Alef Betty: Modern Hebrew Arts

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Between the folds

Bertha Spiro's mother, whose dress changed the course of a family's history.

It’s the turn of the century, and Solomon Bienenfeld is a teenager on the run. He’s smuggling goods across the border from Germany into Poland: 6 pairs of long underwear, all of which he has on. The police have caught wind of him and they’re closing in. He boards a moving train just as the doors close, and he thinks momentarily that he’s gotten away. But the police are still after him–they made it on board before the train pulled out of the station. He runs from car to car, with the officers in pursuit.

He’s come as far as he can. It’s the last car. He looks around desperately and then he sees her: the matriarch of the Spiro family from Mlawa, his village! Their eyes lock in recognition. She is also smuggling, and is wearing 5 dresses. She motions him under her skirt, and he gratefully ducks underneath. But he is not alone. She is hiding Bertha, her 7 year-old daughter, to avoid paying the extra fare. He has never noticed her before, this young girl. They huddle together. Bertha and Solomon will later marry.

Generations later, my good friend Katie Hisert tells me this story, one of her mother’s family’s most well-known and well-loved pieces of lore. I’ve known Katie for over 20 years and this is the first time I’ve heard this story, the first time I’ve seen the photos of these family members.

Every family has its mythology–the stories that the whole clan knows, that form a shared identity. What are yours?

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