The 21st Century and the millennium with all its portents of further technological advances for the future have arrived, but what is it about the lives of our ancestors which intrigue us still? It was certainly not their poverty, nor the hardness of their existence, the high mortality rate, or the lack of basic necessities? What then?
Perhaps, if we take a look at a British town such as Manchester, in the early 1900’s, we may yet find a clue. Today, in Strangeways, which once had a preponderance of emigrant Jews, you could see a place where many of the old backstreet houses built in the 1800's, ravaged during the Blitz of World War II and then in the Manchester riots, have been torn down to make way for newer commercial structures and parking lots. The language on the street is no longer Yiddish, but the musical intonations of the Caribbean and those of other former colonies of the British Empire predominate.
In this area, one would find a typical street of that time, Cheetwood Street, a short stub of a street. There, the River Irwell flowed turgidly by the bottom of the street where today it is only a trickle, choked by weeds and a memory of its former self as the lifeblood of industrial Manchester. Gone are the many synagogues that lined the top of Cheetwood Street on Bury New Road. They are now pale and lifeless changelings advertising raincoats and outerwear for sale.
However, at the beginning of the 20th century, the area was thriving, although life was never easy for the emigrants who lived on Cheetwood Street and my grandparents were no different. Their story is typical of many of those who came to Manchester during this time. In about 1898, my grandfather Yehuda-Leib or Lewis Fink left Drohobych, Ukraine, then in the Austro-Hungarian area known as Galicia for the United States.
Upon arriving in Liverpool, the story goes that he was tossed off the ship by some drunken sailors and found himself in Great Britain and far from his intended destination of New York. All was not lost as he had a step-sister, Pessel Gruber Henick, in Manchester and he managed to find his way to her and her husband Isaac. As a bespoke tailor, who had been apprenticed and trained in Vienna, Austria, he had a trade, but as a "greener" he struggled to make ends meet, so he could bring his wife and two young children to Manchester.
Finally, in 1901, when he had accumulated enough money, his family joined him in a small room over a shop in the Jewish ghetto of Strangeways. Each time they had a new child, they moved to a better place until they had their last child, their tenth, my mother Feige, who was born in 1911. At that point, they made their final move upon the recommendation of the doctor who delivered my mother at home. He stated that their residence in Great Dulcie Street was a deathtrap and their new baby would not survive the winter. Thereupon, my grandfather rushed out and found a house at 19 Cheetwood Street, which he was able to rent for the grand price of 10 shillings 6 pence a week. They moved a week later.
Theirs was what was called a backstreet or row house that had been constructed for the rapidly expanding population of mill workers. It had a basement, a first floor with the kitchen and living area and a third floor with three bedrooms. It lacked the creature comforts we take for granted today - it had no hot water, no electricity only gas fixtures, no telephone, and no indoor plumbing.
It abutted the River Irwell, a river that was much larger than it is now, but totally polluted with the detritus of the many industrial manufactories along its banks. The houses with their proximity to the River and the dampness that came from that closeness had a permanent bed bug population living within their walls. The back of the houses each had a yard and an alley of flagstones ran between the next row of houses. The alley was used as a public urinal and it reeked of cats, garbage and the River Irwell, an altogether unpleasant stench.
Despite the poverty of the surroundings, no one's door was closed to a neighbor. All the families on the street behaved as if they were still residents of their small shtetl in Eastern Europe where everyone knew everyone else's business and each person depended on his neighbor. There were even some gentiles who settled in amongst the Jews on the street and thereby both mixed and learned each others ways.
Residents kept their yards neat and their steps clean and scoured with white or yellow stone from peddlers who came by on a regular basis. Many items were purchased from peddlers including fish, vegetables, house wares and other items. The fish and fruit peddler Hymie whose nickname was "Fruit" was not adverse to a pretty face and always gave the center cut of the salmon to his favorite on his route. There was also the Fish family who owned a fish, vegetable and fruit shop on Bury New Road that served the immigrant community.
Also, on Bury New Road, at the top of Cheetwood Street, was a grocery store owned by the Radivanitz or Radivan family. Meat was obtained from a kosher butcher and there were quite a few of those. Eggs were expensive and a luxury in many homes. When the children were still youngsters in my grandparent's home, times were so difficult that one egg was shared by the two youngest children, my Uncle Ben and my mother.
Usually, someone on the block provided products such as milk, cottage cheese, butter, eggs and a little sugar. Mrs. Goodman was just such a purveyor. She lived on Dewhurst Street which one reached by crossing over Bury New Road as it was an extension of Cheetwood Street. She had a dairy store in her parlor and sold milk that she kept in large tin cans. She scooped out what was required by her customers into their own jugs. Mrs. Goodman was so tiny that when she bent over the big cans, she would almost fall in.
Many times, people would purchase cheese from Mrs. Goodman and then take it home to make "kalye kez" or "spoiled cheese". This was a process whereby the cheese was placed in a bag made of cheese cloth and hung until the wetness would drip out and it was perfectly dry. The dry cheese curds would then be mixed with other seasonings then put in a pan and cooked with milk.
In regard to what the houses were like on Cheetwood Street, #19, my family’s house, had a large kitchen/living room. There was a big fireplace with a fire oven in it. There was a table and a sofa. The scullery had a sink and fireplace with a second hand gas stove and the original linoleum flooring. Eventually, the flooring was changed to a 9x12 congoleum flooring and finally, to a 9x12 homemade rag rug which covered the floor.
Several times a year, usually before a major Jewish holiday, my grandfather took it upon himself to make a new rag rug. He got large pieces of canvas and marked a design such as flowers or hearts in tailor’s chalk. Then, he gathered strips and patches of old clothing or leftover material from his tailoring business. With this, he then used wooden skewers with a pointed end to sew the pieces of colored cloth onto the canvas. This homey addition to the house was something that many other neighbors undertook as well and it became a handy craft which the emigrant Jews developed and a colorful addition to their home design.
The fireplace was used for many tasks and it had a fender which had a curlicue design which was cleaned every Thursday with black emery paper and Brasso in a can. It was rubbed in and then wiped clean. In addition, the girls in the family began additional preparations for shabbat by cleaning the front steps with white stone and also brown stone for the facing which was bought from the “rag and bone man”. He was given rags and he traded for white or brown stone.
Part II to follow . . .