Editor’s Note: This is the seventh installment of a multi-part series on the life and times of the author’s mother-in-law, whose experiences reflect the coming of age of the immigrant generation’s American-born children. The sixth part, “The Courtship of Bernice Cohen,” appeared as the front-page essay in the June 16 issue; part eight will appear in August.
Jewish life revolves around two institutions: home and community. While one’s home and family mold individual religious practice, to live a full Jewish life one must engage with a community. All Jewish communities provide certain basic services, but there is often a great difference in communal scope and nature between major urban Jewish communities and those found “out of town.”
And as much as that is true today, these differences were even more pronounced during the first half of the 20th century.
When my mother-in-law Bernice Cohen, born and raised in New York City, met and married Arthur Schwartz from Nyack in Rockland county, the differences hit home for the first time.
“After all, I was from the Bronx,” she said, and “Jewish life in Nyack was a very different story, as I learned when we would visit my in-laws. I was used to Jews being everywhere and the Jewish community in Nyack was so small.
“Our Bronx Jewish community was based on a shul and in Nyack it was based on businesses. I grew up in the Bronx YMHA, but in Nyack the only Y was the YMCA.
“My mother and grandmother bought their meat whenever they wanted to, whenever they could afford to, from the kosher butcher in our neighborhood, but my in-laws still kept chickens in their backyard for eggs. When they wanted a chicken, my father-in-law would just shecht one. Lucky that he was trained as a shochet!”
It was just that training that had brought the Schwartz family to Nyack in the first place. Arthur’s father, Shimon Chaim Polonski, was one of thirteen children and the scion of seventeen generations of rabbis. By the time he immigrated to New York in 1906 from Dunilovici, a small town in the Vilna province, he, too, was already an ordained rabbi and shochet.
Family lore has it that at the time he got off the boat, ritual slaughterers were on strike in New York. When he identified himself as such to a Jew at the pier asking the new immigrants if anyone was a shochet, he was taken to a warehouse on the Lower East Side where he was put to work as an unwitting scab, beheading chickens all night long.
Not particularly enamored with the sight of chicken blood, he soon found work making quilts in a feather factory on the Lower East Side. At some point he changed his name to Hyman Schwartz, which he considered more Americanized than Polonski, and in 1912 he met and married Mollie Gurovitch (Horowitz), a young immigrant from Russia who was a head taller than he was and lived on the next block.
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Heime, as he was listed in the 1920 American census, didn’t see himself as manufacturing quilts for the rest of his life, and even being a shochet began to look better than it had during his first night in the New World.
But working conditions for shochtim in New York City in those days were scandalous, with most of them forced to slaughter at a speed that made it impossible to determine whether or not the chickens were actually kosher. Either unable or unwilling to work under those circumstances, he accepted a suggestion made by his father’s brother Yeshayahu (Polonski) Gordon, a rabbi then working as a house painter in Tarrytown, who had been living in America for several years.
“Across the Hudson from here is Nyack,” he said. “Jews are beginning to move there and they are looking for a shochet and Hebrew teacher.”
But the Jewish community there, which was supposed to have become a gateway to the newly developing Hudson River Valley communities, never really lived up to that hope and Hyman soon realized there was little need for a full time shochet or Hebrew teacher. Besides, he had never gotten over his dislike of the sight of blood.
So the young couple opened a grocery store, “nice and clean,” as Bernice described it. Hyman continued to keep chickens in his backyard on which he occasionally practiced his craft. But for kosher meat he would travel every Sunday to New York City, buying a sack of provisions from a kosher butcher on the Lower East Side, which he would bring back to Mollie’s kitchen for the coming week.
Despite the lack of a large Jewish community, a shul had existed in Nyack since 1891 when Congregation Bnai Israel had been founded. It was, however, a non-Orthodox synagogue with no partition between men and women. In time it became affiliated with the Conservative movement, and Hyman and Mollie found themselves adapting to the communal norms. This, after all, was where they were and what they had.
Another communal norm of the early years was that Jewish businesses remained open on Saturday morning, run by the wives while the men would go to shul.
A year after they married, Mollie gave birth to a son, Harry, Zvi Hirsch, named for Mollie’s father, and less than two years later to a daughter, Rose, named for Hyman’s maternal grandmother.
Living behind and above the grocery store, Hyman and Mollie both worked in the business full time. Suddenly, when Harry was almost ten, Mollie found herself expecting once again, and in 1923 she gave birth to a boy they named Arthur, Avraham Leib, after Hyman’s father, Rabbi Avraham Leib Halevi Polonski of Dunilovici, who had recently died in a typhoid epidemic.
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The Nyack in which Arthur Schwartz grew up, known best for such homegrown celebrities as actress Helen Hayes and playwright Ben Hecht, was most certainly not a “Jewish town,” but the community had expanded since his parents had moved there over a decade earlier. Like Hyman and Mollie, quite a number of Nyack’s Jewish community members, many of them immigrants, were storekeepers and businessmen.
Having led the services and read the Torah for years, Hyman was instrumental in building the new shul for congregation Sons of Israel. By the 1930s the town had a kosher butcher and there was even a woman who ran kind of a kosher restaurant , serving meals in her apartment over a Main Street store.
At that point there was something else that could not go unnoticed by the locals. A former Nyack resident recalled how on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur all the Jewish merchants closed their shops “and the town was absolutely dead. This was despite the fact that the town was primarily non-Jewish and all the government offices and schools were open.”
Sometime during that decade, the Schwartzes changed businesses. “Grandpa Hymie was a man who learned, read, politicked and looked for business,” said Bernice. “After Prohibition ended and it was possible to get a liquor license he realized that a liquor store would be a better and easier business than a grocery store.”
Together with another Nyack businessman, Charlie Gross, he opened a liquor store on Franklin Street, which they ran for the next 29 years. Making sure to cover all bases, Hyman, always politically astute, registered as a Republican while his partner was a registered Democrat. But in reality Hyman voted a straight Democratic ticket throughout his life.
From then on Mollie (“stoic, somewhat shy, but one tough lady,” in Bernice’s words) became a full time homemaker while Hyman, whom his wife always referred to as “Schwartz,” successfully supported the family. Having left the rooms above the grocery store, he purchased them a small mansion in Nyack, around the block from Helen Hayes, with two lions flanking the entrance (“like the lions in front of the public library on 42nd Street in New York City,” according to Bernice).
During Arthur’s early years, however, his parents still owned the grocery store, where they worked together long hours. Like many of the town’s Jewish immigrants, throughout their lives the older Schwartzes continued to speak Yiddish to each other and to their children (who answered them in English and had only a passive knowledge of Yiddish).
Arthur attended the Liberty Street Public School and then continued on to Nyack High School where he was known as an athlete. Excelling at soccer and basketball, he also participated in the Nyack glee club “where he couldn’t sing a note but was the mid-man since he was tall and they needed someone tall in the last row,” said Bernice.
Having no YMHA, Arthur and his friends, Jewish and non-Jewish, would hang out at the local YMCA.
Although his father would have been his ideal Hebrew teacher, Hyman was busy at the store. Arthur’s Jewish studies were, therefore, provided by a visiting melamed who taught the Jewish boys and girls of Nyack how to read Hebrew. Unlike Bernice, who grew up in a strong Jewish environment with mostly Jewish friends, Arthur’s school friends were to a great extent the non-Jewish boys and girls of Nyack, both black and white.
Despite owning some of the important businesses in town, the Jews of Nyack continued to remain a small minority, and in each high school graduating class there was only a handful of Jewish students.
When Harry Schwartz had finished high school in 1930 his father, who wrote English phonetically until the end of his life, encouraged him to study accounting at NYU. Like many girls of her generation, Rose remained at home and took a post-high school secretarial course in Nyack.
But by the time Arthur finished high school in 1941 his choice of college was very different from that of his brother – Alfred University, a Seventh Day Adventist school in upstate New York best known for its agronomy and ceramics studies, where he planned to be a history major.
Ironically, because of the school’s religious orientation, no classes were held on Shabbos. There even was a Jewish fraternity Arthur joined, Kappa Nu.
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Arthur’s plans were abruptly altered by the outbreak of the Second World War. When his draft number came up, he was posted to the Army Medical Corps and trained as an army mental health worker. He remained stateside and for three years worked with wounded or ill soldiers in a military psychiatric hospital in Georgia; many were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, then simply called “shell shock.”
There, a chance Jewish connection helped shape his professional future. Two of the staff psychiatrists were Jewish and one became Arthur’s mentor, convincing him to continue on in his studies in the field of mental health.
For a Jewish boy from Nyack, brought up in a business family, the accepted professions in those days were usually accounting, business, or law. But Arthur’s wartime experiences created in him the desire to do something else – to help people.
Despite his mother’s hope that he would become a pharmacist (“she thought white coats looked professional,” Bernice recalled), he returned after the war to Alfred University courtesy of the GI Bill and changed his major to social work. With his army mentor’s encouragement he later enrolled in a graduate degree program in social work at Columbia.
A caring, charitable, and generous young man, Arthur had learned these traits from his parents. Both before and after the war Hyman and Mollie had unstintingly sponsored and cared for relatives who had immigrated to America, opening their home to them in Nyack until they could settle elsewhere. One was Mollie’s sister and her son; another was Hyman’s baby sister, born after he had left Europe, and her family, some of whom had survived the Holocaust. Yet another was his cousin and her young son, who had been hidden in Europe during the war.
In the spring of 1949, “out-of-town Jewish boy” met “big city Jewish girl.” As part of his MSW studies Arthur had to complete two series of fieldwork. For the first, the tall strapping athlete was sent to Hell’s Kitchen where he worked with Irish youth. For the second, as his specialization was group work, he came to the Bronx Y, where he ran a huge game room for hundreds of Jewish teenagers.
At some point, as described in last month’s installment, Bernice Cohen, director of the Y’s Teenage Division, became Arthur’s supervisor, and after some convincing by the Y’s porter, who acted as matchmaker, she agreed to go out with him on a date. Eventually they married. What came next is a story in itself.
This installment of the Bernice Chronicles is dedicated to the memory of Bernice’s mother, Daisy Sheidler Cohen (Draiza Genessa bas Avigdor Yisrael and Chaya Liba), whose yahrzeit is 2 Av (July 25 this year).