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Sybil’s Last Tape

Sybil Schiller Primus (1910-1997), lived in Brooklyn and raised three children, Sondra, Ronnie and Lance. Bonnie says, “I may have seen my great-aunt Sybil when I was tiny, but never met her again as an adult until this interview in fall 1996. She met me in her walker, wearing a red track suit. Instantly my tape recorder died; fortunately Sondra found fresh batteries. Aunt Sybil passed away in 1997, just months after our great afternoon. I treasure the tape, which is like one long spontaneous lyric of earthy Yiddish realism.”

Now at that time, this is the way it was. My father used to go out and play cards, and he’d play all night. This bothered my mother, that he was out all night. And it was hot, summertime, you lived in a fourroom apartment with four kids. So my mother used to say to me, “Syb, listen. I’m going upstairs, sleep with the rest of the women on the roof.” You took up a blanket, you slept on the roof; there was no air conditioning then. “If Papa comes home, don’t tell him where I am. Remember — don’t tell him.” So my mother struggled. She’s not going to enjoy it up there. But she wants him to worry.

Helfs Gott, my father don’t come home! And she comes down, thinking he was home, and he never came home. She comes down, for this she slept on a blanket, and he never came home, she did all that for nothing. He never knew she was gone. I said, “No, Mama, he never came home.” Those were the little things.

How she wanted to be loved! By love, she don’t mean sex; she meant put his arm around her. She says, “I went to the movies with him. Other couples, the husband has his arm around his wife. Oh, how I would enjoy that.” I says, “So you just take his arm and put it!” And she says, “But that’s not the same.”

That was the way life was then. He took a wife, had intercourse, had children. And that was it. My father was just a shopworker; his sisters married rich gangsters who got fancy furniture, wall-to-wall carpet, lived on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights where it was classy. But we had times when my father, he didn’t work. I don’t remember ever having any toys. It was just mark up the sidewalk. Hopscotch, that was a favorite thing. Then we put pennies on the crack. Stand there, you know, and try to hit the pennies. My brothers, they played handball in the schoolyard.

So I refused to go to high school; I went to business school, and out to work, so I could help. Stayed with my folks, supported my young brother Robbie, and he had it very good with me. Because I kept on working, I gave him things; he’d otherwise be deprived.

It was a normal life. That’s all we knew. The whole four of us, we were okay. My brother Herman, if I needed a coat, and he needed a coat, and he says he wants the coat first because he’s trying to become a lawyer? So my father turns around and says to him, “She works. You don’t. She gets the coat first.”

But Herman and I never fought. Never had an argument. He played basketball for NYU, oh yeah; and sure he’d come home with a hole in his head, whenever he’d play ball. He used to keep on me, say “You should go to high school.” I says, “I don’t care if I graduate. I’ll get married the same as you do, I’ll have children still the same way.” I got myself a nice job, and then I met my husband there, and we went together four years.

Four years! And then his father passed away six weeks before we’re supposed to get married. So his mother said to him, “Cancel the wedding, we’re in a mourning period.” I says to him, “I got news for you. It took four years for you to finally marry me. And if you wanna cancel, here’s the door, go! And don’t come back.” So he turned around to his mother, and he says “Ma, I’m getting married.”

I didn’t know how to cook. On a Sunday we’d come to visit my mother and she’d say to my husband in Jewish — she spoke Jewish. You understand Jewish, darling? She’d look at him and say “Oy, Daveleh. You look bad.” She meant that with me he wasn’t eating right. I had thin kids, and back then if you weren’t fat and chubby you were sick. “Oy, tu tzacuchen, skinny kids with the mumps, because she can’t cook, the kids don’t get enough.” I turned out later to be a better cook; only last week your Aunt Rose spoke to me and says “Oh, boy, I don’t enjoy eating in the restaurant since I ate by you.” I gained a lot of weight after I gave birth: a fatty and still wearing a corset. They used to pull it together on me. You couldn’t breathe! Then after the two-way stretchers came in, that was already a relief.

For married life, my mother told me that Papa would give her five dollars a week to live. Can you imagine? On this she bought, shopped, and everything. So when I married she used to say, if I had some money left over from the week, “Put it aside, so if you need stockings.” I did it. Being naïve, I did it. Then one time for my husband’s birthday I bought him a wristwatch. He says to me, “All right. Granted, it’s a beautiful gift. But so where’d you get the money?” See, I wasn’t working at that time. I told him how my mother taught me to save a little. He says, “Syb. Do me a favor. If you need money, ask me.” But that was how she, my mother, had to live her life if she needed a girdle.

Then World War II came. They made a lot of money, those women working around the clock. I wanted my husband to go into defense, but he was in the insurance business, and he said “Nothing doing.” But his brother-in-law was making a lot of money in the defense, and I was talking to him and going on and on, making a speech. My father and mother were sitting by me, in my apartment, listening to me nudge my husband. My father walked out, and once he was on the street, to my mother he went, “Ptoo! Oy! If I had a wife like that, I’d kill her!” So my mother came the next day and told me what my father had said. I turned around to my mother and I says, “I tell you what, Ma. If I had a husband like yours, I’d spit in his face!”

See, when my father got excited, his voice got high, he didn’t care what he said. My mother would run around in the apartment and close all the windows so the neighbors shouldn’t hear. But let me tell you something. As bad as he was, we all loved him. To the extent that we could love him. And we felt sorry for my mother. My sister and I says, “Why don’t you answer Papa back one time? When he says something to you, and you feel that you have to talk back? Say it! What’s he going to do, kill you?”

So evidently she listened. Because he started yelling, one day, and she ran around closing all the windows to the courtyard, and he said something to her — and she answered him! Well, he’d had his back to her. He turns around with the biggest smile on his face and said “Well! You finally said something.” In other words, he’d always wanted her to fight back, you know? She came to me later and said, “You were right. He was very happy I answered him back.”

Listen, you know what they say. You can’t change the spots on a leopard. Or as my mother used to say, “What’s burnt in the pot, that’s what it smells like — mit vos di top is farbrent, shtinktes.” But even though she didn’t change his spots, my father, he got a kick out of it. He said, “Your daughters told you to talk back, didn’t they?”

I mean, so he came here at eight years old from some little town in Russia, Minsk, Pinsk, Drinsk, and he’s eight years old and his mother put him in a factory shop. His family, boy, they were corkers, the Schindlers; gangsters, which is why he ran away and changed his name to Schiller. Later on, when he got a heart condition and was quite sick, then he calmed down. You know, I was the favorite of my father and he only kissed me three times in my lifetime. When I graduated eighth grade, when I got married, and when I gave birth. But that was the way of life at that time. That was the way of life.

Bonnie J. Morris is a women’s studies professor at George Washington University, and teaches part time at Georgetown Univerity. She is the author of six books, two of which document Jewish women’s history in America. In 1990 she became the first person to teach a graduate seminar on Hasidic women’s history at Harvard.