Chapter 3. My Grandmother: Rachel Levine Perlin

The biography you are about to read is based in part family history, in part family lore and in part on observations by a boy growing up (from the age of 5 through 16) with his grandparents on a farm 80 miles from New York City.

My grandfather bought a 100 acre farm in Mountaindale, New York in 1918. He had two reasons for purchasing a farm. He believed that the only son of a farmer would be exempt from the draft in World War I and he knew my grandmother wanted to live on a farm. My grandfather came to the United States in 1904. My grandmother lived on her father's farm in Kolona, Russia, (now Belarus) with her two children for 6 years while my grandfather was in the United States raising money to send for them. My grandfather was a carpenter from Slonim (population 15,000, 10,000 of whom were Jewish in the 1897 census) who was hired to build a barn for Bela Levine and ended up marrying his daughter Rachel.

When the family was reunited in 1910, they first lived in Brooklyn and then moved to New Rochelle. In 1918, my grandfather purchased a farm in Mountaindale. Between 1918 and 1934 my parents were married (1920), had two sons (born in 1924 and 1928), lived in The Bronx and when they couldn't make a living went to live on the farm in 1934.

Rachel Perlin was about 60 years old when my immediate family arrived at the farm in 1934. We have no official birth certificate for Rachel. By then the small dairy farm had expanded to also be a small summer boarding house and a chicken farm. It now had public electricity (before, there was a Delco electric system), telephones and improved plumbing. There was no modern farm equipment. We had a horse that supplied all the pulling power on the farm. Cows were milked by hand and water was hauled in 40-gallon milk cans from a well several hundred yards from the chicken coops.

By the time we stayed with her, my grandmother was set in her ways. No one bothered to discuss how she could do things in a different or better way. The way she had learned to do things in Russia was the way it was done. In Russia, Jewish girls from poor families did not go to school so Rachel was illiterate when she came to America at the age of 35 and she didn't considerate it important to learn to read and write once she was here. Living on a farm in Russia may have limited her opportunities to acquire adequate socialization skills. Her 16 years on this farm didn't improve them. And finally, her ability and desire to use the limited technological 20th century items available is another indication of her unwillingness to adjust to modern times. For example, she never used a telephone, a radio or a washing machine though all were readily available to her on the farm.

Rachel's main interests in life were her Jewish religion and her farm. Her farm included her cows and the growing plants. She never went to the chicken coops, never mingled with the guests and seldom spoke with them. She took her religion seriously. Although she couldn't read, she had memorized the appropriate portions of the prayer book (siddur). She appeared to be completely oblivious to dates except for Jewish holidays, unless, unbeknown to me, she discussed the dates with my grandfather. Dates were never an item with her children. For example, neither my father nor my aunt knew their birth date. When asked about his birthday, her response was, "He was born on Yom Kippur the year the barn burned." Many years later we checked on Yom Kippur dates and that his actual date of birth was on Yom Kippur September 26,1898. He used a different birth date on every official form he completed. (The Russians used the Julian calendar until February, 1918.) Yom Kippur's date changed every year in relation to the Western calendars (Julian and Gregorian). Yom Kippur was always correct according to the Jewish calendar. What Jew could forget Yom Kippur? Maybe she was right, but she left out the year

First, she stopped eating meat but continued to eat fish. She claimed that she saw the local butcher slaughter a cow instead of having the shochet do it. Keeping kosher was very important to her. From that time on she said there was no trusting butchers in America plus a lot more that would have ruined his business and reputation as well as landing her in court for slander if she had gone to town.

Second, she did not want to be photographed. We have pictures of her running away from someone who wanted to take a photo. Her rationale appears to have been the outdated concept in the Second Commandment prohibiting the making of graven images. It wasn't until my older brother was drafted for the army in 1942, that she relented and stood with the family for a photo.

Third, she fasted every Monday and Thursday, the days they read the torah. She never told me why when I asked, but I never expected an answer because I was only a child. I asked my grandfather. He said he didn't know. The Jewish Encyclopedia states that "some pious Jews fast every Monday and Thursday" and gives a list of reasons.

Preparing for Saturday took all of Friday. She woke up at 3:00 o'clock in the morning to bake her two braided challahs and half dozen challah rolls. While they were in the oven, she cooked, cleaned the kitchen, set up the candle sticks and after everything was done, washed the floors and put down two layers of newspapers, the bottom ones for Saturday and the top ones to keep the bottom ones clean on Friday. The top papers would be picked up before the lighting of the candles on Friday evening. After her bath, she was ready for Shabbos by noon on Friday.

Her farm was her sanctuary. She loved her garden and her cows. This left her, to a great extent, isolated and asocial. She very seldom left the farm. And, when she did, she almost always stayed in the area. On one occasion, she and my grandfather went to his nephew's Sunday afternoon wedding in Brooklyn. I was 9 years old in 1938, and I can remember that day as if were yesterday. My parents were taking my younger brother with them. I don't know where my older brother was, but he wouldn't be with me on the farm. I would be in charge of the farm from the time they left at 6:00 A.M. until they returned that evening. The cows would be milked before they left and again after they returned. I would take care of watering the cows and the horse later in the morning. The work in the chicken coops could be done anytime in the day. I could foresee one major problem. One of the cows was about to give birth.

My grandmother had a reputation in the neighborhood as a "miracle worker" when it came to cows. Some time before I was born there was an incident in which she saved a cow's life. The cow was having a breach birth. Ordinarily, the calf comes out of the cow with its two front feet first and its head between its legs. In this case only one leg came out. The other remained in the cow. No one knew how to correct the problem. Someone said, "Call Rachel." When she arrived she pushed the calf back so that the second leg came forward. After that, the birth was ordinary. I had heard this story many times. Now, I began to worry, what would I do if this happened while everybody was in Brooklyn?

Also, I knew that occasionally a cow would try to kill its calf. When I asked my grandparents about my concerns both told me that the cow wouldn't give birth until they returned. I went back to sleep when they left. I woke up after 8:00 o'clock and went straight to the barn. By then, the cow had already given birth. The newborn was lying on the floor. My first problem had been solved. What do I do now? I ran to the house and called Sturges Porter, a neighbor. He told me to fill a pail with warm water and some salt, let all the other cows out of the barn, release the cow from her stall, she will drink some salt water and lick the calf. And don't worry about her hurting the calf. The crisis was over.

There is nothing like working alone in a vegetable garden to bring a person peace and serenity. My grandmother loved her garden. It was exclusively hers and near the main building. She planted some green vegetables and mostly root vegetables, which were stored (along with a huge number of potatoes) in the dry cellar for use by my grandparent's and me during the fall and winter. My grandfather and I ate hotel food during the summer and my grandmother ate food from her garden. We had a separate field, where we planted potatoes. The only other food, which we had in quantity were MacIntosh apples which we picked from our apple trees in the fall.

The menu for me during the months from October through March was usually:

Breakfast - Farina, eggs, challah, home made butter, milk

Lunch - on school days - roll, butter, 2 slices American cheese, a glass of milk- pre paid at the grocery store

Dinner - chicken, hot mashed potatoes (sometimes soup)

The menu had little to do with cooking competency.

Early in November, my grandfather told me that he and grandmother had a special main course that I never before had for Thanksgiving. I wasn't going to visit my parents for the holiday. I knew it wasn't going to be a turkey. There were no sharp knives on the table so there would be no steak. My grandmother walked out of the kitchen with a dinner plate held at eye level so I couldn't see what was in it. But I did see heat rising from the food on the plate. When the plate was in front of me, I saw my Thanksgiving dinner. It was slices of Hebrew National salami and hot mashed potatoes.

My grandmother baked challahs every week. But, she did bake cake before every snowstorm. The reason was that some arrangements (probably unofficial) were made that the men who drove the snowplows stopped by our farmhouse when they plowed the road. When the trucks came to our driveway the drivers would turn in and plow our driveway and the whole area behind the house. After they finished the men would come into our house for a few minutes to warm up, use the bathrooms and have some tea, coffee and/or whiskey with some sponge cake or honey cake

My grandmother also baked for special occasions. I liked apple pie. We had only MacIntosh apple trees on our property. One fall evening after dinner my grandfather told me that he had found a different kind of apple and my grandmother had baked a pie using these new apples. The pie would taste a little different and have a different consistency, but he thought I would like the change. My grandmother brought the pie, baked in one of her own baking pans, into the room. I ate a piece and it was different but enjoyable. Over a period of a week I ate most of the pie. At the end of the week he confessed that it was not apple. It was pumpkin pie. My grandmother didn't grow pumpkins in her garden. It really fooled me because I had never eaten pumpkin pie. She had never baked a pumpkin pie before and wouldn't do so again.

My grandfather had the Daily Forward mailed to him. The mail was picked up in the post office in Mountaindale twice a week until 1942. On many evenings my grandfather read the Bintel Brief to grandmother. He would read and then there would be a discussion between them. I didn't listen to their conversation, so I can't comment on the level of discussion. This was her only door to the outside world. Living on an old-fashioned nineteenth century farm had again limited her opportunities for growth. Early disadvantages in educational, social and environmental (technological) factors had never been overcome.

I am reminded of the story of the three young Chasidim who were extolling the miraculous feats of their respective rebbes.

The first chusid said, "My rebbe can read people's minds. When a disciple was tormented because he could not see how God could possibly know his thoughts, he went to see the rebbe to dispel the confusion in his heart. The rebbe was standing at the window and saw his visitor arrive. When the disciple entered and was about to tell his troubles, the rebbe said, "My friend, I know. And why should not God know?" (Tales of the Hasidim - Martin Buber)

The second chusid said, "When my rebbe made his prayer for good health (misha bayach) every sick and lame person in the congregation walked out of the service healthy."

The third chusid, not to be outdone, said, "My rebbe had been delayed in another town on Friday afternoon. On his way home he saw that he wouldn't be home on time. He decreed that there would Friday all around his horse and carriage and Saturday everywhere else at sundown."

Rachel Perlin was, to some extent, in a similar situation as the chusid's fictitious rebbe. The rebbe was traveling on a Friday surrounded by a Saturday; she was traveling in the 19th Century surrounded by the 20th Century, which she never really entered. She had little or no educational opportunity; she lived most of her life on farms where there was no adequate communication or transportation available for her to practice or learn social skills and; the environment in which she lived gave her no opportunity to take advantage of technological advances. In the almost 60 years that she lived in the United States my grandmother didn't learn to speak nor understand English. By speaking only Yiddish she limited the number of people with whom she could communicate. It reinforced her isolation.

She was a 19th Century uneducated Jewish woman with no educational, social or intellectual background who left Russia at the age of 35.

When we arrived on the farm she was about 60 years old, which was old by 1934 standards. Physically and mentally she was in her declining years and I (at age 5) was hardly in a position to judge.

Since I started writing this biography, I have been thinking, "What kind of woman might she have been if she were born a century later and took advantage of all the lost opportunities?" There is no answer; there is only conjecture.

Note: No one ever talked about life in Europe. By 1934 my grandfather had been here 30 years and the rest of the family 24 years. It is possible that they finished talking about it years ago.

My grandmother's nephew, Benjamin Levine, showed up after World War II. Somehow he had survived the Holocaust. He worked in the garment industry for a while, couldn't adjust to life in New York and ended up jumping off the roof of a building in downtown Manhattan and committing suicide. In a way, he too, was a victim of the holocaust. I say Yiskor for him every Yom Kippur.