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The Clothes Line

by Ruth Jobrack Abramowitz

The women in the neighborhood would do laundry once a week. The pulley line, as it was called in those days, was a large heavy rope connected by a hook to one window of the house across the yard to a pole.

While hanging laundry, they would talk to each other. Mrs. Fine, Mrs. Berg and my mother always hung clothes on Monday. They had all come from Russia in the early nineteen twenties, courted and married other emigrant men who established themselves as Americans.

While pushing and pulling the line they would tell each other why they decided to come to America. Russia had just changed rulers and the country was not doing well economically. These conditions were blamed on the Jewish businessmen who owned the banks and loaned monies to merchants. The government wanted to take control of the money and started what was known as pograms. Large bands of men would come into a village to plunder and kill dozens of people. The farmers were spared because they were needed to provide food.

Mrs. Fine told about her husband who practiced medicine in Russia, but was refused a degree in New York. After their marriage they moved to New Jersey where he was accepted as an intern at one of the major hospitals.

Today as they hung clothes, she told my mom in an excited voice, “Henry just received word he could start his internship at one of New Jersey’s best hospitals and hopes to open an office in the neighborhood.”  Other women hanging laundry in the next yard started shouting, “Wonderful, wonderful, anything is possible in America.”

Another woman said she is having her third child and may have to move. She came from Russia a year ago and still spoke with a thick accent. Her first husband had been killed during one of the raids on their town. The family was able to get visas when a cousin living in New Jersey sponsored them and two years ago she married a man from Poland.

Our upstairs neighbor said her husband lost his job. She was worried about how she would manage to pay her bills. The women would bring her food and give her clothes their children had outgrown. They never made her feel it was charity, they would say, “When Lou finds work you can buy us something we need.” It was a friendly, caring community and everyone tried to help and look after each other.

One woman was talking about her son’s graduation from high school. He received a scholarship from a firm that wanted to hire him. He would be going to college for classes twice a week and learn how to use electrical equipment to work on the power lines.  

Another told them her little girl wanted to take dance lessons at school, but they had to pay for them and she didn’t know if they could afford to send her.

My mother told them about meeting my father. At age sixteen he left his family to avoid entering the Russian army and boarded with her family. As a carpenter he made good money for those times. They fell in love and were told by her father they could marry when she was eighteen. I was her third child.

Mrs. Berg said, “My son will be a bar mitzvah boy this summer. I think I’ll have a neighborhood party.” Her family was still in Europe and did not plan on coming to America unless they found themselves in danger.

The women talked about going to night classes to improve their English for citizenship papers. They understood an education and improved English would help improve their lives. The women believed that with knowledge they no longer needed to be just a wife and mother, completely dependent upon a husband. (Mom used to save money my father did not know about.)

Many family members were still in Europe. One week the women talked about a group of men who joined together and called themselves, “The Workmen’s Circle.”  My mom told them my father was a member and other men had joined recently. Each family was given a small box and asked to put in a few pennies whenever they could.

The women on the clothesline continued to cement friendships and thanked God for bringing them to this country.

The clothesline had become a lifeline.

Ruth is in her 80s, lives alone and has been working three mornings a week as a data-entry clerk at the Department of Labor for over five years. Writing is her passion.

Her pieces have been published in Crossroads of the Asbury Park Press and The Coaster, a local weekly newspaper. Ruth has just completed a book of essays, titled From Horse and Buggy to the Moon, to be published sometime this year.

©2007 Ruth Jobrack Abramowitz for



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