Penthouse Retrospective

by Studs Terkel Originally Published: October, 1980

The American Dream | 40 Years Ago This Month

Is America progressing toward the better? No, the country will never do anything for us. We’re the ones that are gonna do it. We have to keep on struggling. I feel there’s going to be a change. With us, there’s a saying: La esperanza muere al ultimo. Hope dies last. You can’t lose hope. If you lose hope, that’s losing everything.

The only thing that makes me sad is that this change didn’t come about until I was old. I wish I was 30, 35 right now, where I knew I’d have many more years. I’m the sort of person that will not sit back in a rocking chair when I get older and just feel sorry for myself. There always has to be something to do. There always is if you want to do it.

Dora Rosenzweig 94

It’s a bungalow in Los Angeles, neat and tidy, in a green and pleasant section of the city. Though she has occasional difficulty moving about, she lives by herself and likes it. Her daughter, who is the older of two married children, frequently visits her.

I was one of 14 children, the only child among adults. I was born in 1885, in Russia, a small Jewish ghetto near Pinsk, a shtetl. Talk of America was in the air. My father had gone there. My two older sisters were growing up and needed a dowry; so he went there to save money. In the meantime, our house burnt down; so my mother decided we should all go to America.

In Chicago, 1891, the sidewalks were wooden except for fancy streets. It was the greatest pleasure to look under the sidewalk because once in a while you found a penny. Streets paved with wooden blocks was a blessing for the poor people. When you couldn’t buy coal, you went at night and dug up the blocks.

I became very interested in reading. Before Jane Addams, whom I came to know and love, a group of young women started a settlement in the ghetto. My father thought they were going to make Gentiles out of us. I had to cross the street to avoid them. My girl friends didn’t have such pious fathers and went in there. I liked the candy, but what I liked best, they’d come out with books.

One day I defied my father, was welcomed, and got a book. By stealth I’d go there, and that was really the beginning of my Americanization.

When I was 11, my father began to talk about me going to work as a seamstress. My mother was interested in my education. She was proud of my learning English and wanted me to be a school-teacher. That was the heights. In Russia a woman didn’t amount to much. So there was trouble in the house. By the time I was 12, I got so tired of the arguments that I got a job as a cigar maker. Rather than be a seamstress, which I hated, I’d make cigars, like my brother.

I got into a group of older immigrants, interested in social questions, and began to go to lectures. I met my husband that way. I met people who were interested in the labor movement. Working conditions were terrible, even at the American Tobacco Company where I worked, tops. The toilets were on the same floor where 400 people worked. Open. That’s the beginning of my interest in the union, the Progressive Cigar Makers.

When I was 16, my mother died and I left home. I lived with strangers. No Jewish girl lived with strangers, no matter how miserable the house was. It was my key to freedom. They called me anarchist, they called me Bolshevik, but I never joined anything. I was always very curious and went through all the lessons I could get in order to learn what it’s all about.

I heard about free love. It scared me. This was when I was about 19. It was in the air, this search for freedom. Two girls furnished a two-bedroom rear apartment and asked me to live with them. Whoever heard of three girls living together? This was 1905. You know what it is? Prostitution. The sister I moved away from prophesied that I’d have four bastards. Why she took four, I don’t know. If ever there was a naive, innocent set of three girls, you can’t imagine.

I always felt I was the equal of any man. I could think like a man. I could step on the sidewalk without help. I didn’t have to have a man to hold my arm or open the door. We’d go to the theater. I’d pay my own way. I like the young feminists today. (Laughs)

There was a terrible depression in 1903, 1904. There were many strikes. The Haymarket riot — of when? 10, 15 years before? — had a profound effect on us. In one strike we saw the police bring out the fire hoses and knock down peaceful marchers who were just protesting.

I met my husband at a friend’s house. He. worked as a tailor and was very interested in literature. He’s also of a large family, 13.

Jewish girls didn’t go to work after they were married. My mother-in-law was scandalized. What will the neighbors say? I said: “To hell with the neighbors.” I rebelled against religion, too. I was the hippie of my age. (Laughs)

Either the American Dream has changed a lot since we first learned about it, or some people have some truly crazy dreams these days.

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