To Make a Dream Come True: Ben Sperling

To Make a Dream Come True: Ben Sperling

Stories of the Residents of the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington

Ben Sperling

BEN SPERLING: THE STRUGGLE TO MAKE A LIVING

The Jewish immigrant’s life in America consisted of hard, unyielding work.  Ben Sperling left his small town in Lithuania because “the town was becoming socialist” and the police were after him. He is pictured above, left, with his grandmother and cousin just before he left the "Old Country."

Although America gave him freedom, it never became his goldene medina.  Rather, it provided a life of constant struggle, as he moved from city to city in a series of jobs: peddler, grocery store owner or manager, rooming-house owner. Yet, despite his hard work, he tells us that he did well during the Depression.  He owned a grocery store at that time, and “I ate well.”  His next business, however, was not successful.

His son, who made a career for himself in Washington, convinced Mr. Sperling to join him there, where he could have an easier life.  “…sometimes I think I didn’t have no youth at all,” says Mr. Sperling. “Not from the beginning when I was born.  I always was old; I always worked like a horse.”  Many Jewish immigrants tell of a similarly hard life in America.

A “Ben Yochid” Leaving Home

I was born, what they call a “Ben Yochid,” an only child, by a couple that was married the second time, two elderly people.  I was born in Lithuania.  At that time it was Russia.  I lived in a small town.

How did I come to America?  I wrote a letter to a brother of mine from my mother’s first marriage and I told him the story, that the old town is becoming Socialist and the police are after the Socialists and I don’t know how long before they’ll catch me and arrest me.  Please take me over, send me a ticket.  So he sent me the ticket. The ticket cost $17, that’s all, to come over to America and it cost maybe cheaper because my brother bought a ticket through a Jewish agent, who sold tickets.  So the Jewish agent who sold for $17, it cost him less than $17.  This brother of mine was an operator by cloaks and suits.

But I want to tell you—before I left, I remember, my mother wanted me not to go, but I wanted to go.  I saw there was no future for me over there.  She was a baker and accumulated a lot of pieces of bread, you know.  She used to sell the bread in the town. So she made this beer toast.  She dipped it, I remember, in beer and sprinkled with sugar and put it in a baker oven to dry and came out beautiful, delicious, delicious toast.  This was supposed to be my food for all the time I’ll be on the ocean, the whole trip.

Arrival at Ellis Island

When I first came to Ellis Island—of course it was a big building, a big house, a big room.  All the immigrants used to stay there until some relatives used to come and take them out.  I was seventeen years, and I had a brother and he took me over for $17 a ticket.

America

While I was waiting, while I was scared, my brother came and right away he took me, they gave me over to him.  He took me over on a little ship, a little boat over the water there, like a little ferry and we walked over, I remember like it was now, to this place where he lives.  I don’t remember but I think it was East Broadway in New York.

The house was a tenement house.  This was a palace compared to the house I lived in in the old country.  The toilet was in the hall for four tenants.  In the old country, you had to go behind the house.  We had running water, cold water, not hot.  You had a stove in the room, in the kitchen.  You used coal. You used to buy coal by the coal man.  It was very cheap, $7 a ton, I think it was, and they gave you an installment, too.  And you kept this in the basement, and we lived on the sixth floor.  And I, if I was home, went down the six floors in the cellar, in the basement, more than six stories, and brought it up for the stove in the wintertime.

Then it started up with me making a living.  I couldn’t see my brother sitting nights and coughing and can’t sleep.  He had the T.B. He coughs the whole night and doesn’t bring in a nickel because he couldn’t work, so he gets $7 a week from his association.  Each town at that time made for themselves an association when they came to the United States.  For instance, I tell you my town was Meritz.  All the Meritzer came before and came later in 1906, and when it was easy for immigrants, ten thousand came a week at that time, so they made association to help as much as possible each other. When one was sick in the constitution, they put in he’s supposed to get $7 a week for so and so many weeks.

Searching for a Trade

I was looking for work.  I didn’t have no trade.  In the Morning Journal was all the jobs; it’s a paper with all the jobs.  So we used to get up early in the morning, walk to save a nickel carfare, may6be ten miles for sure from Harlem to East Broadway where they made the papers.  The paper was a penny. There were whole lines of jobs.  I picked out one and I came there.  I find already a whole line waiting before me, maybe a hundred, and I came home without a job.  I struggled very much and my brother couldn’t help me. He wasn’t home; he was in the tuberculosis sanitarium.  Other friends I didn’t have.

Finding Work as a Cloth Presser

A friend took pity on me and took me in the shop to become a presser.  As I tell you, I was seventeen years old and I was thin as a toothpick.  The iron weighed more than I did, seventeen pounds the iron. The hours were nine and ten hours a day work.  And they made me a presser.  It was very hard for me; I got sick once and I nearly died.

(Mr. Sperling moved to a physically “easier” job: peddling.) 

And this is the way it was.  I went peddling.  So peddled whatever I could get hold of, fruit.  There was a place I used to get a pushcart for 10 cents a day.  Once I was arrested.  I peddled strawberries at that time in the middle of July and August, the season.  I had three or four crates and each crate was sixty quarts and I was in the police station at the counter, they were questioning me about this or that.  Half of it was stole while it was standing outside, the pushcart, come kids, and half of it got rotten from the sun.  So I lost whatever I put in and this money alone was $10. I peddled.

Once a man comes in with a big shopping bag and stopped right near me.  What did he have?  Rubber, all kinds of rubber and all kinds of pieces, quarters, three-quarters, smaller, bigger, all colors.  When the day’s over he used to make what I could make in one week he made in one day.

I got in mind maybe I can do the same thing.  I started to deal with the rubber like him.  And I used to bring $5 profit every day.  The rubber what they sold cost me maybe 15 cents.  It cost a quarter a pound and I took in a day $5.  You could say profit, clear money. The wages for a good presser was $18 a week, and here I’m selling the pieces of rubber and making $5 a day.  It was six days--$30 a week.  We started to live better, took a better apartment and put away a dollar in the bank.

Buying a Dry Goods Store and a Bad Experience with a Partner

I took a store in Passaic, New Jersey. The first week I opened it up and I, like a damned fool, found not far away was the main street with all the big stores, and I was just a block away from there and come and opened up a store.  No matter how big, how nice it was, I can’t compare with the big stores.

I had one customer; he worked by cloaks and suits.  He was a sort of designer.  He came into me.  “Sperling, let’s go into the cloak business.”  “Cloak business?  What do I know?”  He said, “You don’t have to know nothing. You’re a presser.  I’m a designer; I’ll make a good design and we’ll sell it, one salesman, around Paterson, New Jersey and all the cities there, and he’ll bring orders and we’ll make money.”

And we took a store there, a corner store, and I went in with him.  He didn’t have a cent.  It was everything on my money, the rent and the merchandise I bought, and the result was I went broke there.  He paid off with my money all his debts. Other business ventures also failed.  I didn’t have much children, only one son.  I got only one son and that’s all and he’s a doctor.  He’s got a PhD degree. In all the troubles, I sent him to college.

A Move to Cleveland and a New Venture

I went to Cleveland and opened up a grocery store and stood in the store in the middle of the depression. I sent my son in college from there and had plenty to eat.  People stood in line for soup.  I don’t have to tell you what happened in 1930.  I had everything, the best. Everything was very cheap.  And I lived there until I got the same idea I had with the other small store.  Why should I stay in a small store?  Why can’t I go open up a big store? Here was the same thing, same identical thing. I went to work and sold it.

Another Move and Another Business

After this I was tired out. I was 60 years old and I felt myself like 80 because the grocery business, small businesses especially, is very hard work.  My son tells me, “Pa, anytime I come to visit you, you look worse.  The store will kill you.  Do something else.”  He said in Washington he lived in Arlington, VA.  He said it’s near Washington.  He said in Washington rooming business is a very good thing.  You wouldn’t have to carry bundles on your shoulders on the sixth floor.”  So I listened to him.  I went around without asking anybody’s experience; I know my own experience.  The same—a mistake.

I came to the Home six years ago. I like it very good.  It’s foolish not to like it.  For an old man, especially a sick man, it is a ganaydn, a paradise.  What can an old, sick man do without it?  Here you’ve got everything.  You’ve got everything what an old and sick person needs.

Finding the Most Rewarding Endeavor—Painting

I’ll tell you about my regrets—I wouldn’t like to go through what I went through until now.  If I got young again I wouldn’t like it. I’m sorry for one thing, that I was born in Europe, not in America.  This art business I’m doing now (in the Hebrew Home) this was my trade.  I wasn’t born to be a cloak and suit presser.  It wasn’t my line.  This was my line.  Now, in school they find out right away to what you fit in. The people in the Home are telling me they sold about 25 pictures of mine and most of the pictures, they sold to artists.  If I had to live over I would have been an artist.  Sometimes I think I didn’t have no youth at all, not from the beginning when I was born.  I always was old. I always worked like a horse. Every person who ever gets born gets born with a destiny and nobody can tell what the destiny will be for you.

My hobby now is painting, and I love it and I love it for two things.  For one thing, I love it because I love the work; and the second thing, I love it because I forget everything I went through all my life.  I am interested in a picture, I don’t think of anything. That’s like a medicine for me.

Ben Sperling, Grocer
Struggling to make ends meet
in the "Mom & Pop" grocery store
Ben Sperling, the artist, at age 85.

 

 

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