[Image description: old, damaged photo of a little boy, Herschey Lang, wearing a hat and coat.]Bella Cohen Spewack (1899?-1990) was a journalist, a publicist, and a writer for stage and screen, best known as the co-writer of the show Kiss Me Kate. But in 1922, while living in Berlin with her new husband, working as a news correspondent, Bella Spewack also wrote a fierce, funny, poignant memoir of her youth, titled Streets. The memoir wasn't published until after her death (it's available from Feminist Press); but because it was written and eventually published, we can remember Bella's little brother Herschey Lang, and have a glimpse of family life in the Lower East Side of the 1910s.
Herschey was born to Fanny and Hoosan Lang, both recent Jewish immigrants from Hungary, when Fanny's daughter Bella Cohen was 13. When he was born, his father brought home to the family's tiny apartment a yellow wood cradle; three cents worth of jelly beans were scattered under his mattress, to ensure a sweet life. Needlework pillowcases and tiny knitted caps were brought as gifts, by neighbors. Then, when he was six months old, Herschey got sick: a rash of sores erupted on his face, arms, and hands. The sores left scars. Hoosan Lang shouted at Fanny, "You wretch! You have brought me trouble! You have borne me a sickly child. And a son, God in heaven, a son!" (pp. 77-79) Hoosan left, while Fanny was pregnant with their second child, Daniel Lang.
Fanny moved herself and her children to a cheaper apartment, using a pushcart to transport their belongings. Bella took care of her little brothers in the streets, while their mother did sewing at home, and tended to their boarders. Herschey learned to walk on the corner of Houston and Goerck Streets, near the Third Street pier. Bella remembered the stares and insults:
Frequently women, and men too, would stop and unashamedly stare at the two in the carriage. Pregnant women looking at Herschey's disfigured face would stick their thumbs in their belts and immediately look away [a superstitious gesture to prevent ugly children].When the pier got a little too pungent in the summer heat, Bella took the little ones to a playground, where they could play in sand and take turns on the swings. She also included the boys in her dramatic productions with neighborhood teens: they played a stringed instrument during a scene from Romeo and Juliet, enacted on a tenement fire escape. Fanny and Bella got summer jobs working at a resort in the Catskills, and the boys came along, so they could eat better and get some fresh air. "I was fierce with desire that children play with Herschey," Bella recalled about that time, "for they shunned him and he loved them dearly." (p. 125) Soon, the management noticed how sickly Herschey was, and sent the whole group back to the city.
One woman, whom I had seen frequently on the block, laughed outloud on seeing Hershey. The black salve that I had applied in the morning was still on his face. "Look at the little rat." For a moment, I felt as if the roaring in my ears and the pounding within me would never stop. Then I walked over to the woman and struck out. My outstretched hand landed on her neck.
That woman never again stopped near Herschey's carriage, but when she saw me, with or without him, she would cross to the other side of the street. As her revenge, she tried to spread the rumor that I was crazy, but the street chose not the believe her. (102-103)
Herschey Lang died at age 5, after a long illness that included fevers and paralysis and a lot of lost weight at the end. "My mother was mad with the pain of her loss," explains Bella (p. 157). "So it fell to me to arrange for the burial." The last sentences of the memoir present a painful scene: "My mother and I, carrying Danny in my arms, attempted to follow the hearse on foot for we could afford no carriage. But the hearse moved swiftly. Herschey was light."
Herschey Lang didn't live long, but he was loved, dearly loved, by his mother and sister, right to the end. And he was never forgotten.
Lisa Muir, "Rose Cohen and Bella Spewack: The Ethnic Child Speaks to You Who Never Were There," College Literature (Winter 2002), online here.