From What the Furies Bring, published by Porcupine’s Quill in 2009. Kenneth Sherman is a poet and essayist who teaches at Sheridan College and York University.
I have often tried to imagine my paternal grandfather in the village of Lipsk, Poland, in the year 1904 as he prepared to depart for the New World. I used to look at the photographs in A World Vanished and in Remnant: The Last Jews of Poland to help me imagine his village of dilapidated shacks and dirt roads. I do not know if Lipsk contained a yeshiva—a house of learning—redolent of cigarettes and yellowing manuscripts, where old men pressed palms ponderously to foreheads and where young boys—wisps of earlocks creeping out from beneath their black hats—studied at a long table. If there was such a table my grandfather was not seated there. He began his apprenticeship as a tailor at a young age, perhaps because his family needed the extra income, or it may have been that he wanted to find a way out of a place that he described as impoverished, squalid, oppressed and oppressive. He never read The Wisdom of the Fathers, but he was street-wise. And daring. You would have to be, setting out for a New World by yourself at the age of fifteen.
It took him a little over one year to work his way across Europe as an itinerant tailor, travelling through Germany, Holland and France, arriving finally in England where he bought steerage to Canada. When he arrived in Toronto in 1905 he was sixteen years old and an experienced tailor. At that time, the city’s garment industry was largely undeveloped, especially the Jewish garment industry. Initially unable to find work as a tailor, he spent his first Canadian winter employed by the city’s Works Department doing the most Canadian thing of all—shovelling snow. The sidewalks on Yonge Street were wooden then. I can picture horse buns steaming in snow, auburn moustaches, plaid scarves, paper notes worth twenty-five cents bearing King Edward’s bearded profile.
In the spring he landed his first job as a tailor and worked in several sweatshops until he found a more secure position at the large clothing manufacturer, Hoberlin’s. As it turned out, his absence from the yeshiva did not impede his success in the New World. In fact, his early apprenticeship as a tailor—the time he spent at the cutting table instead of the study table—was to his advantage. Though a large proportion of East European Jews would work in the garment industry, only a fraction of them were actually skilled tailors. What attracted the other 90 percent was the fact that it was the only industry where earnings were directly related to individual effort and initiative. This was called ‘piece work’. The more pockets, linings, belts or vests a worker turned out, the more he or she was paid. People with little experience could be taught to do some portion of the garment. Only a few could measure, cut, fit and sew together an entire suit.
Many immigrants would work only for Jewish companies where they would have the high holidays free for religious observance. Some chose to work independently, as peddlers, so that, even though the earnings were meagre, they could keep their own hours and have Saturday off for observance of the Sabbath. Taking a job at a gentile firm, my grandfather made his decision early on to leave a portion of his heritage behind. Attending synagogue was not important to him. He was clearly bent on succeeding and quickly understood the importance of hard work and ‘flexibility’. For twelve years he worked at Hoberlin’s. He eventually saved enough money to open a tailor shop on Spadina Avenue. A few years later he moved his business to College, just west of Bathurst.
As a child, I had a chance to see my grandfather practically every day since we lived in the apartment above his shop. He was a man of medium height with black hair and a dark complexion that set off his Baltic blue eyes. His ears were overly large. As a child, I likened them to an elephant’s, but years later I heard a woman describe them as Clark Gable ears. He liked the occasional drink and kept a bottle of Seagram and Sons whisky behind a bolt of cloth in the back of the store. ‘It’s good for the blood and the balls,’ he told me when I was older. He had a reluctant smile and his brow was often furrowed as if he were interrogating life. Most of the time he seemed too preoccupied to notice me, but once in a while he would bend down and squeeze my cheek, or pat me on the head, give a short laugh and then walk away. As I grew older, I read into these gestures both affection and something just short of condescension: ‘You’re lucky to be born here,’ he seemed to be saying. ‘But what can you really know about the hard knocks of life?’ He’d lived through the Depression and lost much of his European family in the Second World War. I was born in the benign and tranquil Canada of 1950. I had been spared, it seemed, the terrors of history. He was probably thankful for that and at the same time convinced that as a result, I would be soft, naive. Perhaps he didn’t know that I could read that history in his face, in the shifting intonation of his voice when he expressed anxieties, anger or jubilation.