[posted by Ann]
Rebecca Garfield embodied the archetype of the loving, nurturing Grandmother. For most of our childhood we lived far away from her, but there were five years when our family lived close by in the Chicago suburbs of Oak Park and Evanston, (ca 1952 -1957.) During these years of frequent contact, we experienced the joys of matzo ball soup and potato kugel at Grandma’s Chicago apartment, and listened to her singing duets with our Grandfather, from their trove of Yiddish, Russian, and Irish songs. Our Dad always told us how much our Grandparents loved us, “They would give the world for you,” he once said as he handed me the telephone to chat with them.
I have a clear memory of a time Grandma and Papa Garfield babysat for us at our Oak Park home, when Joan was probably two and I was four. We loved hot cocoa, something our Mother served only as a special treat. It was bedtime, and stalling, I asked Grandma Garfield if we could have hot cocoa first. I expected her to veto the audacious request, as our mother certainly would have. But to my great surprise, she was happy to make it, and mixed up a batch from scratch in a small white enamel saucepan. I couldn’t believe our good fortune, but my conscience was also somewhat troubled, as I was certain that our Mother wouldn’t approve.
When Grandma Garfield immigrated to the US around 1910, the garment industry in New York City produced seventy per cent of the clothing worn by Americans. The job market was strong for Jewish immigrant women with sewing skills, and our Grandma quickly found work as a buttonhole maker. She fit right into the cohort of young, Yiddish-speaking immigrant girls from Eastern Europe who were her co-workers and friends. There was live Yiddish theater in New York, Yiddish films, and the Daily Forward newspaper in Yiddish. The familiar warmth of the Old World culture, transplanted, smoothed her transition to the New World. We have a photo of Grandma Rebecca with a group of other young women, who may be friends from her workplace or the tenement house in which she lived. The 1915 New York Census lists her as a boarder in the home of Max and Minnie Katz at 528 East 11th Street. Almost 180 names are listed for that address, likely a tenement house with about 20 units. Most of the residents had Jewish names, came from Russia, and worked in the garment industry. Grandma’s landlord Mr. Katz was a pants operator, and another young woman boarder named Ida Purdger was listed as “operator-dresses.”
During these early years, probably before 1915, a young man once approached Grandma and her friends asking for a loan of $20. Grandma opened her purse and gave him the money. He promised to pay her back, but her friends were skeptical and laughed that she would never see that money again. But they were wrong. About 40 years later that same man traced her to Chicago, came to see her and repaid the loan with interest. He said that he had never forgotten her kindness, and insisted on giving her $60 dollars.
Rebecca Friedman with friends, ca 1914-1915. This photo was taken at the Tarr Studio, 20 East 14th Street, New York City. Grandma is the young girl on the right, with the white blouse and dark necktie. Perhaps the other women were her fellow buttonhole makers. Or maybe one of the older women is her landlady Mrs. Katz, with fellow boarder Ida Purdger the other young woman on the left.