About the time I was born, a radiant event took place in my
family. The details were impressed on me early. While my
parents and my two older brothers were living a quiet and
uneventful life on Providence Street, in Worcester, there
suddenly fell into my family's collective lap an
unbelievable and breathtaking bounty. It had the quality of
a miracle because it was so easy and instantaneous and
transforming. It lifted my parents to the Providence Street
skies, distinguished them. It was as if there had suddenly
been conferred on my family—without any of its members doing
anything at all to deserve it—the award of the Légion
d'Honneur. From that moment, they were set apart, revered,
envied. My father was highly thought of as a Talmudic
scholar, but the rest of us were ordinary enough. Why were
we singled out for this extraordinary blessing? There were
other Talmudists on the street, and they had
families, too. Nevertheless, it was to us that it
happened—the sudden arrival of a tremendous, unearned social
increment—and nothing could be done about it by those who
envied us. There was compensation even for them, because the
lustre of our new distinction was great enough to shed its
glow over the whole community. Had it been aware, all of
Worcester might have revelled in it. But Providence Street
knew, even if the rest of Worcester didn't. What happened
was the totally unexpected engagement, in 1893, of my Uncle
Harry, who lived a couple of blocks away on Providence
Street, to a Boston girl named Ida, the daughter of the
There is an enchanting, almost untranslatable Yiddish play
by Peretz Hirschbein called "Green Fields." It is laid in an
impoverished ghetto village in Russia toward the end of the
last century, and it tells of a wandering Talmudic scholar
who is travelling on foot from a small Yeshiva, or
rabbinical school, to a large, famous one in a big town
hundreds of miles distant. He spends the night in the poor
little hamlet. The illiterate Jewish peasant into whose yard
he wanders is dazzled by the appearance of a man of the
written word, and runs in to tell his family of the
incredible stroke of good fortune. He is hysterical with
gratitude to God. When the rich man of the village hears
that the Talmudic scholar is staying in the poor man's
house, he is angry. If this man of God is staying in the
village, naturally he must stay with him. The play is
concerned with the fierce social rivalry in the village over
entertaining the poor scholar, over having as a guest, if
only for a few hours, a man who can read. When I saw this
play in Los Angeles some years ago, performed with
remarkable delicacy by Jacob Ben-Ami, I understood better
the sensation on Providence Street when my Uncle Harry's
engagement to Ida was announced. For Ida's father, the Ramaz,
was one of the most famous rabbis in the world. He was so
famous that he was called not by his real name—Rabbi Moshe
Zevulon Margolies—but by a name coined from his initials.
The Rama looked like Moses, except that he wore gold-rimmed
spectacles. My family knew his face even before the
windfall, because his photograph hung in the living room of
our tenement, as it did in the living rooms of most other
Providence Street tenements.
The Ramaz, who was then presiding over the Baldwin Place
Synagogue, in Boston, to which he had been summoned from
Lithuania seven years before, traced his descent from a
celebrated rabbi known as the Rashi, one of the greatest of
Talmudic commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh
century. "Rashi" is also a name coined from initials; his
true name was Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki. (The renowned
Maimonedes, whose full name was Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, was
called the Rambam.) The Rashi wrote one of the books of
commentary—the book, too, is known as the Rashi—that
orthodox Jews labor over endlessly in their Talmudic
studies. Modern French philologists, the encyclopedias say,
still go to the Rashi for examples of French literary usage
in the Middle Ages. Some notion of the Ramaz's vast
influence may be gleaned from the fact that in 1906, when he
was presiding over the Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, on
West Eighty-fifth Street, in New York—and he was still
presiding over it when he died in l936, at the age of
eighty-five—a delegation of seventeen members of the
Providence Street Synagogue, after visiting him to ask his
advice on some synagogue question, decided to pay him an
architectural tribute by rebuilding the house of worship on
Providence Street in exact, if scaled-down, imitation of the
The addition to the family of this illustrious aunt was a
blessing far beyond what anyone could have imagined when the
first breathless rumor of my Uncle Harry's engagement
reached Worcester. Ida brought into our rather lugubrious,
God-obsessed circle an exhilarating earthy gusto, strongly
flavored with an almost ribald skepticism. The descendant of
the Rashi bore her immense heritage lightly. Her gaiety was
more than merely paradoxical; it was downright shocking.
Whispers about Ida began to trickle along Providence Street
soon after she settled down to housekeeping there with my
Uncle Harry. In Worcester, Ida's attitude was always that of
a worldling forced by awkward circumstances to reside
briefly in the provinces, and she sailed serenely above the
invidious rumors. When Ida, who was then seventeen, married
my Uncle Harry, who was ten years older, she was a beautiful
girl, with large, clear blue eyes and abundant light hair;
she looked like a Holbein. Men stopped to chat with her on
the sidewalk. On Providence Street, this was not considered
proper for a married woman. For a married woman whose father
was the Ramaz, it was considered blasphemous. Uncle Harry's
sister, a strict doctrinaire, complained to him that Ida's
promiscuous sidewalk conversations were becoming a scandal.
My uncle, still incredulous at the acquisition of such a
bride, told his sister that it was none of her business and
that the daughter of the Ramaz could do no wrong, and
suggested that the reason she herself never became involved
in sidewalk conversations was that she was aggressively
homely. There were other charges against Ida. One was that
she brought home too many bundles, by which people meant
that she was extravagant and wasted her husband's substance.
As my Uncle Harry was a peddler of notions—pins, needles,
and other small household accommodations, which he sold from
house to house in such outlying communities as Ware,
Fitchburg, Auburn, Webster, and Shrewsbury—there couldn't
have been too much substance to waste, but the charge
persisted. Later on, Ida bought an upright piano, on time.
This was a nine days' wonder. It wasn't that Ida was
musical; she had discovered that her husband had a tendency
to throw things around when he was irritated, and the
solidity of a piano appealed to her. A more serious charge
was that she attended the matinées at Poli's vaudeville
theatre on Saturdays. Such a violation of the Sabbath was
unthinkable. Harry fiercely denied the charge, but one
Saturday when a telegram arrived saying that Ida's mother
was seriously ill, Harry went at once to Poli's and had Ida
paged. When she was found, she pointed out that she had
bought the ticket in advance, so that no money had changed
hands on the sacred day.
Ida always said that she was not a "private woman." Aware of
the gossip about her, she explained that she simply had to
talk to men on the sidewalk. By not being a "private woman"
she meant that she was the helpless victim of a passionate
avocation, which she lovingly called a disease: This was her
consuming interest in matchmaking. It colored her entire
life. When it had begun she couldn't remember. She looked
down on professional matchmakers, although she often had to
come into contact with them, and, being proud of her amateur
standing, she never took out a license. Ida had the true
amateur's love, a devotion untainted by the profit motive.
No one was safe from Ida—not even her own children, or any
widowed in-laws, or her father. The feeling among orthodox
Jews that a rabbi should not remain unmarried was a help to
Ida, for the Ramaz outlived three wives and gave her talents
a lot of play.
From the beginning, Ida's career was dramatic, even lurid.
Her marriage to my Uncle Harry, which took place in Meinhard
Hall, in Boston, received more than the conventional
reporting in the social columns, because most of the two
thousand guests, as well as the bride, were poisoned. In
Worcester, the event was known for years as Ida's Poisoned
Wedding. "BEAUTIFUL BLONDE IN A BLUE SATIN DRESS POISONED AT
HER OWN WEDDING," went one headline, and another declared,
"RABBI'S DAUGHTER AND TWO THOUSAND GUESTS POISONED BY
DEJECTED LOVER." The dejected lover was Perrele Greenbaum.
Perrele had everything; he was successful in business,
lively, generous, and very much in love with Ida. But he was
a materialist and couldn't resist the Saturday influx of
business at his store. He was so relaxed in religious
matters that he even carried an umbrella on Saturdays.
Because Ida was the daughter of the rabbi of the Baldwin
Place Synagogue, the spiritual leader of Boston's orthodox
Jewry, it was out of the question for her to marry him.
Later, Ida always said that she decided, with a great
effort, to be cool toward Perrele. To be cool toward such a
man as Perrele taxed all her resources. The arrival of my
Uncle Harry in her field of action posed a piquant technical
problem, and its solution furnished an anodyne for her
emotional troubles. Ida had already begun to dabble in
matchmaking, and Harry went to see her to reconnoitre a
possible bride. When Harry arrived to get the prospect's
address, Ida noticed—she said later—that he was tall and
very handsome, and wore a blue serge suit, but that he
looked like a farmer. Yet she saw in Harry's eyes an
expression that said, "Why do I go hence to search when here
before me is beauty and at the same time the daughter of the
Ramaz?" She also saw that he would never dare to ask for her
hand—that he was too shy. Perrele came to take her for a
walk in the park. Not trusting herself to continue cool
toward him without some artificial aid, she said, "I bet you
five dollars I can take that big farmer from Worcester away
from the Boston girl." Perrele grimly accepted the bet. The
news of the wager reached Uncle Harry, and he was emboldened
to propose to Ida. Ida, feeling that her ability to remain
cool to Perrele could not last indefinitely, accepted Uncle
Harry on the spot. The theory was that the vindictiveness of
the rejected Perrele lay behind the poisoned wedding. A
newspaper reporter put the question to her flatly: Was it a
rejected lover who had poisoned the wedding guests? Ida
replied that she had no lovers; she had
sweethearts—plenty—but they were all gentlemen and not
poisoners of innocent people. The explanation of the
poisoning was, in fact, much less romantic and far more
The events of the wedding day and the night that followed it
were always a nightmare to Ida. In her later years, she
became very superstitious, and she attributed the
misadventure at her wedding to the fact that it took place
on the thirteenth of the month. When she was asked why she
chose a notoriously unlucky day, she said, "I was a
greenhorn then. In those days I was so ignorant I didn't
know enough to be superstitious." An hour or so before the
ceremony, an image of Perrele rose in her mind, and she
decided that she couldn't go through with the wedding and
that she must run away. But the wedding had been announced
from the pulpit in the Baldwin Place Synagogue, and, in
addition to the invited guests, several hundred uninvited
people had shown up. It was pointed out to Ida that she
couldn't disappoint so many people and that it would damage
the good name of the Ramaz. She yielded to the principle of
noblesse oblige. As she was standing under the wedding
canopy, a visitation came to her: a voice like an angel's
whispered, "Don't sit at the head table and don't eat!" This
injunction she did not obey. Presently, there was panic in
the hall and Ida understood why the voice had whispered to
her. The guests all became very ill, those at the head table
experiencing the first paroxysms; she became very ill
herself. The Ramaz spoke to the guests quietly. The guilty
ones would be discovered, he said, and God would punish
The Ramaz's prediction came true soon enough. The very next
day, while the two thousand guests were still writhing, the
wife of a butcher who had wanted to supply the meat for the
wedding but who had been refused came rushing to the Ramaz
crying hysterically. Her small son had just fallen off a
roof, and she took this as a punishment from God. The Ramaz
had turned this particular butcher down because he did not
consider that his product met the ritual requirements for
kosher meat. The Ramaz had many enemies among the Boston
butchers, who found he could not be bribed to give
certificates, or Hashgohes, qualifying their meat.
The turndown for this big wedding was more than they could
take. Some of the illegal butchers got together and raised
fifteen hundred dollars, with which they bribed a druggist
to concoct a poison that would not be fatal but would make
the guests violently ill. When the plot was revealed by the
butcher's hysterical wife, the Ramaz, instead of demanding
that the offenders be sent to jail, rushed off to see the
injured child, and this convinced the mother that the boy
would get well, which, indeed, he did. God, said the Ramaz,
would punish the plotters; revenge was not his province. So
it came to pass. The druggist, who had been prosperous,
gradually lost his business as the news got around; the
illegal butchers and their leader, since the Ramaz continued
to refuse to give them Hashgohes, were forced
eventually to seek other trades. But the agitation caused by
the poisoning was so great that Ida felt she couldn't go
with her bridegroom on a honeymoon. They merely went home to
Worcester instead, and Ida always insisted that Worcester
was no place for a honeymoon.
Like her father, Ida was incapable of harboring grudges.
Several years later, she ran into the guilty druggist in
Grafton Square, in Worcester. He was down-and-out. He had
been unable to reestablish himself in the drug business.
Moreover, the girl he was going to marry had broken the
engagement. The news of this shattered romance touched Ida.
She did not offer, as she would have done for almost anyone
else, to find him another girl, but she did say that if he
needed a few dollars he might vaccinate her small son, the
first-born of a family that included three daughters. He
accepted the offer with gratitude. Ida took him home, and
gave him some of the food for which she was by then famous
and five dollars for the vaccination. Unfortunately, my
Uncle Harry, when he got home, did not feel the same
sympathy for the druggist. That Ida should permit an
established poisoner to vaccinate their only son seemed to
him beyond the bounds of tolerance. He had got over some of
his bedazzlement at having acquired Ida, and he expressed
his irritation in his usual way. He broke all the dishes in
the house. He then stormed out, predicting that, thanks to
Ida, their son would fall victim to all the diseases under
Heaven. In later years, Ida, recalling the incident to her
son with demure triumph, said that his father had been quite
wrong; the druggist had done a very good job. "You had no
diphtheria, no scarlet fever, no smallpox, no typhoid
fever—only a little bit chicken pox," she said.
One reason Ida never really cottoned to Worcester was the
absence of public benches there. She preferred New York
because it offered a profusion of benches—on upper Broadway,
in the parks, and, above all, in the lobbies of apartment
buildings. It was as if a Parisian suddenly transplanted to
Worcester were to find it arid because of the scarcity of
sidewalk cafés. Some of Ida's most brilliant matches had
their origin in chatty friendships formed while she was
taking her ease on assorted benches in New York, which she
often visited after her father moved there from Boston and
where she went to live after my Uncle Harry died of
pneumonia in 1915. From the bench in the lobby of her
father's apartment house she hunted wives and husbands for
lonely young people languishing in Worcester and its
neighboring towns. She would say to visitors who came up to
her father's apartment to sample her wonderful cooking, "Did
you sit on the bench downstairs? What's doing there? Did you
talk to anybody? Is there any news?" Frequently, after Uncle
Harry died, she met men on benches who appealed to her and
to whom she appealed; she might have married several of
them, but there was sure to be a prospect on her list whose
urge to marry was so insistent that she could not resist
doing everything in her power to shift the focus to the
client. Avocational considerations always came first with
Ida. When she was living in New York, she often went back to
Worcester to see two of her married daughters—all four of
the children eventually married—but invariably she was
impatient to return to her beloved benches. Once, it was
suggested to her by a chauvinistic Worcesterite that, after
all, there was always the chair on the back porch. She was
contemptuous. "And who will I talk to on the back porch?"
she demanded. "Who goes by a back porch? Who will I
converse with? The bears in the back yard, maybe?" Ida
insisted that on her very first evening in Worcester she had
seen a bear on Waverly Street. She was told it was probably
a big black dog, but she was convinced it was a bear. This
caused a trauma about Worcester from which she never fully
When one of her married daughters came to New York to visit
her, Ida told her about a gentleman she had met on a bench
on Central Park West the night before. He was an agreeable
and elegant Long Islander who carried a cane—a mark of
distinction to Ida—and he could be found on this bench every
evening at eleven when he was in town. Ida wanted her
daughter to meet him, so after an evening at the movies they
went to the bench. When he appeared, Ida introduced her
daughter and stated that she was married but had several
unmarried friends in Worcester who were cynosures, compendia
of all the graces. Conversation was not the elegant Long
Islander's long suit; Ida had to do most of the talking. At
one in the morning, Ida's daughter said that she simply had
to go to bed. "Can you understand the younger generation?"
Ida demanded of the cane-carrier. "One o'clock only and she
wants to go to bed! Please, let's stay awhile." The daughter
wanted to know what there was to slay for. "Who
knows?" said Ida pregnantly. "People are still walking."
At the time Ida died, in 1946, her children discovered that
during the last years of her life she had occupied an
official position she never told them about. After the
funeral, an elderly woman said to them, "All the club
members were at your mother's funeral."
"I didn't know that Mother belonged to a club," one of the
"But she did," said the mourner, rather testily. "It was the
club of all the women who sit on the benches of Broadway.
Your mother was the president."
In general, Ida was happy in Worcester. She indulged her
hobby as well as she could in a community deficient in
benches, and one time Worcester rallied to her when New York
had failed. This incident was a beautiful manifestation of
the power and immortality of the legend of the Holy Grail.
Ida's nature was a fascinating mixture of down-to-earth
contemporary realism and medieval mysticism; she adduced the
episode of a girl named Felice and the apple as a prime
example of the intervention of Divine Providence in her
affairs. Uncle Harry always left Worcester early on Monday
morning and was away until Friday evening, peddling notions
in the surrounding towns. One day, in Fitchburg, he went to
what Ida described as a "fashionable restaurant" for dinner.
The widow who owned the restaurant had a daughter named
Felice, who was, Ida admitted, "a little of a bookkeeper on
the side." Ida did not wish her to be entirely a bookkeeper,
because that would have seemed prosaic. Harry, pleased with
his dinner, started chatting with the widow. "Where in
Russia do you come from?" he asked, ruling out the
possibility that she might have come from another country.
She said that she was originally a Kroza girl, and Harry was
delighted; as it happened, he said, he had married a Kroza
"Who did you marry?" asked the widow.
"1 married the daughter of the Ramaz," said Harry, trying to
sound casual. The widow was stunned; when finally she
believed the staggering truth, she ran to get Felice, so
that the girl might behold with her own eyes the son-in-law
of the Ramaz. She sent an effusive message to Ida, of whose
deft matchmaking she had already heard, and she pressed into
Harry's hand a photograph of Felice for Ida's gallery. When
Ida saw Felice's photograph, she melted, she said, because
the girl was so beautiful. But, being rushed at the time,
she did nothing about her.
Several years passed and Felice's mother died. One Friday
when Harry came back from the road, he said Felice was
lonely in Fitchburg without her mother, and implored Ida to
find a husband for her. Ida could understand, although she
had never been in Fitchburg, how lonely one could get there.
For every bear roaming the streets in Worcester, she
hazarded, there must be six in Fitchburg. But even a
beautiful girl like Felice, she said flatly, could not,
being a penniless orphan, expect to find a Galahad in
Worcester. The Worcester men, she went on, were all fools.
To find a husband for a girl like Felice, she must journey
to the greener pastures of New York. A few evenings on the
bench in the lobby of the Ramaz's apartment building or on
one along upper Broadway, and Felice's destiny would be
happily sealed. This plan seemed too informal to Harry; he
feared Ida's absent-mindedness among the blandishments of
New York. Time, he pointed out, was all-important. "In that
case," said Ida, "I will go to see Levine, the professional
matchmaker from the Bronx, and come right back."
Ida took Felice's photograph to New York. Levine, ordinarily
an unemotional man, who handled his affairs with commercial
detachment, was so impressed that, as Ida enthusiastically
recounted on her return, "he right away melted also." Ida
had never seen Levine melt before. Felice was something
quite special, Levine admitted. That she was an orphan was
not a total disadvantage; that she was penniless was more
serious. Yet he was in correspondence at that very moment
with a young man in Atlanta to whom money did not matter,
since he had so much of his own. He was in the fur business,
had an automobile, and was so artistic that he had recently
had his ample apartment done over by an "interior man."
Levine dispatched Felice's photograph to Atlanta, with
documentation supplied by Ida, and waited confidently for
results. They came. Levine's letter to Worcester, a week
after Ida's return, reported ecstasy in Atlanta. Loneliness
in Fitchburg was about to be assuaged. The young man in
Atlanta wrote to Felice enclosing his photograph.
Harry brought it from Fitchburg for Ida's inspection. The
young man, said Ida, looked promising, except that he had no
neck. His head seemed to emerge directly from his padded
shoulders. She preferred a young man with a neck, but then
penniless orphans from Fitchburg could not be choosy. It
was, Ida stated, all settled.
After some correspondence between Felice and the wealthy
aesthete from Atlanta, he promised to come to Fitchburg for
a meeting. Ida was afraid that Fitchburg might depress him,
and she invited Felice to come and stay with her in
Worcester, so that she would have a more metropolitan
background. Ida was sure that Felice's "connection" with her
would not fail to impress the young man, although Levine had
told her that the furrier was a reformed Jew and hardly ever
went to the synagogue except during the high holidays. The
meeting was set for a Sunday. On Thursday, Ida's son, then
nine, woke up too ill, he insisted, to go to school. He
demanded an apple. An apple, he cried, was the only thing
that could drive away his illness. Ida searched the flat.
There was always a barrel of apples on the porch, but today
the barrel was empty. The invalid set up a howl. Ida was
frantic. At this exigent moment, the postman arrived with a
special-delivery letter. It was from Levine, who was full of
apologies. A cautious man, he had sent to Atlanta, together
with Felice's photograph, a photograph of one of his Bronx
clients. The photograph of the Bronx girl had appealed to
his Atlanta correspondent less than Felice's—about this, he
begged Ida to believe, there could be no question—but the
Bronx girl, unfortunately, had a well-off mother. This
mother had suddenly felt called upon to offer her daughter
the broadening advantages of travel. On the way South,
mother and daughter had stopped off in Atlanta, and, oddly,
in that warm climate, the mother had felt impelled to buy
some furs for her daughter and herself. The tactile had
triumphed over the ethereally photographic; the Bronx girl
and the furrier were engaged. Levine was returning Felice's
photograph, but he begged Ida to believe, again, that he
would keep her in mind, and he had no doubt that for so
charming a girl, and with God's help, in the not too far
distant future . . . Ida could not bear to read the
hypocritical phrases; she threw the letter and the
photograph to the floor. Had Levine been there, she admitted
later, her blue eyes tranquil then and full of
loving-kindness, she would have torn him limb from limb. She
stood wondering how to break the awful news to Harry and
Felice, and consumed with a desire to dismember Levine. To
toy with an orphan's destiny! The treachery of sending off
the extra photograph! And all the time, it finally
penetrated her numbed and whirling senses, her little
darling was screaming for an apple. It was at this very
moment that there occurred what she could describe only as
an act of God. It took the odd form of the voice of Ginsburg
the peddler crying in the street outside, "Apples! Apples!
Apples!" Ida ran to the window and called down to Ginsburg
to bring up a peck. Now, Ida didn't like Ginsburg. She
didn't like his looks. Theretofore, she said, she had never
bought so much as an onion from him. But this was a crisis.
First of all, she had to cure her boy and get him off to
school; then she had to think more calmly about the disaster
that had befallen Felice, who was even then preparing to
come to Worcester to meet the faithless groom. Ginsburg
brought in the peck of apples. With hardly so much as a look
at him, Ida snatched an apple out of his basket and ran to
her son's bedroom. It seemed to help him from the first
bite; he demanded another apple. Ida ran back to get it.
When she came into the parlor, the repulsive Ginsburg was
staring ravished at Felice's photograph, which he had picked
up from the floor.
From then on, Ida's conduct was not that of a rational being
but that of a possessed one. "Mr. Ginsburg, are you a single
or a married man?" she said with cold formality.
"I was married," said Ginsburg. "Your father, the Ramaz,
knew my wife's family well. But my wife unfortunately died."
This news also came to Ida as if by special delivery from
Heaven—the second special delivery that morning.
Thereupon, another miracle occurred—one that always
mystified Ida. As long as she had known Ginsburg, she had
disliked his appearance without ever taking a really good
look at him. Now she did take a good look at him and,
marvellous to relate, he seemed to be tall, attractive, even
handsome. "Tell me, Ginsburg," she said, still under a
spell, "do you want to get married? I see you are looking at
a highborn, educated girl who comes from my home town, Kroza.
Do you want to get married, Ginsburg?" It was all a little
too fast for Ginsburg; he stood there unable to speak,
staring at the photograph in his hand, and his hand
trembling. But Ida, borne along by a supernatural agency,
extolled Felice's virtues as eloquently as if she had known
her from babyhood, and she could see that Ginsburg, like
everyone else who looked at Felice's photograph, had melted.
Ida's eloquence rose in a spiral of persuasion that would
have moved a rock.
Ginsburg was no rock. Finally, he found speech. "A girl like
this I would marry even at midnight, even in the dark," he
Encouraged, Ida became more realistic. "She has no money,
Ginsburg. All she has is what you see in the picture."
"If she has half, I'll marry her," said Ginsburg gallantly.
"She's yours," said Ida lavishly, and then she added a
cautionary postscript: "That is, if you get my husband's
Harry's O.K. proved not easy to get. When he was told of
Levine's betrayal, he began breaking dishes. Then Ida told
him of the Heaven-sent visitation of Ginsburg the peddler.
Harry began to break more dishes. At the word "peddler," he
grew apoplectic. His affection for Felice was so deep, his
hopes for her so high, that he couldn't bear the idea of her
allying herself with a worker in his own vineyard. "A
peddler!" he shouted. "A wonderful girl like Felice should
marry a peddler! Never till my dying day will I allow it!
You call a peddler a wonderful catch?"
Even had the thought occurred to her, Ida would probably not
have said that she didn't see why Felice should make a
better match than she, the daughter of the Ramaz, had; Ida
was too kindly for that. While Uncle Harry was picking up
the last fragment of crockery, Ginsburg appeared. Instead of
the nondescript costume he had worn the day before, he was
now beautiful in a blue serge suit and a white shirt, not
open at the throat like a poet's or a peddler's but with a
tie, which gave him the appearance of a man of affairs.
Moreover, he was now, Ida averred, at least two inches
taller. He had become so good-looking that she felt she
could have fallen in love with him herself. Nevertheless,
she had to tell him that Harry would never permit Felice to
marry a peddler. "But I am no peddler," said Ginsburg. "I
have a store, but when things are slow there, I take to
peddling to make a few extra dollars. Don't you worry about
Felice. I will give her all the money she wants." Even Harry
was impressed. When Felice arrived on Sunday to meet the
capricious furrier from Atlanta, she met instead the only
occasional peddler Ginsburg. The match was made.
When Ida was later asked whether she had received any fee
for this marriage, she said, "I never took money from
anybody. I did it for the pleasure. But from that time on,
did my little takhshidel have apples!" ("Takhshidel"
is a Yiddish expression meaning, loosely, "my darling one."
It connotes intense affection, plus a tolerant awareness of
imperfection; which of the two predominates depends entirely
on the tone of voice.) The major emolument Ida derived from
this happily consummated marriage was not her son's flood of
apples but her joy at being able to write a withering letter
to Levine, the tricky matchmaker from the Bronx. She often
repeated the lofty sentences, simmering with quiet
invective. She advised Levine thenceforward to keep his fake
furriers to himself. As for Felice, he need not trouble his
head in the least about her, since she could now announce
Felice's engagement to the richest department-store owner in
Worcester, a brilliant and cultivated millionaire who would,
for all she knew, end up as Governor of Massachusetts.
After Ida moved to New York, she kept house for her father,
whose second wife had recently died. Keeping house for the
Ramaz was no light chore. Everybody came to his
apartment—the rich, the poor, the halt, the lame, the blind.
They came for help, for advice, for spiritual guidance, for
relief in ritualistic dilemmas. About the last, the Ramaz
was almost unique in tolerance, sympathy, and humor. To a
woman who called him up to ask whether she could serve her
family a chicken she had reason to believe had not been
killed according to ritual, the Ramaz said, "I cannot
possibly examine a chicken over the telephone." He tried to
keep the woman from coming over by telling her to consult
the rabbi in her own parish, but she made the journey to
Eighty-fifth Street anyway. Ida received her, suspecting
that the journey had been motivated by her desire to meet
the wifeless Ramaz. Still, it was all grist to Ida's mill.
The woman was a comely widow, and Ida married her off to a
yearning elderly widower from Bradley Beach, in New Jersey.
One day while her father was out, the doorbell rang and Ida
opened the door to admit Jacob H. Schiff. Jacob Schiff was a
reformed Jew; he normally attended the Temple Emanu-El.
Obeying some atavistic impulse, however, when the time
arrived for him to say his annual Kaddish, or
memorial prayer, for his dead parents, he came to the
Ramaz's synagogue to do it. Mr. Schiff asked for the Ramaz.
Ida invited him to have a glass of tea while he waited for
her father. Mr. Schiff accepted and, according to Ida, found
her so agreeable that he said he would come one day and take
her for a drive in the Park. Finally, he departed, leaving a
message. When the Ramaz returned, Ida expatiated on Mr.
Schiff's democratic manners. She was so dizzied by the
vision of riding in the Park beside Jacob Schiff that she
couldn't remember the message. When the Ramaz reproved her
mildly, she said, "Don't worry. He'll be back any minute to
take me for a ride." To which the Ramaz answered, with a
tired smile, "avahdah!"—an untranslatable expression
that conveys a maximum of affirmation firmly laced with a
maximum of skepticism. The skepticism was, as it turned out,
Ida immediately set about getting her father married again;
it kept her hand in, and gave her a pleasant sense of piety.
The Ramaz was then well over sixty, but there were many
applicants for the position. He trusted Ida's discretion.
There was one extremely persistent applicant who, in Ida's
bitter words, haunted the funerals of the Ramaz's wives,
"hoping, hoping, hoping." Ida settled on a less aggressive
candidate, but it turned out that she had a bad heart, and
within two years Ida had to do it all over again. On the day
of her father's marriage to the woman with heart trouble,
Ida left his house and moved to her youngest daughter's, on
West Eighty-third Street. There—except for the twelve years
she was married to a well-to-do Newark real-estate man named
Newman—she spent the remainder of her life. The period
before the marriage to Newman was a halcyon season of mad
flirtation and feverish matchmaking. Many suitors came in
quest of her; most of them she diverted to her clients. Her
daughter's apartment was in perpetual turmoil.
The daughter, nicknamed Go-Go, had, as she still has, some
of Ida's effervescence. This was Ida's explanation of why
Go-Go, unlike her two sisters, had not remained in Worcester
but had married a New Yorker. He was Maurice Bergman, a
public-relations man and known to his friends as Bergie.
Bergie adored Ida. Go-Go claimed that his devotion to Ida
was so fervent because he spent long periods away from her
in Hollywood. Actually, he didn't even mind the fact that
Ida kept the line so busy talking to her prospects that he
could never get his apartment on the telephone. Bergie's
devotion to Ida wavered only once. Helmi, the Bergmans'
Finnish cook, was an excellent cook and an institution in
the family. But she was unmarried. There was also the
elevator man, very shy and an expert on the weather. Bored
with his meteorological predictions, Ida asked him one day
whether he was married. He wasn't; he had thought about it,
but no one was handy. "And what about Helmi?" said Ida.
"She's a wonderful girl and a wonderful cook." Before the
Bergmans knew what was happening, Helmi and the elevator man
had got married and hired out in the country as a couple.
Ida defended herself by saying that she couldn't stand the
sight of lonely people.
"Helmi was not lonely!" said Go-Go, with some heat.
"The elevator man was lonely," said Ida.
Another character who impinged on the Bergmans' lives was
known to them only as Box 77. After a morning of incessant
phone ringing, Go-Go, who was waiting for a long-distance
call from Bergie, finally answered the telephone herself.
"It's for you," she said wearily to Ida. "It's a man and he
won't give his name."
"If he doesn't give his name, I know who it is," said Ida.
The conversation went about as follows: "You didn't give
your name, so you must he Box 77. I have a very nice party
for you, Box 77—a very nice woman and she has a good
business. . . . She lives in Bradley Beach. . . . You are a
New Yorker and can't go to Bradley Beach. . . . Then what
about a Philadelphia woman? Could you go to Philadelphia? .
. . You are a printer and can't leave your business. . . .
Well, thank you for calling, Box 77, and I'll see what I can
do for you with a New York woman."
Another day, Go-Go was informed that Box 77 was in the
lobby. Ida asked her to have him come right up. "Aren't you
scared, Ma, to have a total stranger in the house?" Go-Go
"A man who advertises in the Yiddish papers cannot he a
stranger," said Ida primly. "You go into your bedroom; I
will interview him in the living room."
From the bedroom, Go-Go listened while Ida interviewed Box
77: What was his ancestry? What about his printing business?
Could he go out of town to interview prospects on Sunday?
Would he give up his business for a Scranton woman who had a
larger business? Finally, Box 77 departed.
"He sounded nice," said Go-Go. "How did you like him? Why
didn't you speak for yourself?"
"He's a tall man and very nice," Ida said, "but he has a dot
in one eye, and a man with a dot in the eye I couldn't
marry. But I know lots of women who are not so particular."
Ida did marry Box 77 off, and the Bergmans were enormously
In the field of matchmaking, Ida's major frustration was her
only son, then an official of the Federation of Jewish
Philanthropies and now assistant director of the United
Jewish Appeal, who also lived in New York. He steadily
resisted her strenuous efforts to get him married. A friend,
for reasons known only to himself, nicknamed him the Major.
During the Second World War, the shortage of men was acute
and the clamor around Ida for husbands became insistent and
deafening. For a long time, her son, who was then in his
forties, was almost the only good prospect on her list, but
he was stubborn. Once, she lined up for him an arithmetic
teacher with a dowry, but the teacher happened to have an
uncontrollable giggle. Ida admitted that she could not
understand how a girl so highly educated could permit
herself such a fatuous giggle. Then she mobilized a young
woman who was a relative of Professor Richard J. H. Gottheil,
of Columbia. Ida's sales talks usually featured important
relatives, and when she was selling her son, his
relationship to the Ramaz received due emphasis. Ida dilated
on Professor Gottheil's relative, and even improvised a few
glowing details about the Professor's high regard for the
girl. Her son relented, then telephoned at the last moment
to say that he could not keep the appointment she had
arranged for him. Ida told him it would serve him right if
the girl married somebody else, and saw to it that she did.
Another problem was her discovery that the Ramaz's name was
not as potent among the younger set as it was to her own
generation. She had tantalized a mother who claimed to have
an adorable young daughter by dangling before her the
prospect of marrying this daughter off to the grandson of
the Ramaz. To the astonishment of both mothers, the girl was
not bowled over by the prospect; she had never heard of the
Ramaz. She broke an appointment to meet the Ramaz's grandson
in order to go to the Paramount and hear Frank Sinatra,
leaving the Major to lunch with the two mothers. This was
all right with him, for he was in the habit of coming up
every Saturday to have lunch with his mother anyway, and
found that reward sufficient, without the addition of
Ida took to telephoning her son at his office for
consultation and advice about her own romances. There was a
violinist who played tender mazurkas to her over the
telephone. Ida had called him back to tell him how thrilled
she had been, and had got the violinist's daughter. The
daughter, she reported, was cool. Ida sensed impending
interference from her, and she was right; she received no
more mazurkas on the telephone. Then there was a sportsman
named Billikopf, a retired man who not only carried a cane
but sported a "prince-nez" besides. One Saturday, Ida
proudly showed her son a glass jar of salmon with her name
on the label. Billikopf, she said, had caught the salmon,
canned it, and labelled it with Ida's name and the date on
which he had caught the fish. Things were going wonderfully
when Billikopf, who had a way of travelling to far-off
places, suddenly disappeared. Ida was sure that he had
died—probably on a safari. It was years before she heard
from him again. In the meantime, she used to say, with a
sigh, "Ah, if only Billikopf had lived!"
Ida's son once wrote down a telephone conversation of his
mother's: "Hello, takhshidel, I don't call you in the
office too often. Why should I bother you? You are always
busy. This time it's very important. I met a man who is
interested in me and I would like you should look him up in
John & Bradford what he has. Find out for me if he gives to
Federation also. He told me he is a very charitable man. If
he is rich like he says, he should give plenty. An educated
man I know he is, but is he charitable? If he is not
charitable, why should I bother with him? His business is
with cedar chests and he told me that he and his son
together do a very good business. But who knows? In John &
Bradford you can find out for me. And besides, Sam, I heard
of a wonderful girl for you in Bayonne. Her father is a
heart specialist and her uncle . . ."
Ida's reputation became so far-flung that she received love
letters from people she did not even know. This one is a
DEAR UNKNOWN FRIEND:
I came back to New York and thought of writing you. It's
quite a long time I've been recommended to write to you
by Mr. Poles. We have corresponded for a while and then
I had to leave town.
Should it happen that you're married at this time then I
wish you luck. No harm of inquiring. In case you're
still single and if you care I'd like to meet you some
Saturday eve, or Sunday.
As it happened, Ida was married at the time—to Newman
of Newark, a marriage that she claimed she never could
account for. Her detachment about this marriage may be
gathered from the fact that after he died and she was asked
why she did not wear mourning for him, she replied airily,
"For my father, for my sister, for my mother, I will wear
black. But why should I wear black for a total stranger?"
Newman, who looked like Henri Poincaré, was a tall,
corpulent, imposing man with a small, trim, pointed white
beard. He was pious and adored the Ramaz, whom he had tried
to entice to the rabbinate in Newark. As he could not have
the Ramaz in Newark, he came to New York to see the holy man
as often as possible, and summers, when the Ramaz was at
Bradley Beach, he took his idol out for drives in his
automobile, which the Ramaz enjoyed very much. Newman, who
had done well in real estate, was now retired, and devoted
himself to good works. He had two ambitions—to visit
Palestine, and to visit it in the company of the Ramaz.
Newman had settled in Newark by mistake. When he arrived in
this country as an immigrant in his youth, he disembarked at
Baltimore. It was his intention to go to New York, the only
American city he knew. When the train reached Newark,
however, he heard the conductor shouting what sounded to him
like "New York," and he thought he had arrived at his
destination. Several months passed before he found out he
was not living in New York.
When Newman met Ida, who by then was fifty years old, at
Bradley Beach, he fell in love with her at once. His double
aspiration now became triple—to go to Palestine, to go with
the Ramaz, and to go as the Ramaz's son-in-law. The ambition
of Newman, who was close to sixty, paralleled that of Lord
Rosebery, who set himself the goal of becoming, by thirty,
Prime Minister of England, winner of the Derby, and husband
of a Rothschild; it was equally intense and seemingly even
less likely to be achieved. Newman, slow, ponderous,
pontifical, became suddenly electrified when he beheld Ida's
winsome blue eyes, and proposed to her. This was a reckless
thing to do, considering (he did not tell this to Ida) that
he had already been earmarked for a rich widow in Cleveland
by Levine, Ida's old treacherous collaborator. Ida turned
Newman down flat, but he persisted. He would take her and
her father to Palestine on their honeymoon, he said. Ida
said that she would like to go to Palestine, but not in a
crowd. "You are in love with my father!" she exclaimed. "Why
do you want me?" Privately she thought, as she later
reported, "I should marry an old man with a white beard and
a coöperation!" Newman made a strategic retreat. He would
not press the matter now, he said, but he begged Ida to
think it over. There was nothing for Ida to think over.
Ida, too, had a secret. She did not tell Newman that she was
in love with a man named Blinkman, Go-Go's landlord, whose
wife had just died. Ida had apparently been in love with him
for a long time. Perhaps that was why she had not pinned
down any one of her long succession of flirtations. But
Blinkman was evasive. He had corresponded with Ida through
three marriages, the first two arranged for him by Ida
herself. Blinkman's letters, many of which have been
preserved, show a variability in temperature. Those written
while he was married are warm—just short of ardent—and full
of complaints about his current wife, along with hints of
the incumbent's shortcomings in comparison to Ida's
perfections. Between marriages, the letters—many of them
written in Miami Beach, expressing the wish that Ida were
with him—are certainly courteous but somehow a little cool.
Now Blinkman was free. Ida had only the other day sent him a
special-delivery letter commenting on the coincidence that
she was free, too; she had, as a matter of fact, been free
for ten years. Newman's proposal, therefore, couldn't have
come at a more unpropitious moment.
When ambition seizes certain temperaments, it is not to be
gainsaid. Newman wrote Levine a letter ordering him to break
off negotiations with the Cleveland widow and declaring that
it was his intention to marry Ida, the daughter of the Ramaz.
Levine was overcome. He had worked long and patiently to
draw Newman and the widow together. As this was to be an
alliance beyond the ordinary, because both people were rich,
he had journeyed to Cleveland with Newman's photograph and
credentials, and had journeyed to Newark with the widow's.
Distracted, Levine wrote Newman a letter echoing an
ineffectual Ibsen character before a comparable disaster:
"People don't do such things!" Newman wrote back that he
didn't care what people did. He knew what he was going to
do; he was going to marry the daughter of the Ramaz. Levine
replied that it was too late for Newman to change his
course; the Cleveland widow had consented, and it was a
pact. Newman wrote back that as he no longer consented, it
was no pact. Levine, desperate, got on the subway and went
to call on Ida.
Although Ida was not one to bear grudges, she had never
entirely forgiven Levine for his conduct in the Fitchburg
affair. True, the thing had turned out well; the Ginsburgs
had been one of the most successful of her marriages. In
business life, one has to make compromises, and Ida, over
the years, had had various professional dealings with
Levine. And now Levine stood before her a man bereft. What
was this calamitous news, he wanted to know, about Newman of
Newark? "Ask Newman!" said Ida crisply. Levine told her
about what he called Newman's insane letters. He told her
about the protracted negotiations with the Cleveland widow,
a sensitive person of great breeding, to whom he had not
dared even hint of Newman's perfidy. He intimated that if
Ida would retire from the field, he would cut her in on the
commission from the Cleveland-Newark alliance. This
proffered bribe Ida rejected with disdain. There then took
place one of those swift emotional reversals that dot the
history of passion. Levine suddenly burst out with the
information that he himself had always admired Ida—loved
her, in fact. He was a lonely man, burdened with cares. He
asked Ida to marry him. Ida was touched. Not until afterward
did it occur to her that there might have been a mixture of
motives, including a desire to remove a fleck from the
carefully woven tapestry of the Cleveland-Newark marriage.
Still, a proposal was a proposal.
"Levine," she said, "I cannot marry you, but thanks just the
Levine wanted to know why.
"I could not marry a marriage broker," said Ida.
Levine pointed out that it was a business in which she
herself engaged, even though as an amateur.
"It's all right for a woman, but it's no business for a
man," said Ida.
Levine did not give up. They could pool their resources; he
would go into some other business.
Ida decided to tell Levine the real reason. "My daughter's
landlord's wife just died, so I want to marry him," she
Levine blinked. "You don't know?" he said incredulously.
"I don't know what?" asked Ida.
"Blinkman is going to marry Bernice from Queens," Levine
"Bernice from Queens I know very well. She is an old maid
and deaf," Ida said.
"She won't be an old maid after Blinkman marries her," said
Levine, "and she's only a little bit deaf."
Ida now knew why there had been no answer to her letter to
Blinkman, but even in her disappointment, which she
concealed from Levine, she wondered why, if Blinkman was
going to marry Bernice, he hadn't asked her to arrange it.
He had called her in on other occasions.
Now Levine returned to the attack. Would Ida marry him?
No, she couldn't possibly marry Levine. And she suddenly
heard herself saying, "Levine, thank you for the compliment,
but I can't marry you, because I am going to marry Newman of
Newark. We are going with Papa to Palestine."
Later, trying to explain this astonishing statement, Ida
speculated, in her detached way, on how she happened to make
it. "How did I come to marry Newman of Newark?" she would
ask. Then would come the various explanations. Perhaps it
was pique over Blinkman. Perhaps—an ugly possibility she
hoped was not true—she wanted to frustrate Levine's deal
with the Cleveland woman out of revenge for Levine's
behavior toward Felice. "Who knows?" Ida would say.
Presently, Ida did marry Newman of Newark, to her father's
joy, and the three of them journeyed to Palestine.
In his long life, the Ramaz knew many griefs. In his boyhood
and youth, in the famous rabbinical college at Telshe, in
Lithuania, which was then part of Russia, he lived in deep
communion with ancient sages, searching in the books and
records they had left for the elusive essence of truth and
goodness his faith told him must be somewhere behind all of
life's suffering. He sought identification with God. He was
a mystic, but not in the Eastern sense: He did not believe
that man's identification with the Eternal could ever be
complete; human frailty being what it was, it could he only
partial. The extent to which this identification could be
enlarged was the measure of success in life, the only
measure he knew. It was only because he was able to believe
in the possibility of this development in every human soul
that life was not all pain and ashes. His erudition was
vast, yet he never sank into the morass of pedantry, because
he knew that even the sages he studied had not attained
certainty but only the fleeting beauty of Divine intimation.
This humility endowed the Ramaz with both mellowness and
humor. He was amused at any kind of pretentiousness. When he
went with a delegation of rabbis to call on President
Coolidge, one of them, who knew many languages and was fond
of displaying them, addressed the President for some minutes
in French. "Unfortunately," the Ramaz reported, "President
Coolidge didn't know French." During the time of Hitler, a
group of prominent New Yorkers came to confer with the Ramaz
about a program to help the German Jews. After the meeting
was over, Ida went in to find the Ramaz looking sad. She
asked him whether the meeting had gone well or badly. Her
father pointed to the ashtrays brimming with cigar and
cigarette stubs. "You can see from those that it was a
successful conference," he said ruefully.
The Ramaz was still very young when people started referring
to him as a tzaddik, or saint. He had recently
emerged from the austerity and contemplation of the
rabbinical college when, in 1886, he first received the call
to go to the Baldwin Place Synagogue. He was then married to
his first wife, a stately, pious, strong-minded young woman,
whom he adored and who was with him through all his early
tribulations. They had two sons and two daughters, their
first child being Ida, who was ten when the Ramaz was
summoned to Boston. Although he was received with great
honor in Boston, he was bewildered and unhappy. The American
scene was too alien; it was too hustling and ambitious and
"progressive." He felt he could never make vivid and real to
his parishioners the need he felt and, if he was to help
them, the need they must feel. To the anger and dismay of
the Bostonians, after a year in Boston he went back to his
native town in Lithuania. On arriving there, he found a
certain hostility in the atmosphere; the phrase "American
rabbi" had in it the barb of epithet. It was as if he had
vulgarized his gift, diluted his sainthood. This made him
very sad, and he went back to the Baldwin Place Synagogue.
Shortly after the Ramaz returned to America, he and his wife
sent their first son, who was then nine, back to Lithuania,
to attend the Telshe rabbinical school. The Ramaz's
ancestors had been rabbis as far back as the record could be
traced, and he wanted his first son to be a rabbi; he feared
that the boy would be caught up in the rush of American
materialism and abandon the ancient faith. This fear was
unfounded. The boy was precocious but devout. He received
his smicho, or degree in Talmudic studies, when he
was thirteen, a conspicuously early age for such an
attainment, then came back to America and went to public
schools and later to Harvard, where he made a brilliant
record. Directly after his graduation, he was called to the
rabbinate of the leading orthodox synagogue of Cleveland. In
1917, at the age of thirty-six, he was killed in an
automobile accident. The Ramaz travelled to Cleveland to
bring his son's body back to New York. He delivered the
hesped, or eulogy, in his own synagogue. Those who heard
it say that in the Ramaz's quiet voice and bearing they
found comfort and reassurance. Many wept. The Ramaz did not
weep. His son, he said, had had some identification with the
Divine, the identification he himself had all his life
striven to find. His son had found it, and perhaps, in his
youth and vigor, more clearly. He had, moreover, made the
necessity for it clear to some of his parishioners, and thus
his own vision was perpetuated. This made his brief life
significant and imperishable.
In the family burial plot, the Ramaz had an extra grave.
This was for his books those that contained errors and those
that were too worn to be rebound. The burying of blemished
books was a common practice in Europe and is still done by
some of the orthodox synagogues in America. To burn a book
is considered a sin, just as it is considered a sin to burn
the body. The Ramaz chose to bury his own books, as they
became unusable, in the grave beside his own that he had
provided for them. The marker on the Ramaz's other grave
reads, in Hebrew, "Here lie the books and phylacteries that
bore a blemish."
For the Ramaz, the advent of Hitler was the recurrence of an
old pain. From his boyhood in Czarist Russia, he remembered
persecution; he grew up in an atmosphere in which the
constant threat of it was normal. He suffered now, but he
did not share the panic of many of his parishioners, who
feared that this virulence would cross the ocean. He gave
them comfort, not so much by what he said as by his dignity
and his calm faith that what the enemy believed in would
perish and that what he believed in would survive. At the
synagogue service on the eve of the Day of Atonement in
1934, after the singing of Kol Nidre, the Ramaz opened up
the Ark and took out the Torah. "This," he said quietly, "is
our faith, this is our strength, this is our hope." The
Ramaz was eighty-two when, in the early days of the Hitler
persecutions, he went to lead a mass meeting of twenty
thousand people in prayer at Madison Square Garden. Even Ida
was awed by the spectacle of the old man invoking Divine
intercession to save the remnant of the Jewish people.
To the Ramaz, Ida was a peculiarly American phenomenon. He
looked upon her with affectionate incredulity. She had been
with him so much; they had weathered so many tragedies, both
personal and racial, the Ramaz with his faith, Ida with her
irrepressible gusto. He, who had endured so much sorrow,
must have felt a certain exhilaration in the knowledge that
his daughter was not wounded, that she enjoyed life as if it
was not inevitably mottled with pain. To him, Ida was a
creature from another world; he could not believe that he
had produced her. Ida considered herself contemporary and
down-to-earth. She thought her father dreamy and
old-fashioned. To the Ramaz, Ida was like a character in an
illuminated chapbook of the Middle Ages. In the spacious,
distant chamber in which his thoughts dwelt, the
reverberations of her activities reached him, yet he
apprehended them but dimly. For him, they were like the
hearsays bandied about by the medievalists—of strange
wonders, of miracles, of monsters from undiscovered deeps,
of unicorns, dragons, and demigods. He would inquire vaguely
from time to time about her goings on; he was entertained by
some of her exploits, as if, through an accident of
research, he had come upon a gossip column from Cathay.
Anyone whose primary interest was not in romance was
unrealistic to Ida, and Ida thought her father was
unrealistic. Her romantic problems occasionally bordered on
the ethical, and once, because Ida was at that time living
with her father in New York, she brought him a nice one to
adjudicate. It concerned the strange case of Anna Shapiro, a
man whom Ida referred to as "the anxious Zionist," and an
inventor. Anna was an old friend of Ida's, from her Boston
days, and Ida had imported her from Boston to marry "a rich
New Yorker." Everything was going wonderfully; the couple
had two children and Anna was in seventh heaven. Then the
husband developed a defect. "He got so rich that he went
crazy," Ida said succinctly. Ida was sensitive about
insanity among her clients. (Once, while she was living in
Worcester, she had brought from Boston one of her best
friends, a man named Merrick, who was Commissioner of
Weights and Measures, to marry a beautiful Worcester girt.
Directly after the wedding ceremony, the bride began to yell
and scream, and had to be taken to an institution for the
insane. Merrick went back to Boston, and Ida followed him in
order to explain that the bride's insanity was as much a
surprise to her as it was to him. It took a conference of
lawyers, rabbis, and judges to straighten the thing out.
Merrick became cool toward Ida. "Nowadays," she said
mournfully, "you have to be a doctor, a psy-what-do-you-call-it,
as well as a matchmaker.") Anna put her husband in a
sanatorium. One day, he threatened to kill himself unless
the Ramaz came to see him, and Anna said that since Ida had
brought her to this pass, the least she could do was get her
father to go. The poor Ramaz went, and Anna's husband tried
to enlist his interest in a project to build a subway from
New York to Palestine. It was this proposal that caused Ida
to dub him "the anxious Zionist." Unable to advance his
project, the anxious Zionist did commit suicide. He left a
substantial income to Anna, on the condition that she not
marry again. This posed a problem. Anna was marriageable,
but she didn't, as Ida said, "want to relax the money." One
night, on the bench in the lobby of her father's apartment
house, Ida fell to talking with an inventor. She had never
met an inventor before, and as she had just lost Blinkman,
she was in a receptive mood. When she went upstairs, she
told her father she had met a scientist whom she could
easily marry, but he needed money for his inventions. The
Ramaz, without looking up from a book he was reading, said
absently that impecunious inventors ought to be subsidized,
and that Ida, in the interests of progress, might find him a
rich wife. Ida wondered how a man could reach her father's
age and understand so little about emotional involvement.
She already saw herself the wife of a scientist, a position
in life that seemed to her incredibly chic. But then, some
days later, Ida found that the scientist was seeing Anna
Shapiro. Anna had said nothing to her, her best friend,
about it. Direct in everything, Ida approached Anna. Anna
confessed that she loved the scientist. Would Ida further
Ida came to the point at once. "Will you relax the money?"
"For him, yes," said Anna.
"Will you tell him that if he marries you, you will have to
relax the money?" Ida asked.
At this, Anna's expression showed a certain tension.
"If I deal for you, I have to tell him," Ida said sternly.
"He needs money for his inventions."
Anna temporized. "Let him invent without money," she said.
"If you don't tell him," Ida said, "I wash my hands!"
"Then wash," said Anna.
A coolness developed between the two old friends. Ida
wrestled with the problem of whether to tell or not to tell.
If she told, how would she know that she was not telling as
a rival who wanted the scientist for herself, instead of as
a disinterested marriage broker? It was her business to make
marriages, and she had a moral obligation to Anna, because
if it had not been for her, Anna would never have married
the anxious Zionist. She found herself impaled on both horns
of this dilemma. She decided to put the question to her
father. After all, this was in a realm beyond romance; it
involved ethics. She forced her father to stop reading and
faced him with this new Judgment of Solomon. The Ramaz
listened, took off his glasses, polished them, put them
back. His clear blue eyes rested on his daughter. He
remembered an odd anecdote of an ancestor to whom an
analogous problem had been posed. It was a funny story,
which had made rabbinical students laugh for four hundred
years. Was this his daughter and was she living in the
twentieth century? What a curious survival! Still, since Ida
was so serious, he met the question with equal gravity. "If
Anna wants you for an intermediary, you must persuade her to
tell him," he said finally. "If she doesn't want you, then
it's none of your business."
"Then I lose the match altogether," said Ida.
"You must persuade Anna to tell him," said the Ramaz.
"Appeal to her vanity. Let her put the inventor to the
"And what about my conscience?" demanded Ida. "I like the
inventor myself. What will Anna say if I marry him? She'll
be mad, and she'll be right. What a business I chose, with
"You won't have to worry about your conscience," said the
Ramaz. "If the inventor won't marry Anna without money, then
he won't marry you. The probability is he will return to his
science. By the way, tochterel, what did your
"He has just made an invention the salt and the pepper
should come from the same shaker," Ida said.
The Ramaz looked profoundly impressed. He predicted the
eclipse of Einstein and returned to his books.
Ida persuaded Anna to inform the scientist of her difficult
financial status, and for a season the scientist did,
indeed, disappear into his laboratory. Eventually, Anna and
Ida patched things up, on the common ground that scientists
were scum. But later, when Ida got a letter from the
inventor, she admitted that her heart missed a heat. It was
a strange letter for a scientist to write, since it took the
form of a poem. It was more than a poem; it was a poetic
anagram. It was written on the stationery of the scientist's
firm—the All-In Mfg. Co.—and bore a picture of a
salt-and-pepper shaker. The first letters of the poem's
eleven lines spelled out the greeting "Good morning." After
the first thrill, Ida felt let down. "Good morning is not
love," she said. "He could just as well send me Good night!"
When Ida married Newman and went to Newark to live, her
father was happy. But Ida did not fully share the Ramaz's
feeling that all was well. Newman was proud of her, and Ida
was a good wife to him. The difficulty was that she didn't
care for Newark. To her, it was almost like living in
Worcester. True, she never saw a bear there, but it was
benchless and provincial. She confessed that she enjoyed
going to Worcester just to get away from Newark. She
regretted her husband's mistake in getting off the train in
Newark when by staying on a half hour longer he could have
got off in New York. "What a difference in that half hour!"
she summarized elegiacally. She kept up her New York
connections, and she was always in and out of town. Summers
she spent at Bradley Beach, driving about with her husband
and her father. Bradley Beach was teeming with the unmarried
young people, widows, widowers. She accumulated enough
prospects there to keep her busy through the winters. As
Mrs. Ida Newman, she felt that she had emerged from bohemia
and was firmly established in the upper bourgeoisie. She had
acquired status apart from her father. On a visit to
Worcester, she asked one of her daughters if she would take
a check. Her daughter asked if she needed cash. "No, no,"
said Ida, "I don't need cash. I just thought you would like
one of my checks for a souvenir." She produced one; it had
printed on it, "Mrs. Ida Newman, 222 West 83 Street, New
York, N.Y." Ida enjoyed handing around her checks like
calling cards. She used a New York address—actually, Go-Go's
address—because she insisted on maintaining her metropolitan
standing; she saw no reason to recognize Newark as her place
of residence simply because, on account of her husband, she
happened to live there.
In 1938, Newman died, and Ida moved back to Go-Go's. Box 77
was on the phone again. Before long, Go-Go was busy heading
an organization that supplied theatre tickets to service
men, and she was forced to make a rule that there were to be
no calls from Ida's prospects until after one in the
afternoon. Ida sent out a bulletin to all her clients. She
did her best to make them obey the rule, but it cramped her
style. Once, her son-in-law, shaving in the bathroom, heard
her say on the telephone, "Hello. . . . You have the wrong
number, but call me up after one o'clock."
He came out of the bathroom to inquire, "If it's the wrong
number, why did you ask whoever it was to call after one?"
"Because," she said, "I can take my calls after one, and who
knows? He had such a nice voice. Sounded like an educated
When the Ramaz's third wife died, Ida took the death as a
reflection on her own ability. She determined that the next
one must have a doctor's certificate. She did not really
want to leave Go-Go's to keep house for her father—she would
have to send out so many cards to announce the new telephone
number. She acted with dispatch; in fact, she married her
father off without leaving Go-Go's apartment. She referred
to this coup as "the window marriage." Ida was sitting by a
window reading when a window in the opposite apartment
opened and a nice-looking gray-haired woman addressed her
across the narrow areaway. "Dearie, I heard that your
father's wife died," she said. "I would like an
"Are you pious?" Ida asked.
"I am pious, but for your father I could he more pious."
"Are you healthy?" Ida asked.
"I never had a sick day."
"I had in mind a Boston woman," Ida said.
"Why should he go to Boston when I am right here?"
"I will let you know," Ida said.
She informed her father that there was a beautiful woman
next door who had always greatly admired him and who asked
nothing more of life than to be his wife. She then had a
doctor examine the woman, and he reported that her heart was
good. The marriage took place.
Before long, this woman, too, became ill. Ida called in the
doctor. "I thought you said her heart was good," she said.
"Her heart is good," said the doctor, "but her lungs are not
"After my mother," Ida used to say sadly, "Papa never had
any luck with his wives." Actually, however, the Ramaz's
fourth wife survived him.
Ida was in the full tide of her activities when, at the age
of sixty-nine, she was stricken with her last—and, indeed,
her first—illness. For a year, she was in and out of
hospitals. To arrest the course of her disease, her doctors
decided to amputate her right foot. Henceforth, Ida spoke of
"the foot" as if it were someone who had turned on her
although she had never offered it anything but kindness. She
began to blame everything on "the foot." Had it not been for
"the foot," she could have married this one or that one. In
the hospital, everybody—the doctors, the nurses, her
surgeon, even the invisible patient in the room next
door—loved Ida. She discovered that her surgeon lived with
his mother. Between his work and his mother, he told her, he
hadn't time to look for girls. Ida understood this. She
could see how devoted he was to his patients; naturally he
had no time to look for girls. It was for men of his sort
that she existed. "When we get you out of here and well,
we'll talk about it," he told Ida. She said she felt very
well; "the foot" was only a minor inconvenience. If there
was anything in the world that was in acute demand among the
mothers of unmarried girls, she said, it was a
doctor—especially a surgeon. The surgeon hedged; he couldn't
leave his mother. ("He has a silver-corded mother," Ida told
her son.) She informed the surgeon that mothers were all
very well—she was one herself—but that they shouldn't
interfere with their sons' happiness. To the end, Ida
dangled prospects before the surgeon. He told Go-Go that
talking to Ida about his matrimonial prospects gave him all
the fun without any of the responsibility.
In the hospital, Ida had an Irish nurse who was so pretty
that Ida said she could eat her up. Ida lamented that she
had no Irish connections; if only she had some, she told the
nurse, she could make a match for her in a minute right from
bed. The patient next door sent Ida a rose, with a note
saying that his nurse's stories about her had cheered him
up. In another note, he said that if he got well he would
like to marry Ida. Ida did not take this literally, but she
wrote back telling him to get well anyway. The roses kept
coming. One day, Ida's nurse told her that the man wanted to
he wheeled in for a visit. "He thinks I am beautiful," Ida
said. "If he comes in, he will see I am an old woman. He
will be disappointed. Better he should keep sending me
In her tussle with "the foot," Ida's vanity suffered. "If it
has to come off, perhaps we should move into a new
neighborhood," she said to Go-Go before the operation. Ida
had to have a special shoe made, but she implored her doctor
to have it made with a high heel. When she left the
hospital, she limped slightly, and she took this as
punishment from God, because she remembered that when she
was a little girl in Kroza she had imitated a woman who
limped. The operation only delayed the end. After six months
of limping about on her high-heeled shoes, Ida was forced to
take to her bed. She knew she was going to die, and she
faced it with equanimity, even with gaiety. "When I die,
there will be joy in Heaven among the unmarried angels," she
predicted. She was a long time dying; her deathbed was a
prolonged social causerie—like Heine's, plus, of course, her
matchmaking. Conscious that time was running out, she
increased the pressure on her son. She gave him a diamond
ring that had belonged to her mother, asking him to give it
to his bride if he ever got one. She suggested to him that
he call up the arithmetic teacher, in the hope that the
years had moderated her giggle. (As it turned out, he got
married two years later, to a girl that he found without his
Everybody came to see Ida, sometimes to exchange jokes,
sometimes to commiserate. Many of her visitors she didn't
know at all. Most trying were the visits of the ladies of
the synagogue, who sat around with mournful
expressions—expressions they should have reserved for her
funeral, she said. A couple of them shook their heads and
murmured, "Our dear Mrs. Newman isn't ours any more."
"When was I theirs?" Ida demanded, within their hearing.
She enjoyed shocking the ladies of the synagogue. She would
improvise the hesped that would be said over her:
"The daughter of the great Ramaz has gone from us. He
prepared people to live in Heaven, the daughter prepared
them to be happy on earth." The ladies shuddered at the
blasphemy and departed.
One day, Ida asked to have her doctor visit her. "I have a
new lover," she told him. Her doctor, prepared for anything,
asked her who he was. "Pain is my new lover," she said.
Another day, to her astonishment, Billikopf, the salmon
fisherman, came to see her. For years, Ida had thought he
was dead; his arrival made her feel that she had already
reached the farther shore. It was, she said, "like one ghost
entertaining another ghost." Couriers from the benches
brought her bulletins; while she lay ill, two men she had
met on the benches—one of them an extraordinary catch, for
he smoked expensive cigars—had died. She mourned these
deaths, which she called premature, by which she meant that
the benchers had died before she was able to settle them.
"If I weren't so sicky-weaky, what I could have done!" she
When an oxygen tent was brought in, she said calmly, "That
is what Papa had when he died. Now I have the entree to die.
The Malach Hamovis [Angel of Death] has invited me. It is
like when you get an invitation from the president of the
synagogue to a party with on the bottom engraved R.P.V.S.
You don't want to go, but it's the president of the
synagogue—you have to go." She sent for her son and gave him
a slip of paper on which she had written a date—her birthday
and a year—with a blank line for the date of her death. She
asked the Major to put this birth date on her tombstone. He
noticed that she had lopped off fifteen years, but he said
nothing. Ida looked at him, her blue eyes twinkling. "I know
what you are thinking, takhshidel," she said, "but
just think! Before my tombstone, people will be coming and
going. Maybe if you put on this date, they will stop and
look. Who is interested in an old woman? This way, they will
stop. 'Ah,' they will say, 'the daughter of the Ramaz! Poor
girl! What a pity she died so young!'"