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Bell Telephone vs. The Spielvogels

bar-lev-phone Photo credit: Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

In the 1940s and 1950s when I was growing up in New York City, the Bell Telephone Company was not hiring Jews.

My mother, Fay, had four sisters and two brothers, all born in the early 1900s in a basement apartment on Houston Street (House-ton Street) on the lower east side of Manhattan to parents who had separately escaped pogroms in Poland and met on the street in New York. They spoke Yiddish only until they each in turn began school at age five. Grandpa sold colorful glass wear from a pushcart. They all had blue eyes and short mousy brown hair, not curly, not straight, except for Rose who had long black hair and brown eyes. She was the tallest of all seven and had the best sense of humor. We'd look at each other and begin giggling. She was sibling number four.

Judy was a simple sort with a flat tummy and huge boobs who never quite understood the punch line of jokes or why all the nieces and nephews were so misbehaved. When she became pregnant after ten fruitless years, it was whispered amongst the sisters that it must be because of that new technique using, according to the tabloids, test-tubes. Judy was number four, after Leon, Belle, and Fay.

Fay, Feige her Yiddish name, was the shortest. Somehow always ailing, she had a healthy funny bone.

Margie, the youngest daughter, lived in Florida. You never knew what color her hair was because she liked to wear different wigs .You'd say, Aunt Margie, your hair looks a bit dry, and off came the wig with peals of laughter.

None of them looked so much alike that you'd stop them on the street and ask (for example): Aren't you Fay's sister?

Belle, the oldest, had a subdued, sharp sense of humor. One day, when all the sisters and their children were gathered in her apartment, Belle took two long cushions from the sofa, placed one under each arm pointing in front of her, and strutted around the living room, silent and serious.When we figured out that she was imitating Judy with the huge boobs, we roared…

The sisters were peeved with Bell Telephone for not employing Jews. They got their revenge because of Margie in Miami. Every time we got together we'd hear stories of person-to-person long-distance phone calls. For instance, when Margie returned home she'd let everyone know she had arrived safely by calling Belle:

I'd like to speak with Margie gesoont, person-to-person please.

My party wants to speak with Margie JES-unt.

I'm sorry operator, she just stepped out.

Would you like to leave a message?

No thank you operator.

Telling these tales they would mimic the operators, fingers pinching noses to give an authentic American-goyish twang. They'd also do impersonations of themselves, sophisticated and serious, talking to the operators. We laughed until we cried.

Before Margie made her once every two years trip to New York, there were frantic long- distance person-to-person calls made until it became clear what presents she should bring, which child or children she was bringing along, and in whose apartment she'd be staying.

May I speak person-to-person with Joel kumen mit mir please?

Just a moment please.

My party wants to speak with Joel Comen MITmeer please.

I'm sorry, he's just stepped out.

Would you like to leave a message?

No thank you operator.

They noted with great amusement that the American phone operators were always correcting their pronunciation.It was a miracle the sisters could even understand the message.They reasoned that it was fine to dupe Bell Telephone out of a few dollars every so often, because of their long-standing discrimination against Jews.You could say my family was Jewish Ghandis or Martin Luther Kings, silent but effective.Also, they were poor.Upper lower class the sociologists would call them now.Husbands were a truck driver, an iron worker, a postman, an alcoholic.One-bedroom apartments, shabby but clean.

Of the seven siblings, most had two children. Aunt Judy had the one test-tube boy, a future mathematician. Aunt Rose with the alcoholic husband had one boy, a genius physicist. Margie tilted the baby scales with four.

Every time a baby was born, a long-distance call was placed, either to or from Miami.

I'd like to speak with mazel tov meidel please.

Just a moment please.

I have a person-to-person call from Miami for Mayzeltoff Madel.

I'm sorry operator, she's not in.

Would you like to leave a message?

No thank you, operator.

Told as usual with the nose-pinching, imitated inflections and seriousness. Even Judy, who had forgotten most of her Yiddish, would laugh, if hesitatingly.

These were the roaring days, before the Angel of Death was aware of our family's existence, before we realized that we too were mortal.

Judy surprised us all by divorcing her husband when she was eighty-four years old and he eighty-six, because of incompatibility. She died two years later.He was immediately banished from the family lexicon and disappeared from our history.

Uncle Leon, son number one, was a school principal married to a woman who always screamed at him. LEE-on, don't eat your peas with a fork! in a roomful of people. He had enough money to pay Bell Telephone's inflated bills, but never called anyone anyhow, and rarely got together with his sisters and brothers. If he ever had a sense of humor, it was washed away by his wife. When he died Belle said it was like he never was, and his wife, evidently in agreement, remarried in six months' time.

Uncle Mittie (Milton; the Jews, new to America, liked to give their boys proper English names, but in Hebrew it was Moshe), was the last child. These two were the only ones of the family who completed college. Mittie was a chemical engineer and blind in one eye, but that was a secret, the blindness, that I didn't discover until after his death at age 86.He was stricken with typhoid as a baby and it was thought he wouldn't live. Aunt Belle, whose memory remained unfailing until her death at age ninety, told me that her mother, on the way to visit Mittie in the hospital, had said to her, Reden tehilim – recite the psalms.

Until I heard that I never imagined the family had had a religious background.Yes, they all kept kosher, lit Sabbath candles, changed dishes on Pesach, but none went to synagogue.It was almost as though they were trying to protect us from a religion they must have felt was a burden, and perhaps the second world war, during which most of their children were born, had much to do with that. Religion was a secret kept from the family, as was Mittie's one-eyed blindness.

The most audacious incident was the business with the pillow. For some reason Margie was supposed to send a pillow to one of the sisters in New York. But then it was discovered that this was unnecessary.

May I please speak with Shickn nisht der cooshin, person-to-person.

My party wants to speak with Shicknish Dercosin.

I'm sorry, he's not home at the moment.

Would you like to leave a message?

No thank you operator.

We were red-faced, guffawing, tears streamed from our eyes, some of us peed in our pants. How could Belle have said this with a straight face?

I think it was the pillow incident that made Bell Telephone suspicious and caused them to finally hire Jews. They needed spies.

By the time that happened, my mother had died, aged fifty-five. Her heart, weakened by childhood rheumatic fever, just stopped beating.

Margie, the youngest, was dead of breast cancer.

Rose got breast cancer too, and, being a Libra, refused to have the afflicted breast removed so as not to be off-balanced. When her husband died suddenly, her cancer went into remission for many years before it returned for her.

So, the seven of them met up in heaven, laughing so hard the clouds couldn't contain their rain, the ice caps melted, the globe warmed up and Bell Telephone was called something else. 

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