Greenberg Family Orchard St
Long before the first strokes went on the canvas, each painting of the East Side series had taken shape in my mind. But this painting was different...it haunted me.
The woman about to step on the sidewalk near the left corner of the picture does not resemble Rebecca. Rebecca is orthodox and she doesn’t want her image to be taken.
We first met in the summer of 1973 and from this grew one of those relationships where age and experience lose their meaning. Friendship is a weak word...we grew to deeply love each other.She told me stories...stories of the East Side, stories of the people she knew, and then bit by bit parts of her own past crept in.“He was alive and so were our two girls- it was a miracle. We found each other after the concentration camps, and he said that we would never go to America- only to Israel- and we had the papers and we were going to Israel and two weeks before we were to leave he died. I came to America and so did my two girls...two other children I buried in Europe.”Except for Saturdays when she did not work, we would see each other whenever I went to Orchard Street. She would kiss me, and ask after every member of my family. When my husband hurt his back, she offered to get mustard plasters, and when my children had colds she worried about them. And when she talked I would stop painting and I would listen. It was the second day of Israel’s October war.
The street was somber and people had tight faces.“Is there anything new?”“Did you hear anything in the news?”Rebecca came up to me. Her eyes were red and she looked broken. I listened to what she told me and forever after, when I hear of the October war, I will see Rebecca standing next to me on Orchard Street.“What do they want from me? How much more do they want me to take? I went with my father to Warsaw...he wouldn’t cut his beard...he was very pious. So I wrapped him in shawls so nobody would see it and know he was a Jew. On the train I spoke Polish so no one would guess. We got off in Warsaw and as long as I live I will see this before my eyes:There was a big building . The Germans had told the Jews to bring their oldest sons and when they didn’t bring them, the Germans went out to look. And they had gone into the building and they had found them under the beds and in the toilets and on the roof, and they threw them from the roof and from the windows and we got off the train in Warsaw and some were falling on the street and there was so much screaming and there was so much blood...I toss and turn at night and I cannot sleep...and in Israel the Arabs are waiting to do the same to the children of those who didn’t die...”She grabbed me by the arm and asked, “Go...go talk to God. Does he answer?” The streets of the Lower East Side are not so very different from others in New York City. But perhaps more than those others, they are a haven for immigrants. Not those who chose to come to this country, but of those who fled to it. The old are mostly Jewish, and it was during those terrible days of Israel’s war that people who up to then had only spoken about the weather and of business to me, began to tell me their stories. I knew then that I wanted to do a painting of the refugees who lived and worked here.On the street next to the curb stands Goldie...Galishoff’s is a dairy restaurant which is a meeting place for the poor and the rich, for the shoppers and for the businessmen. Here Goldie and others like her come to eat and to escape their loneliness. I used to see her every day, whether it rained or snowed, in winter or in summer.“Could I paint you? I’m doing a painting of these streets and people.” “Sure, why not?”“Could I write about you too?”“Sure, why shouldn’t I let you?”“I’ll make a pencil drawing of you first, and I’ll give it to you when I’m done with the painting.”“It’s all right, you don’t have to give it to me...it wouldn’t do me any good. I don’t see much since the accident.”“The accident?”Two years ago, she was collecting money for Israel at a nearby restaurant. Then she went to buy at the Essex Street Market. A gang of boys stopped her and demanded the shopping bag.“How could I give them my shopping bag? The money for Israel was inside!”They slashed her stomach open and left her lying there in broad daylight on the cement floor of the Essex Street Market.“Ever since the accident, I don’t see so good.”“ I remember when I came to America. It was on March 28, 1911. How do I remember? People were running and I was a little girl so I ran too. It was the Triangle Factory fire...terrible, terrible...I’ll never forget...the bodies were running down like burning “schmaltz”...I used to work in a factory too, like they did. The boss paid me two and a half dollars a week and when the government men came to check if he had children working, he hid me in the toilet.”She was born on “the other side of Kiev”, her husband died of malaria in the Second World War, her baby died in infancy.“And now there’s nobody left of my family except me and God.
”Kim came to America over a year ago and his wife came a bit later. When I began this painting in the winter of 1974, he had been on Orchard Street for over ten months without a single day off. Both he and his wife are working to save money for the passage of their two children who are still in South Korea with their grandparents. He is an engineer, she is a pharmaceutical technician and seven days a week they sell wigs on Orchard Street. Kim is shown near the middle of the painting straightening one of the wigs. On the right hand side of the painting, which is of Rivington Street, stand Dr. Joseph Greenberg, his wife Ettie, and their son and daughter. I had met Ettie when she was showing someone the Lower East Side. Later, when I painted her family, I wrote and asked Ettie if, in any way, they were connected to this area.“Joseph’s (my husband) Uncle Morris and his wife, Celia, came over in 1903 and moved to Rivington Street to stay with her mother and father, Etta and Itzik Bernstein.The mother did all the catering for marriages, brisses, etc. in the neighborhood, doing all the cooking and sewing herself- and the father sold lemons from a pushcart. He did very well for himself.For an interesting aside- Aunt Celia’s Aunt’s grandchild, Fannie, also lived there for a time and married the Adler whose building you also painted.When my father in law came over, (Hyman Greenberg) about five years later, he too moved in for a while, until he settled elsewhere.Fannie’s mother moved across the bridge to Williamsburg and Fannie- newly married to Adler- wanted to live near her mother so she convinced her husband that they should move too.The sister (Aunt Celia’s mother) stayed on Rivington Street.I hope this makes some kind of continuity for your story. It certainly does seem that so many people who came over during the early influx of Jewish immigrants (from Eastern Europe) were interrelated in many subtle ways.Love, Ettie”.