The word “shmatta” in the title is Yiddish for rag, but also means garment.
The Holy Shmatta Factory
My uncle Ben came home one evening in 1937 to proudly announce that his little tailor’s shop in Ste. Lynne, Quebec, had a lucrative new account.
Lecker & Sons would be making robes for the priests at the Holy Infant Jesuit College.
Auntie Bella sniffed, blessed and sliced the challah bread for shabbas dinner and said nothing about it thereafter. However, her expression said, “sleeping with the enemy.”
It was customary for Jews and Gentiles to live parallel, not intersecting, lives in rural French-Canadian villages. Jews were either hated as “Christ killers” or tolerated as something of a curiosity because they kept the sabbath on Saturday and lighted simple candles at the time of year when their (mainly Catholic) neighbors erected elaborate Christmas trees.
This kind of symbiosis – priests needing garments that Jews sewed to earn a living – was perhaps unprecedented.
Word spread fast in the Jewish community, all the way to the synagogue in neighboring Ste. Agathe. Naturally, being Jews, everyone had to have an opinion.
Some said “Sure, why not? A man has to make a dollar.”
But many others, including the Rabbi’s wife, were outraged.
“The Catholics are the persecutors,” people said.
“The Pope is against us!”
“Going back to the Diaspora, wasn’t it always the Catholics who drove us out of one country or another?”
“That’s right! Remember Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain?”
Auntie Bella took it hardest, possibly because the women had been the quickest to censure. So Uncle Ben took this matter to the Rabbi, a mostly calm and sensible man.
He entered the Rabbi’s study, where matters both secular and religious had been settled over the years. From floor to ceiling rose book shelves whose contents overflowed onto every horizontal surface: floor, chairs, even the wash basin, were covered with books. Their spines showed titles in Hebrew, French, English, German and Hungarian. Uncle Ben was impressed.
“How can I help you?” asked the Rabbi.
Uncle Ben laid out the situation, weighting it perhaps a little more toward the great opportunity for supporting not only his family but the synagogue, too.
“And in the end,” he concluded, “all we are doing is sewing cloth. In my opinion, this order is no different from an order for a tallis for a Bar Mitzvah boy.”
The Rabbi had been listening with his eyes closed and hands steepled. After a few minutes passed he asked, “These robes, are they made of some special material or threads?”
“No,” said my uncle. “Just plain black wool cloth imported from England.”
Again the Rabbi thought. “And are you required to stitch any Christian symbols or prayer words on them?”
Again my uncle said, “No, nothing. These men are very austere and only wear plain cloth.”
“What if,” said the Rabbi, now more animated and leaning forward, “you were to somehow make these Catholic robes a little bit Jewish?”
Now it was my uncle’s turn to contemplate. His hands moved over imaginary bolts of cloth, seeing the pattern laid out and cut, visualizing the way that seams were turned at the collar and under the arms.
“It is possible. There are places where – hypothetically speaking, of course – a tailor could stitch a very small Star of David and then turn the cloth – at the hem, for example – so that it would never bee seen.”
“Ben Zion Lecker,” the Rabbi smiled, “I see no problem whatsoever with the manufacture of robes for the Jesuits and I give your enterprise my blessing. But make sure that the hems are stitched very well so that they never come loose, God forbid.”
“God forbid!” my uncle echoed.
“And one more thing. I will be sure to tell my wife that I highly approved your enterprise,” the Rabbi said with a twinkle.
“That way, the whole congregation will very soon find out.”
Gita M. Smith is a journalist whose work also appears on Fictionaut, MuDJob, Microw, 6S and T10. Her book, “The Shiner Chronicles,” is available from Blurb.