In the orphanage my mother was always hungry. While doing her dawn-to-dusk chores, during her hours of Hebrew and Bible study, she was hungry. Attending classes in German, English and mathematics, history, social studies and geography, she was hungry. Sitting among the five hundred other orphans at long, wooden tables, there was never enough to eat, and for every hour of each and every day, for the next twelve years, she was hungry, climbing over the eight-foot fence to steal food from nearby grocers or neighbors’ kitchens.
At mealtimes, five hundred orphans sat at ten long tables in enforced silence. The food was boiled in huge vats. Breakfast was a kind of gruel the children called mush, weak coffee and a slice of stale bread thinly covered with margarine. Dinner was a stringy stew or green pea hash. Her twelve years in the Home must have left her so famished for so long that it didn’t feel like hunger, only a vast, incomprehensible inner vacuum that could have been confused with the absence of love.
Once a week the children were assembled in the Prayer Hall on the top floor of the schoolhouse for one of the director’s lectures on personal morality, integrity, uprightness, virtue, and the Ten Commandments. Determined to shape his charges’ minds and characters toward a moral, ethical and honorable life, he told them to be truthful and honest, obey laws and rules, honor the elderly, love and respect their parents, resist temptations, be good citizens and patriots, keep their promises, control their temper, love their neighbors, refrain from jealousy and envy, work hard, trust God and stay close to Him, be modest and humble, be grateful and appreciative, love the president of the country, be good and righteous, respect their teachers, plan for the future, help those in need, be kind and obedient, be happy and strive to make others happy, meet troubles and hardship with a strong mind, be faithful to the Jewish religion by observing its laws and history, love all children alike without showing favoritism, atone for their sins and be anxious to improve.
Taught religion, my mother became an agnostic; taught truthfulness, she lied; taught humility and gratitude for an orphan’s room and board; she developed a ferocious pride. Instructed on modesty in dress and behavior, she exchanged her scratchy uniform for the glittering dresses she loved and spent her widow years before the Crash as the quintessential flapper.
But she was also smart, every year in the orphanage performing academically at the top of her class. And at the age of fifteen on a lovely June afternoon in 1912, my mother graduated Valedictorian from the Jewish Orphan Home.
After the ceremonies, her Hebrew teacher, Mrs. Adler, climbed the stairs to her dorm where my mother was packing her few belongings. “You’re to go to the office,” she told her. Clutching her valedictorian medal, she ran downstairs. Mrs. Goldstein, the secretary, was standing in the administration office with a woman my mother had never seen before.
“This is Anna Smith,” Mrs. Goldstein said. “She is your mother.”
Anna Smith had never visited her daughters. Not once. Not once in 12 years.