Initiations

Louisa Formann grew up on the German side of the German-Polish border among a contentious mélange of Kabbalists, logical positivists, Talmudic scholars, and ecstatic dervishes. In the company of this diverse set of male relatives the motherless girl ripened into a willful young woman given to romantic fantasies, none of which were to be realized when she was married off at nineteen to a handsome blue-eyed rag picker with fair hair named Solomon Kirsh. Solomon might have indeed been as wise as his namesake (he was, in fact, a learned biblical scholar, having been tutored at home from boyhood by an uncle reputed as a prominent disciple of the Vilna Gaon himself) but nothing of this came to be known, for Solomon was an inordinately silent man — so silent that he was often mistaken for mute.

Brooklyn Bridge at Night, 1909
(Oil on canvas, 36 x 50 in)
BY Edward Willis Redfield
Private Collection

Educated in three languages by her father, uncles, and brothers, Louisa translated Shakespeare from English into German and wrote poetry in biblical Hebrew. She was by no means a handsome woman, standing less than five feet, with a short waist, a taut, high bosom, and thick ankles. Yet her black eyes radiated such passionate intelligence that anyone falling under her glance was instantly tricked into finding her beautiful.

Solomon left for America soon after their second child was born in order to try his hand at the rag trade on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Louisa and the children stayed behind, she, nursing their son through a prolonged bout of sleeping sickness while doing her best to protect her daughter from the roving anti-Semitic hordes. (The breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had spawned numerous pogroms in and around Louisa’s border town, and it was not uncommon for an otherwise upright citizen filled with schnapps to turn rapist after Sunday church services.)

While she looked forward to the money packets her husband tucked into the occasional gifts of snuff and brown lisle winter stockings he sent her, Louisa did not miss her silent Solomon, and it took five years before she decided to join him in America. She was twenty-seven when, with her boy and girl in tow, she arrived at her husband’s Hester Street factory to find him coughing blood amidst a heap of multi-colored rags.

…the motherless girl ripened into a willful young woman given to romantic fantasies, none of which were to be realized when she was married off at nineteen to
a handsome blue-eyed rag picker with fair hair named Solomon Kirsh.

“For this I didn’t leave Europe,” she said, her accented English echoing throughout the abandoned ice house where the sun never shone. Then, with the children following behind her like a pair of ducklings, Louisa left Solomon standing in his factory and took the Elevated to Brooklyn. When the train pulled into the station of a tree-lined neighborhood and the doors opened, Louisa picked up her two suitcases and hustled the children out onto the platform. The “Young Israel of Borough Park” was the first building she saw on alighting, which she took as a sign to stay.

By the end of the week she had moved into an airy, spacious corner apartment with six windows and two views: both facing tree-lined streets within walking distance of a bustling Jewish shopping district. Louisa immediately enrolled her sickly but highly intelligent boy in a Talmud Torah and her fair-haired, blue-eyed silent daughter in the local public school, and then, literally with her last nickel, telephoned her husband.

“I found an apartment. It has six windows. The address is 101 Clara Street. If you want to come and live here, fine. If not, send money so I can feed the children,” she said, this time in German-accented Yiddish.

Thus, after seven years of separation, Solomon Kirsh, came to live again with his family, offering no complaint when, on the night he arrived, Louisa announced that she wanted no more children and shut the bedroom door in his face. When Solomon lost the lease, and had to shut down his rag factory, it was Louisa who saved the day. Determined never to give up the apartment with six windows and two tree-lined views, she dipped into her secret savings and paid the rent until her husband “got back on his feet.”

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