Living in America: The Jewish Experience

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The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter

                                                                                                                            By Sonia Pressman Fuentes

These excerpts of  Ms. Fuentes' memoirs are reproduced with the permission of the author.

Chapter 4

Moving to “the Mountains”

     I never saw any pictures of my parents when they were children. The earliest picture I have of either of them is their wedding picture. Dad was a handsome young man of nineteen and Mother a serious, attractive young woman of twenty-two.

     My father as I knew him, however, was a short, slight, bald, unprepossessing man, whose long nose was his only distinguishing physical feature. My youth was shadowed by the fear that I would inherit that nose, but Mother always assured me: "Don't worry, if you get Daddy's nose, you'll have an operation."

     Father had a number of outstanding character traits: he disdained education; his principal motivation was to provide for his family; and he was a terrific businessman who could make a living wherever he found himself and with whatever was at hand. In making a decision, he consulted no one, and, once his mind was made up, the proverbial wild horses couldn't get him to change it.

     My mother, when I knew her, was about 5'5" and solidly built; she wore a size 44 in dresses. Because of her size, she had difficulty finding clothes with style and bright colors. They didn't make them for large women in the 1930s and '40s. She always told me how lucky I was to be short because I had my pick of clothes.

     Mother's hair was a grayish-white and she wore it in tight curls around her head, which she kept in place with long bobby pins. She was fair-skinned, with a mass of freckles on her face and arms.

     I had a stronger resemblance to my father--I was built like him and had his coloring. I also looked to him much more as a role model than to my mother. He was the decision-maker in the family, the one with the power. My mother busied herself largely with housekeeping and cooking--activities that did not interest me.

     Though much larger than my father, my mother was a much softer person--but she wielded a power of her own. Father's decision to move to the Catskills illustrated that.

     After our arrival in the United States in 1934, we first settled in the Bronx at 500 Southern Boulevard. That's where I learned to speak English. Our apartment was in a building that was built in a semi-circle around a small garden. I would stand in the garden listening to the other children at play, and whenever I caught an unfamiliar word, I'd run upstairs, repeat it to Hermann, and he'd give me the German equivalent. A month after we arrived in the United States, I turned six and started kindergarten.

     My father returned to the business he knew. He opened a men's clothing store in Manhattan with a partner, but the business did poorly. And my father found that he could not take the pace of life in New York City. In Berlin, he had closed his store at midday, gone home for lunch and a rest, and then reopened until 7:00 p.m. That was the schedule to which he was accustomed. The hurly-burly of life in New York was too much for him.

     In the summer of 1935, the family took a few weeks' vacation in the Catskill Mountains of New York, the summer resort area for New York City's Jews. Shortly after our return, Father announced to the family that we would be moving to a village in the Catskills. He would buy out his partner and run the business as long as necessary to pay off his creditors. Then we would move to the Catskills, where he planned to go into the resort business. My father had never been in the resort business or in anything even approaching such a business, but that issue was never raised. Instead, my mother exploded for another reason. "Are you meshuge, crazy?" she asked. "Do you think I'm going to leave this city for a dorf, a village, in “the Mountains?" All their lives, wherever my parents lived, my father wanted to move, and my mother wanted to stay. When they visited neighbors, my father wanted to sell our house and buy theirs. This time was no different. But my mother adamantly refused to consider the idea of moving.

     Father said no more. He was a man of few words, but those few words one needed to listen to. Since no one was listening, he turned around and left the apartment. Hermann said, "I don't like the look in his eyes. I'm going to follow him." So saying, he went out the door after Father.

     Father went down to the Harlem River and sat on a piece of lumber, staring out at the water. Hermann went over to him and suggested they go home together. He pushed Hermann aside and told him to go home to Mother, but Hermann was worried by the vacant look in Father's eyes. He ran to the nearest bystander and asked him to call the police. When Hermann returned, Father was walking into the Harlem River. The police came and pulled him out of the water. His eyes had rolled up into his head, and he no longer knew what he was doing. The police wanted to call an ambulance and send him to the hospital, but Hermann persuaded them to release Father into his custody.

     Hermann brought Father home, soaking wet and incoherent. Mother took one look at him and said, "All right, we'll move to ‘the Mountains.’ " That's how we came to the village of Woodridge, New York, in 1936, a village one square mile in area with a population of about seven hundred.



Chapter 5


In the Swim

     I had always been different from my American-born classmates, with my foreign-born and older parents, and being foreign-born myself. Whatever village, town, or city we lived in, I hadn't grown up there. In addition, I'd worn thick glasses for nearsightedness and astigmatism from the age of eight. I was unattractive, a bookworm, and had no social graces.

     One of the skills I lacked was the ability to swim. "Don't worry," Mother told me when we moved to Woodridge. "Someday, Daddy will build a pool for you, and you'll learn how to swim." This was preposterous, and I told Mother so. We were not in the economic and social class of people who had their own pools.

     For our first five years in Woodridge, Mother and Dad rented a house from an elderly woman with a witch-like appearance named Mrs. Maloff, whom Mother and Dad called derogatorily di Malofke--the Maloff. They turned the house into a kokhaleyn, a "cook-alone" place. Stefan Kanfer, in his book A Summer World, had this to say about kokhaleyns:

These “cook-alones” were improperly named. The patrons slept in separate rooms of a large house but shared the overpopulated communal kitchen. There, the heat, combined with the squealing children underfoot, the closeness of bodies, and the absence of men during the week led to desperate cooperation and violent argument.1


     The kokhaleyn was an establishment where the residents cooked for themselves and their families as opposed to a hotel, where the hotel staff prepared the meals. The kokhaleyn, which was near the bottom of the ladder in the resort business, was common to the Catskills. A family would rent a single room for the season, from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The women would cook in the communal kitchen; the men would work at their jobs in "the City" [New York] during the week and join their families for the weekend.

     After five years in Woodridge, Dad came home one day and announced that he had just bought a parcel of land in Monticello. It was time to move up the ladder in the resort business, from a kokhaleyn in the village of Woodridge to a bungalow colony in the town of Monticello, about ten miles northwest of Woodridge. Monticello was the county seat of Sullivan County, with a population of about 3,500 in the winter, which swelled to 75,000 to 100,000 during the summer season. My father bought fifty acres of land from the Gusars, a family that owned a drugstore in Monticello. This property, on route 42, the Port Jervis Road, had a frontage of 500 feet and acres and acres of pine trees. Father said he would build twenty-five bungalows on the property and name it the Pine Tree Bungalow Colony. He was true to his word.

     By 1941, when we moved from Woodridge to Monticello, there were just the three of us. Hermann had met Helen Wurman, a summer vacationer, while we were living in Woodridge. He subsequently married her and opened a candy store in Long Beach, Long Island.

     After the bungalows were built, my father added a handball court and a swimming pool. My mother's prediction had come true. My father did indeed build a swimming pool. And that's where I learned to swim.


Sonia Fuentes' parents, Hinda and Zysia Pressman,
Monticello, New York, between 1941 and 1946.



Chapter 6


Father Gets a B+

     When I was in high school in Monticello, girls were required to take home economics and boys, shop. I had never shown any aptitude for domestic duties, but, nonetheless, as a girl, I was required to take home economics.

     I learned to operate a sewing machine in that class. The class project for the semester was to make a dress using the sewing machine. We were allowed to choose the type of dress we wanted to make, and I chose a jumper. (After all, that was only half a dress.) I bought some attractive blue rayon fabric and selected a design for a V-necked jumper. The design had pretty embroidered flowers in many colors along the neck.

     Fortunately, we had a Singer sewing machine at home, and I worked on my jumper all semester. I particularly enjoyed doing the flowered embroidery. On the day before I was to turn it in, I finally finished it and put it on. As I looked at myself in the mirror, I was appalled! Everything about the jumper had turned out fine--except that it did not fit. It was too tight. Tears rolled down my cheeks when I saw the work of a semester wasted. My mother heard my sobs and came running from the other room. When she saw me in the jumper, she realized what was wrong.

     I was totally distraught. "Don't worry," Mother said. "Did you forget that your father was a tailor?" I was too upset to see what my father, excellent tailor that he was, could do in the part of the day that was left to rectify the situation. But he and my mother saw the solution immediately.

     The jumper was constructed of two pieces of fabric, front and back, joined at the sides. All my father had to do was buy another piece of fabric for the back, larger than the one I had, and substitute that for the back piece of the jumper I had made. He dashed off to the yard goods store, matched the fabric, came home, and redid the jumper. This time, it fit beautifully.

     I wore my new jumper to class the following day--and passed home economics. My grade, however, was only a B+. I thought my father deserved an A.



Chapter 7


Graduating With My Class

     The year was 1945, and we were living in our home at the Pine Tree Bungalow Colony in Monticello. I was seventeen and in my senior year at Monticello High School. Late one afternoon, the front door opened and my father walked in, beaming, followed by Sheiner and a well-dressed, middle-aged couple. My father introduced the couple as Mr. and Mrs. Greenbaum* and said to my mother, "Bring out the shnaps--whisky, Lina. We just finished a little business." Mother left to get the bottle of whisky and the liqueur glasses we kept for special occasions.

     Sheiner, who was never referred to in my home by anything more than his surname, was the most aggressive realtor in Monticello. As soon as I saw him that day, I was gripped by fear. He was the type of salesman who could sell ice to the Eskimos. Five years earlier, he had negotiated our purchase of the property. At that time, the fifty-acre property was filled with pine trees and huckleberry bushes. Out of this wilderness, with my father's imagination and my mother's endless uprooting of bushes, had sprung our bungalow colony consisting of twenty-six separate buildings (twenty-five bungalows and our house), a parking lot, a swimming pool, a handball court, and a general store. Now Sheiner was here again. Why?

     It turned out that the "little business" Father had just concluded was the sale of our colony to the Greenbaums for $120,000. When I heard this news, only one thought came to my mind. I would not graduate with my high school class. Instead, I would have to transfer to yet another school in the middle of my senior year, as I had already transferred from Antwerp to the Bronx; to Woodridge; to Miami Beach; to Monticello; to Long Beach; back to Monticello; back to Miami Beach; and, finally, back to Monticello. Again I would have to become familiar with a new school building, a new school system, new teachers, and a new class, most of whose students, unlike me, had grown up together. I could not bear it.

     I let loose a stream of acrimonious language against Sheiner that shocked the assembled small group. I told him no one had put the property on the market (which was true), that his presence was unwanted, that he had no right to come in here with these customers, that we were not going to sell the property, and so on.

     He took all this without saying a word. There was utter silence after my torrent of abuse until Mrs. Greenbaum turned to her husband and said, "When we are paying so much money for a property, I certainly don't want to feel like I'm taking it away from someone." With that, she turned around and calmly walked out of the house, followed by Mr. Greenbaum. Sheiner was stunned. He could not believe he was losing a $7,000 commission due to the ravings of a 17-year-old high school student. But he said nothing and followed the Greenbaums out the door.

     I thought my father would kill me. Customers for $120,000-properties did not come along every day. Furthermore, this was the time to sell the property. My father always knew when to get into a business and when to get out. This was the time to get out. The piers were starting to shift and needed to be redone, and the tenants were beginning to demand new services, like a casino, entertainment, and childcare.

     But, instead of killing me, Father slowly took Mother's arm, walked to the window with her, watched the departing Greenbaums and Sheiner, and calmly said, "Lina, we'll never get a customer like that again." After that, the matter was never raised in my presence.

     That spring, I graduated with my high school class, and in the fall I began my freshman year at Cornell. That winter, I received a call from Mother one evening. "I have some news for you," she said, with hesitation. "I hope you won't be angry." I couldn't imagine what Father had done now.

     "We sold the place again," she said," but not for $120,000. We got $125,000 this time. Is that all right?" I told Mother it was quite all right, and she heaved a sigh of relief. "Thank God." she said, "Daddy was worried."

1  Stefan Kanfer, A Summer World (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989) 71.

*  This name is fictitious.



© 1999 by Sonia Pressman Fuentes. Ms. Fuentes is a public speaker, writer, lawyer, and co-founder of NOW (National Organization for Women).


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