My First Pesach In America — In 1883
This story was originally published in the Forward on April 7, 1936
Once upon a long time ago, 53 years ago in late April 1883, I found myself in my new hometown of New York City, about to spend my first Pesach in America. I’d disembarked from my ship ten months prior in June of 1882. That prior Pesach I was still in Russia, and Shavuot found me aboard a ship traveling to Liverpool and then Philadelphia. For the most part, ten months into my journey, I felt pretty much at home and yet there was still much I felt pretty green about. Mostly, those were spiritual matters, I perceived to still be enmeshed with my birthplace, where my roots were crafted. And in those days, Jewish immigrants took their time de-greening themselves.
Nowadays, immigrants find their townsfolk pretty quickly here, even childhood friends from back home and a vast Yiddish speaking population. For a Kovno [Kaunas, Lithuania] Jew for instance, arriving in New York City or Philadelphia is much the same as moving to Lodz or Berdychiv would be back home. It’s a new world, for sure, but much within it is familiar. It doesn’t feel as lonely here now as it did for the immigrants of fifty years ago.
Hordes of Jewish locals now live here, have settled in and de-greened for the most part, happily imparting their American savoir-faire, including names for various knick-knacks, local angles and opinions. These days, this all is acquired fairly quickly through interacting with them. Back then we had to absorb it mostly on our own, and it came haltingly.
American Jews and their overseas counterparts back in the old country, are bound together through Jewish literature and the Jewish press as well as the Zionist and Socialist movements. Fifty-three years ago Mendele Mocher Seforim was a well known published author, yet the Jewish masses, the new immigrant included, weren’t well acquainted with his work. The intelligentsia didn’t have much of an opinion about the works of other Jewish writers such as Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Sholem Asch, Avrom Reisen, Dovid Bergelson or I.J. Singer — they were practically an illusion.
So many American Jewish newspaper articles are reprinted in the Eastern European Yiddish press that Jewish immigrants handily learn about Jewish life in America, and about America in general. And it’s impossible to underestimate the role of Yiddish theater too. 53 years ago, for all of that to exist wasn’t even a fantasy.
Back then, immigrant lonesomeness and alienation were far greater, and homesickness stronger and longer lasting.
As for me, my yearning for home was agonizing beyond words. I was literally sick with it. Minute by minute it disturbed me, in my waking hours and every night, when I lay down to sleep. My dreams were painful, each one linked to my home across the ocean, my parents, relatives, friends and acquaintances, neighbors and colleagues. As I fell out, I re-created the streets of our town where I was raised.
I used to muse sublimely over scenes in the Jewish neighborhood on Hester and Canal Streets. When Pesach rolled around I would stop and gather up an eyeful of the holiday scenes and the market place on east side streets. Noticing the words ‘Kosher For Pesach Wine’ or ‘Kosher Matzo’ my heart would warp and homesickness would ruthlessly shatter me. And that was not uncommon among my fellow immigrants. I felt, and perhaps exaggeratedly so, their hustling and bustling in preparation for the Seders was especially fraught, given how redolent it was with their longing for home. The Seder, and Pesach specifically, play a central role in Jewish homes and Jewish life. Everybody gathers round the family for Seder. Those few hours at your father’s table, as he sits recumbent at the head, draped in his white kitl, are among the most profoundly spiritual moments in Jewish family life. So it’s also a time of peak homesickness for immigrants.
How in America details of the Seder’s rituals were lacking and the foods that are so bound up in it. To immigrant Jews, it seemed it couldn’t measure up to familiar observances back in the old country.
Deep loneliness felt by immigrants only heightened the yearning for home. As for myself, I never felt that kind of loneliness in New York. I belonged to a group of young immigrants who arrived here with idealistic goals — to build Socialist Jewish colonies in America. The group was composed of a lot of my old gang of Socialist friends from Vilna, my old hometown. We’d spend nearly every free moment together, debating and engaging with our principal issues and plans. I learned English fluently and was able to go to school along with the American-born boys, in order to learn to speak like a local. But my main interest remained the Socialist Immigrant’s circle. I gave my first-ever public talks in Russian, and my first Socialist speeches in America in Yiddish. I agitated for Jewish labor unions. Along with other intellectual immigrants from the Vilna clique, I attended German socialist gatherings that already had a fairly large sized movement in America and published two daily newspapers in New York and Chicago as well as several weeklies. We eagerly read the New Yorker Volkszeitung. We were especially attracted to Sergei Shevitch, one of two editors whom we’d invite to speak at Socialist gatherings we held first in Russian, then German and later on, partially in Yiddish as well. When Shevitch spoke — we considered it a celebration.
Amongst us ‘comrades’ (a term we adopted from the German Socialists) — meaning we Vilna or Kiev Socialists as well as those from Odessa and other parts of Southern Russia — we spoke Russian. Privately, in heated debates we used it frequently. I especially recall a progressive Jew, a young Hebraist who loved to travel among our gang arguing with us. I really loved bumping heads with this fanatic Zionist who had arrived here with our group of Socialist Jewish communards.
Dear Reader, surely you can see there was no time for loneliness. There were enough beloved friends and plenty of engaging pursuits tugging me like magnets, exciting me. I missed home immeasurably. And it wasn’t Russian that I longed for but rather the mameloshn of Mother and Father, Aunty and Uncle.
Frequently when the Vilna bunch got together, we’d reminisce about friends left back home — Jewish and Gentile Socialists — and about Vilna itself. Those chats, like straight-pins, jabbed the wound of my longing.
In trying to recall my first Pesach in America, my mind’s eye sees a wee greenhorn Jewish tailor and two family groupings — an older Lithuanian Jew and his children, and a German of the Mosaic persuasion with his Polish-Jewish wife and their American born daughter from his first wife. I remember having drunk Pesach wine and then some with them. We devoured the festive Pesach foods together.
I say “wee” because he was short, thin, scrawny and somehow still really lovely looking as if merely a young man of eighteen. Truth be told, he was much older. I don’t recall his name. I do remember his Brisker dialect, with its ‘kik’ instead of ‘kuk’, ‘vus’ instead of ‘vos.’ His tone however, was in fact Lithuanian. There’s a reason Brisk is called Brest-Litovsk in Russian.
The ‘wee’ tailor is etched in my memory for his ceaselessly going on about the large wage-packet he’d just received. He wasn’t even boastful. He just seemed unable to comprehend his American earnings, and was so hyper he couldn’t get used to it. I don’t even recall the amount. I just remember it was unusually high for a member of the tailor crowd, and that he kept telling us how his former boss back home, though a kindly head-honcho, hadn’t earned as much for this entire past month as he himself had each and every payday so far. He was a custom-tailor (menswear) in a wealthy shop uptown somewhere or other — at the time, uptown to us meant above Fourteenth Street.
Two ladies-tailors were part of our Vilna circle, and they were paid more than our little-speaks-Yiddish-with-a Brisker-dialect-tailor. We all knew though that in their end of the trade, the gold-rush only lasted a few Summer and then Winter months typically whereas the wee-tailor had a steady job all year long, and his boss promised a big raise as well.
We met through a townsman of mine. He was listening to one of the debates I used to take part in. The Socialist ideas he regularly heard from us were news to him, and he grew attached to us — but not for long. He liked our company, but our ideas the admittedly he found attractive and innovative — he still used to tell us how nice it was that we were ‘concerned for the workers.’ His true interests lay in his custom tailoring and his earnings and his striving to open his own shop—for wealthy customers.
I tutored him. “We’re not in Russia — “ he’d say — “In America a tailor needs to know how to read and write.” The lessons seemed connected to his future ownership plans. He was generous though, and all heart.
He invited me to Seder. He was single and boarded with an elderly widow so he hired an elderly indigent Jewish man to lead it for him, his boarding-house “missus” and her daughter. He was also really homesick, so he let himself splurge lavishly on the widow’s Seder that he frenziedly discussed with me. I didn’t accept his invitation, however, and he felt terribly disappointed.
“But why?” he asked incredulously and started pleading. I began making excuses but ended by telling him the truth: “I don’t believe in it, I can’t go to a Seder.” I confessed that back home in Vilna, I did go to Seder at my parents, but those were my parents. Who has the heart to back out of their parents’ Seder? Here I could be true to my beliefs. And no matter how much he begged, I stayed true to myself. “I cannot be a hypocrite,” I claimed.
Eventually my justification made an impression on him and we reached a compromise. I committed to supper when the significant portion of the Seder was over. But what to do about that second part of the Haggadah? That’s what the compromise was all about.
“Anyways, that second part of the Haggadah isn’t as important as the first half,” he told me.
That’s all I remember about it. I haven’t retained any scenes at supper nor much ado that second half of the Haggadah.
Years later, in 1911, I’d written an article entitled “In Honor of Pesach and America.” With the subheading “One Must Attend a Seder Already!”
The main point was that earlier on, we Socialist, freethinking Jews, were just as fanatical in our apostasy as our parents and grandparents were in their religious lives. (When I wrote this, I was thinking about our attitude towards older Jewish traditions generally and to the Seder specifically). Later, with the development of Zionism and the popularization of the Labor Movement under the Bund’s leadership, intellectual Jews slowly developed a wider, more realistic perspective.
Pesach knaidlekh are all but indirectly connected to the Jewish religion. If in fact we aren’t obsessing only about the knaidlekh, but rather, we mean to speak of the Haggadah too — in the spirit of the Yiddish proverb — one needs to be seated at a Seder without feeling guilty or hypocritical. I say it partly as a jokester, but my intention is real. It was about how the religious aspects of an ancient and deeply held Jewish tradition should not be tossed out with the nationalist spirit embedded within. In considering various traditions of other people’s one finds most of them have religious sources and if one were to reject all of them that typically do contain a hint of religion, one would need to toss out the loveliest events and expressions in every culture.
We’ve been liberated from the slavish fanaticism of our earlier convictions. And, in short — participating in a Seder, hearing the recitation of the Haggadah and even joining in and narrating parts of it, maybe a bit in jest but mainly in reaction to childhood memories echoing through the verses — is no longer considered a criminal act against freedom of expression and thought. This was possible as the god-part of the Seder is nearly a negligible part of the ceremony and festive meal. The majority of it has a worldly, cultivated sensibility, folksy and populist with a lot of soul and authentic poetry. Truth be told, the two perspectives on the ceremony are so tightly interwoven even religious Jews believe the knaidlekh to be an integral part of their religious beliefs.
My New York City Pesach of 1883, was a point in time when I was at my most fanatical atheism.
That Pesach, I received Pesach invitations from two separate families I knew from my first months in New York . One was a German Jew married to a Polish-Jewish woman. He was active in the American Jewish communal life established after the Russian pogroms of 1881-82. Their aim was to help the masses of Jewish immigrants. He worked in a department store. He identified as Orthodox and observant in the German-Jewish style. He shaved. We used to discuss political issues. He was well read and intellectual, but a huge reactionary. He used to claim that Jews should not participate in movements such as ours because it was a ‘huge sin’ and bad for the Jews. I would respond by noting that our talks together seem to attract him greatly. Whenever he’d catch sight of me, he’d stop and present new arguments to counter my ideas.
I visited him during Pesach, but didn’t attend the Seder, merely stopping by for dinner. Everything in his home had a Jewish sensibility about it, though not German-Jewish — but rather Polish-Jewish. His wife, this being his second one, was from a Polish region that bordered Germany, and was an incredible balebuste. Much younger than him, he was very much in love with her, and her say-so dominated their home. He gushed over her Polish-Jewish delicacies and proudly recited their authentic Yiddish names with his German accent.
Ab Cahan was the founder of the Forward.
Translated by Chana Pollack