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Time Keeps on Ticking

This is a story about a broken old Yiddish clock that managed to turn back time.

For decades, the clock had adorned my grandparents’ various apartments in New York City’s Washington Heights section before my grandmother passed away in 1975. But by the 1990s, it had been relegated to a neglected corner of my parents’ basement. I rescued it with a pang of nostalgia, remembering its former perch in the dining room of my childhood, when my brother’s mastery of gears and springs had extended its working life for a few extra years.

Now the hands are stuck at 9:37, its mechanism worn out and the winding key long since lost. But the clock is still marking time — in years and generations, if not by minutes and hours.

Recently my daughter and I brought it to our synagogue for a show and tell with the rest of the Gimmel class families, all of us having been instructed to bring the oldest Jewish object in our household. We had precious little to tell, because I didn’t know much about this artifact, too shabby almost to be called a family heirloom.

From its graceful shape, the clock looks as if it were hoping to rest on a Park Avenue mantel. But its form is belied by the plain painted wooden casing, now nicked and scratched. In the center, where one would expect porcelain, is a cheap metal disk with a paper label glued on. And yet, despite the humble materials, the face has a certain dignity from the image it bears: A pair of arms, sleeves rolled up, cross near 6 o’clock. One fist grips a Zionist flag, the other a smoking torch. Behind is a radiating sun. Circling this scene of strength and hope is a ring of Hebrew letters that dwarf the Arabic numbers beside them. The letters spell “A.N.Arb. Farband.”

In Yiddish, farband means brotherhood and is also shorthand for the Yidisher Natsyonaler Arbeter-Farband (the Jewish National Workers’ Alliance), a labor Zionist fraternal order founded in the beginning of the 20th century. The Farband provided insurance and medical plans, and it also organized schools and Yiddish-cultural activities and participated in political affairs.

Apparently it also distributed clocks, and somehow one of them wound up in my grandparents’ apartment. As far as my mother knows, her parents did not belong to the Farband, so perhaps the clock came into the family through my grandfather’s shop, the Swiss American Watch Hospital, which was lo cated on 57th Street in Manhattan, in the shadow of Carnegie Hall. Or perhaps the clock was the fundraising tote bag of its day: The flame of the torch on the dial proclaims “matanah,” Hebrew for “gift”; any explanations at this point are pure guesswork.

And so what my daughter and I brought to our synagogue in Montclair, N.J., that day was a worn-out timepiece whose origin and purpose has been lost to time. During the presentation of gorgeous old menorahs, Kiddush cups and other ritual treasures, I felt a bit self-conscious about my family’s nonreligious, labor-related contribution. But as it turned out, the clock resonated with many congregants whose parents and grandparents grew up embracing organizations such as the Farband.

When the show and tell was finished, one parent came over to tell me how the clock reminded her of her mother’s childhood, steeped as it was in Yiddish and in activist organizations. She mentioned the Yiddish summer camp her mother attended in upstate New York — Camp Boiberik, a secular Yiddish-culture camp that operated from 1923 to, amazingly enough, 1979. I knew the name, because my mother had been a camper there in the early 1950s.

“You’re kidding,” I said. “My mother went to Boiberik.”

You know the rest: Our mothers not only knew each other but also had been close friends at camp, staying in touch into adulthood until they moved to different suburbs (one to Long Island, the other to New Jersey) to raise their families.

After 40 years, the clock brought them together. We children arranged a playdate for our mothers, where they had lunch and reminisced over faded camp photos. They caught up on the intervening decades, and now they are connected by e-mail and are planning future meetings.

So that is how a broken old Jewish clock reunited two childhood friends. Whatever other purposes the Farband clock has served in its lifetime, it has rekindled a small part of Jewish brotherhood.

Adam Grace is an attorney living in Montclair, N.J.

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