top it all off, my dues at Sheveth Achim were raised to $6 a year. However, Mr. Gingold, the shulÕs president, promised that if I couldnÕt afford it, he would let me get by with $5 for the year. But now I was a family man and paid the full dues. After all, I was proud to belong to the biggest and best orthodox shul around except for the Rose Street shul. And I had to stay alongside of my father and daven in the Sepharidc nusach to which we Chassidim were accustomed.
My brothers and I were fortunate to have had some Hebrew education in Europe even though Philip and Harry came over at young ages. In New Haven, there was no organized Jewish school system; no cheder, no yeshivahs, no day schools, not anything in those years before World War I. It was everyone for himself with different rebbes coming over to teach whomever they could catch or could get to listen to them. Most of them were very good at rapping knuckles with a ruler or knipping ears, but not much good at keeping their pupils interested.
My sister, Freda, was an exception. Not only was it unusual for a girl to study Hebrew, but also unusual to have a fine teacher. Freda had to walk over to the teacherÕs house on Oak Street near Howard Avenue but it was worth it. I wish I could remember his name. Most parents didnÕt even expect to have their daughters accomplish much in the public schools, let alone pay to have them learn something about the chumesh or how to daven. You should have heard the outcry when some young ladies decided that they wanted to become school teachers. They were supposed to learn how to cook and sew and how to chahp a bocher. Who ever heard of women judges or lawyers or doctors or professors?
I left school early because I had to work, but Philip and Harry turned out to be good students. Philip came to Sheveth Achim regularly with the rest of us but not Harry. It seems that Harry was blessed with a good voice. He was asked join the BÕnai Jacob choir then directed by a Mr. Leff [Aaron Leaf]. BÕnai Jacob was in a new beautiful building on George street which had been built in 1912. Harry would have made a good hazan but then his voice changed.
Both Philip and Harry could have found good jobs at I. Newman & Sons making girdles. But no! They wanted to go their own ways. Philip became a lawyer and Harry a doctor. Nu, what can you do?
Philip however, never practiced law. After living and getting educated at different times and different places like Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and so on, he finally came back to New Haven to work with the big movie companies who had their area offices on Meadow Street. Harry did not go far! He went through the New Haven public schools in three years and then graduated form New Haven Hillhouse High School with the highest honors. Yale took an interest in Harry even though it had quotas for Jews and would rather take in sons from old Yankee families with money. Harry received a scholarship to Yale and even better, wen to Medical School on another scholarship. No, Harry did not go very far; he became head of YaleÕs Pathology department then on the corner of Cedar Street and Congress Avenue. I took World War II to get him out of town. After the war, he moved on to New York to run the Columbia Medical School and then to become the first dean of the Albert Einstein School of Medicine.
Now [March 1986], as I have been recording these old memories of mine, a strange feeling comes over me. Almost all of my generation is gone! Those who walked and worked alongside me on Oak Street and prayed with me on Factory Street are only pictures in my mind; and the names of those pictures are jumbled along with all that happened in those years before 1920. But I donÕt weep over times gone by. I accept life as G-d has given it to me and just go on, day to day. Since the death of my beloved Anna, I have been living comfortably in the care of my daughter Evelyn and her husband, Ernest Fiedler on Roydon Road. I follow with great interest the careers of my grandson, Marc, in Washington, D.C. and my granddaughter, Anita, working in Boston. But I must say that Bikur Cholim Sheveth achim remains, as always, an important part of my life, maybe even more so now that when I was younger. The shul dominates much of my time. I go to the daily minyanim and often daven at the ohmed. I join other members at breakfasts and turn down no synagogue social events. On Shabbos, from my position as a gabbai seated on the bimah, I look down over the new people, the young people, the children and grandchildren of those I knew so well. The sight warms my hart as I know it must have warmed my fatherÕs heart the same way, long ago.