an essay by
MARILYN JUNE JANSON | Educator + Author
IN THE EARLY 1940’s, Doris Fishkoff began studying at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan.
When World War II broke out, her mom, Celia, worked long hours in a garment industry sweatshop. She did not come home until Doris was asleep.
Celia was a Russian immigrant. The Anti-Jewish pogroms of 1905 in Odessa forced her to family to board a ship to Ellis Island. Living in the New York Lower East Side, she refused to attend synagogue. Being a Jew had caused too many painful memories.
Doris’ dad died when she was 16 years old.
Almost every day 8-year-old Stan asked his sister, “Can I have money to buy candy?”
“Sorry, I don’t have any. I need the money to ride the bus to school,” she said.
Stan glared at her. “You have money. You don’t wanna to give it to me.”
Embarrassed by her mom’s threadbare, homemade, hand-me-downs, Doris changed the buttons on those dresses to make them look like new.
When the temperatures plummeted, Doris was glad to snuggle up the under layers of the blankets Celia had crocheted.
Any spare coins were inserted into the furnace to warm the drafty apartment.
Doris was in charge of the household cleaning, laundry, and cooking the meals.
Since most of their money went to pay the rent, Doris made fish for dinner three times a week. On the rest of the days she prepared chicken.
“I’m tired of eating fish and chicken,” Stan whined. “Can’t we have anything else?”
During those years, Doris escaped into her world of painting and drawing. She studied the great artists, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, and Cézanne.
She came home from school smelling of the tepid turpentine and linseed oil. Her hands and curly auburn hair were stained with red, green, and yellow colors.
The women in her community on Orchard Street were Orthodox Jews. They attended Sabbath services.
On the way home, Doris stepped into the synagogue. Wearing a scarf, she sat in the segregated area above the chapel, where the men prayed in blue and white shawls. They wore black velvet Yakamas (head coverings). She prayed for her mom to stay healthy, peace for Dad, and for Stan to grow up to be a fine man.
One evening Doris stayed up late until Celia came home. “Momma, come to synagogue with me.”
“I’m tired,” Celia said. “Now, go to sleep.”
Shortly after graduation, the young woman found a job painting broaches and pins on Fifth Avenue.
As Stan grew up he joined Doris in the synagogue. Like his friends, he studied the Torah and earned his Bar Mitzvah at 13. He forgave his sister for the money she did not have to give and those chicken and fish dinners. Stan finished school and joined the United Sates Air Force. Despite growing up without a father he went to college, and became an engineer.
Even though times were tough, Doris and her mom worked hard to provide food, pay the rent, and to build a future.
Doris was my mom.
She married and lived a Jewish life.
Grandma Celia never attended our synagogue.
In the flames of the Chanukah and Shabbos candles, I see her auburn curls and sparkling blue eyes.
Feeling closer to her, I say a prayer and hope she is resting peacefully.