Monday, October 4, 2010
Arrival in the USA
New York: 1958
We arrived in New York towards the end of August 1958. We had $10 in our pocket (perhaps it was a little more or less), and our plans were to take the bus directly to Ithaca, New York, where I had been accepted to Cornell University. However it was the week before school began, and the type of housing available shocked us. We really had no idea what to expect. We had not registered for student housing, and looked at old decrepit clapboard houses, with an offer to rent provisional on cleaning snow, or accommodation some times in a basement with no windows. Most would have cost us more than any salary Mimi could earn. Having just arrived from white, gleaming Haifa, everything seemed gloomy and grey. Actually Ithaca itself is in a very beautiful area, but the town looked very run down. Since I was considered a “foreign student”, from Israel, an Israeli student, David Prihar took us around and from him we got an idea of the expenses incurred in attending Cornell. I could call these years of our life the years of naivety. Certainly this was not the America we had imagined. I think our impressions of the USA were formed by movies of the 1950’s and not the reality of the country. It was obvious that it was going to be too difficult to move to Ithaca, at this time and go to school. I could not afford the tuition, and thus we opted back to New York City to live with Rutta and Salo (Mimi’s parents) who had just moved into an apartment in the Bronx.
We also learned from David of the presence of another “ Israeli” student, actually from Ireland but with a connection to Israel, Ralph Mitchell. Since my mothers’ maiden name was Mitchell and I had heard vaguely of family living in Dublin and Belfast, I was anxious to contact this Ralph. I called and asked whether he had any connection to the Glasgow Mitchells, and he said “ yes, he had visited his uncle many years ago”. This was probably my grandfather or more likely my mother’s Uncle Robert, who also had some Irish connection, having lived in Belfast for a few years. From my Aunt Betty’s writings I have learned recently that my great grandmother, and thus Ralph’s grandmother had died in Belfast after an IRA attack on a nearby barracks. Thus Ralph was my mother’s first cousin, and we had found a new relative in the USA. Interestingly Ralph was studying for the Ph.D. in microbiology. If I had not been so set on studying Poultry Husbandry, I might have met and discussed the future of microbiology and this science with him. As it was, we agreed to get together sometime during the year with him and his wife Muriel in New York City. I also found out that he had been in Habonim in Dublin and that we had quite a number of mutual acquaintances. He had also spent a year at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel before coming to Cornell.
Mimi’s father had been living with his brother Paul and family. Rutta had arrived without knowing that we would be coming and they had found a nice apartment on 190th Street and the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Thus we moved into the apartment and slept in the living room. We paid Rutta and Salo a nominal sum (I can not remember how much) for room and board. Mimi’s Uncle Paul had been living in the USA since some time in the mid 30’s. He and his wife Dushka had two daughters, Claudette and Madeleine. Madeleine was approximately Mimi’s age, and she helped me with enrolling in classes at CCNY, which is where I started studying. I do not remember meeting “ Claudie”. She and her father had a terrible row. Apparently he wanted her to lead a “ social” life of dance, mix with a certain set, wear makeup, all of which she refused to do. She was interested in more intellectual pursuits, even having the idea of immigrating to Israel. This Paul was very much against. She thus left home and lived with a man, Dick (I do not know whether they were married or not) and had two children under very primitive conditions, some say in the “woods” of Connecticut. Claudie ended up having many children, Dick a drug addict, and as can be expected, many problems later on. Mimi’s uncle Paul was a very domineering person. He was a physician in the Veteran’s hospital, always dressed formally with a bow tie and jacket, and insisted in everyone behaving like him, being “ American”. In fact at one time he did not approve of my dress (open shirt, no tie) and made some caustic remarks about dressing like a kibutznick. This was a time when the USA was much more formal than now. Dushka on the other hand was a very submissive and kindly person, and I don’t know how she stood all these years of marriage with Paul. More about them and the family in another chapter. We had quite a number of “ Reifer” relatives in New York, whom we would occasionally visit. Thus we had a new family.
What about my education? This was the reason for coming to the States! Had we made a mistake? Living in the Bronx was certainly not my dream of the US. In fact it was not all that better than living in Glasgow. Actually having revisited Glasgow recently living in the Bronx was probably a little better at that time. This area of the Bronx, 190th and Grand Concourse was considered an upscale Jewish middle-class neighborhood. The major landmark was Alexander’s department store on the Grand Concourse, which was a busy shopping street. The neighborhood was quite safe. We had advice from Salo and also from Mimi’s uncle Paul, as to the course to take for the future and it was decided that the best plan was for me to attend evening school at CCNY to take basic courses, so that when we did go back to Cornell the following year it would be easier to get credit (I still was not familiar with this whole idea of credits). I thus enrolled in courses in freshman physics, chemistry, geology, and a few other electives. I took a psychology course, of which all I remember was the lecturer standing on the desk to make a point. I do not recall having learned very much, although I did finish with A’s. However in the geology class we made many field trips to the New Jersey Palisades to study the different strata, I enjoyed the field trips, the course was well taught, and the geology course was the most interesting. I also did learn some basic physics, mechanics, not anything too difficult no quantum mechanisms or high powered physics.. However it did give me a semester of credit later on at Cornell and speeded up my eventual graduation. Mimi meanwhile found a job as a lab technician with the cosmetic company, Revlon, working in an analytical chemistry lab. She earned enough to support both of us through this period. The lab was situated in Harlem, and she had to travel by subway to get there. This was quite unpleasant in the winter when it was dark, and we often worried about safety. In fact after Haifa, New York seemed to us quite dangerous, with drunks, pickpockets and other petty crime. The upper Bronx was not bad, but the area of CCNY around 125th street was undergoing change and was quite seedy and run down.
I went down to the HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) office in Manhattan and they were successful in finding me a job. In fact they found me a series of jobs, none of which lasted very long. First as a bookkeeper in the fruit market. This job lasted approximately one day, since the owner could not read my handwriting, which tends to be small and messy, and I had no idea how to balance the books. I then worked in a small workshop that made tools for sculptors and artists, certainly a job with very limited potential, and then later on after this job fizzled (not through any fault of mine) packaging neon lights for a wholesaler. These jobs paid very little and were quite far from the Bronx. In fact these were in the predominantly Ukrainian section of lower Manhattan, below 14th Street, what at that time was a poor neighborhood, but today has been gentrified and full of skyscrapers and high -rise apartments. Exasperated with the situation of poor paying lousy jobs, I began to look in the New York Times Classified section. I found a job advertised for a person with mathematical experience. In fact it asked for a degree in mathematics.
Although I did not have degree in mathematics, I had sat the London University Matriculation (High School) external exams. Mimi tutored me in this. I did not do very well in mathematics, however I just mentioned London University to the person doing the interviewing, and I was hired on the spot. No one asked to see my credentials and I did not lie. I think Howie my new boss just assumed I had a degree in mathematics, or it really did not matter since no one else had a degree in math. The company was called Arbitron, a TV and radio rating company. Small electronic gadgets were placed in individuals TV sets, and we in the office on 53rd Street received a transmission indicating what channels people were watching at any specific time. This was recorded and then we calculated what percentage of a population (in a specific city) was watching that program. The extent of the mathematics was calculating percentages on a Monroe calculator! It was a great job, it paid well and my work colleagues were terrific.
“Arbitron or ARB was founded as American Research Bureau by Jim Seiler in 1949 and became bi-coastal by merging with L.A. based Coffin, Cooper and Clay in the early 1950s. ARB's initial business was the collection of television broadcast ratings exclusively. The company changed its name to Arbitron in the mid 1960s. The name came from the Arbitron System that was one of ARB's products; a central statistical computer with leased lines to viewers' homes to monitor their activity. Deployed in New York, it gave instant ratings data on what people were watching.” A reporting board would light up to indicate what home was watching what broadcast. We would record this and thus calculate the results. This information was then sold to the networks and advertisers for large (enormous) sums of money. In fact it give me some idea of how much money changed hands in the advertising and TV industry.
It was interesting to note how fickle the public could be. Wagon Train was one of the most popular programs. Anytime President Eisenhower addresses the nation there would be massive switching of channels. Westerns always won out. In these days there were no more than 6-7 channels available, the three major networks and a few local N.Y. channels.
The group of co-workers at ARB was really terrific. There was Howard, the boss, a rather portly 30 something, then the work crew of Harvey (BS in history), Robert (part time Opera singer and actor), Thelma (ex beauty queen of somewhere in NY), and Victor, of whom I do not remember very much, other than that he had a great sense of humor. We all worked in the same office on 3rd Avenue and 53rd street.
Robert was quite a character. He loved women, particularly women with black stockings. He would stand by the window, looking out over 3rd Avenue, and as soon as a woman passed by with black stockings he would run down the stairs, catch up with her, and somehow (or so it seemed) arrange a subsequent date, if her face matched her legs. It was a sort of fetish that all of us laughed at. We really did not believe his stories. He claimed the best place to pick up young women was the New York Metropolitan Museum (or MoMa). The technique was to approach the victim, who had to be wearing black stockings, and enter into conversation on the painting being viewed, and then enchant his way into bed or at least a date. These were the days before the sexual revolution although I do not think he had any inhibitions. He was quite a charmer, was good-looking, very Italian and had great style.
Two years later while at Cornell University, we became acquainted with a couple of fairly attractive female, Israeli students. They were planning a weekend in New York City. Bihla, the older of the two wore black sheer nylons, which were in fashion in these days. After the weekend in the city, she told us that she had surprisingly met an acquaintance of ours at the Met. She in fact confirmed the stories we had heard from Robert, she was wearing black stockings and he had picked her up as described by getting into an “ art” conversation. I don’t know what happened after that, other than my name came up in conversation, and regards got back to me. I met Robert many years later, after having completed my Ph.D. and attending a meeting in New York, and found a rather down and out ex-actor, most of the charm having gone, and carrying a broken arm, as the result of being thrown out of the window by an another actor who found him in flagrante with his wife. He was still performing in summer stock in Upstate New York. I would really have like to have spent more time with this guy; it would have been very interesting to hear his life story.
I was to return to ARB again during my years at Cornell for summer employment. My time spent there was very enjoyable, not because of the work, but because of the company. Howard asked me many times to stay on and not return to Ithaca, that I could have a permanent job. If I had done so, and moved up in the company as others did I could have retired as a millionaire at the age of 40. ! I never really gave it a second thought, since our idea was still to return to Israel, after obtaining my BS in agriculture ( still thinking chickens). I was still very much an idealist, and both Mimi and I agreed that this was our aim. Also the idea of living in New City did not appeal to Mimi. We did not consider ourselves permanent immigrants to the US; this was just a temporary situation, a first step in my education. I really have no idea what happened to other members of the group at ARB. I know that Harvey, the history major retired early, since I contacted him on my visit to New York. ARB is still in existence, but not nearly as successful as it rival Neilson, and recently it has run afoul of the State of New York Legal System.
I do not want to give the impression that life in New York was gloomy, far from it. We enjoyed the lovely countryside at weekends going out with Rutta and Salo; we explored the area north of New York City, the Hudson River, and Bear Park Mt. I loved going to the Cloisters just north of Manhattan. We went for walks in the Bronx zoo and botanical gardens, one of the best in the world. We went to concerts at Carnegie Hall (Van Cliburn was the rage), to the Metropolitan opera, to the museums. Our social life was not bad either. We had family in the city, Mimi’s cousins, we made friends with other students, met with an old friend from Glasgow/Israel, Tommy Berman whom I have mentioned before, and spent a few weeks on the island of Nantucket that first summer, a place we loved to return to. We also met Ralph Mitchell and wife Muriel, by listening for someone with an Irish accent on Columbus Circle one Sunday afternoon. We immediately became friends, a friendship that has lasted all our lives. This is an interesting story in itself. We had no idea what Ralph and his wife looked like. We arranged to meet in Columbus circle on a Saturday afternoon, not realizing how busy it would be with people going to the movies or just walking around. My wife had the bright idea of each one of us seperately following all the couples of suitable age and listening for an Irish accent, which we knew they had after our telephone conversations. After about 30 minutes of this she recognized the accent, stopped and asked a couple if they were Ralph and Muriel and of course they were. Looking back it seems ridiculous, looking for someone with an Irish accent in New York. There are probably more Irishmen in the city than in Ireland itself.
I joined the international student organization at CCNY. Immediately we were befriended by a couple of students, one I remember Albert; the other I cannot remember his name. Both were left wing Jewish students who identified with the Soviet Union rather than with United States. We went to a few parties with them and a few meetings. I felt very out of place with this group, as did Mimi. Although from a socialist background, we did not identify with communism or feel sympathy for their cause. However through them we met other students from Nigeria, Ghana and other African countries. It was an interesting period. Dances were held at the international center and one did not know with whom you would end up dancing with. Mimi ended up dancing with someone with tribal markings on his face. She thought they were paint and only in the light did she see they were scarified markings. She was quite shocked. I think both of us were rather insular, never having been exposed to such exotic people. At the time we left Israel, Africans were rather rare. This was before the immigration of Ethiopian Jews.
Politics did not interest us too much. This was the height of the cold war and everyone worried about an atomic bomb attack. I remember on New Years Eve we went to see the movie “on the beach” about an atomic war, with just a few survivors in Australia. It was a depressing film and why we went to see it at New Year is beyond me now.
During this period I became a resident of New York State, since I worked and paid taxes in the State. On the advice of Tommy I applied for a fellowship for Jewish boys in farming, and since my intention was to join the Poultry Husbandry Department at Cornell, I certainly qualified for the fellowship. I had received a deferment of a year from Cornell. Thus after one year in New York City we set of again for Cornell University. By this time I had applied for student housing and that was obtained, in Cornell Quarters, old army duplex huts, reminiscent of my days in the kibbutz and army in Israel. I had a fellowship, low tuition because of residency, and we had saved somme money.Thus in the summer of 1959 we arrived at Cornell University