Kentucky Coal Mine Bubbe
My grandmother still has traces of her southern accent. When she was a teenager she moved with her family from Evarts, Kentucky-in Harlan County, thick in the heart of mining country—to Brooklyn. She still tells about a date with a boy she really liked, who [[ he]] took her to a party. She remembers that she wore a flower in her hair. And if that weren’t enough to make her stand out, she went over to the hosts at the end of the party and said, “thank y’all very much for invitin’ me to your pahhty” A few years later, when she became friends with one of the girls who had hosted the party, she learned that the real fun began after she had left. They walked around imitating her, “thank y’all very much for invitin’ me to your pahhty” Not only did she have a southern accent—those northerners weren’t even used to people saying thank you!
Her father had a Russian accent; her mother’s accent was Polish. They spoke to one another in Yiddish, and in Kentucky their four children, growing up playing with the miner’s kids, spoke a thick southern English.
My great-grandfather. Hillel Appleman, known in this country as Harry, and many years later, as “Kabu” to his grandchildren, left Russia in 1911, escaping pogroms and poverty. His parents sent him, oldest of 8, to earn money in America, and send it back to them so that they could eventually escape as well. He crossed the Atlantic in steerage class. He was seasick the entire time, from the Motherland to the Home of the Free. Kabu could not find a job. He was too skinny, too weak. They wouldn’t even let him pluck chickens. He tried day after day to get by on whatever honest work he could find, and he would spend his money, when he earned any, on a roll. One day a kind man pulled him aside, bought him a piece of herring, and told him to get out of New York and go South.
Kabu ended up in Kentucky, working as a photographer, taking pictures of mountain-folk who probably had never seen a photograph, and definitely had never seen a Jew. They came down from the mountains just to look at him, to see if he had horns.
He took photographs when he could, and expanded his business to peddling as well. His wanderings led him to West Virginia, where he met my great-grandmother, Bina Turk, called “Savta” (Hebrew for Grandma) by her grandchildren. She’d come to America with her father in 1914 to visit her much older brothers, who had been living in this country for years, and who had become successful. Savta’s father had a hard time in America, though; his sons were not living a traditional Jewish lifestyle. And so he went back to Poland. At the request of her brothers, who were so much older than Savta. and who wanted to get to know her. Savta stayed. Originally she’d planned on staying only for a month or two—her mother had died in childbirth, and she was raised by her older sister and her father—but then World War I broke out, and she was stuck. She never saw her father again.
Savta had a hard time living with her brothers and their wives. She wouldn’t eat any of their food. Even the bread had lard in it. When a hard-working, honest, kind .Jewish peddling photographer showed up at her brother’s door, it was a match made in heaven. Eventually a wedding day was set. Savta was to wait for Kabu by the train station in West Virginia, where they would marry, and then move to Kentucky.
I thought of them on my own wedding day, at the Sheraton Crossroads, in Mahwah. New Jersey. I imagined Savta in her modest wedding dress, waiting for Kabu. in 1920 in West Virginia. While she waited the small crowd was getting restless. Kabu was late. And then very late. And then even later. It was getting dark and cold and Savta had already mapped out a plan in her head. She would move to Philadelphia. She would run away from this town and the disgrace of being stood up on her wedding day…but then he arrived, on horseback. The train that should have passed through Evarts had never arrived and he had galloped all the way to her. They wed, and moved to Kentucky.
Harlan County, 1920. Mining territory, with two opposing camps: the coal miners and the mine owners. The miners were basically enslaved to the owners of the mines. They worked hard physical labor, day in, day out, and were paid in scrip that could be exchanged for food only in the Company Store—owned, of course, by the mine-owners. The coal company had its own police force, used to keep union organizers out of the coal camps and to intimidate miners who tried to join the union. Throughout the 1920s and well into the 1930s. Kentucky coal producers did everything in their power to prevent unionization, earning Harlan County the name “Bloody Harlan.”
In the midst of the Great Depression, in 1932, the miners in Evarts went on strike. They wanted to be unionized, and they refused to work until they were granted that right. Cheche remembers the miner’s children coming to school barefoot. The owners of the mine, like the Bible’s Pharaoh, had hearts as hard as stone, that hardened at each request made by the miners; they would let the miners starve to death rather than allow them to join the union and gain their freedom. The town was basically at war. Bullets flying in the streets, riots and vandalism.
By this time, Savta and Kabu had four children, they’d opened a clothing store and were making a living. Savta baked her own bread each week, and the family ate fruits and vegetables and grains—they still kept strictly kosher. Twice a year they could afford a chicken, which was ritually slaughtered according to Jewish law and sent to them from Cincinnati.
Savta and Kabu were extremely well respected in Evarts. Kabu was famous throughout the county for his honesty and kindness, and had even been asked to be a member of the town court. He refused—he said he didn’t want to make decisions that would affect people’s personal lives—but the judge said to him. “Mr. Appleman. if you were to be tried, wouldn’t you want a fair trial?” “Yes. of course.” he answered, “Then you will sit on this court,” the judge said, For you are a fair and honest man.” And he did. Savta and Kabu had been saving up money over the years to buy a car, and finally had enough— $5000 dollars. A fortune. But people around them were starving. Children didn’t have shoes on their feet. They were not political people, but they could not live surrounded by such without doing what they could to help. And so in the spring of 1932, they opened a soup kitchen, and put an ad in the paper which read: “LOOK! In accordance with the Jewish custom to remember the needy during the Passover Season, Mr. and Mrs. Harry Appleman will give away, on Friday, April 17, at the Evarts depot, A Car Load of Flour. The flour will be given away as long as it will last. A 24-pound bag to a family. All needy from Evarts and surroundings are welcome, regardless of Color and Creed.”
They spent every last penny they had saved for that car on flour—flour! And they gave out bag after bag after bag. There was such joy in the town. The joy of giving and receiving with honor—-the joy that transcends the particular, and enters the realm of the universal—the realm of the human. This selfless generosity had such an impact on the people of the town that when Cheche. the nickname for my grandmother, Freda Miriam Appleman Aranoff, visited there with her siblings years later, she was amazed to find that young boys in Evarts, Kentucky were named Harry Appleman, after her father.
The coal company wasn’t happy, though. They bombed the soup kitchen in the middle of the night, sent bullets flying through the windows of my great-grandparents’ house, and then came to indict Kabu for criminal syndicalism—supporting the miners and aiding their strike against the company. The next day Savta went to court to defend her husband. In an editorial from 1932, in B’nai B’rith Magazine. Savta is quoted as saying. “The Jews have a holiday that is Passover. And on that holiday, whoever is hungry must be fed, even if he is a stranger We were taking no sides, this way or that, in the strike, but when people are hungry, should it be said to them: no you are strikers, and we can give you nothing to eat? There were so many children that had no bread…” The case made its way all the way to Governor Chandler of Kentucky, who called Savta a “woman of valor,” and said that hers was the testimony of “a good and truthful woman.” But at the time, the company store owners continued to shoot through their windows. The entire family escaped to West Virginia in the middle of the night, eventually making their way north to Brooklyn, where the teenaged Cheche was teased for her southern accent, and where Kabu had to start from scratch once again.
So much movement. Roots planted only to be uprooted, and planted again.
Kabu went into the real-estate business. He got to Brooklyn, and bought a piece of land. And another, and another, and he was blessed, and became successful, so successful he was able to support children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. The family’s roots were not in a place, but in the particulars of a tradition, wrapped around words and ideas and actions rather than the hard earth.
Savta went back to school to learn Hebrew, and led a women’s conversational Hebrew group at home. The family’s roots were in learning, in texts and Aramaic aphorisms passed from generation to generation: ‘lefum tza’ara agra’—the degree of success depends on the degree of the hard work, and ‘leit atar panui mineh,’ there is no place without God.
My family’s stories have become my roots, have been woven into my identity. I have strong memories of visiting Cheche as a child. She is by no means a typical .Jewish grandmother. She served me burnt spaghetti and mozzarella cheese, and scared me to death in our games of Witch, during which I’d hide, and she’d come and find me, cackling. We’d stay up late watching “The Last Emperor” on her bed, and she’d tell me about the places she’d traveled and the places that I would one day travel. In keeping with my great-grandmother’s legacy from her Kentucky days, Cheche taught me to tip-toe into cultures and ideas that challenge my own.
Maya Bernstein has lived and worked with Jewish communities in the Former Soviet Union and Germany, and currently works as the Bay Area Regional Director for The Curriculum Initiative, an organization that serves as a resource on Judaism to non-Jewish private schools.