Boston, late 1930's
The melody of Eddie Cantor's voice drifted from the radio while knitting needles clicked harmoniously in the living room.
The sleepy atmosphere came to a grinding halt when the front door slammed shut. Donny Donowitz, all of more than 200 pounds of muscle and energy, burst into the sitting room.
Sy Donowitz merely reached for the knob to turn off the radio while his wife continued knitting the blue scarf for one of her younger sons. For a hefty guy who could lick a man with his fists, he could become quite fidgety when certain nerves were poked and prodded.
"…thinking I didn't know about it and only NOW does Mrs. Goldstein tell me right after batting practice!"
Donny threw up his hands in disgust. "For Christ's sake, let me know before everyone starts spreading rumors all over town."
"She's a very nice girl," Mrs. Donowitz said without even looking up from a row of yarn loops threaded perfectly onto her needle.
"That ain't the problem, Ma," Donny fumed. "The problem is that everyone thinks we're gettin' hitched and I'm not gonna have myself strapped to any lady's apron strings."
"Calm down," Mr. Donowitz ordered his son. There was a crisp edge in his father's voice that made the young man shut his mouth in obedience.
"It's not as insane as it sounds, Donny," Mr. Donowitz went on. "Mrs. Goldstein was in Shapiro's Diner on Monday discussing the girls who slipped through her matchmaking fingers despite you and your steady job at the packing warehouse. Then Ruth Shapiro, still wearing her apron, stepped forward and said she'd consider it."
"Marry me!" Donny's hands chopped through the air. "This isn't the Polish shtetl, Pa. This is America!"
"Which is why I think you two should discuss things over," Mrs. Donowitz suggested. "It's not as if Ms. Shapiro is asking you to move to Miami Beach or root for the Yankees."
"Ma!" To abandon one's home team would be blasphemy of the highest order.
Only now did Mrs. Donowitz set her needles aside in the earthenware bowl and get out of her rocking chair. The sight of the small gray-haired woman talking up to her burly son would make visitors chuckle.
"Now listen to me, Donny. You're a young man now. It's time to think about settling down, maybe getting a home of your own in the neighborhood. You'll still see your old friends and the barbershop isn't going anywhere. Just think about what Ruth Shapiro has suggested. Nu, is that so much to ask from a woman who raised you from birth?"
His eyebrows furrowed in disapproval. But facing the roundish face and twinkling gray eyes of his mother, once again Donny found himself unable to back down from parental requests.
He jabbed a foot into the carpet.
"I guess it wouldn't kill me to go talk to her," he grumbled. "But I'm not gonna let Ruth Shapiro or anyone else run my life around the track!"
He turned on heel and snatched his leather jacket off the chair where he had tossed it no more than five minutes ago.
"Take a hat!" his mother called from the living room. The door banged behind him and heavy footsteps were heard plodding down the hallway.
She shook her head. "One of these days he'll get pneumonia."
Her husband put his pipe back in his mouth. "Our boy is made of stronger stuff," he assured her.
Shapiro's Diner was closed but Donny let himself in through the back door. When he and his friends were still teenagers they'd hang around the alleyway waiting for Mr. Shapiro to hand out leftover potato knishes that hadn't been sold that day. They'd shove the greasy packets into their pockets and dash off to the local park for another round of baseball or to spy on old Mr. Bloom yelling at his neighbors.
Years had changed things. Several of Donny's childhood pals had headed to New York City, Scranton, or even out to Chicago for college and jobs. Others stayed near Boston to help their folks. After the crash of '29, people continued to live frugally and carefully in the hopes of restoring some form of stability in their lives.
Donny had been a scrawny dark-haired beetle of a boy until puberty kicked in at the age of 14.
His legs shot out from under him, his appetite increased tenfold, and he was able to run laps around the block without breaking a sweat. He and his pals had gotten into local street fights with the Irish and Italian kids but eventually the black eyes and bloodied noses only served as badges of courage that spurned on their adolescent antics.
Fighting back meant taking a stand for every person who had an ancestor who had trekked through Elise Island. It was a way of stating, "I am an American and I am here to stay". Eventually, the rivalry became friendly competition and soon everyone was heading to Walden's Park for late night practice. Alfredo Contelli, better known as "Al" by his friends, taught Donny to shadowbox and assured him that someday they'd be the best middleweights in the Northeast.
He knew that college wasn't for him. Not that he wasn't bright, Rabbi Markus had said when Donny was 16 years old.
But sitting in the back of a classroom throughout high school had been a close-to-torture experience for Donny, who couldn't stop his his fingers from drumming on the desk during mathematics or Hebrew Scripture classes.
At least Rabbi Markus didn't dismiss Donny's impatience as impudence or laziness like other teachers. He had Donny put to work shoveling snow in the winter, helping people build their succahs in the fall, and delivering Passover matzas all over town in the spring.
"Every talent that God gives us has a purpose in this world," Rabbi Markus used to say. "Our goal is to tap into our talents and make this a better world." Tikkun HaOlam, fixing the world.
If Rabbi Markus could see me now, Donny thought to himself with a shake of the head. He pushed the back door open and stepped into the warm kitchen.
Ruth was making rugalech and using a rolling pin to flatten the dough into thin discs. Her arms swept back and forth across the tabletop as if her life depended on turning out as many pastries as the dough permitted. She stopped what she was doing long enough to glance at Donny. Deep-set hazel eyes flickered attentively to meet his stare. He shifted his weight from one foot to another while assessing the young woman in the white apron who had a bun of dark brown wrapped around the back of her head.
Ruth Shapiro was a small sturdy brunette and, unlike the willowy figures of pinup magazines and Hollywood stars, seemed to be made of various quantities of Indian rubber, sugar, and spice. Ever since her mother had passed away the responsibilities of the woman of the house had fallen on Ruth's shoulders. She upheld her duties by helping her father and brothers run the diner and turning out potato latkes and deli sandwiches for satisfied customers.
On one occasion a Manhattan lawyer prosposed to Mr. Shapiro to invest his savings into a line of upscale desserts. Ruth's father politely declined (after consulting the neighborhood accountant) and said he wasn't risking the family business for an overnight scheme to turn cheesecake into millions.
Ruth wasn't exactly bad-looking although sometimes Donny thought God had gotten a little carried away with her features: a definitive crook in the center of her angled nose, a high brow beneath a widow's peak, and a lower lip that protruded slightly more than the upper one. He never gave her a second thought in high school and preferred the attention of other gawking giggling girls. But at least she didn't have any warty pimples like Judy Katz or a pointy chin that got in the way of kissing.
She seemed to have all her teeth and wits intact. Folks said if Ruth's hands weren't preoccupied with the diner then her nose was buried inside a book. As if to prove the theory true, Donny noticed a well-worn copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel sitting on a nearby stool.
Instinctively he helped himself to a chocolate-chip cookie from a batch that had just come out of the oven. Donny burned his fingers and with a yelp, dropped the cookie back on the tray. The cookies continued to give off steam.
"Wait a few minutes," Ruth said quietly. "They'll cool off on their own."
"Damn things," he muttered, blowing on his reddened fingers. "Someone oughta to put a warning label on those." He caught Ruth covering her mouth to suppress a smile but her eyes didn't deceive him. She dipped a knife into a pot and slathered apricot jam across the dough.
"Don't think I'm saying 'yes' already," Donny snapped at her. "And even if I did agree to this idea, I sure don't want to see any fancy-pansy perfume bottles cluttering up my sink."
"I wouldn't dream of it," Ruth assured him.
"Or frilly curtains in the window," he ranted on.
"Mmmmm," came the response.
"And I'm NOT taking dancing lessons like the Rubensteins!" Donny nearly shouted in her face. Ruth turned around to pretend to look for something but he could hear a gentle laugh even when her back was to him. "What's so funny?"
"Jimmy Burke proposed to me two weeks ago," she chuckled, sweeping a canister of powdered sugar across the rugelach.
"WHAT?" Donny was up in arms with anger. "That Irish clock-maker down at 18th Street? The one with enough freckles to cover Texas? Why'd the hell he want to marry you?"
"Because he liked me," Ruth replied as-a-matter of fact. "Or maybe he liked my Danishes even more."
She was mildly enjoying this escapade while inwardly praying it would go somewhere. Jimmy T. Burke was a charming customer and thoughtful enough to wish the Shapiros a good weekend before they closed up on Friday afternoons.
Jimmy told Ruth that she was one of the nicest girls he had ever known and he'd be glad to take her to the chapel anytime she asked. But Ruth's mind was made up. Getting Donny Donowitz to consent to anything would be more difficult than handling 10 Jimmy Burkes. But she was going to marry a Jewish man.
"Well, you can't marry Jimmy. Even if he is a decent fella," Donny snorted. He leaned against the wall and folded his arms across his chest. For a brief moment there was silence in the kitchen. Ruth's knife cut through the rugelach into neat little squares before she moved them onto a fresh tray, humming Frank Sinatra slightly off-key.
Then Donny blurted out, "If you wanted to marry me then why didn't you say so before?"
"Because you never asked," Ruth said. "And because I wasn't interested in picking up my skirts for just anyone. But now that you've got a job I think things'll turn out fine."
"So what happens now? You wanna go shotgun on this overnight?" Donny shot at her.
"No. I want to know if you'll consider my offer. And then see if you're interested in apartment on Sallsburg Street."
"Sallsburg?" His eyebrows arched up. "Why?"
Ruth cocked her head to one side. "Because I don't know about you Donny but I sure don't want to move in with relatives or have a bedroom facing Mrs. Goldstein's front porch. And because Sallsburg has a fair price."
Ugh, did she have to be right about these things?
"And you've got to promise to stay sober, not to cheat on me, or hit me."
His eyes nearly bulged out of his sockets. "Promise?"
"And in return I'll make sure you have a full stomach and get your pants pressed every week," Ruth replied. Then she went back to the pastry dough as if they had been discussing the weather.
"Well fuck-a-duck, isn't THAT fantastic!" Donny nearly exploded in her face. "Yeah sure, that's a brilliant New Deal from Ruth the super genius Shapiro!" he slapped a hand to his thigh. "You just mix up two people like you're mixing dough and lah-de-dah, a miracle pops out! Anything else, princess?"
"No, I think that's about it." Ruth stopped cutting up the rugelach long enough to wipe her hands on her apron and begin moving the cooled cookies to a tray. Donny scrutinized her actions while musing over this nonsensical offer that had just landed into his lap.
Ruth dared to speak up again. "You know Donny, I'm still amazed that prune Danish is one of our most popular desserts on the menu."
"What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?"
"I'm just saying that that you'll never know how good or bad something is until you try it out."
Ruth walked over to the big strapping man and offered him the cookie tray. "Are you ready to take up an opportunity when you see it?"
He couldn't resist the challenge. Donny snatched a cookie off the tray and shoved the entire thing into his mouth. It nearly melted under his tongue.
"Well?" Ruth asked. His response was to grab another four cookies off the plate and run out the door but not without mumbling, "I'll think about it" over his shoulder.
He couldn't write out an essay why he consented. But Donny couldn't think of a decent reason why not to marry Ruth Shapiro.
Maybe he was antsy staying in his old bedroom after two decades or just fed up of the rest of the Jewish community dropping hints and suggestions to him about what he was going to do with his life if not give haircuts or teach little league.
Either way he finally said "Oh, to hell with it" and decided to go ahead with the wedding. If things didn't work out then he'd take his minuscule savings and hitch a train down to Baltimore.
A local wedding was a tremendous delight to the Jewish community. What with reports flitting in from their relatives in Europe about unpleasant riots and a new wave of antisemitism, a family simcha was just the cheerful occasion to breeze away any jilted concerns. They only wished things overseas would calm down and go away so that they could live their lives as they wished.
Donny and Ruth were married on a cool autumn afternoon at the Bethel Synagogue on Newberry Street. Donny looked dressed to kill in a new pinstripe suit and gray fedora that the local tailor had made especially for his wedding day. He had to admit that he looked damn good that morning when he knotted his tie and ran a damp comb to smooth down his jet-black hair. With his parents arms linked through his, he walked down the aisle towards the chuppah where a prayer shawl was spread over Ruth like a white striped canopy.
Ruth's friends, over a giggling bridal shower, had assisted her in stitching together an adequate wedding gown. Now dressed in simple white muslin with her brown hair curled under her ears and a white rose in her hair, she looked silent and still as an angel as Donny walked around her seven times before taking her side underneath the chuppah. Ruth's eyes peeped out modestly from underneath the gauzy veil in time to see him wink at her. Her cheeks turned scarlet but she smiled all the same.
Blessings were said, the wine was sipped, and Donny stomped on the glass cup (thankfully wrapped in a handkerchief) as the ancient custom advised. Shouts of "Mazel tov!" and "L'Chaim!" flitted through the air and many a friend clapped Donny on the back, laughing at him for tying the knot and laughing with him for getting a nice girl.
Nachum Cardoba, the old Sephardic jeweler, was a long-time of the Donowitz family and insisted that Donny accept one of his pendants for his fiancée. The oblong gold talisman had a kabbalistic prayer engraved on the side, which Nachum insisted would protect the wearer from the evil eye
Ruth was delighted with the necklace and tried not to make such a fuss over Donny helping her fasten the golden chain around her neck but everyone could see she was glowing with happiness.
They quickly settled into a domestic low-key life.
Donny had gotten a job at the Whitemore Shipping Company months before marriage had been a hot topic. So he continued to work there six days a week while Ruth took the morning shift at the dinner. They were both exhausted by the end of the day but Donny managed to take in a hearty supper while entertaining Ruth with his running commentary on the day's work or the radio game. And it was a welcomed relief to share a warm bed during brutal Massachusetts winters.
Tension started three months later when Ruth insisted that she wanted Donny to start going to synagogue services every Saturday morning. He protested that he worked his fingers to the bone six other days of the week and was entitled to sleep on Saturday for securing their tiny apartment. Besides, he went on the High Holidays and Passover so that was good enough for a Donowitz.
"It's Sabbath, all the more so a reason to get your tuchus out of bed and go thank God for giving you the day off," Ruth chastised him. He just laughed at her and flicked a square of paper into her face. Donny didn't think she'd take it seriously but he'd quickly discover what he and his wife had in common: chutzpah.
Donny learned the hard way when Ruth kicked him out of bed on a cold February morning. Her feet shoved into his back, causing him to topple out from under their feather-bed comforter. Donny on the floorboards with a loud WHUMP.
"Are you crazy?!" he shouted, placing both palms on the ground and forcing himself half-up.
Ruth just put a foot on either side of her husband and sat down hard on his stomach, eyes gleaming like a cat in the morning light.
"It's up to you whether or not you go to synagogue this morning," she replied nonchalantly. "Just as it's up to me whether or not I feed you when you get back."
"You're a two-timed blackmailer," Donny fumed.
"And I've got the cholent pot," she added, waving an index finger in the air. "So what's it going to be, Mr. Donowitz?" With the fragrance of a meat and potatoe stew wafting from the kitchen, he knew he was being sorely baited.
"You're a cruel woman, Mrs. Donowitz," he muttered under his breath. But he managed to get her off his stomach and stomp into the bathroom.
Donny splashed some water on his face to wake up and began washing his neck. Maybe if he went to synagogue he'd get more sleep there anyway without Ruth poking her face into his schedule.
"Crazy little dingbat," he growled wearily.
Who was Ruth to think she could get him under her thumb? He was the goddamn Donowitz, the best bat-swinger in the East! Once he'd make it to the World Series and earned a million-dollar contract then she'd be sorry.
Donny dried his hands on a towel and came out of the bathroom. Ruth was already getting out his second best suit.
"I'll be there in half an hour," she told him while helping Donny to straighten his tie. "We can walk back together after services." And with a touch of her lips to his cheek, that was that. Donny set off for the synagogue, footsteps making soft crunching sounds in the fresh dusting of snow.
If anyone was surprised to see him at nine o'clock on a Saturday then they didn't say a word—or they were good fibbers. A few of the old-timers in gray beards and wrinkles greeted Donny with "Gut Shabbos".
He mumbled a "Gut Shabbos" back before slumping down one of the wooden benches. Rabbi Markus gave him a nod of approval before wrapping his shoulders in a prayer shawl and turning east to conduct the services. Donny realized that he couldn't go back to sleep while sitting straight up in his chair so he turned his attention to the prayers and the Torah reading.
Things looked a bit better when the five Birnbaum children, all red-headed and feisty, bounced into the synagogue. They were a loveable bunch of kids; each one had a piece of sunshine tucked away in his or her personality. Even the oldest and grumpiest member of the synagogue could not be irritated when little Joseph Birnbaum, who was five years old and adored Donny to pieces, ran up and chirped "Gut Shabbos!" happily to everyone in his path.
Donny was also not immune to Joseph's cheeriness and upon seeing the little redhead, instinctively picked him up and placed him on his knee. Joseph squealed with delight and bounced up and down a few times while waving to his brothers and sisters at the front of the synagogue.
Donny's attention drifted upward to the women's balcony where the girls and their mothers were seated. He saw Ruth sitting near a window wearing a purple wool dress and brown hat, engrossed in her prayer book.
Something stirred within him, the beast growling grudgingly over his wounded pride. He was still angry with her for her antics and wouldn't let her forget it.
When services were over everyone met outside the main entrance. Donny saw Ruth approaching him and responded with an freezing stare that halted Ruth in her tracks. The curse on his lips died away when he chose to turn his back on her and walked off, leaving his wife standing alone and hurt.
It was hours after Sabbath had ended and very late, even for a Saturday night, when Donny put the key in the lock and opened the door to their apartment. He hadn't gone to a bar or even the movies, just spent the hours pacing the streets until the sun had set and light dwindled into darkness.
Inwardly, he knew it wasn't just Ruth who had set him off for the day. It also had to do with those grotesque caricatures in the papers portraying Jews as fat money lenders or ugly long-nosed crooks, as well as the hostile radio reports filtering in from Europe. Donny hated that more than anything: being blamed as if it was a person's fault to be born into the tribes of Israel.
No wonder Rabbi Markus had asked them to say an extra prayer for their brothers and sisters overseas.
Donny was fatigued, hungry, and thirsty when he stepped into the dining room. The only sound welcoming him was the soft hiss of the radiator. Unwinding the scarf from around his neck and kicking off his boots, he made his way from one room to another in search of Ruth. There was a plate of warm cholent waiting for him on the stovetop and when he opened up the icebox, he found a bottle of his favorite beer chilled to perfection.
This gesture was noted and while it couldn't diminish the irritation in Donny's temper it was making a peculiar impression that he couldn't put his finger on. It didn't change the facts of life but it did make him feel somewhat better knowing he had what to come home to.
He popped open the beer and gulped half of it down thirstily before making his way to the bedroom. The lamp was dimmed and Ruth's sleepy head lay draped across the pillows, her index finger still holding the page of a new detective novel in her lap. He bent over to kiss her on the cheek. Her hair was still damp from a recent shower and her skin smelled like lilac soap.
If love wasn't made overnight with magic potions and love ballads then Donny sure as hell didn't know where it came from. But the emotion compelled him to turn off the bedside lamp and begin removing his clothes. He climbed into bed next to Ruth and wrapped his arms around her waist. She was half-awake when she felt the ticklish sensation of a stubbly chin rubbing gently against her shoulder. A firm hand slid through her hair and propped her head up to his face. With a gasp of surprise, Ruth clung to him tightly.
"Gut voch," he murmured into her ear.
"Gut voch," Ruth responded happily.
The next Saturday, Ruth rose at 8 o'clock to get dressed for services, leaving Donny asleep in the bed. She was more than slightly surprised to find him pulling on his socks when she came out of the bathroom. He looked up at her with a teasing smile.
"Don't let me do this all on my own," he smirked as he stretched a sock and fired it at her face like a slingshot.
Ten minutes later they strolled out the door with arms linked together.
Succah – A booth built outdoors for the holiday of Succot which takes place in the fall
Tikkun HaOlam – A Hebrew phrase in the Mishnah that literally means "to fix the world" through setting a good example
Simcha – A happy occasion
Chuppah – A canopy that the bride and groom stand under during the wedding ceremony
Cholent – A stew of beans, potatoes, and meat that is prepared on Friday afternoon and kept cooking overnight over a low steady flame then served for Sabbath day meal.
Gut voch – Translated as "a good week" from Yiddish and how people greet each other after Sabbath ends. Some say "Shavua Tov" which is the same thing only translated from Hebrew