The writings of Richard Kluger
…Shortly after that troubling interview with Bax, the young man whose current plight has prompted this memoir first arrived in Savannah. Given such a time sequence, I am tempted to assign his coming hither to supernatural forces – whether as a reward or penalty, and to whom and for whom and why, I should not care to say, pending the outcome of his trial. If I could tell ahead of time, what need would I have of prayer, except to counter the overactive piety of my scheming opponents?
His name, when my brother Benny first wrote to me about him, was Noah Berkowitz, and he came from that stock of Polish-Russian Jewry whom the defenders of Nordic purity found so deformed and loathsome. Noah, no doubt a mutant, stood tall enough and straight when he appeared in our midst and was judged nice-looking if a trifle severe in mien.
He was first cousin to Benny’s wife Sonia, and I had received periodic bulletins of his family’s notable progress since emigrating from the vicinity of Lodz and resettling in the vicinity of Orchard Street. Sonia had taken Benny to visit Noah’s family out of fear the small damp rooms of their crowded flat, with its constant smell of potato soup and salami, used clothing, and excrement, were an invitation to pestilence. Benny recommended more ventilation, especially in the summer, when the steam press went all day long and into the night while the flat turned into a garment shop as the family drudged to turn out ten dozen greatcoats for fifteen dollars a week. Noah and his two older brothers were allowed to sleep on the rooftop in summer, which was naturally the busiest time for manufacturing greatcoats; at season’s end, if the work had gone well, the company for whom the family subcontracted awarded it a pair of coats as a gift just before announcing that there would be no more work for four months. And so Noah’s father and uncle and older brother and older sister would take turns strapping the family sewing machine on their backs and going from factory to factory looking for a job or piecework to take home. Sonia’s family, which had arrived in America ten years earlier than Noah’s, helped out with gifts of food and cloth from time to time, but the Orchard Street Berkowitzes were mortified instead of grateful. But they took nevertheless, promising the day would come when they would repay such charity to the penny.
It arrived far sooner than anyone would have supposed. Noah’s father had found work in a shirt shop just when white collars had come into fashion and much time had to be devoted to sewing on neckbands, each individually cut, to which the collars were buttoned. At the end of work one day, as the factory fell behind its quota, the boss gave Mr. Berkowitz a chance to make neckbands at home as night work. On the third night, it dawned on the family that a living was perhaps to be made in turning out nothing but neckbands for every shirtmaker in the city. So serious a snag had the bands proven in the production cycle that the orders poured in from the moment Mr. Berkowitz announced the service. For a year they had the field to themselves, and by the time competition arrived in earnest, the Berkowitz neckband factory was thriving.
The wealth materialized early enough to spare Noah, the second-youngest of the five Berkowitz children, a life in the sweatshops. Something of a prodigy, he entered his teens with a preference for Euclid and Spinoza to Shakespeare and Maimonides, and everyone said he was destined for a career as a fine accountant or perhaps even a professor of mathematics (there being enough brothers to run the family factory). But Noah settled instead on engineering, in spite of Benny’s avuncular warning that that profession was no more hospitable to Jews than medicine. Shortly after Noah had made that decision on his career, he happened to be standing outside his father’s factory one afternoon when a group of Gentile workers from a nearby mill began hurling nuts and bolts and still larger pieces of metal at members of a Jewish funeral procession that was crossing the Williamsburg Bridge. That sight – of Jews screaming in pain and cringing for cover – coupled with the warning Benny had given him convinced Noah Berkowitz that his life might be easier if he changed his last name to the less ethnically provocative Berg before beginning his studies at Cornell University. Rather than opposing him, the whole family followed suit.
He did superior work at the university and found a position as draftsman with a firm in Lynn, Massachusetts, for a time until loneliness and niggardly wages sent him back to New York, where he caught on with a meter company in Brooklyn. But advancement was not offered, and Noah Berg believed the Irish proprietors did not favor men of his faith, however well trained or deserving. It was then that Benny wrote me to say that Noah thought the South, with its relatively few Jews, might offer him a more promising future and to ask if I knew of any prospects. “He is a polite, well-groomed, highly intelligent young fellow of twenty-five,” Benny advised, “whose sole drawback, so far as I can tell, is a quality of intensity unrelieved by delight in life’s antic moments. The South, as deficient in industriousness as it is gifted at pleasure-taking, would no doubt provide the perfect antidote for his overly starched soul. I hope you will forgive my asking you to use your good offices to seek a place for this deserving youth.”
The original Jubilee plant on Longstreth Way, as it happened, was just then very much on the lookout for technically trained men of Noah’s sort. A reformist commission appointed by President Roosevelt had included ours among a list of soda companies in which it claimed that the syrup was brewed “in pots standing in the cellar of some low building, or even a stable, where the ceiling is covered with dust, cobwebs, and dirt of all descriptions, and the floor littered with filth.” Jubilee syrup had in fact been brewed on the first floor of the factory – the cellar had never been used for anything but storage and, one had heard with blithe disbelief, an occasional immoral act – but the sanitary conditions had retrogressed to the point where protest over our inclusion among the malefactors would have been disingenuous. Amory Austin ruled instead that the entire syrup-making operation be transferred to new, larger, gleaming facilities in Atlanta, where rail connections were far superior to those in Savannah and would thereby save the company an estimated two cents on every gallon sold. The more he thought about it, the more Austin preferred the convenience of bustling Atlanta as the site for company headquarters to our petite city hard by the sea. The directors approved the transfer with understandable reluctance, but the business sense behind the move was incontestable. The old Savannah factory would be refurbished for use solely as a bottling plant for the southern Georgia market and the work force and supervisory staff revamped accordingly. Loath as I was to seek jobs for relatives of relatives, I thought that Noah Berg could be of use to the company, and after a day of interviews, he was engaged to serve as assistant superintendent of the run-down Savannah plant.
“It’s not much to look at,” he said, coming by my office to tender thanks for my intervention in his behalf, “but the renovation is to begin soon and – well, it’s a beginning. Besides, the rest of the city is very beautiful – if one discounts the heat.”
“Even with it,” I said. “You get not to notice it after twenty or thirty years.”
He smiled at that and then his alert eyes narrowed behind their wire-frame glasses. “I would like your advice if you have a moment,” he said and then disclosed a fear that had evidently been lurking within him. “I think I would probably be better received in this community if I adopted an alternate spelling of my last name. I think Burke – as in Edmund Burke – would be more pleasing than Berg, yet phonetically only a slight departure. Do you see any disadvantage?”
I told him I saw none either way, but if he were more comfortable with the anglicized variant, he should use it. “I would not dwell on the matter,” I said. “I’m sure you don’t intend to mask your faith –”
“Such matters are common knowledge, at any rate. This is not a large community.”
“Religion has not hampered your career, from what I have gathered,” he said. It was plain he was asking a question, not offering a surmise.
“Nor helped it,” I said. “One just goes about one’s business and tries to deal honorably with all comers. We are free men, like any others pursuing free enterprise.”
“I understand,” he said.
I heard no more from him about altering his name, although there was ample opportunity, for he stayed at our home for several weeks before finding quarters of his own. He was a fellow of disciplined emotion, and minimal jest, given to soft but precise speech, and courteous in the extreme; there was about him a faint but palpable and not displeasing aroma of lye, as if he had scrubbed every pore on his body an hour earlier and polished away all the rough places with a pumice stone. His eyes bespoke a kinetic intelligence that seemed to crouch in wait for the right moment to be activated. Ruth and I introduced him to our circle of friends, upon whom he made a mildly pleasing impression. It was in Jeremiah Weisz, our vigorous new rabbi only five or six years his senior, that Noah found a particularly kindred spirit. Yet I cannot say their friendship has been especially beneficial to Noah, or that the rabbi’s ways, popular as they seem to be, have worked to the long-term advantage of our regional Jewry. More than likely, I am reflecting my age, for the reform measures that I encountered upon first attending Mickve Israel long ago – the churchly structure, the stained-glass windows, the organ music, the orderly service, the English prayers – were hardly less radical than our new rabbi’s departures. But his have struck me as purposeless beyond the obliteration, almost for its own sake, of all ceremonial distinctions between the Jewish and Christian form of worship, save for the deification of Jesus. Rabbi Weisz has proscribed the lighting of Sabbath candles, the opening of the ark during the adoration, the teaching of Hebrew in the temple school, and the singing of “Hatikva,” the Jewish anthem of hope. Zionism he has denounced from the pulpit as an encrustation of anti-Americanism and thoroughly unwelcome among his congregants. My attendance record, previously spotty at best, became yet less regular in the wake of such mindless anti-traditionalism. “Maybe Weisz studied Talmud with the Klan,” I said to Ruth.
“He’s a modernist,” she said. “They favor the Americanization of worship.”
“I know what they favor – and I say they’re prompted by ignoble motives they either don’t recognize or won’t admit to.”
Noah Berg did not agree. He found this new bland form of Jewishness comforting in its low visibility and total absence of gutturals. “I am less conscious of being a stranger than I would have dreamed possible,” he said. I remember our having a discussion that first autumn he was in Savannah on the contention Rabbi Weisz had voiced to him in private that the great solicitude Jews exhibited toward the blind and the aged and the infirm – those enfeebled sorts whom the Greeks and Romans put outside their city gates as not worthy of succor – did not necessarily bespeak a soaring humanitarianism in the Judaic ethic. “He says it may be seen as just the opposite,” Noah reported to me with what seemed a frankly perverse excitement. “He says the Jews have been so fearful in their souls for so long that they identify more with the physically crippled and spiritually tremulous than the able-bodied and potent. He says we must rejoice in our strength and ardor and relish them no less than charity and altruism.”
“A stimulating proposition,” I said, “worthy of the hairiest caveman. You might ask the rabbi how he reconciles his notion with Herbert Spencer’s stylish theory of the survival of the fittest. I would suggest that the durability of the meek Jew is not unrelated to his understanding of the limitations of his physical strength and the regenerative value of his spiritual sources. Few of us are as nimble as David with the sling.”
Whether it was offensive or defensive Judaism he practiced, I would not care to say, but Noah Berg did not run from his faith, at least not from the neuterized version of it our rabbi sought to enshrine. The spring of her final year at Radcliffe, I recall, Noah accompanied my daughter Judith to the Purim dance sponsored by the local B’nai B’rith, of which Noah was a charter member. They made an attractive couple, Ruth remarked to me upon their leaving our house. “He was ever so much more interested in the tenderness of the hamantashen than anything I had to say,” Judith reported the following morning.
“He’s probably just a little shy and nervous with girls,” said Ruth.
“I hope he overcomes it before he’s fifty,” said Judith, a touch cruelly, I thought at the time.
“Perhaps you’ve seen too many ladies’ men in Boston, my dear,” Ruth persisted.
“Enough to know them from the other sort,” said my brazen daughter.
“Surely you’re not suggesting that Mr. Berg is an effeminate man?” Ruth asked.
“Surely not,” said Judith. “It is a temporary glandular deficiency, no doubt.”
At work, by contrast, Noah Berg proved a thoroughgoing tiger. He read up first on the entire history of glassmaking from its origins in the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt. He studied the whole development of carbonated beverages with special attention to the landmark contributions of Priestley, Schweppes, and Lavoisier. Then he turned that same application of diligence upon the human factor in the production process. He quickly got to know the names and faces of the workers. Overnight he picked up the jargon of the factory floor – a “bum” was a reusable but seedy-looking bottle, a “scuffle” was a yet more disheveled bum, and a “crock” was a bum with a chipped bottom. Most helpful of all, he learned to tell the conscientious workers from the malingerers and to lament that the differential in wages between the two types was not greater (and in many cases did not apply at all). Yet he understood the potential viciousness of the piecework system and the vulnerability of unorganized workers to the vagaries of the economic cycle and the not so tender mercies of employers.
“Still and all,” I heard him remark after his first few weeks on the job, “a union would cut our production in half if it stripped us of the power to fire incompetent workers at will. Why, they don’t need a union so much as a pat on the back every once in a while instead of a kick in the behind.” After a bit more time on the job, however, he sang a different song. Even the more kindly treated and amply rewarded of his charges were likely to pick up and move on to other jobs without an apparent second thought. “Loyalty is beyond their conception,” he complained to me during one of our occasional exchanges at the plant. “Money is all they’re in it for.” I suggested that it was naive for him to view labor, in the final analysis, as more than a commodity like any other and that to do so was to lose sight of the motivating impulse of capitalism and, in the process, reduce his own chief value to management. He accosted me at once for lack of humanity.
“I didn’t say to become a sadist,” I answered. “But do not expect gratitude from people for permitting them to perform drudgery a dozen hours a day at peon’s pay.”
Having demonstrated his worth as a diligent overseer within a very few months of his coming to the Jubilee factory, Noah was soon straining to perform a more dynamic and useful part. He tried to hide his ambition from me the first few times I asked how his job was progressing. “Very educational” is how he put it with the merest hint of tedium in his voice. A little later he let on that he had some ideas he was turning over that he wanted to try out on me if I would oblige him. The opportunity arose when we had him to our home for Seder at Passover of 1909. Well after the afikomen had been recovered intact by the smallest of Ruth’s nieces in attendance, Noah bearded me in my study, where we took a cigar together.
“It has occurred to me that the company would benefit if every bottle of Jubilee it sold across the country were identical with every other one,” he said, choosing his words with care. “Why, after all, should a bottle sold in Georgia look any different from one sold in Texas – any more than it should taste different? Only the bottlers’ convenience is served by this multiplicity of styles and colors, which of course makes imitation quite easy. Suppose, moreover, that in place of the uninteresting shape of most Jubilee bottles the company substituted a unique shape, at once distinctive and appealing to both the eye and the hand. And suppose the company mandated this shape in every sales territory. And suppose this shape – and color, the color must be universal as well – were so sufficiently distinctive that it was identifiable even without a label on it as a bottle of Jubilee. Suppose you could pick up that bottle in the dark and be sure from its very feel what it was. Suppose you could see even shards of it and know what they came from. Imagine the advantages! A container befitting the product itself, and so singular that it produced instantaneous identification. Each bottle would be both commodity and advertisement. Imitators would abandon their efforts unless they were willing to invest heavily in new equipment. And greater cost controls could be achieved by the franchise bottlers through standardization.”
It did not rank quite with the Newtonian apple or the invention of the incandescent lamp, but I thought the idea meritorious and told Noah so. He beamed and asked how he might best propose it to the company. “Casually,” I told him, “and up the chain of command – unless you want to risk a substantial dose of resentment….”
©2017 Richard Kluger