From the American Scene: My Sisters Take Culture
Whenever I watch my small daughter run barefoot and free at “rhythm class,” I remember how my devoted mother kept buying expensive ballet slippers for my sisters and me. Why we needed ballet slippers for the mongrel art Miss Dora imparted to us I still don’t know after more than twenty-five years. A real ballet step would have sent us flat on our smug little faces.
But Miss Dora said ballet slippers: all the other mothers bought ballet slippers and our mother bought ballet slippers. She bought them in triplicate—because three of her four daughters took the combination elocution, dancing, and—singing lessons which Miss Dora lumped as Public Appearance.
Mamma was pleased at having a trio of her own to Appear Publicly, and she would have shepd even more naches from her whole quartet. But Stella, the eldest, was an intellectual high-school senior who scorned this new craze. She had her school work, her piano lessons, her duties in Papa’s stationery store, and her dates; and she considered that a full life.
Naomi, Ruby and I, aged fifteen, nine and twelve, also had homework, music lessons, and the store—but no dates as yet, so there was a small niche available in our lives when the Fineberg girls came running with the news about Miss Dora.
Nettie Fineberg was incoherent with excitement. She clutched a paper with some names written on it, and a pencil.
“She’s from London, England, and she was an actress,” Nettie gushed, “and she’ll come to Jersey City every week if we get enough kids, and—”
“What are you talking about?” Mamma said. “Nobody could come from London to Jersey City every week.”
“No,” Nettie’s sister Tessie explained. “She was in London, now she’s in New York. She’s a high-class elocution teacher, and she says she isn’t interested in the money so much as she wants to bring culture to Jersey City.”
“It’s seventy-five cents apiece if we get ten kids in the class,” Nettie snatched back her tale, “and if we get more it’s only fifty cents.”
“But it’s just for little kids, isn’t it?” Mamma asked.
“Everybody,” Tessie protested. “Miss Dora says big or little, she can teach you culture and poise.”
Mamma needed no adding machine to figure that four times seventy-five or even fifty, plus my violin lessons and piano instruction for the other three girls, added up to a good weekly slice for culture.
But Mamma was the kind of woman who maneuvered her almost unending workday so that she could sit in her room with me and sew behind closed doors for the daily hour I practiced my fiddle. She protected my sisters’ nerves and guarded me from possible assault.
She didn’t hesitate now.
“Put my girls down.” She pointed to Nettie’s subscription list. “Put them all down.”
Sister Stella promptly declined, but almost no one else in Jersey City did. The Bergs had only to hear that the Finebergs were in, and all the Cantors needed to be told was that the Bergs had joined up.
So it spiraled until the class hit the fifty-cent zone and then got too big for anyone’s home. Finally Mr. Fineberg cleared an enormous space in the basement of his dry-goods-and-department store. He put benches around, strung up extra cable lights, and sent his truck with delivery man and porter to fetch the battered upright piano donated by another father. The class then officially opened, with twenty-seven aspiring Public Appearers.
Class met every Wednesday after school and lasted till 5:30. Part of the time we received group instruction, as when we stood in rows and learned “positions” for our feet, or waved our arms gracefully in time to. Ethelbert Nevin’s “Narcissus.”
Then, while each child was called up to do her “specialty”—a recitation piece, a song, a dance, or a hodgepodge of all—the rest would take to the benches and watch as quietly as possible. Criticism by anyone except the teacher was not encouraged.
A delegation of mothers also warmed the benches at every lesson, and competed with each other in inviting Miss Dora home for supper after class. She was probably the most glamorous person any of us had ever met. I don’t mean in appearance—for she was plump, faintly mustached, in her late forties, and dressed bunchily in a style Mamma termed “Dutchy.” Dutchy meant “not classy.”
“I can’t figure her,” Mamma would ponder. “She dresses Dutchy like the goyim, still she’s Jewish. Maybe it’s because she’s from England. But I must say she is an interesting woman.”
Miss Dora was rich in personality and in tales of the London stage. The names of George Arliss, Mrs. Pat Campbell, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and the other British great fell from her lips with both reverence and familiarity.
It thrilled us to learn pieces full of British words like “subaltern,” “Jolly good, eh!” and “Pip, pip, toodle-oo, old chappy.” Years later I realized Miss Dora’s staggering repertory was strictly music hall.
She poohed the idea of going on the stage in New York. Not when she had her deah, deah children to teach in Newark on Mondays, Brooklyn on Tuesdays, Jersey City on Wednesdays, White Plains on Thursdays, and New York on Fridays. With such an itinerary we were deeply grateful that she awarded Jersey City a day, and even more honored when she supped with one or another family.
On such occasions Miss Dora sometimes got to meet the fathers of her pupils. Not often, for they were chiefly storekeepers, and in our milieu a father and mother could seldom sit at table together.
Sometimes a father popped out of his nearby store for a few minutes to look in on the class with wonder and pride. Mr. Fineberg, Nettie’s and Tessie’s father, dropped in often, for we were in his basement, and he had plenty of hired help to leave in charge upstairs.
But I am afraid our fathers knew much less about our cultural lives—and that includes our reading and musical tastes as well—than did our mothers. Fathers were limited to hearing their offspring “oblige” for visiting relatives on Sunday, maybe managing to get to pupil “recitals” once in a yoivel, and paying for the lessons. Sometimes they had a share in deciding what lessons should be taken, sometimes they weren’t consulted. Some wives who knew their husbands would take the short and derisive view of culture avoided argument by signing up first and telling after.
But I am happy to report that a great many fathers did share the mammas’ eagerness to give their children every opportunity America afforded—everything they themselves didn’t have as children in Europe, or later as hard-working new Americans.
I am not talking solely about our friends. I am talking of Jewish parents in general—all those plain men and women who somehow always manage to buy their children more expensive pianos, fiddles and ‘cellos than they can afford—or even the best in tenor saxophones and clarinets for those traitors who distress mammas and papas by preferring jazz to “classic.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt the family pocket any when those same jazz-students worked their way through college by taking dance jobs night after night, and spending summer vacations playing at Catskill resorts. This is still an honorable and accepted way to utilize childhood lessons. To be sure, the pickings are slimmer since our sophisticated young have been spoiled by the glamour of the “name band.”
But few parents we knew looked for tangible returns from the money they cheerfully spent on the “children’s future.” On our economic and social level, and in our time, you seldom found Jewish mothers prodding a child to the limit of physical endurance to produce a prodigy, a concert musician, a stage star. True, if you didn’t practice there was a gevald and geshrei. But that was partly because money came hard and fees weren’t to be wasted, partly because discipline is discipline, partly because mothers like to have their children perform good for the Eastern Star or the Ladies’ Aid.
“I don’t expect my girls to become actresses,” Mamma explained to Mrs. Schoenstein, who asked advice about her Pearl joining our class. “Gott zoll ophitn. These children in the vaudeville shows—what kind of life is that for kids?”
The movies, which later planted seeds of hope in more maternal breasts, were as yet an infant industry. No Shirley Temple, no Margaret O’Brien to put ideas into parental heads. Nor had radio mushroomed into a tempting market for child voices. Most of us were taught to saw away at our fiddles, bang away at our pianos, pipe out our songs and fling our skinny legs in dance without ulterior motive, just as most boys were sent to heder every afternoon without the rabbinate as goal.
I do know one fanatic Jewish mother in recenter years who filled every half-hour of her daughter’s time. She apportioned the child’s life among teachers of piano, harmony, dance, painting, and voice, plus Italian and French to pronounce the songs properly. No one was surprised when poor Ginger had a bad nervous breakdown at the age of twelve. Yet this same regimen has undoubtedly produced child-wonders in other, more fortunate homes.
All in all, more than half the girls my sisters and I went with took lessons of some kind, and most of us ended up not as celebrities or nervous wrecks but as wives. (Perhaps, after all, that was the underlying motive.)
As for the three of us, when we became disciples of Miss Dora, we weren’t thinking of carving out careers or snaring husbands. The whole thing sounded like fun, all the other girls were doing it, and we wanted to. It was almost impossible for us to plumb the mental depths of someone like Dot Siskind who didn’t want to join the class, but was forced to by her mother.
Every Wednesday Mrs. Siskind dragged her sullen ten-year-old to Mr. Fineberg’s basement and stood guard lest Dot escape to play ring-a-leavio in the street with tough boys.
Dot’s open hostility was hard on Miss Dora. Our teacher usually sat at the piano, thumping out accompaniments while watching us over one shoulder and shrieking instructions in perfect time to the tune. When Dot “joined” the class Miss Dora stopped bothering to sit down. To save wear and tear she just stood at the piano banging out chords, for she was forever rushing out on the floor to push Dot into a position remotely resembling what the rest of us were doing.
Finally Miss Dora said she thought Dot’s talents were strictly elocutionary and limited her solo work to reciting.
That was how Dot got herself out of the class. One Wednesday she appeared affable and smiling—so cooperative that poor Mrs. Siskind almost wept with pleasure. She went through the “positions” without once stepping on her own feet, she waved her arms to Nevin’s “Narcissus” without hitting the next girl in the eye.
When called upon for her piece, she walked prettily to the center of the floor, made the proper bow to teacher, mother, and audience, and then recited:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
The hell with the whole
Damn lot of you.
My sisters and I were happy in Miss Dora’s class. But almost immediately she began typecasting, and I didn’t like the way she sized me up. I was a morose, earnest, and worrisome child. Miss Dora gave me only comic pieces to recite, like the one starting “I was a habby Deutscher, zo habby as can be,” followed by a waddling, silly Dutch “character” dance.
We thought Miss Dora clever to divine the latent emotion in our good looking, excitable Naomi. Sorrow or anger always sent Naomi to the piano where she would sit for hours playing things like “Träumerei” and “Reverie” with more schmaltz than technique. Now Miss Dora groomed her as tragic disease of the class.
As for Ruby, redheaded, freckled, and fresh—she was the family nymph. She got to do adorable, pert little dances. Sometimes she was a flower, sometimes a bunny.
Actually, Ruby had become a notable Public Appearer a good two years before, when at seven she delighted an audience not so much with her piano playing as with her impudence.
The occasion was a “pupil recital” by Ruby’s expensive piano teacher, who believed in such swank as renting the Aeolian Hall auditorium in New York City, no less.
One by one, starting with the tots and working up to girls old enough to be getting married, each pupil would walk to the stage with poise and play a piece while another shared the bench to turn pages.
Tiny Ruby rollicked her way through pages I and 2 of a baby piece, “Camp of the Gypsies,” and was ready for the other side, but nothing happened. The big, slow page-turner had gone off into a private daydream.
Instead of doing the job herself, Ruby put her small hands in her lap and screeched through Aeolian Hall, “What’s the matter? Are you asleep?” She got a terrific hand.
Clairvoyant Miss Dora recognized my kid sister’s impishness and rewarded her accordingly. Only I, the clown yearning to play Hamlet, was misunderstood.
But Mamma was enchanted with our progress. At last she had something tangible to contribute when the shul Sisterhood or the Ladies’ Aid begged talent for their entertainments. Until now Mamma had drawn a blank in her children. She would come home from a meeting and sigh.
“The Radner girl played the violin like a dream,” she would tell us wistfully. “I don’t know—only my children never want to do anything.”
“But Mamma, none of us play well enough for that.”
“Oh you’re too fussy. The ladies talk all through the program anyway. Anything would sound good to them.”
Now, Gott zei dank, we could at least recite and Ruby could dance. And on one occasion we got a chance to see the value of taking lessons and using them. We shared a Sisterhood program with a young chiropodist who had just opened his office. He sang a few numbers in a nice, semi-cultivated voice. Everyone applauded. He bowed charmingly, distributed his professional cards throughout the vestry room, and left. Mamma said it brought him plenty of clients with corns and bunions.
If Miss Dora’s instruction enriched the Ladies’ Aid entertainments, they didn’t pauperize our private Sunday morning musicales either.
These always began with a housecleaning bout. Mamma, who had a tough enough week in the store, spent Sundays lavishing attention on the house. We four helped—in our own fashion.
Mom, the general, set one to dusting, one to sweeping, one to bedmaking, the other to washing breakfast dishes while she cooked dinner. (Pop was in the store, for we never closed Sundays.)
Unfortunately, Stella couldn’t dust the piano without running her hands over a few keys and pretty soon she was playing something. She played very well—the only good musician among us—and Mom would sigh with satisfaction as she stirred knedels for the chicken soup.
When Stella drifted from Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” to “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” and “Japanese Sandman” I could no longer hold myself in. This I knew how to play. Many a practice hour I had wasted scratching through the sheet music Stella’s ritzy beaux bought her at the Ziegfeld Follies, George White’s Scandals, and the other Broadway musicals to which they were always taking her.
Now, hearing her play the Tin Pan Alley stuff I had painfully mastered in the first, second, and even third positions, I would slip into the parlor, pull my violin case from the top of the piano, and pray Stella wouldn’t decide to dust as soon as she heard me tuning up.
Naomi, yanking sheets around beds, joined us in her pleasant but off-key voice. Before long she and Ruby were standing at the piano and all were shouting, as Mom happily put it, “at the top of their lungs.”
Across the quiet Sunday street people stopped and looked up. That was when we lived over the store on a main business thoroughfare. Later, in our nice little house on a side street, we competed with the choir of the Baptist church next door.
What a repertory! “Ki-i-i-is me, ki-i-i-is me, a-a-again,” “Jada, Jada, jada jada zing zing zing,” “It’s three-e-e-e-e o’clock in the maw-aw-awning,” “A good man, te da te dum, is hard to find, te da te da, you always get, te da te doo, the other kind,” “At daw-aw-awning, I love you.” And next door, the hymns.
Naomi and Ruby coupled up, danced as they sang. If Stella jumped from the piano bench to dance, Naomi sat down to play. I tried singing and fiddling together, but my chin wobbled too much.
Mom went around beaming. She finished the dusting, finished the beds, finished the dishes, finished the gebrutene chicken. And the band played on.
Today Mom need only turn on the radio to clean house accompanied by a symphony orchestra or a hot jazz band. But I think she’d gladly trade in Toscanini, Tommy Dorsey, her beloved Kate Smith, and Frank Sinatra for one more Sunday morning jam-session by her own quartet. After all, can a mother kvell over Sinatra—unless she happens to be his mother?
What’s more, our pre-radio home didn’t need any “audience participation” shows to make Mom feel she was right in there with us. We hadn’t been taking elocution—I mean Public Appearance—lessons three months before she found herself dragged into the thick of our cultural efforts.
What happened was that Miss Dora decided our group was ready to Appear Very Publicly. She announced a pupil “concert,” rented a real though unused theater. This gave the whole daft proceedings an important air in our town and set us rehearsing like mad.
A concert meant costumes and costumes meant Mom. She was a gifted sewer who laughed scornfully at patterns. We would come home from rehearsal, run through the little gems Miss Dora had cooked up, and Mom would immediately envision how we should look.
“So then, Ma,” Naomi explained, “I take this Egyptian vase down from my shoulder and go into this wild Egyptian dance with Nettie Fineberg—she’s the fellow. A storm comes up and Nettie is killed and I bend over her—him—and cry. Then the music gets happy and Nettie jumps up. . . .”
All this highly Egyptian music was from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” Suite. Mom listened raptly to Naomi’s interpretation of Miss Dora’s brainstorm, nodded a few times, grabbed her scissors, and came up next day with a charming costume—Turkish.
With three daughters in the show, Mom became a regular theatrical designer. My parts alone ranged from a Dutch comedian to the Statue of Liberty, a prince, a geisha girl, a sailor, and George Washington. (As George, I minuetted with what appeared to be a large powdered wig on legs, but was really my tiny sister Ruby.)
Miss Dora took one enchanted look at our costumes and stopped worrying about that department. She routed all mothers to Mom—who began staying up nights with her scissors.
There were so many numbers! There had to be. If you didn’t get lots of good parts for the show, your mother yanked you out of the class and Miss Dora was out fifty cents a week. So she stuffed everything in.
Even so, at the dress rehearsal some grumbled that every time the curtain went up one of my mother’s kids was on the stage. That, Miss Dora pointed out, was because there were three of us.
I’d have gladly given up some of my numbers, especially in the “ensemble”—a chorus line specializing in high kicks of uneven lengths. It was no fun to flutter around daintily in a Japanese kimono over a heavy blue serge sailor-suit with pants. At the last minute Miss Dora found she had billed a hornpipe to follow immediately after a geisha fan dance. So we had to wear two layers of costumes, and shed quickly. Fan dance indeed!
Truth is, I’d have sacrificed everything just to be my sister Naomi in her terrific climactic number, “The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God.”
This was an elocution piece about a handsome, reckless subaltern in India who stole the idol’s jeweled eye as a gift for his frivolous love, and got bumped off for his bother.
I used to practice the way my sister panted, “An ugly knife lay buried—in the heart—of Mad Carew”—and then drop my voice sepulchrally as she did to intone, “’Twas the vengeance—of—the—little—yellow—god.” With each word my head would fall lower on my thin chest. The fist I had clenched to Heaven now dropped to my side, the fingers opening out slowly, limp—and—dead.
I learned every word of that Kiplingesque tear-jerker. I could give it every quaver Naomi gave it, every sob and moan and mutter. But I could mutter it in my beard for all Miss Dora cared.
I remember little of the show night itself except a hot haze and a numbness where my brain should have been. Evidently we all reacted alike, for the wings were thick with mothers who reached out, seized their off-coming offspring, jerked them into dressing rooms, pulled off costumes and slapped on costumes. How Mom did it for three of us I do not know, but she must have, for there is no record of any of us appearing before the footlights in underwear.
By the time another concert rolled around, Naomi had discovered boys and quit being a tragedian. I, bored to tears with funny poems, dropped out too.
Only Ruby kept up her art. She was the star of special assemblies in P.S. 39. She was the hit of the Saturday night show at Fleischberg’s Mountain Resort the time she hopped in through the Casino window in her little rabbit suit to do her bunny dance.
When I gave my first awkward girl-and-boy party I told Ruby she could do a dance for us—but it had to be MY dance. I’d never heard of choreography, but I had a feeling that if you can’t dance, the next best is to have someone do the steps that wander around in your head.
After a week of shrill squabbling in the parlor we had our dance—strictly a homemade job. Mom sewed the flowing tunic according to my instructions, and begged in vain for just a few spangles on the plain cheesecloth.
At the first dull, tense moment in my party I put a recording of Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song” on the crankhandle victrola.
And Ruby danced.
She curled in a little ball on the rug—sleeping the winter through. She woke. She put a delicately cupped hand to her ear. She heard music. Ah Spring! She leaped to her feet. She danced. She tossed flowers—paper flowers—like a mad thing. She danced some more. It got to be autumn. She shivered. Came winter—she lay down on the rug and curled up again.
My friends applauded as the kid ran gracefully from the parlor, throwing kisses. Even the couples holding hands let go long enough to clap.
Ruby, always the showman, peeped through the French door curtains to gauge her success. And as she looked, a smartaleck of a boy walked to the middle of the room, threw himself down in a sodden heap and began to snore. Opening his eyes he crossly pantomimed that his own snoring had disturbed him. He punched himself a hard right to the jaw, swayed to his feet, staggered a little, and so into the dance—Ruby’s dance—MY dance—so beautifully burlesqued that the embarrassed giggles finally gave up to real howls.
I found the kid crying in our bedroom.
But she cried only that once. Next time she was asked to dance she did the burlesque version herself. The time after that she did our sister Naomi’s Egyptian dance wearing a pair of Mom’s aluminum pot-covers for breastplates.
My sister had discovered a “genre.”
But so did Ethel Merman, so did Danny Kaye, and Betty Comden—and other good Jewish boys and girls who, too, learned culture as my sisters did.
The big difference is that they had great talent, and earned fame and money.
But my sisters DID have fun.