Food and cloth: an observation

Our Jewish holidays always emphasize food. There’s a very good reason for that: No matter where we live, no matter how good or how bad our living conditions may be, we have to eat. So, what we eat can vary greatly from one place to the other. That accounts, for instance, to the fact that legumes (peas, beans, etc.) have long been a Passover no-no among Ashkenazi Jews, but for Sephardis, are staples of their holiday menus. Nor are apples and honey necessarily universal at this season.
I saw the Montreal food movie, “Chewdaism: A Taste of Jewish Montreal,” during our recent Jewish Film Festival, and my mouth watered with every bite taken (and there were many) of “smoked meat” sandwiches. Once I tried that brisket-type delicacy – long ago, during a too-brief visit to the city of its origin – and I was hooked. But I haven’t been able to eat it since. I was hopeful that the Canadian restaurant that opened here in Dallas might be a source, but it’s not. And I’m sure the meat there wouldn’t be kosher, anyway. But I’m happy because that place has what I think is the very best Greek salad in town.
So, food availability can be a regional determiner of Jewish food preferences. But consider how other things – or lack of them – can also influence major areas of Jewish life, and continue on for years. One great example, right here in America, is the prominence of Jews in all facets of the clothing business – designing, making, selling and everything else. There’s a very good, very practical, and at its base a very sad reason for this.
Years ago, and for many years in many places, our people’s ways of making their livings were limited. Probably best known is how European Jews, for generations, could not own land, even when they farmed it themselves, or engage in many kinds of business. Instead, they were encouraged – even forced – to earn their daily bread by doing things no one else wanted to do, or which, in certain eras in certain places, the ruling Church forbade them to do. What was left, and most demanded of our people? Money lending. Think of Shakespeare’s Shylock and the debates that have raged for years over his “Merchant of Venice.” And, pawn-brokering is a bedrock occupation in the money-lending business. Think of the many Jewish families – right here in our area – who had their local business beginnings with pawn shops.
Here is a great and basically true back story. A poor family in Turkey had three marriageable daughters, but no money for dowries. Help came from a rich man who used his wealth to help the poor, but always anonymously. He prepared three bags of gold and gave them to the family, by climbing up on their roof and dropping them down the chimney. This was the birth of a legend: Santa Claus, aka Saint Nicholas. And, this was the reason that pawnshops used to have three gold balls as their symbol. Also, this is the reason that, in the Catholic Church even today, Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers.
Now, If you’re in the pawn broker business, what do you do with what comes to you that you can’t sell? If it’s anything made of cloth, you learn to make something from it that will sell, and clothing is always a good seller. This is the origin of our Jewish affinity for both the needle trades and clothing stores. It is also the origin of successful efforts, by the Jewish community and women leaders in the labor movement, at improving factory safety after the 1911 New York Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, and ultimately, even of unionization.
Our Jews had long before learned that what’s in your head can never be taken from you, and what is useful but small enough to be carried when you are forced to move is just the same. That little sewing needle has made many big things happen for us, right here in America!

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