There are tailors who turn out simply adequate clothing. And there are the tailors who are craftsmen. This particular tailor is the latter, producing impeccably constructed suit jackets and pants—utilitarian, priced within the range of what a hardworking family can afford—but never drab, never shoddy, never unstylish.
This tailor is rarely without work. The worldwide financial depression that commenced in 1929 has not, by and large, penetrated his little corner of Brussels. Of course, the tailor and his family are far from wealthy. But it is a comfortable existence, prosperous enough that his wife, son, and daughter can spend entire summers enjoying a beach vacation. The tailor—with much justification-- often feels proud of himself.
He is far away from his previous incarnation in hardscrabble Poland, one in a long generational line of Czestochowa tailors. And what does it mean, to be a Czestochowa tailor? Deprivation, endemic anti-Semitism, stifling piety requiring countless hours poring over arcane holy books, and a rigid caste system that ensures a plain tailor remains exactly that for the rest of his life. Czestochowa holds no promise or hope of advancement for him or his wife, herself a tailor's child. Belgium, it is said, needs industrious, ambitious tailors. A combination of nerve, wanderlust, despair, and ambition provide the basis for the tailor to pack his bags, collect his wife, and set up shop in Brussels.
The tailor is lacking much in the way of formal education but proves astonishingly adept at traversing bilingual Brussels. His French, although accented, reaches near-fluency, and Flemish—so close to Yiddish, his mother tongue—is almost no effort at all. He is a linguistic juggler, effortlessly conversing with his patrons in French and Flemish, back and forth, never missing a beat.
The tailor's shop is located in the unadorned but pleasant family apartment on Rue du Lavoir. The shop has its own separate entrance; the hustle and bustle of commerce never spills over to his wife's kitchen or the children's play area and bedrooms. The tailor's son and daughter are absolutely forbidden to enter the shop without parental supervision. To the tailor's son it is not much of a temptation. The shop is fraught with all sorts of danger; the deadly-looking scissors, scattered array of sharp needles and pins, the loud, imposing sewing machine. No coaxing is necessary to keep him out of his father's place of business.
The tailor's wife shares the same family background as her spouse. They even grew up a few blocks apart. From time to time she assists her husband with the finishing, a skill she learned from her mother. After all these years, though, the tailor's wife has not adjusted to life in Belgium. Despite her efforts, the French language remains beyond her ken. Her only link to the outside world is, paradoxically, via her Yiddish, which she utilizes to communicate with the Flemish-speaking shopkeepers and tradesmen. The Dutch syntax, so similar to her mother tongue, proves to be a salvation.
Every week, just like in Poland, she cooks an enormous pot of cholent, the bubbling, thick brown stew that is a staple in Jewish homes throughout Eastern Europe. If potatoes happen to be cheap and available that week, the cholent has a strong potato base. If there is parsley or carrots or anything else available, that too is appropriated for the slow-cooking stew. When the tailor's wife cooks her cholent, the scents transform the apartment on Rue du Lavoir to a shabby Czestochowa domicile. The tailor inhales the odor of cholent and is reminded of Polish winters. The scent, at times, makes him want to vomit.
The tailor and his wife bicker frequently. The apartment has a little balcony. Outside, on the street, is a vital world in which the tailor's wife is unable to participate. Snails can be purchased from street vendors. Radios transmit the lilting voice of Louis Chagnon. Children kick soccer balls, play cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers. To the block's gaping amazement, there is an afternoon when a tall Negro, a visitor from the Congo, strolls by. The tailor's wife is removed from all of this. She does not realize that although Belgium is far from a paradise, it is certainly not Poland. Jews do not fear Belgians. Her help with the finishing is really not all that vital. The tailor often feels his wife a hindrance.