THE AMERICANISATION OF SHADRACH COHEN

There is no set rule for the turning of the worm; most worms, however,
turn unexpectedly. It was so with Shadrach Cohen.

He had two sons. One was named Abel and the other Gottlieb. They had
left Russia five years before their father, had opened a store on Hester
Street with the money he had given them. For reasons that only business
men would understand they conducted the store in their father’s
name—and, when the business began to prosper and they saw an opportunity
of investing further capital in it to good advantage, they wrote to
their dear father to come to this country.

“We have a nice home for you here,” they wrote. “We will live happily
together.”

Shadrach came. With him he brought Marta, the serving-woman who had
nursed his wife until she died, and whom, for his wife’s sake, he had
taken into the household. When the ship landed he was met by two
dapper-looking young men, each of whom wore a flaring necktie with a
diamond in it. It took him some time to realise that these were his two
sons. Abel and Gottlieb promptly threw their arms around his neck and
welcomed him to the new land. Behind his head they looked at each other
in dismay. In the course of five years they had forgotten that their
father wore a gaberdine—the loose, baglike garment of the Russian
Ghetto—and had a long, straggling grey beard and ringlets that came down
over his ears—that, in short, he was a perfect type of the immigrant
whose appearance they had so frequently ridiculed. Abel and Gottlieb
were proud of the fact that they had become Americanised. And they
frowned at Marta.

“Come, father,” they said. “Let us go to a barber, who will trim your
beard and make you look more like an American. Then we will take you
home with us.”

Shadrach looked from one to the other in surprise.

“My beard?” he said; “what is the matter with my beard?”

“In this city,” they explained to him, “no one wears a beard like yours
except the newly landed, Russian Jews.”

Shadrach’s lips shut tightly for a moment. Then he said:

“Then I will keep my beard as it is. I am a newly landed Russian Jew.”
His sons clinched their fists behind their backs and smiled at him
amiably. After all, he held the purse-strings. It was best to humour
him.

“What shall we do with Marta?” they asked. “We have a servant. We will
not need two.”

“Marta,” said the old man, “stays with us. Let the other servant go.
Come, take me home. I am getting hungry.”

They took him home, where they had prepared a feast for him. When he
bade Marta sit beside him at the table Abel and Gottlieb promptly turned
and looked out of the window. They felt that they could not conceal
their feelings. The feast was a dismal affair. Shadrach was racking his
brains to find some explanation that would account for the change that
had come over his sons. They had never been demonstrative in their
affection for him, and he had not looked for an effusive greeting. But
he realised immediately that there was a wall between him and his sons;
some change had occurred; he was distressed and puzzled. When the meal
was over Shadrach donned his praying cap and began to recite the grace
after meals. Abel and Gottlieb looked at each other in consternation.
Would they have to go through this at every meal? Better—far better—to
risk their father’s displeasure and acquaint him with the truth at once.
When it came to the response Shadrach looked inquiringly at his sons. It
was Abel who explained the matter:

“We—er—have grown out of—er—that is—er—done away with—er—sort of fallen
into the habit, don’t you know, of leaving out the prayer at meals. It’s
not quite American!”

Shadrach looked from one to the other. Then, bowing his head, he went on
with his prayer.

“My sons,” he said, when the table had been cleared. “It is wrong to
omit the prayer after meals. It is part of your religion. I do not know
anything about this America or its customs. But religion is the worship
of Jehovah, who has chosen us as His children on earth, and that same
Jehovah rules supreme over America even as He does over the country that
you came from.”

Gottlieb promptly changed the subject by explaining to him how badly
they needed more money in their business. Shadrach listened patiently
for a while, then said:

“I am tired after my long journey. I do not understand this business
that you are talking about. But you may have whatever money you need.
After all, I have no one but you two.” He looked at them fondly. Then
his glance fell upon the serving-woman, and he added, quickly:

“And Marta.”

“Thank God,” said Gottlieb, when their father had retired, “he does not
intend to be stingy.”

“Oh, he is all right,” answered Abel. “After he gets used to things he
will become Americanised like us.”

To their chagrin, however, they began to realise, after a few months,
that their father was clinging to the habits and customs of his old life
with a tenacity that filled them with despair. The more they urged him
to abandon his ways the more eager he seemed to become to cling to them.
He seemed to take no interest in their business affairs, but he
responded, almost cheerfully, to all their requests for money. He began
to feel that this, after all, was the only bond between him and his
sons. And when they had pocketed the money, they would shake their heads
and sigh.

“Ah, father, if you would only not insist upon being so old-fashioned!”
Abel would say.

“And let us fix you up a bit,” Gottlieb would chime in.

“And become more progressive—like the other men of your age in this
country.”

“And wear your beard shorter and trimmed differently.”

“And learn to speak English.”

Shadrach never lost his temper; never upbraided them. He would look from
one to the other and keep his lips tightly pressed together. And when
they had gone he would look at Marta and would say:

“Tell me what you think, Marta. Tell me what you think.”

“It is not proper for me to interfere between father and sons,” Marta
would say. And Shadrach could never induce her to tell him what she
thought. But he could perceive a gleam in her eyes and observed a
certain nervous vigour in the way she cleaned the pots and pans for
hours after these talks, that fell soothingly upon his perturbed spirit.

* * * * *

As we remarked before, there is no rule for the turning of the worm.
Some worms, however, turn with a crash. It was so with Shadrach Cohen.

Gottlieb informed his father that he contemplated getting married.

“She is very beautiful,” he said. “The affair is all in the hands of the
Shadchen.”

His father’s face lit up with pleasure.

“Gottlieb,” he said, holding out his hand, “God bless you! It’s the very
best thing you could do. Marta, bring me my hat and coat. Come,
Gottlieb. Take me to see her. I cannot wait a moment. I want to see my
future daughter-in-law at once. How happy your mother would be if she
were alive to-day!”

Gottlieb turned red and hung back.

“I think, father,” he said, “you had better not go just yet. Let us wait
a few days until the Shadchen has made all the arrangements. She is an
American girl. She—she won’t—er—understand your ways—don’t you know? And
it may spoil everything.”

Crash! Marta had dropped an iron pot that she was cleaning. Shadrach was
red in the face with suppressed rage.

“So!” he said. “It has come to this. You are ashamed of your father!”
Then he turned to the old servant:

“Marta,” he said, “to-morrow we become Americanised—you and I.”

There was an intonation in his voice that alarmed his son.

“You are not angry——” he began, but with a fierce gesture his father cut
him short.

“Not another word. To bed! Go to bed at once.”

Gottlieb was dumbfounded. With open mouth he stared at his father. He
had not heard that tone since he was a little boy.

“But, father——” he began.

“Not a word. Do you hear me? Not a word will I listen to. In five
minutes if you are not in bed you go out of this house. Remember, this
is my house.”

Then he turned to Abel. Abel was calmly smoking a cigar.

“Throw that cigar away,” his father commanded, sternly.

Abel gasped and looked at his father in dismay.

“Marta, take that cigar out of his mouth and throw it into the fire. If
he objects he goes out of the house.”

With a smile of intense delight Marta plucked the cigar from Abel’s
unresisting lips, and incidentally trod heavily upon his toes. Shadrach
gazed long and earnestly at his sons.

“To-morrow, my sons,” he said, slowly, “you will begin to lead a new
life.”

In the morning Abel and Gottlieb, full of dread forebodings, left the
house as hastily as they could. They wanted to get to the store to talk
matters over. They had hardly entered the place, however, when the
figure of their father loomed up in the doorway. He had never been in
the place before. He looked around him with great satisfaction at the
many evidences of prosperity which the place presented. When he beheld
the name “Shadrach Cohen, Proprietor” over the door he chuckled. Ere his
sons had recovered from the shock of his appearance a pale-faced clerk,
smoking a cigarette, approached Shadrach, and in a sharp tone asked:

“Well, sir, what do you want?” Shadrach looked at him with considerable
curiosity. Was he Americanised, too? The young man frowned impatiently.

“Come, come! I can’t stand here all day. Do you want anything?”

Shadrach smiled and turned to his sons.

“Send him away at once. I don’t want that kind of young man in my
place.” Then turning to the young man, upon whom the light of revelation
had quickly dawned, he said, sternly:

“Young man, whenever you address a person who is older than you, do it
respectfully. Honour your father and your mother. Now go away as fast as
you can. I don’t like you.”

“But, father,” interposed Gottlieb, “we must have someone to do his
work.”

“Dear me,” said Shadrach, “is that so? Then, for the present, you will
do it. And that young man over there—what does he do?”

“He is also a salesman.”

“Let him go. Abel will take his place.”

“But, father, who is to manage the store? Who will see that the work is
properly done?”

“I will,” said the father. “Now, let us have no more talking. Get to
work.”

Crestfallen, miserable, and crushed in spirit, Abel and Gottlieb began
their humble work while their father entered upon the task of
familiarising himself with the details of the business. And even before
the day’s work was done he came to his sons with a frown of intense
disgust.

“Bah!” he exclaimed. “It is just as I expected. You have both been
making as complete a mess of this business as you could without ruining
it. What you both lack is sense. If becoming Americanised means becoming
stupid, I must congratulate you upon the thoroughness of your work.
To-morrow I shall hire a manager to run this store. He will arrange your
hours of work. He will also pay you what you are worth. Not a cent more.
How late have you been keeping this store open?”

“Until six o’clock,” said Abel.

“H’m! Well, beginning to-day, you both will stay here until eight
o’clock. Then one of you can go. The other will stay until ten. You can
take turns. I will have Marta send you some supper.”

* * * * *

To the amazement of Abel and Gottlieb the business of Shadrach Cohen
began to grow. Slowly it dawned upon them that in the mercantile realm
they were as children compared with their father. His was the true
money-maker spirit; there was something wonderful in the swiftness with
which he grasped the most intricate phases of trade; and where
experience failed him some instinct seemed to guide him aright. And
gradually, as the business of Shadrach Cohen increased, and even the
sons saw vistas of prosperity beyond their wildest dreams, they began to
look upon their father with increasing respect. What they had refused to
the integrity of his character, to the nobility of his heart, they
promptly yielded to the shrewdness of his brain. The sons of Shadrach
Cohen became proud of their father. He, too, was slowly undergoing a
change. A new life was unfolding itself before his eyes, he became
broader-minded, more tolerant, and, above all, more flexible in his
tenets. Contact with the outer world had quickly impressed him with the
vast differences between his present surroundings and his old life in
Russia. The charm of American life, of liberty, of democracy, appealed
to him strongly. As the field of his business operations widened he came
more and more in contact with American business men, from whom he
learned many things—principally the faculty of adaptability. And as his
sons began to perceive that all these business men whom, in former days,
they had looked upon with feelings akin to reverence, seemed to show to
their father an amount of deference and respect which they had never
evinced toward the sons, their admiration for their father increased.

And yet it was the same Shadrach Cohen.

From that explosive moment when he had rebelled against his sons he
demanded from them implicit obedience and profound respect. Upon that
point he was stern and unyielding. Moreover, he insisted upon a strict
observance of every tenet of their religion. This, at first, was the
bitterest pill of all. But they soon became accustomed to it. When life
is light and free from care, religion is quick to fly; but when the sky
grows dark and life becomes earnest, and we feel its burden growing
heavy upon our shoulders, then we welcome the consolation that religion
brings, and we cling to it. And Shadrach Cohen had taught his sons that
life was earnest. They were earning their bread by the sweat of their
brow. No prisoner, with chain and ball, was subjected to closer
supervision by his keeper than were Gottlieb and Abel.

“You have been living upon my charity,” their father said to them: “I
will teach you how to earn your own living.”

And he taught them. And with the lesson they learned many things;
learned the value of discipline, learned the beauty of filial reverence,
learned the severe joy of the earnest life.

One day Gottlieb said to his father:

“May I bring Miriam to supper to-night? I am anxious that you should see
her.”

Shadrach turned his face away so that Gottlieb might not see the joy
that beamed in his eyes.

“Yes, my son,” he answered. “I, too, am anxious to see if she is worthy
of you.”

Miriam came, and in a stiff, embarrassed manner Gottlieb presented her
to his father. The girl looked in surprise at the venerable figure that
stood before her—a picture of a patriarch from the Pentateuch, with a
long, straggling beard, and ringlets of hair falling over the ears, and
clad in the long gaberdine of the Russian Ghettos. And she saw a pair of
grey eyes bent keenly upon her—eyes of shrewdness, but soft and tender
as a woman’s—the eyes of a strong man with a kind heart. Impulsively she
ran toward him and seized his hands. And, with a smile upon her lips,
she said:

“Will you not give me your blessing?”

* * * * *

When the evening meal had ended, Shadrach donned his praying cap, and
with bowed head intoned the grace after meals:

“We will bless Him from whose wealth we have eaten!” And in fervent
tones rose from Gottlieb’s lips the response:

“Blessed be He!”