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Authors: Ilene Beckerman

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BOOK: The Smartest Woman I Know
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So Ettie decided to go to Klein’s on 14th Street and she asked me to go with her. Klein’s was known for its bargains and Ettie was always trying to save money. Still, we took a taxi down to 14th Street.

Once we got to Klein’s, we took the escalator up to the third floor. Ettie didn’t go on elevators.

Why ride up and down in a closet? On the escalator, in case there’s a fire, I can get off in a hurry.

Ettie avoided saleswomen. “Saleswomen get commissions on what they sell,” she told me by way of instruction, “so they try to sell me a lot of expensive
. I have nothing against a woman should make a living, but not from me.”

As soon as we reached the floor where they sold ladies’ hats, a saleswoman asked Ettie if she needed any help. “No, thank you,” Ettie said. “I’m just looking. I’m not buying anything today. Thank you very much but no thank you. I’m just looking and I don’t even know what I’m looking for. But by the way, should you know where the black hats with big feathers are, you might point me in that direction.”

We walked to the corner section where they had ladies’ hats. Ettie picked up a hat, looked at the tag, and said, “Who can afford this? Mrs. Rockefeller, maybe. Maybe I should call Mr. Goldberg’s cousin Morris. His son sells mattresses in the garment district. Maybe he could get me with a big feather wholesale?”

I reminded Ettie that Mr. Goldberg and Morris hadn’t spoken in years.

“Maybe it’s about time,” she answered.

Purim was no big
for Ettie. “Any Jewish holiday when you don’t you cry or starve isn’t worth fussing over,” she told me.

Every December, the store was decked out with Christmas ornaments and boxes and boxes of Christmas cards. One small shelf in the back of the store held about six Chanukah cards.

The spelling of
was a continuous battle between Ettie and Mr. Goldberg for they needed a small sign. Ettie spelled it Hanuka. Mr.Goldberg spelled it Chanukah.

One day, Mr. Goldberg insisted. “I’m right,” he said. “It’s written Challah, not hallah, so, once again, I am right.”

Ettie believed in tradition. Every Hanuka she said the same things:

1. Don’t eat the chocolate Hanuka gelt all at once, you’ll get constipated.

2. Eat the latkes while they’re hot, but don’t eat too many, you’ll get diarrhea.

3. Not so much sugar, your teeth will fall out.

4. Eat, eat. There are children starving in Europe.


Every time Ettie heard Bing Crosby sing “White Christmas” on the radio, she muttered, “Irving Berlin, a Jew, wrote that song. So what would have been so terrible if he’d dreamed about a white Hanuka, instead?”

Let me tell you something, Bing Crosby is no Al Jolson.

Sukkot Ettie completely ignored.

Thank you, God, for a holiday so beautiful, but on Madison Avenue nobody puts up a sukkah.
, they don’t sell in Gristede’s. Times have changed. I don’t worry about the Cossacks anymore, I worry about shoplifters.


But even if her feet hurt, her head hurt, or her heart hurt, even if she was too tired to move, even if it was too hot, too cold, too windy, too snowy, even if it got dark too early or too late, Ettie always lit the


TTIE WAS ALWAYS a little sad on a Jewish holiday. On one hand, she wanted to be observant. On the other hand, the holidays didn’t fit in with life on Madison Avenue. “How can we close the store for Shabbos, for Tish’a B’Av, for Simchat Torah, for Rosh Hashanah? We’ll lose customers. They’ll go to 59th Street for their newspapers.”

“Who knows what to do anymore?

“Who knows what’s important anymore?

“Who even knows who anybody is anymore,” she sighed.

“Nobody knows that Hedy Lamarr is really Jewish.” On and on she’d go. Her list was endless. Anybody she admired was in one way or another Jewish.

“And Cary Grant is part Jewish, but I don’t know which part. Lauren Bacall is Jewish and married Humphrey Bogart who also has a Jewish part. Winston Churchill and Mae West have Jewish mothers. Groucho Marx and his brothers are all Jewish. The Ritz brothers, Jewish, but Jews shouldn’t hit each other on the head. Jacob Javits, the senator in Washington, is Jewish, so I don’t think he’s really a Republican.

“Three more things, you should always remember:

“Number 1: Rich or poor, it’s good to have money.

“Number 2: You better eat something while you’re waiting for a free lunch.

“Number 3: Nobody owes you anything unless you lend them money and it should be in writing on a piece of paper with a lot of copies and a lawyer who puts a seal on it with a notary. And try to use a Jewish lawyer.

“You know why there are so many Jewish lawyers? It’s in our history to argue. Do you know a Jew who doesn’t have an opinion?

“Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers—it’s in our history not to get along.

“Fight with guns? We like to fight with words.

“The men sit and study the Talmud and they discuss, they debate, they argue, their faces turn red, they start to shake, and worse things happen.”

God, how come every Jew is putting in his two cents, especially if nobody asked him?

BOOK: The Smartest Woman I Know
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