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Jewish Journeys: The “Customer Man” — A Love Story

December 16, 2013
by Violet Snow [caption id=“attachment_23578” align=“alignright” width=“300”]Jack Gorelick and his wife Helen, 2013 Jack Gorelick and his wife Helen, 2013[/caption] “When things were bad, my dad would say, ‘A klog tzu Columbusen’ — ‘A curse on Columbus,’ remembers my father-in-law, Jack Gorelick, whose parents arrived in the U.S. from White Russia in the early 1900s. “When things were good, he’d say ‘Die goldene medina’—‘The golden country.’” Jack’s father, Avram Gorelick, grew up in a poor Jewish village, and negotiated a series of hardships to emigrate in pursuit of the girl of his dreams, Lena Arenberg, daughter of an affluent master tailor. The saga of the two families illustrates the changes wrought in the Jewish community by emigration, a Cinderella story that might not have had the same happy ending in Russia. The tale begins in Gomel, a small city near Minsk, where Eli Arenberg, a pious, learned Jew, tailored custom-made suits for wealthy Jews. He and his wife, Anna Ruben, had five children. Their second daughter, Lena, was born around 1898 and was 10 when a pogrom threatened the family. They were sheltered by Christian neighbors, who placed a cross on the door, a signal to the marauding Russians to pass over the house. Eli never got over the shame of having his life saved by a cross. Jack remembers his mother telling him, because of the pogroms, “When I think about Russia, I cry.” Girls did not go to school at that time, although Eli could have afforded to give his daughters lessons. When wandering holy men found their way to the house for a free meal and a place to sleep, Lena would throw a tantrum unless she could get lessons from the guests. As conditions worsened for Jews, her mother Anna’s brothers, who were blacksmiths, decided their skills could be used to greater advantage in the U.S. Jack describes them as “literate, progressive, socialist, secular Jews.” Some of them found work making bedsprings in New York, and wrote to their brother Mottel, then in his thirties, to bring his wife and children over. Lena was 14, and she jumped at the chance to go with her uncle to scout out a new life for their families. Her father was reluctant to leave, however, and his oldest daughter, Perla, was already a skilled seamstress and could not be spared from the family business. The other three children were too young to travel without their parents, so it was Lena and Mottel who sailed across the Atlantic in 1913. A year later, the rest of the Arenbergs followed and settled in New York. For Lena’s future husband, the trajectory to America was radically different. “Poverty was a step up for the Gorelicks,” Jack likes to say, referring to his father Avram’s family, who pursued a variety of hardscrabble jobs in Strechin, a village near Gomel. Avram’s father, Beryl Gorelick, was a common laborer with a minimal education, born around 1850. His wife, Shana Dova, had been previously married to a man who divorced her after eight years because they had not produced children. The man remarried and had several sons. Shana’s only option was to marry a widower with grown children. Lo and behold, she then gave birth to three sons: Koppel, Kiveh, and Avram. From the age of 3 to 13, Jewish boys went to a religious school, where they were squeezed into a tiny room and lorded over by a whip-wielding teacher who punished mistakes as the students memorized their lessons. Jack recalls of his father, “If you quoted something from the Torah, and you were off by half a word, he would tell you.” In the late 1800s, as serfdom receded, a new agricultural system was forming. Peasants were thrown off the big estates but sometimes had small plots of their own. Rather than take the risk of a poor harvest, they took advantage of cooperatives formed by laborers — including Beryl Gorelick, who borrowed money from rich Jews and paid the peasants for the right to pick and sell their fruit. When Avram was 13, he lived in an orchard for the summer, guarding the fruit as it ripened. If kids tried to steal apples, he would fire a shotgun into the air to scare them off. At harvest time, the cooperative members would pick the fruit, sell it, and divide the profits. With the money, they would stock up for the long winter. Before bad weather set in, the Gorelicks would work clearing brush for timber merchants, and they would gather from the fields weeds that could be used for making rope. Over the winter, they twisted rope for use on ships, a productive activity for the housebound. In spring, the Dnieper River thawed, and the timber companies floated logs down the river. Beryl’s job was to break up logjams. He was in his late fifties when he was crippled in a logjam and died a few months later. Avram, 12, was left alone and destitute with his mother. She went to work as a maid for rich people during the week. On Shabbat, they would go to services, and if there were orphans in attendance, the shammes would ask the congregation, “Who will take this boy for the day?” By this means, Avram survived, sometimes staying with a rich family who would feed him for several days. His mother also baked bread, khale, and bagels. “If they sold all the khale,” says Jack, “sometimes they would have only a bagel to eat by the time they lit the candles.” After his bar mitsve, Avram left school to work at odd jobs. Lena Arenberg’s would spend summers at their dacha in Strechin, where Avram would sell them bread. As he was making deliveries to their house, he saw Lena and fell in love. Lena’s father wanted her to have prosperous husband. “If he’d used his knowledge of the Torah to become a scholar,” muses Jack, “my father could have made his way in the world — they would’ve been glad to have him. The greatest thing a rich Jew could have was a scholar, a holy person in the family. But by that time, my father was a young socialist, without knowing much about it. Socialism was in the air. He wanted to be a proletarian. For him, being a peddler was the best job — carrying a pack on his back, door to door.” Each summer, Avram saw Lena on his rounds, and his devotion grew, although their contact was minimal. Then Lena went off to New York, while 18-year-old Avram joined the Russian army. The Jews had to provide the army with a quota of young men each year. Conditions in the military were so unpleasant that some young men would maim themselves to avoid conscription. But Avram was an adaptable, easy-going fellow. “He had a good time in the army,” Jack explains, “but he would have had a good time in hell. He would’ve said, ‘It’s hot, but it could be hotter.’ In the army, he got three meals a day, leather boots, warm clothes. He got leave from time to time to see his mother, and he had a little bit of money.” The rate of desertion was so high that if a soldier disappeared within the first two years of service, the deserter’s family would be punished with a fine that could take years to pay. So Avram waited two years and then left in pursuit of Lena. He gave the sergeant a bottle of vodka in exchange for a twelve-hour lead, and he went to his brother Koppel’s home. Koppel didn’t dare take him in, so Avram stayed in the shed with the cow. Koppel found clothes to replace his uniform, then drove his brother in a wagon, hidden in the hay, over the border to the Ukraine, bribing the guard with homemade vodka. Then Avram was on his own. He walked most of the way to the port city of Hamburg, about 1,000 miles away. Gorelick 2His brother Kiveh was already in New York, working in a sweatshop. Kiveh had bought a ticket and mailed it to Avram. The ship, a rustbucket with 1,200 third-class passengers in the hold, did not reach New York on schedule. Kiveh went to the docks, day after day, to collect his brother, until officials told him the boat must have sunk, and he gave up. When Avram arrived, there was no one to meet him, but Jewish social services found him an East Village flophouse — the site of today’s Public Theater — until someone could be found to vouch for him. Finally immigration officials reached Kiveh, who brought Avram home to the Lower East Side. (Photo at left: the Gorelick family, circa 1929: Lena, Ben, Abraham, and Jack.) Many nationalities had organizations to assist immigrants from the same country. A Jewish landsmanshaft helped Avram find Lena. “The network was incredible,” explains Jack. “Everybody was looking for somebody else, and there was tremendous cooperation. It was an explosion of getting away from tradition, a leveling out — even the bosses were socialist.” But Eli Arenberg was a lost soul in the U.S., where there was little need for master tailors. His daughters went to work in sweatshops. Lena, who spoke Yiddish and Russian, was quickly learning the new language from her coworkers. When her shop went on strike, and she shifted to a new job, she discovered to her surprise that she’d been working with Italians. She had to start all over again to learn English, but she kept some knowledge of Italian. Avram, meanwhile, became an apprentice cutter in another sweatshop, arriving early each morning to help cut out patterns for the day’s work. One day, the cutter he worked under accidentally cut off his own hand. As blood poured out, the man was rushed to the hospital. The boss arrived and found Avram standing there in stunned silence. The boss put his arm around the young man’s shoulder and handed him the keys to the factory, saying “Avram, you’re my cutter.” “It was like winning the lottery,” says Jack. “It was the best job in the shop. The boss is going to love you. You’ve come up in the world, and your future father-in-law will respect you. My father told me, ‘I looked at the keys, and I looked at the bloody hand on the table, and I put the keys in the boss’s hand, and I said, “I don’t want to be a cutter,” and I left.’” Avram, his name now anglicized to Abraham or Abe, became a “customer man,” a house-to-house peddler. Lena’s Uncle Mottel had moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, and started a thriving business as an auto mechanic with his sons. Mottel urged the Arenbergs to get away from New York, where Lena and her younger brother Yankel had contracted tuberculosis. Abe was not invited to Scranton, but he followed Lena anyway. He made his way across the Hudson River on a ferry because he had heard the trains left from Hoboken. But he didn’t have enough money for a train ticket. With a 30-pound pack on his back, Abe walked beside the railroad tracks to Scranton. “Even if he had the money, he probably would’ve walked,” says Jack. “Cash money was so rare, and what’s a hundred miles to someone who’s walked across Europe?” In Scranton, he found other progressive Jews who helped him track down the Arenbergs. Lena and her sister Perla were working in a sweatshop again, supporting the family, although Lena was not in the best of health. Abe continued to sell door-to-door, buying dry goods on credit — dishtowels, tablecloths, pillows, clothing. He was also selling on credit, so he would often starve until payday. Then Lena’s brother Yankel, a prodigy who composed and played classical music, died of tuberculosis at the age of 18. In the Jewish tradition, no marriages can occur for a year after a family member dies — but Abe was determined. A few months after Yankel’s death, Abe and Lena eloped to Wilkes-Barre and were married. The marriage probably saved Lena’s life by removing her from the sweatshop. Abe’s dream had come true. Jack, at 94, can look back at a successful life that included a stint in the Navy during World War II, a period as a labor organizer, and a career as an administrator for the Association for the Help of Retarded Children. Lena’s intelligence and tenderness and Avram’s socialist values and inner strength have been guiding forces in his life. Violet Snow is a freelance journalist who writes for Woodstock Times; Civil War Times; The Record of Bergen County, NJ; Energy Times, American Ancestors, and other periodicals. Her article about her great-great-grandfather’s Civil War diary appeared in May 2013 on the New York Times’ “Disunion” blog. She is writing a book about getting to know her ancestors, entitled News of My Ancestors. You can read about her research by clicking here.