Fiddler Over Wisconsin (circa 1904)
Jewish settlers in the middle west were of German and Russian-Lithuanian descent. Milwaukee was the nucleus of Jewish life in Wisconsin, branching into small communities all over the state. The immigrants started as peddlers by wagon, to the farmers, next opening small stores in outlying areas, and finally many became bank presidents and chain store owners. Some went on to politics—such as Joseph Cohen, State Treasurer of Wisconsin—serving as leaders of their communities.
The morning of That Day” dawned in warm spring radiance and there was an aura of expectation in our small house. I was dressed up in my blue-sashed white organdy dress—my skirt stood out like a small umbrella over ruffled petticoat and drawers edged in crocheted lace. My new white ribbed stockings “squeaked” as they were stretched taut to the garters over spindly legs and up from the glistening patent slippers with their three buttoned straps. My curls hung in long spirals, having been done the night before—and now brushed and shining—were topped by a big blue bow.
Standing on a chair, I peered through the lace curtained window and as the grandfather clock in the hall bonged the hour, I saw down the street three very odd looking men walking up the wooden sidewalk with my father. As they came closer I could see their long beards—black silk coats flapping in the breeze and large hats. It was a strange sight in the provincial village for few strangers were seen in our town except on circus day—when we were told to “lock the door and put the key under the mat.” A curtain pulled back here and there let our neighbors view the scene discreetly.
The jewels of the mind never lose their luster …They illuminate a lifetime.
I remember…I remember…that day, so long ago, in Centerville.…Now I am a grandmother of seven and great-grandmother of six .. The Child who peered out the window “That Day” was only four years old.
In this small Wisconsin village a child was born on a day in May. A son. Not an auspicious occasion to the world but to the Jewish parents no prince born to the throne could have been more honored and welcome. The Mother and Father turned thoughts to the strong traditions of their heritage. A son required very special ceremonies.
The Father—the town’s leading merchant, tall and sparse—struggled to keep the faith of his forefathers alive. No small task—in an alien world—for ours was the only family of Jewish faith in our town and, for that matter, in the whole county. He was a soft-spoken—kindly gentle man—respected in the community and whose “dry goods” store served the farmers and town folks alike with their every need. Long on credit for those who had a bad crop that year and long on patience for the spinster Williams who always sought leftover pieces of ribbon and remnants for her handmade hats.
On the High Holy Days the Father would journey by train to the city and renew his faith at the Temple of his youth with his aged parents, sisters and brothers. One time the family went along. The women sat in the balcony according to ancient custom—I peered below to see my Father and brother in the front row wearing long silk scarves and small black caps on their heads. Swaying back and forth as they chanted the prayers in a tongue strange to my ears—I gazed on the scene in awe.
So this was the Father—who now must have the blessings and rites performed for the new son. By letter to the nearest city the Father had made aarrangements for a Rabbi and two elders to travel by train to officiate at the ancient rites of brith milah—circumcision and blessing.
On That Day as I kept watch at the window the three strangers and my Father came into view and now they walked on the narrow wooden sidewalk and up the wooden step to the front door.
Arrayed in the most beautiful silk and lace dress, Mama was radiant and greeted the visitors with joy. I had seen the dressmaker in our back bedroom sew on the lacy ruffles of that dress by hand for many long days. This welcome swirled above my head and as the bewhiskered old men bent down to kiss me and pinch my cheek I struggled to be free and ran to my corner behind the plush couch.
The news of friends and relatives—talk of the city—talk of the village—all fell in tumultuous gay confusion. Mindful of the time, as need be, for only one train left our village each day—the real mission of their journey should now be accomplished. Everyone moved into the lace curtained parlor as the Mother carried the infant from his crib in the bedroom. The holy men stood swaying to and fro—the ancient Hebrew words blended into a chant falling in a cadence that touched some mystical response, even in a child.
The Mother’s face, as she handed the babe to the Rabbi, was flushed and tense…I could not see the baby now, but I heard his sharp cry. He cried in a rising crescendo—but not for long—soon it dwindled to a wail and as he was handed back to the waiting arms of the Mother the wail subsided. The prayers continued to flow around us—the silver chalices holding the wine were quaffed audibly. Toasts to the child—the parents—the older brother, the two sisters and handshakes—embraces—more wine—more blessings. Oh it was a gay scene all right in that prim little parlor! The babe was now carried back to his wooden cradle next to the Father and Mother’s bed and swaddled in his long flannel gown and tightly bound in his cover, he slumbered on peacefully.
The wooden sliding doors now were opened—the delicious aroma of the dinner let no one mistake that this feast was ready and waiting. The huge round oak table was covered in white shining damask that billowed to the floor. Tall crystal goblets edged with gold bands and matching wine glasses stood in perfect precision next to the large gold-monogrammed white dinner plates. The heavy, exquisitely etched, silver place settings were bordered by the enormous damask napkins that were big enough to envelop a child from tip to toe, and so did.
Always known for her superb cooking, the Mother had excelled this day and truly it was a banquet that love had made. The candelabra was lighted—all were seated and a blessing was said by the Rabbi. The “hired girls,” a faithful part of this family for many years, were wide-eyed at the scene—but deftly passed the large soup plates shimmering with the golden chicken soup—thick with the very finest noodles Mama had ever made. Huge platters of roasted brown chicken—bowls of cloud-like mashed potatoes—thick yellow chicken gravy—home-made jellies and watermelon pickles in cut glass dishes—butter moIded into fluted yellow flowers—home-baked twisted bread—carrots and sweet potatoes in the covered tureen—crusty brown potato pudding cut in thick squares. On and on the platters of food kept coming from the kitchen in seemingly never-ending supply. The wineglasses were kept filled—the platters were passed and they all blended into a dream-like sequence in my sleepy eyes.…
The final culinary masterpiece was yet to come—A LEMON PIE—the famous lemon pie that was so popular at the annual St. Patrick’s church supper, for Mama donated her pies and they were always sold “first thing.” The meringue on this pie swirled in white clouds; with beads of dew shimmering on the pale delicate brown peaks—and under it, the lemon filling in its pale yellow beauty made Mama’s pie a masterpiece.
While the aromatic smell of coffee filled the air as it was poured from the heavy silver urn into the exquisitely thin gold-banded white cups, tiny brandy glasses were filled with amber liquid while cigars were passed out to the men.
The conversation dwindled to talk of train time. As the candles flickered, a prayer of thanksgiving was intoned and we returned to the parlor. The men smoked their cigars and were entertained by the daughter playing “Rustle of Spring” and “Minute Waltz” on the old upright piano.
After farewells were said—the walk to the station was a long one and my Father was gauging their time on a big gold watch that hung on a heavy chain from his vest pocket.
A last look at the sleeping babe—another bearded kiss for me and down the wooden walk the four men left—I watched as long as I could see them from my window.
The house was now strangely silent—an aura of peace wrapped each one in his own reverie. The stiffly starched lace curtains stood like altar pieces in the quiet parlor.
At my window I watched and waited—I heard the train whistle in the distance. At long last through sleepy eyes I saw my Father walking with his long stride and I ran fast to meet him—I put my small hand in his large beloved one and walked the rest of the way.
Through these many years I have traveled far from the faith of my Father—seeking—seeking but now I have returned.
The seeds sown so long ago did not fall on barren ground—but have flowered though dormant many years. God is patient with his children—truly “Our Father.”
Now I am back to the faith of my heritage but with added dimensions. How strange, I think, that God saw fit to hallow the name of another Jewish mother and chose her to bring into the world his only begotten Son.…And how sad that he was born to my people and then lost by us. We didn’t know he was for us. But in these many decades I have learned what is eternally important.
Dear Father—thank you for showing me the way and thank you for the gift of Your Son.