Miriam's Journey: Discovering A New World
Miriam Bloom and her sisters had never seen their mother so excited.
“Guess what, girls!” Rose Bloom shouted, bursting through the door of their ramshackle house. She was out of breath with joyful tears splashing onto her round cheeks.
In Mama’s right hand was Papa’s latest letter, which had just arrived. In Mama’s left hand were four blue cards, each with a drawing of a ship and words printed in a language Miriam recognized as English. Mama waved the cards in the air and triumphantly proclaimed: “We’re finally going to America!”
“HOOORAAAY!” Miriam, Ida, and Sophie yelled, jumping like monkeys on the mattress they shared.
If not for their different heights, it would be hard to tell the sisters apart. All had their father’s auburn hair and their mother’s chocolate-brown eyes. Their lips were red as cherry lollipops and curved into a natural smile - especially today.
At age 12, Ida was the oldest. She was an impatient, hardworking girl who eagerly took on the most challenging chores, like carrying water, washing clothes, and plucking feathers off a chicken for Shabbat dinner. This freed up Mama to spend more time doing the chores Papa used to do, like tending their vegetable garden and chopping wood.
The youngest sister was 5-year-old Sophie. Quiet and painfully shy, Sophie always hid behind her mother’s skirt when introduced to someone. She loved to draw pictures of her family and her surroundings - and was quite good at it. Often, you could tell what kind of mood Sophie was in by looking at her drawings.
In the middle was Miriam, age 10, a tomboy who loved climbing trees and running through the overgrown field of grass outside her school. She admired her older sister, who seemed so grown up, especially since Papa left. At the same time, Miriam felt protective over her little sister. She’d make up games or sing silly songs to comfort Sophie when she was afraid.
Perhaps more than anything, Miriam loved to learn. For the past 12 months, she was learning to speak English. She’d obtained an English primer from her teacher and studied it with Mama. Every day, Miriam memorized a new phrase, such as “What’s your name?” “Where is the post office?” or “Please pass the salt.” Then she would teach it to Ida and Sophie.
Miriam was so thrilled by the idea of moving to America that she leaped off the mattress and into her mother’s arms, knocking them both to the dirt floor. Like playful kittens, Ida and Sophie piled on top. Everyone laughed until their faces hurt.
A whole year had gone by since the girls had seen their Papa, Samuel Bloom. He left Russia and sailed on a huge steamship across the Atlantic Ocean to America.
“There’s no future for us in Grodek,” Samuel told his daughters. Grodek was the name of their shtetl, or little village, near the shores of Russia’s Black Sea. “I’m going to set up a business and find us a new home in America. And soon as I make enough money, I’ll send for you. I promise.”
Miriam desperately wished Papa could afford to take everyone with him right away. But he barely scratched out a living mending and altering clothes. Although Papa worked hard, few people in Grodek earned enough money to buy new knickers, skirts, or coats on a regular basis. The Bloom sisters wore mostly hand-me-down dresses in drab colors like gray or olive green. It took Papa two years to save enough money to buy his own ticket to America.
Papa’s letters overflowed with vivid descriptions of his new home. He lived in a lively section of New York City known as the Lower East Side. There were many tall buildings, some 10 stories high, with shops on the ground floor and apartments above. There were also four- and five-story tenement houses, where many Jewish families lived in close quarters.
The New York City population was exploding with new immigrants, including Jews escaping persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe. From stores or pushcarts, you could buy anything you needed on the Lower East Side, from fresh rye bread and candy to furniture and furs. Newspapers and magazines written in English, Yiddish, Hebrew, or Russian were sold on almost every street corner.
No longer was Papa confined to sewing patches on knickers and replacing lost buttons. In New York, he was gaining a reputation for crafting beautiful clothing for women and girls. Papa’s letters often included sketches of his latest designs and small swatches of fabric. In New York, there were plenty of people who could afford the skirts and dresses Papa made. Still, it took him many months to save enough money to buy those four blue cards - tickets for passage on a ship that would finally reunite his family.
In the meantime, Papa continued to write home two or three times a week. Back in Grodek, reading his letters aloud at the kitchen table was an event, not just for the Blooms, but for their friends and neighbors, too.
“In America, everyone gets a chance to be successful,” one letter said. “The streets are paved with gold.”
“Paved with gold?” Sophie asked. “How could that be?”
“It’s just an expression that means America is a rich country,” Mama explained. “People can make a better living there than they can here in Grodek. In America, you don’t have to worry about having enough to eat. In a sense, America’s streets are paved with golden opportunities, Sophie, not real gold.”
In Grodek, the streets weren’t paved at all. They were made of dirt, with deep troughs on either side to help prevent flooding when it rained. There were no cars or bicycles. People got around on foot or on rickety, horse-drawn carts.
The houses lining Grodek’s streets were small wooden structures with thatched roofs. In some houses, the roof could be propped up on sunny days to air out the rooms. Water was fetched by the bucketful from nearby wells and streams. Mothers cooked over fireplaces or wood-burning stoves. Since there was no electricity, hurricane lamps and candles provided light. The fireplace radiated warmth but often lost the battle against the brutal Russian winters.
Members of the tight-knit shtetl communities spoke to one another in Yiddish, a language similar to German but written in the Hebrew alphabet. Outside the shtetls, the Jews spoke the language of the country they were in.
The majority of Jews in the shtetl were quite poor when it came to money. But when it came to kindness, they were very rich. For example, each Jew felt an obligation to take care of the other, and Miriam was no exception to that rule. She tried to be a “good Jew” by treating others as she would like to be treated, just as the Torah teaches. She also tried to be generous, a value she learned from Papa. As Grodek’s most sought-after tailor, he never charged his customers a penny more than they could afford. When necessary, he’d hem a skirt or let out a pair of trousers for free or in exchange for a dozen eggs or a bunch of carrots. The challenge was to make enough money during the week to buy some fresh fish or a chicken for Shabbat dinner.
Each shtetl operated like a big extended family. When there was a bar mitzvah, wedding, birth or other special event in Grodek, everyone celebrated together, as they did with holidays such as Passover and Chanukah. Orphaned children, recent widows and widowers, and the sick were cared for by their neighbors.
On Friday mornings, it wasn’t unusual for Mama to make a few extra challahs, which Miriam volunteered to deliver to some elderly neighbors. She enjoyed watching their faces brighten as they received the golden, sweet-smelling bread, still warm from the oven. Sometimes she would stay for a chat to relieve their loneliness or to learn about the past.
No one in Grodek thought twice about inviting a needy stranger or a yeshiva student to Shabbat dinner. People gave to charity, even when money was scarce, which was most of the time for many shtetl families.
Despite the daily struggles to survive in Grodek, the opportunity to make one’s fortune in America was only a minor reason for Samuel Bloom to move his family there. The most urgent reason was to escape a life of fear. The year was 1914, and Russia was an increasingly dangerous place to be Jewish.
It wasn’t always that way.
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