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How I Found America
By ANZIA YEZIERSKA
VERY breath I drew was a breath of fear, every shadow a stifling shock, every footfall struck on my heart like the heavy boot of the Cossack. On a low stool in the middle of the only room in our mud hut sat my father, his red beard falling over the Book of Isaiah, open before him. On the tile stove, on the benches that were our beds, even on the earthen floor, sat the neighbors' children, learning from him the ancient poetry of the Hebrew race. As he chanted, the children repeated:
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord.
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted,
And every mountain and hill shall be made low,
And the crooked shall be made straight,
And the glory of God shall be revealed,
Undisturbed by the swaying and chanting of teacher and pupils, old Kakah, our speckled hen, with her brood of chicks, strutted and pecked at the potato-peelings that fell from my mother's lap as she prepared our noon meal.
I stood at the window watching the road, lest the Cossack come upon us unawares to enforce the ukase of the czar, which would tear the last bread from our mouths: "No chadir [Hebrew school] shall be held in a room used for cooking and sleeping."
With one eye I watched ravenously my mother cutting chunks of black bread. At last the potatoes were ready. She poured them out of an iron pot into a wooden bowl and placed them in the center of the table.
Instantly the swaying and chanting ceased. The children rushed forward. The fear of the Cossack was swept away from my heart by the fear that the children would get my potato, and deserting my post, with a shout of joy I seized my portion and bit a huge mouthful of mealy delight.
At that moment the door was driven open by the blow of an iron heel. The Cossack's whip swished through the air. Screaming, we scattered. The children ran out our livelihood with them.
"Oi weh!" wailed my mother, clutching at her breast, "is there a God over us and sees all this?"
With grief-glazed eyes my father muttered a broken prayer as the Cossack thundered the ukase: "A thousandruble' fine, or a year in prison, if you are ever found again teaching children where you 're eating and sleeping."
"Gottuniu!" then pleaded my mother, "would you tear the last skin from our bones? Where else should we be eating and sleeping? Or should we keep chadir in the middle of the road? Have we houses with separate rooms like the czar?"
Ignoring my mother's protests, the Cossack strode out of the hut. My father sank into a chair, his head bowed in the silent grief of the helpless.
My mother wrung her hands. "God from the world, is there no end to our troubles? When will the earth cover me and my woes?"
I watched the Cossack disappear down the road. All at once I saw the whole village running toward us. I dragged my mother to the window to see the approaching crowd.
"Gevalt! what more is falling over our heads?" she cried in alarm.
Masheh Mindel, the water-carrier's wife, headed a wild procession. baker, the butcher, the shoemaker, the tailor, the goatherd, the workers in the fields, with their wives and children
pressed toward us through a cloud of dust.
Masheh Mindel, almost fainting, fell in front of the doorway.
"A letter from America!" she gasped. "A letter from America!" echoed the crowd as they snatched the letter from her and thrust it into my father's hands. "Read, read!" they shouted tumultuously.
My father looked through the letter, his lips uttering no sound. In breathless suspense the crowd gazed at him. Their eyes shone with wonder and reverence for the only man in the village who could read. Masheh Mindel crouched at his feet, her neck stretched toward him to catch each precious word of the letter.
To my worthy wife, Masheh Mindel, and to my loving son, Sushkah Feivel, and to my darling daughter, the apple of my eye, the pride of my life, Tzipkeleh!
Long years and good luck on you! May the blessings from heaven fall over your beloved heads and save you from all harm!
First I come to tell you that I am well and in good health. May I hear the same from you!
Secondly, I am telling you that my sun is beginning to shine in America. I am becoming a person-a business man. I have for myself a stand in the most crowded part of America, where people are as thick as flies and every day is like market-day at a fair. My business is from bananas and apples. The day begins with my push-cart full of fruit, and the day never ends before I can count up at least two dollars' profit. That means four rubles. Stand before your eyes, I, Gedalyah Mindel, four rubles a day; twenty-four rubles a week!
"Gedalyah Mindel, the water-carrier, twenty-four rubles a week!" The words leaped like fire in the air.
We gazed at his wife, Masheh Mindel, a dried-out bone of a woman.
"Masheh Mindel, with a husband in America, Masheh Mindel the wife of a man earning twenty-four rubles a week! The sky is falling to the earth!"
We looked at her with new reverence. Already she was a being from another world. The dead, sunken eyes became alive with light. The worry for bread that had tightened the skin of her cheek
bones was gone. The sudden surge of happiness filled out her features, flushing her face as with wine. The two starved children clinging to her skirts, dazed with excitement, only dimly realized their good fortune in the envious glances of the others. But the letter went on:
Thirdly, I come to tell you, white bread and meat I eat every day, just like the millionaires. Fourthly, I have to tell you that I am no more Gedalyah Mindel. Mister Mindel they call me in America. Fifthly, Masheh Mindel and my dear children, in America there are no mud huts where cows and chickens and people live all together. I have for myself a separate room, with a closed door, and before any one can come to me, he must knock, and I can say, "Come in," or "Stay out," like a king in a palace. Lastly, my darling family and people of the village of Sukovoly, there is no czar in America.
My father paused. The hush was stifling. "No czar-no czar in America!" Even the little babies repeated the chant, "No czar in America!"
In America they ask everybody who should be the President. And I, Gedalyah Mindel, when I take out my citizen's papers, will have as much to say who shall be our next President as Mr. Rockefeller, the greatest millionaire. Fifty rubles I am sending you for your ship-ticket to America. may all Jews who suffer in Golluth from ukases and pogroms live yet to lift up their heads like me, Gedalyah Mindel, in America.
Fifty rubles! A ship-ticket to America! That so much good luck should fall on one head! A savage envy bit us. Gloomy darts from narrowed eyes stabbed Masheh Mindel. Why should not we, too, have a chance to get away from this dark land! Has not every heart the same hunger for America, the same longing to live and laugh and breathe like a free human being? America is for all. Why should only Masheh Mindel and her children have a chance to the New World?
Murmuring and gesticulating, the crowd dispersed. Every one knew every one else's thought-how to get to America. What could they pawn? From where could they borrow for a ship-ticket?
Silently, we followed my father back into the hut from which the Cossack had driven us a while before. We children looked from mother to father and from father to mother.
"Gottunieu! the czar himself is pushing us to America by this last ukase." My mother's face lighted up the hut like a lamp.
"Meshugeneh Yideneh!" admonished my father. "Always your head in the air. What-where-America? With what money? Can dead people lift themselves up to dance?"
"Dance?" The samovar and the brass pots reëchoed my mother's laughter. "I could dance myself over the waves of the ocean to America."
In amazed delight at my mother's joy, we children rippled and chuckled with her. My father paced the room, his face dark with dread for the morrow.
"Empty hands, empty pockets; yet it dreams itself in you-America," he said. "Who is poor who has hopes on America?" flaunted my mother.
"Sell my red-quilted petticoat that grandmother left for my dowry," I urged in excitement.
"Sell the feather-beds, sell the samovar," chorused the children.
"Sure, we can sell everything-the goat and all the winter things," added my mother. "It must be always summer in America."
I flung my arms around my brother, and he seized Bessie by the curls, and we danced about the room, crazy with joy. "Beggars!" said my laughing mother. "Why are you so happy with yourselves? How will you go to America without a shirt on your back, without shoes on your feet?"
But we ran out into the road, shouting and singing:
"We'll sell everything we got; we 're going to America. White bread and meat we 'll eat every day in America, in America!"
That very evening we brought Berel Zalman, the usurer, and showed him all our treasures, piled up in the middle of the hut.
"Look! All these fine feather-beds, Berel Zalman!" urged my mother. "This grand fur coat came from Nijny itself. My grandfather bought it at the fair."
I held up my red-quilted petticoat, the supreme sacrifice of my ten-year-old life. Even my father shyly pushed forward the samovar.
"It can hold enough tea for the whole village," he declared.
“Only a hundred rubles for them all!" pleaded my mother, "only enough to lift us to America! Only one hundred little rubles!"
"A hundred rubles! Pfui!" sniffed the pawnbroker. "Forty is overpaid. Not even thirty is it worth."
But, coaxing and cajoling, my mother got a hundred rubles out of him.
STEERAGE, dirty bundles, foul odors, seasick humanity; but I saw and heard nothing of the foulness and ugliness about me. I floated in showers of sunshine; visions upon visions of the New World opened before me. From lip to lip flowed the golden legend of the golden country:
"In America you can say what you feel, you can voice your thoughts in the open streets without fear of a Cossack."
"In America is a home for everybody. The land is your land, not, as in Russia, where you feel yourself a stranger in the village where you were born and reared, the village in which your father and grandfather lie buried."
"Everybody is with everybody alike in America. Christians and Jews are brothers together."
"An end to the worry for bread, an end to the fear of the bosses over you. Everybody can do what he wants with his life in America."
"There are no high or low in America. Even the President holds hands with Gedalyah Mindel."
"Plenty for all. Learning flows free, like milk and honey."
"Learning flows free." The words painted pictures in my mind. I saw before me free schools, free colleges, free libraries, where I could learn and learn and keep on learning. In our village was a school, but only for Christian children. In the schools of America I'd lift up my head and laugh and dance, a child with other children. Like a bird in the air, from sky to sky, from star to star, I'd soar and soar.
"Land! land!" came the joyous
shout. All crowded and pushed on deck. They strained and stretched to get the first glimpse of the "golden country," lifting their children on their shoulders that they might see beyond them. Men fell on their knees to pray. Women hugged their babies and wept. Children danced. Strangers embraced and kissed like old friends. Old men
and old women had in their eyes a look of young people in love. Age-old visions sang themselves in me, songs of freedom of an oppressed people. America! America!
Between buildings that loomed like mountains we struggled with our bundles, spreading around us the smell of the steerage. Up Broadway, under the bridge, and through the swarming streets of the Ghetto, we followed Gedalyah Mindel.
I looked about the narrow streets of squeezed-in stores and houses, ragged clothes, dirty bedding oozing out of the windows, ash-cans and garbage-cans cluttering the sidewalks. A vague sadness pressed down my heart, the first doubt of America.
"Where are the green fields and open spaces in America?" cried my heart. "Where is the golden country of my dreams?" A loneliness for the fragrant silence of the woods that lay beyond our mud hut welled up in my heart, a longing for the soft, responsive earth of our village streets. All about me was the hardness of brick and stone, the smells of crowded poverty.
"Here's your house, with separate rooms like a palace," said Gedalyah Mindel, and flung open the door of a dingy, airless flat.
"Oi weh!" cried my mother in dismay. "Where's the sunshine in America?" She went to the window and looked out at the blank wall of the next house. "Gottunieu! Like in a grave so dark!"
"It ain't so dark; it 's only a little shady," said Gedalyah Mindel, and lighted the gas. "Look only!"-he pointed with pride to the dim gas-light -"No candles, no kerosene lamps, in America. You turn on a screw, and put to it a match, and you got it light like with sunshine."
Again the shadow fell over me, again the doubt of America. In America were
rooms without sunlight; rooms to sleep in, to eat in, to cook in, but without sunshine, and Gedalyah Mindel was happy. Could I be satisfied with just a place to sleep in and eat in, and a door to shut people out, to take the place of sunlight? Or would I always need the sunlight to be happy? And where was there a place in America for me to play? I looked out into the alley below, and saw pale-faced children scrambling in the gutter. "Where is America?" cried my heart.
My eyes were shutting themselves with sleep. Blindly I felt for the buttons on my dress; and buttoning, I sank back in sleep again the dead-weight sleep of utter exhaustion.
"Heart of mine," my mother's voice moaned above me, "father is already gone an hour. You know how they'll squeeze from you a nickel for every minute you 're late. Quick only!"
I seized my bread and herring and tumbled down the stairs and out into the street. I ate running, blindly pressing through the hurrying throngs of workers, my haste and fear choking every mouthful. I felt a strangling in my throat as I neared the sweat-shop prison; all my nerves screwed together into iron hardness to endure the day's torture.
For an instant I hesitated as I faced the grated windows of the old building. Dirt and decay cried out from every crumbling brick. In the maw of the shop raged around me the roar and the clatter, the merciless grind, of the pounding machines. Half-maddened, halfdeadened, I struggled to think, to feel, to remember. What am I? Who am I? Why am I here? I struggled in vain, bewildered and lost in a whirlpool of noise. "America-America, where was America?" it cried in my heart.
Then came the factory whistle, the slowing down of the machines, the shout of release hailing the noon hour. I woke as from a tense nightmare, a weary waking to pain. In the dark chaos of my brain reason began to dawn. In my stifled heart feelings began to pulse. The wound of my wasted life began to throb and ache. With my childhood choked with drudgery, must my youth, too, die unlived?
Here were the odor of herring and garlic, the ravenous munching of food, laughter and loud, vulgar jokes. Was it only I who was so wretched? I looked at those around me. Were they happy or only insensible to their slavery? How could they laugh and joke? Why were they not torn with rebellion against this galling grind, the crushing, deadening movements of the body, where only hands live, and hearts and brains must die?
I felt a touch on my shoulder and looked up. It was Yetta Solomon, from the machine next to mine.
"Here's your tea."
I stared at her half-hearing. "Ain't you going to eat nothing?" "Oi weh Yetta! I can't stand it!" The cry broke from me. "I did n't come to America to turn into a machine. came to America to make from myself a person. Does America want only my hands, only the strength of my body, not my heart, not my feelings, my thoughts?"
"Our heads ain't smart enough," said Yetta, practically. "We ain't been to school, like the American-born."
"What for did I come to America but to go to school, to learn, to think, to make something beautiful from my life?" "Sh! 'Sh! The boss! the boss!" came the warning whisper.
A sudden hush fell over the shop as the boss entered. He raised his hand. There was breathless silence. The hard, red face with the pig's eyes held us under its sickening spell. Again I saw the Cossack and heard him thunder the ukase. Prepared for disaster, the girls paled as they cast at one another sidelong, frightened glances.
"Hands," he addressed us, fingering the gold watch-chain that spread across his fat stomach, "it 's slack in the other trades, and I can get plenty girls begging themselves to work for half what you 're getting; only I ain't a skinner. I always give my hands a show to earn their bread. From now on I'll give you fifty cents a dozen shirts instead of seventy-five, but I'll give you night-work, so you need n't lose nothing." And he was gone.
The stillness of death filled the shop. Every one felt the heart of the other bleed with her own helplessness. A sud
den sound broke the silence. A woman sobbed chokingly. It was Balah Rifkin, a widow with three children.
"Oi weh!"-she tore at her scrawny neck,-"the blood-sucker! the thief! How will I give them to eat, my babies, my hungry little lambs!"
"Why do we let him choke us?" "Twenty-five cents less on a dozenhow will we be able to live?"
"He tears the last skin from our bones."
"Why did n't nobody speak up to him?"
Something in me forced me forward. I forgot for the moment how my whole family depended on my job. I forgot that my father was out of work and we had received a notice to move for unpaid rent. The helplessness of the girls around me drove me to strength.
"I'll go to the boss," I cried, my nerves quivering with fierce excitement. "I'll tell him Balah Rifkin has three hungry mouths to feed."
Pale, hungry faces thrust themselves toward me, thin, knotted hands reached out, starved bodies pressed close about
"Long years on you!" cried Balah Rifkin, drying her eyes with a corner of her shawl.
"Tell him about my old father and me, his only bread-giver," came from Bessie Sopolsky, a gaunt-faced girl with a hacking cough.
"And I got no father or mother, and four of them younger than me hanging on my neck." Jennie Feist's beautiful young face was already scarred with the gray worries of age.
America, as the oppressed of all lands have dreamed America to be, and America as it is, flashed before me, a banner of fire. Behind me I felt masses pressing, thousands of immigrants; thousands upon thousands crushed by injustice, lifted me as on wings.
I entered the boss's office without a shadow of fear. I was not I; the wrongs of my people burned through me till I felt the very flesh of my body a living flame of rebellion. I faced the boss.
"We can't stand it," I cried. "Even as it is we 're hungry. Fifty cents a dozen would starve us. Can you, a Jew, tear the bread from another Jew's mouth?"