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by Sam Liptzin, translated from the Yiddish by Max Rosenfeld
Originally published in the April, 1961 issue of Jewish Currents
IT WAS THE DAY BEFORE Passover, 1910 or 1911.
I was working on Mangin Street on the lower East Side in New York, in a shop that belonged to two partners, Goldstein and Latov.
The spring sun shone warmly over the roofs. Wherever the trees and grass found enough freedom, light and sunshine they burst into greenery. Everywhere you could sense the coming holiday, Pesach.
The pushcarts on the streets near the shop were heaped with Passover delicacies and with the Hagadas which the Yarmalovski Bank had printed for its depositors and which the peddlers were now selling for a penny a piece.
At Goldstein & Latov’s, the tailors, pressers and operators sat and waited for the holiday, but everything in the place was completely hometzdik (not prepared ritually for Passover). The walls had not been whitewashed since the building had been erected. The only up that was ever done there cleaning was the collecting of the scraps by the ragmen.
The dust on the tables, chairs, shelves and windows was becoming petrified. The watchman, who used to sleep in the shop, had devised his own system for dealing with the rats. He used to put out pieces of hard crust for them to chew on, so that they wouldn’t be tempted by the starch in the cloth that lay around the shop. The bars and ropes for hanging up the finished work kept out every bit of air and light. Each worker huddled in his own dark corner, surrounded by the “bundles,” enmeshed like a fly in a spider-web.
FOR WEEKS BEFORE PASSOVER the men dreamed and planned how they would spend their eight free days. Kalman the edgebinder, who fancied himself something of a tenor, rehearsed the holiday songs from the Hagada. Alter the baster philosophised under his breath: “Our ancestors in Egypt had a picnic under Pharaoh, compared to us! They only had to carry straw; we have to carry sewing machines on our backs...”
Neverthless, everybody in the shop, observant Jew or not, waited impatiently for Passover. It was a time to rest one’s tired bones; to feast one’s eyes on wife and children; to enjoy the tasty holiday food on the Passover table in the company of loved ones.
So the workers at Goldstein & Latov were all looking forward to Passover, especially since there had been a lot of work in the shop the past few weeks and their pay would be a little better than usual. Their wives had already spent the money preparing for Passover. Some of the operators had bought cloth to make themselves a new coat or a pair of paints for the holiday.
Passover began on Thursday that year, so Wednesday was payday. The men were finishing up and putting their tools away for the week. Kalman was singing the Mali Nishtano (What is the difference...) with a cantorial tremolo. On the table stood a bottle of wine — “kosher l’Pesach.” All were waiting impatiently for Latov to come back from the main office with the paychecks.
BUT LATOV WAS AN HOUR LATE already. By 11 o’clock we became uneasy. Goldstein, the other partner, kept running back and forth to the window to look down into the street. Where was Latov?
At 12 o’clock we surrounded Goldstein. “We’ve got to do something. We want our money! We need it. We can’t wait any longer. We have to go home and get ready for the holiday. Our families are waiting...”
Finally we selected a committee of three to go find out what happened to Mr. Latov and our checks. At the office of the manufacturer for whom our bosses were contractors they told us that Latov had been there at 10 o’clock and had asked for one check to cover the whole payroll, instead of the individual checks that were usually issued. His excuse was that the workers needed the cash right away because of the holiday, so he would cash the check and pay everybody off. At the corner saloon we discovered that Mr. Latov had indeed cashed a check for over $600 that morning, that he had then had a drink or two and left.
When we brought this story back to the workers in the shop, all hell broke loose. But in all the excitement, Mr. Goldstein disappeared. At first the men refused to leave the place. After discussing the matter back and forth we finally decided to leave a committee of two volunteers in the shop to see that the finished work was not removed from the premises.
The watchman told us he had overheard Latov telling Goldstein that he was celebrating the Passover Seder at his father-in-law’s. That evening we split up into groups and made the rounds of every synagogue in the area to see if we could find out where Latov’s father-in-law lived. In a little synagogue on East Broadway we discovered what we wanted to know.
The next night, the night of the second Seder, a group of us went to a house on Attorney Street and, without even knocking, burst in and surrounded Latov as he sat around the table with his family. He couldn’t have looked more surprised if Elijah himself had walked in. He sat speechless, his Hagada in hand. His wife, who recognized several of the workers, finally cried out:
“For heaven’s sake, friends, what’s the matter? What’s happened?”
One of the pressers, Itche Garber, past all patience, grabbed her arm and tried to pull off a gold bracelet she was wearing. With the other hand he ripped off her necklace. She screamed, the children began to yammer, and Latov at last found his voice.
“Brothers, friends, please, a terrible thing happened to me. On the way to the shop with the checks two men attacked me and robbed me... but please wait, after the holiday...”
“After the holiday!” Itche Garber exploded. “We want our money now! You can tell that hadgadyo to your father-in-law! Pay us our money now or we?ll give you the 10 plagues right here and now! You won’t get away with the same stunt you pulled three years ago!”
Latov, frightened, took out his wallet. “Here, take what I have... it’s all I’ve got now... three hundred... Goldstein will pay you the balance next week....
But when we came into the shop after the holiday, we found, not Goldstein, but the same Latov, pacing back and forth and tearing his hair. His partner had swindled him out of half the money they had stolen from the men; he had taken the 300 dollars, sold the machines and the pressing-irons and vanished.
We never got the rest of our money.
At the time of publication, Sam Liptzin had published more than 20 books in Yiddish, the first in 1923. This incident was from a volume that was to appear in English, Through the Eye of the Needle.