The humiliation of being on Relief

Irv was five years old when the stock market crashed in the fall of 1929.  His family had no stock, but, being already poor, they too lost everything.   Their difficult life suddenly got even harder.  

When my father started school at the beginning of the Great Depression he was the biggest kid in kindergarten.  His only trouble was that he didn’t know any English, having heard only Yiddish spoken in the home.  

The school called his mother in to find out why a boy born in New York City did not speak English.  Chava, his mother, summoned her best English and said to the principal in her heavily accented English:  He’ll learn.   This was rendered “heel loyn” in the comical version of the story I heard from my father’s first cousin Eli, who probably provided her with the rejoinder.

His mother was right, though, he picked up English quickly.  In a short time he was well-spoken in English, but the early going must have been exceedingly tough.

The mockery of the other five year olds before he could speak made a deep impression on young Irv.  He went to his death believing he’d been the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill.  The statement shocked me; nobody who’d conversed with my well-spoken father could picture him as dumb.  I asked how he could say he’d been the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill.  His answer was emphatic: “by far!”.

He invariably described his early life as one of “grinding poverty”. His family’s extreme poverty was confirmed by others in the family.   It was a terrible, gnawing poverty, as most poverty is, and worse than most of the poor neighbors’ poverty, since his mother apparently insisted on giving much of what little they had to the synagogue as charity.

When I was a teenager I got my first pair of eye glasses.  I chose frames something like John Lennon’s, thinking the wire frames looked cool.  When I put them on my father smiled a sad smile.  

“Man, those were the glasses they gave you when you were on Relief,” my father said.  “They were a badge of humiliation, those wire frames.  If you wore those glasses everybody knew how poor you were, that your father couldn’t make a living, that you were on Relief.  I wore those for years, and it was humiliating to me.  Now they’re cool.  How times change, eh?” 

Relief was the forerunner of Welfare, FDR’s innovation to provide a livelihood for people who had no work during the Great Depression.  My father started life identifying with those who had nothing.  He had little choice, growing up in very dire circumstances.  

Working two jobs most of his life was his solution, he worked night and day.  Our mother worked too, once we were old enough to fend for ourselves after school.  He gave his children the decent start in life he’d never had.  The thanks he got was having to deal with two ungrateful middle class pricks at steak dinners he paid for every night.

There is much more to the story than that, of course, but I am laying out the bones here, just the bones of the story at the moment. 

 

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