My Grandmother Comes to the United States
My great-great aunt Sara and her new husband Harry Friedman, my first relatives to arrive in the United States, settled in Pittsburgh in 1891. After six years of Harry peddling, the couple had saved a small amount that enabled them to open a dry goods store in 1897.
In three years Sara and Harry, who now had five children, felt their store was doing enough to start bringing over relatives from our village in southeast Bellorussia, Russia. In 1902 they brought over my great-aunt Galia, who changed her name to Julia in Pittsburg. I am named after her. After Galia left, my grandmother was the oldest child in her family in Russia.
Grandmother Malke was proud that her father Nokum was a teacher of Hebrew in a cheder. Malke thought that her father Nokum was a respected teacher and well paid, sometimes going to a wealthy home where he taught the sons. My grandmother told me, “I’d get a new dress at Passover and proudly walk down the main street of my village with people saying, ‘There goes the melamud’s (the teacher’s) daughter Malke.’” Malke meant “queen,” and grandmother sounded as if she felt like a queen in her new dress.
When my great-grandmother Sara had her 10th child, a baby girl Esther, the baby was so sick that Sara, the midwife, and the rest of the family thought the baby would die. My grandmother Malke, who was fifteen years old, carried the baby around day after day, feeding her, and watching over the baby. The baby Esther lived. My grandmother helped her mother with the younger children and helped make all the family food including baking bread. Malke helped hand sew everybody’s clothes since there was only one sewing machine in the town until World War I.
In Schedrin though girls never went to school, great-grandfather Nokum taught my grandmother Malke how to read in Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish. Great-grandfather especially loved Tolstoy and became a Tolstoyan pacifist. He bought books from the book peddler who regularly came through Schedrin. Molly said her father told her she couldn’t read Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karina at twelve years old, but my grandmother said, “When no one was looking, I stole the book from a high shelf and read it in secret.”
Since great-grandfather Nokum’s Tolstoyan pacifist beliefs reinforced his horror at feeling his small sons might be drafted, he decided to bring his family from Schedrin to the United States. Before leaving, Nokum had encouraged my grandmother, the oldest still in the house, to learn English with him by reading Dickens at night. My grandmother was proud to learn English with him.
Then in 1903 Harry and Sara also helped bring over Sara’s brother Nokum, my great-grandfather; Nokum’s daughter Malke, my grandmother, who was sixteen; and his sons Al and Joe. Of course, they all traveled steerage and after reaching the Friedmans, wound up staying on folding beds in the Friedman’s kitchen and dining room. Harry lent my great-grandfather Nokum some merchandise from his store and a pack. Nokum went out with a pack to peddle. He also started teaching children including his nieces Molly and Esther Friedman to read in Hebrew and Yiddish. My grandmother worked in the Friedman’s dry goods store, learned more English at night, and changed her name from Malke to Molly.
When Nokum’s children returned home from school, they wanted to speak Yiddish, but Nokum said, “You are now in America. You must speak English.” He would talk to them in English. He also taught them not to sin against their fellow man and they would find grace in God’s eye. Great-grandfather Nokum told his children that God could forgive them for sins against him. My grandmother called her grandfather a “mensh,” a good man.
Nokum sent for his wife Sara, who came over with the baby Esther, daughter Bertha and son Louis. Lou Plotkin, who was four years old during the voyage, says his Aunt Sara Friedman told them to bring bagels on the trip, which his mother did. On the boat the mother and her three children ate bagels in steerage. Upon arriving they had to be deloused, and were met by their father, sister Molly, and brothers Al and Joe. In 1905 Nokum’s oldest daughter Julia married Benny Alpern at the Friedman home, set up house with her husband, and started a store with Friedmans’ help on the Southside of Pittsburgh.
Great-grandfather Nokum was the first to write to a Jewish newspaper in New York, the Modern Journal, and convinced the newspaper to send him copies in Pittsburgh to sell, starting to sell newspapers on the street and to bookstores. After my grandmother Molly started sewing in a garment sweat shop, the family had enough money to rent their own tiny place in a tenement with all sleeping in one room and a kitchen. Molly gave every penny she earned to her father for the family budget, got two pennies back for the trolley, and wished she had another penny for a roll she could eat for lunch. My grandmother, who had a fairly protected middle-class life in Schedrin with plenty to eat, now had to do hours of grinding work daily and had no money for lunch. She often felt wretched.
The family started a small grocery store which the mother Sara ran. Their mother Sara only cooked and baked bread being worn out from having 10 children (three had died) and working all day in the grocery store. Molly said one day Nokum met on the street two black teenage boys who had just arrived from the south and who were hungry and homeless. Nokum took them home for a meal and to sleep for a few days in the kitchen until they found their own place.
After work every day Molly helped her mother with a different chore: Monday Molly washed the clothes; Tuesday night she ironed; Wednesday, she mended; Thursday, she cleaned the house. She was reading socialist literature for the first time including the Forwards newspaper which her father sold. When the baby Esther got very ill and feverish, the family was afraid she would die. After long work days, Molly would take her baby sister and walk back and forth on a Pittsburgh bridge until Esther’s fever went down.
My great-grandfather Nokum had successfully brought Yiddish newspapers to Pittsburgh. He and his son Lou sold the Yiddish newspapers on the street and to the bookstores: The Forward, The Tog, and The Modern Journal. The best seller was The Forward, a Yiddish socialist newspaper from New York. Then they would go up to Clark St. to their grocery store to eat breakfast. In the evenings Nokum would go teach Hebrew to children.
Molly had a job sewing at Bennett, Hollander, and Louis Pants Factory in 1915. Young Jewish women in the garment trades took part in a huge, difficult strike during wintertime of 20,000 in New York in 1909-1910 which they won. In Pittsburgh Molly took and big risk and was the first in her garment factory to join the union. I have a photo of her at her job when she is 28 years old, her hair up in a soft bun, her eyes staring at the camera. She’s the 3rd woman seated at her sewing machine in the first row of seven rows. Each work station has a sewing machine, a huge spool of thread, lots of pieces of cloth on the table, and more scraps of cloth on the floor. Only women sit at the sewing machines, while one male foreman stands in each row.
Molly was angry at her low pay and also appalled at the way the assimilated, wealthy Jews, who had come over to Pittsburgh previously had looked down on her father for selling newspapers on the corner when he was revered by family and neighbors for his learning and his ethics. Molly ceased believing in her religion but like Abraham Cahan, the editor of the Forward, the largest Jewish newspaper in the United States, and she became a socialist. As socialists both Molly and Cahan valued scholarship, ethical treatment of other people, and helping family. Molly also went to a young socialists’ picnic on her day off, and I have another photo of her and the other young socialists gathered for their group picnic photo while sitting on the grass.
Only white men voted in the United States in 1914. Molly marched in a women’s suffrage parade in Pittsburgh in 1915 to get women the vote as the women’s suffrage movement had grown tremendously with nationwide demonstrations. Molly continued to live by her father’s values. Yes, she was a socialist, suffragette, and union member but she was also devoted to her family and lived her life according to her ethics.
My grandmother Molly was like a surrogate mother to her young brothers and sisters, even when her parents were alive. She never attended school in Russia, but she worked 15 years in the U.S. helping all 5 of her younger siblings graduate high school. She sewed clothes for the younger children and attended their graduation ceremonies.
The two brothers Al and Joe went on to college at Carnegie Institute of Technology but neither graduated. Their cousin Lou Friedman was going to college determined to go to medical school. The Plotkins had rights in the U.S. they lacked in Russia: they could live in big cities, could attend public schools and even colleges, could start businesses in the cities, and could buy property.
The father Nokum, a longtime Tolstoyan pacifist, hoped President Wilson would keep the U.S. out of World War I. Nokum was very upset when Wilson entered the war. During World War 1, Nokum’s wife Sara had a heart condition, and Nokum seemed to be the healthy one, but after President Wilson took the country into the war, Nokum died suddenly in 1918. Grandmother Molly felt he died because of shock over the war. Still one important advance occurred in 1919: white women got the vote. Molly and her family had become naturalized citizens, so she could vote in the 1920 election for the first time.
My grandmother Molly Plotkin chose to marry her second cousin Izzie Plotkin in 1921. During the wedding ceremony, the judge, seeing both bride and groom had the same last name Plotkin asked if they were related since it was illegal for 1st and 2nd cousins to get married in Pennsylvania.
“No,” they both said and got married. Molly and Izzie borrowed money from her relatives to start a grocery store-lunch counter in Carnegie, a small coal town right outside of Pittsburgh where she and her husband moved; she repaid the loan, of course. That same year my great-grandmother Sara’s heart condition worsened, and she needed a caretaker. Great-aunt Esther, the youngest, had just graduated high school and got a job in a wholesale jewelry store, working for $20/week in 1920. Since Esther was making the least amount of money, she quit her job to take care of her mother. After my grandmother Molly married, she came after work a couple times a week to help nurse her mother until Sara passed in 1921. Then the few family assets were given to brothers Al and Lou to start a hardware store.
My great-uncles Al and Lou had bought a hardware store in Pittsburgh for $2000 in the early 1920s and their store did well so they could pay back what they owed in eighteen months. They named their store Plotkin Brothers. The newlywed mothers in the family began to have babies in 1921. Mollie Cohen had her oldest son Ben in 1921 while my grandmother gave birth to my mother in 1922. As soon as grandmother was able, she was up again, working in her grocery store, cooking at the lunch counter, and taking care of her infant daughter.