All-American hhhhits

July 01, 1994|By Signe L. Lauren

MY great-grandmother sold all-American, workingmen's "hhhhits." A "hhhhit" is something that you wear on your "hhhhid."

My great-grandparents, Jacob and Bessie Sass, fled the pogroms in Odessa, Russia, about 1886. They left behind their elegant restaurant on the Black Sea, and a beautiful house with servants and a nanny. Jake gave all the credit for their success to Bessie's pastries (crust so thin you could read through it). They started with a deli, then a cafe, then the restaurant. Jacob always said, "They came for Bessie's pastries."

Jacob and Bessie were Orthodox Jews. The czar (Nicholas) and many other people did not like Jews. The czar's horse soldiers were "trrrrimplink Jews in da strrrrit," as my great-grandmother would say. They left with what few things they could carry and what little they could wear. They left the beautiful home and restaurant unlocked. (Whom were they going to keep out? The czar?) They knew the czar's soldiers would seize it. "Bud," (but) they were "glid" (glad) to leave in exchange for their "frrrridom."

Six months after they arrived in America, Jake died of a brain infection. During those months, he was too sick to work. He stayed with the "cheeldrrrrin" while Bessie sold workingmen's shirts on the sidewalk in front of Bethlehem Steel. Her first inventory was two shirts, which was all she could afford. Jake lived long enough to see their last child born, my Great Aunt Eva.

Bessie was now alone with three young children under 7 and a two-week-old infant. She spoke no English. She had little money. And she didn't have her servants and her nanny. Bud she was glid to have her frrrridom. She put up a stall in Hollins Market and rented a house behind the stall. She put the 7-year-old in charge of the 5- and 3-year-old. The infant slept in a baby carriage behind the stall. She sold workingmen's hhhhits, shirts, gloves and scarves. From champagne and caviar on the Black Sea to a stall in Hollins Market.

She and her stall with the baby carriage were well liked in the market. In fact, the whole neighborhood fell in love with Bessie. She was able to provide for her family from that stall.

Her customers came back week after week, not because she had a better quality hhhhit, more variety or a better price. They came back to see Bessie. She greeted every customer with a smile, listened to everyone else's troubles and gave advice. And she sent them away laughing.

She had an extraordinary sense of humor. I don't know how she found anything to smile about, but from somewhere within her she was able to make people laugh. Mother has told me that you couldn't have been in her presence more than a few minutes before you were laughing. So week after week, they came to Hollins Market to tell Bessie their troubles, hear her advice and go away laughing. Some of them even purchased a hhhhit.

Bessie prospered and was able to retire. She never had an elegant business or servants. And she never again saw Jews being trrrrimpled in the strrrrit or living in fear for practicing their religion. She loved America for what it gave her: frrrridom, frrrridom to live her life as an Orthodox Jew and to walk the strrrrit.

My great-grandmother died at 81 in 1933, during the depth of the Depression. She left money to her cheeldrrrrin.

Jews are still coming to America, just as Bessie Sass did a century ago, with nothing or with very little. And they are still coming for the same reason: frrrridom. And they are still working as hard as she did. And they are still prospering.

If she were here today, she would be so proud that one of her cheeldrrrrin's cheeldrrrrin's cheeldrrrrin wrote an essay about frrrridom in America. Bud if Bessie had written it, you would have laughed your hhhhid off.

Signe L. Lauren writes from Baltimore.

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