Victory Gardens – Chapter 1



Esther Rothstein leaned against the glass wall of her living room window and sighed contentedly. It was late afternoon. The sun was setting, and the view outside was golden and glistening. The East River shimmered as it flowed, its rhythms soothing. It wouldn’t be long before her husband would be home and dinner would be served in the main dining room.

Never before she was married had she looked forward to dinner! While she was growing up, it had been difficult to get excited about cabbage, onions, and potatoes every single day.

She thought about the menu she had planned that morning with the non-Jewish cook. Esther  had walked into the kitchen just in time to find her lighting the oven instead of waiting for her as she had been instructed, but  it was hard to find good help and the woman would just have to do.

Today they were having chicken fricassee with meatballs. She liked it sweet style, with raisins and apricots, even though Emanuel liked it savory. The cook had insisted that it couldn’t be made properly without lard and milk, but Esther set her straight immediately. She could not even imagine having her mother’s recipe put to shame in that way.

Sometimes Esther would pinch herself in order to believe her good fortune. Manny’s family had always been comfortable, but hadn’t come close to the success Manny was having now. One day he was shlepping boxes on the loading dock at the printing plant, and before he knew it he was sitting in the owner’s chair. His office, like their living room, had wall-to-wall windows, and when he felt like it, he would lean back in his big chair and survey his little kingdom.

The presses ran continually, and the quality product and sterling reputation of Rothstein’s Print Co. was so highly regarded that customers came from as far away as Baltimore, Maryland, to avail themselves of his services. Papa Rothstein had never gotten further than owning a small tie factory. The day they hung the mezuzos at Manny’s plant was a proud day in all of their lives.

“You’ve got the money  now,” Papa had kibbitzed as they drank a l’chaim that day. “Now all you need are the children to spend it on!” Manny had smiled respectfully at his father, but Esther could tell that his heart froze. While everything else seemed to turn to gold in his capable hands, after nine years of marriage the one blessing they had not yet merited was children.

Mama Rothstein said little as a rule, happy to stand aside while Papa Rothstein held court. Because things worked differently in her own family, it had taken Esther some time to get used to this, and to direct her questions and comments accordingly. Since Mama wasn’t much of a conversationalist, Esther had to use her imagination and no small amount of ingenuity to keep their relationship a happy and thriving one. Mama loved to bake, so they did a lot of that, and she’d been the first of her crowd as a girl to learn to crochet, having learned from the Irishwoman who did their laundry. She had taught Esther the rudiments, and the two of them spent many a silent afternoon churning out doilies and table runners. Mama’s were nearly perfect while Esther’s were usually lopsided, but Mama didn’t seem to care.

Papa and Mama rarely came around to visit anymore. If they wanted to see them on Shabbos, Manny and Esther made the long walk from their Yorkville apartment to the Rothstein home downtown. As Papa’s livelihood improved, he moved from one apartment to another like an agile monkey swinging from vine to vine, until he’d landed them on Irving Place in the Foster Building. Papa had purchased two of the small units, banged out a wall, and put in his own kitchen. If he waited for Foster to do it, he said, he’d be building campfires on the fire escape! Mama was lonely, often walking back downtown to the hive-like honeycomb of the Lower East Side to spend the day with her own mother and her sisters. Papa spent most of the day at his factory, and what was left of it was spent davening and schmoozing. There was no proper shul in his neighborhood, so he had gathered some of the other factory owners and a few workers in case they were short, and davened in the basement of his place. They had all chipped in for a sefer Torah. Manny, while still a boy, had built the aron kodesh from scrap wood.

“Esther? Are you home?” Manny’s voice rang out through the long hallway. Sometimes it echoed. After all her musing and thinking, she hadn’t even heard him come in.

“Yes, Manny. Hello. I’m in the salon,” said Esther.

“The salon?” Manny smiled. “Hoity toity.”

“That’s what it’s called. This house has so many rooms you can’t call every one of them the same thing.”

“Esther, if it makes you happy, it makes me happy.” Manny’s smile was a fixed presence in Esther’s life, the one thing she could count on even through the darkest days. A dark day for Esther, that spring of 1929, never got so bad that a ray of sunshine couldn’t push its way through the gloom. That was then. Who could know what lay ahead?

To be continued …