Sunday, March 24, 2013

My Zaide's Tears

Once a year, when I was a child, I would sit in my grandparent's kitchen and watch Zaide cry. His tears were not from joy; nor were they tears of sorrow. These were Passover tears.

Preparing for a Passover Seder was a major project. All of us had our special tasks. Granny and Mom cooked; I helped to set the table, placing a Haggadah (a book of Passover stories, prayers and songs) at each seat. My aunts each brought a contribution to the Seder meal. And Zaide prepared the "bitter herbs" - the horseradish.

I can still close my eyes and see Zaide standing at the kitchen sink, an apron around his waist. His left hand gripped a grater, cradled in a large bowl; his right hand held a fresh horseradish root. It was a tedious job, and a disagreeable one - the volatile vapors of freshly grated horseradish root are far stronger than onion. Tears streamed down his face. But those tears could not wash away his smile. This was his job - his contribution to the Seder preparations - and he did it gladly.

Granny's special task was to prepare a much gentler ritual food - the Charoset. She put wedges of apple and a handful of freshly shelled walnuts into a wooden bowl that had grown old in Passover service. She chopped the apple and walnuts into a fine paste, then added cinnamon, honey and sweet wine made especially for Passover by Uncle Edel.

Excitement built as the family arrived and sunset neared. Twenty of us - adults and children - settled noisily into our places, chattering greetings and catching up on news. Silence fell when Granny stood to bless the candles at sunset to mark the start of Passover. Zaide took his place at the head of the table, lifted his cup, and began the Seder with a blessing over Uncle Edel's sweet wine. Uncle Moe, seated at Zaide's left, rose in turn to recite the same blessing, followed by each of the men at the table.


Zaide seated at the head of the table, listening to Uncle Moe recite blessing over wine.

Finally, it was my turn. I stood, Haggadah in hand (even though I knew the words by heart) and began to recite in Hebrew "Why is this night different from all other nights?"

As I sat down, Zaide picked up his Haggadah, looked at his family gathered around, and began to recite the answer, "We were slaves in Egypt ...." I watched him as he read and, even from my seat at the far end of the table, I could see tears gathering in the corners of his eyes. Tears of joy. Tears of pride. Tears of love.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Memories of a Veteran - Conclusion

Here is the rest of my grandfather's look-back at the evolution of his Union Local 209 and the working conditions in the Montreal garment industry.

While we were picketing the hotel, I heard my name being called. I looked up on the balcony and saw that it was my wife’s brother, Morris Lapidus, who was a vice-president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. I then learned that the “scabs” were really union people. It seems that when the I.L.G. found out that the agent hired by the Association was in Toronto, they called him and offered to supply the “scabs.” A deal was made whereby the agent paid each man ten dollars. The Association agreed to pay transportation and lodging. 
The “scabs” never went to the shops; instead they joined a meeting of the strikers at Coronation Hall. When the bosses discovered what had happened, they gave up and the strike was settled. The important benefit we won was the reduction of hours from 60 to 55. 
In 1914, we joined the Amalgamated and our local maintained the same number “209.” I became the recording secretary of the Executive Committee and held that position for 38 years. Local 209 was the largest local, but it was always in financial trouble because it was constantly helping out our poor members, especially when they were sick, and donating to many charitable institutions. 
The Amalgamated has gone a long way since those years. We now have benefits we never dreamed of in those early days of our struggle. The members of Local 209 were always in the front lines of every fight to improve conditions. There were leaders like Benny Cotler, Peretz Tonchin, Issie Lighter, Jack Potashner, Issie Stolovitch and so many others to whom we owe much for the good things we have today. 
I am still a member of the Amalgamated and am employed at the Freedman Company. I am very proud of my local and our Union. We have come a long way from the sweat shop conditions of 1904. After spending a lifetime, 65 years, in the Montreal clothing industry, I should know how tremendous our progress has been. And progress we will continue to make in the years to come as long as we faithfully support our Union. I hope I will be around to see it and share it with all Amalgamated members.

A Note of Explanation: Jack Quint was 81 years old at the time this article appeared, and still at work in the Montreal garment industry. The book Angels of the Workplace: Women and the Construction of Gender Relations in the Canadian Clothing Industry, 1890 - (by Mercedes Steedman; published by Oxford University Press, 1997), confirms my grandfather's recollection of the 'scabs' from Toronto that turned out to be union members in disguise.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Memories of a Veteran

I inherited my love of words, both written and spoken, from my Zaide - my grandfather - Jack Quint. Show him a podium, a microphone or a soapbox, and he would spin yarn after yarn completely off-the-cuff until someone dragged him away. I still can picture him in my grandparents living room, devouring the Montreal Star or a Yiddish-language newspaper. And Zaide also was a writer.

My grandfather was proud to be the Recording Secretary for the executive committee of his Union Local 209 for almost four decades. In 1969, he wrote a retrospective article for L’Aiguille, a union publication. Here is Part One of Jack Quint’s Memories of a Veteran.

As a lad of 16, I arrived in Montreal with my father in 1904 from Vilno, Russia.
Finding it most necessary to obtain a job, I was advised to become an apprentice operator in men’s clothing. According to the arrangement, I paid the contractor ten dollars and worked four weeks without pay. From then on he paid me three dollars a week, which was barely enough to pay for room and board. My dad gave me ten cents a week for spending money.
Six months later I asked my boss for a raise. He refused, saying that he could hire an apprentice who would pay him ten dollars. So, after much effort I found a job for five dollars a week. This was considered pretty good pay and I was quite pleased.
In 1905 I became a member of the United Garment Workers, paying ten cents a week for dues. A couple of years later an Independent Union was organized but it did not last very long. 
In 1911 I worked for H. Kelbert. The shop was on the fifth floor. We were denied the use of the elevator so we went on strike in protest. The United Garment Workers came to our rescue. Sam Gandis organized the tailors. We won the strike. During this episode, I became a member of Local 209. 
A year later I was working at B. Gardner. Mr. Gardner was the president of the Employers Association. The union called a general strike. The bosses hired scabs to replace us. Gardner’s shop had the most scabs. These scabs ate and slept in the shop. The Association hired an agent to bring in scabs from Toronto. When we learned that a large group was coming in, we organized a committee to meet them at the railroad station. There we found numerous police and detectives and the scabs were escorted to the Queen’s Hotel.

A Note of Explanation: My mother found my grandfather's article many years ago while going through some old papers. I made a photocopy of the article, stashed it away and forgot about it. Recently, I came across the piece and felt compelled to share the unedited words of Jack Quint - a man for whom English was, at best, his second language. Please return in a few days to read the conclusion of Memories of a Veteran.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Piecework

My earliest memories are saturated with images of my grandparents, especially my mother’s parents, with whom we shared an apartment until I was five years old. Granny was a short, slightly plump lady, whose dignified demeanor - the result of a British upbringing - belied her warm nature and the twinkle in her eye. Zaide, my grandfather, was a tall, funny, loving man who delighted in holding me on his knees, teaching me the aleph-beis (the Hebrew alphabet), and entertaining me with Yiddish songs.

Every Friday night, Zaide came home from work with his pockets filled with little pieces of colored cardboard. He would empty the contents of the pockets into a pile on the kitchen table, and we would sit down together to sort the pieces by color - the blue ones on the left, orange next, then green, then yellow. I thought this was a wonderful game we played together each week. And it was.

But it was much more important than just a game. It was how Zaide got paid. For my grandfather worked as a stitcher in the Montreal garment district, and was paid "by the piece." Every one of those pieces of cardboard - called tickets - represented a seam he had sewn; each color had its own value. Blue tickets might be worth ten cents, red ones perhaps a nickel, yellow just a penny. Once we finished sorting the tickets, we counted how many were in each pile, and Zaide calculated what he had earned that week.

I didn’t know it then, but my grandfather was an active and committed Union Man. He was involved in the 1912 garment workers' strike in Montreal - he wrote about it years later for L’Aiguille, a Union newspaper. What counted for me was that he was my Zaide - my grandfather - the man who held me on his knee, told me stories, taught me how to play gin rummy, and took me to the park in the summertime on Sunday afternoons to show off to his friends.

And who brought me colored pieces of cardboard for us to play with every Friday night.

©2013 Phyllis Entis. All rights reserved.

A Note of Explanation: The prompt for this reminiscence was to describe a favorite activity from when I was between four and six years old.