Memory Lane: A Boy with Long Payos in 1927
As readers of this column know, the 1920’s found very few observant yidden in Boro Park of yore—which makes the following encounter on the train to Boro Park in 1927 all the more remarkable.
In this “Interview with a child who wears Payos in America,” published in the Forverts on May 13, 1927, the writer simply cannot get over the sight of a child wearing long payos… and in the opening paragraphs, he struggles to convince his readers that this is indeed true.
“I had a conversation with an American Jewish boy, who wears long, frum, curled chassidishe payos. Our conversation was in English. The boy speaks true American English. He also knows Yiddish, and he also knows Gemara.
It was in the evening, and I was taking the West End from New York to Brooklyn. When the train was on the bridge, when I noticed him near the door, looking out the window… with a brown hat on his head.
When he turned around, I knew it was true; A young boy of about thirteen. Yes, I am looking at a boy with payos on the West End line, in New York, in America. I did not immediately approach him… I observed him from a distance, the way someone who sees a rare bird landing on his windowsill, and is afraid it will fly away. He looks at it… observing its unique feathers.
His face appeared wise, and I noticed in his eyes an old Jewish sadness that tells us that they know that the secular population laughs at them… but what do they care about the apikorsim who look at them.
Two Jewish workers were arguing with him, and the boy responded, citing chapter and verse from pesukim and ma’amorei chazal.
How old are you? 16. How long are you in America? Close to five years. Have you gone to school? Yes, I went through public school, and now I study Gemara and secular subjects in a yeshivah. Where do you live? Boro Park. Do you have parents? Yes. My father is a druggist. Does your father want you to wear payos like this? It does not bother him. Did you come to America together with your parents? I came with my mother and my sister; my father was here previously. Where do you originate from? Soviet Russia, Kiev. Did you learn Gemara back home? They didn’t let me, but I did anyway.
Forgive me for asking you; why do you wear payos like this? Because I believe in this. I behave the way frum yidden do. Are you aware that you’re the only boy in America who wears this? I will be the only boy in America who gets olam habah.
Do you play ball? I did a few times, but the boys are not to my liking. Are you ashamed of your payos? Do you know that you will likely suffer as a result? I am proud to suffer, for this is my ideal. You will continue to walk around like this in America? Where then if not America, the land of freedom! Over here they don’t bother us for keeping mitzvos. When the Cheka (Bolshevik Police) dragged away my grandfather for teaching Torah to children, I vowed that in America I would be truly frum!
The train approached the 9th Avenue station, and the boy quickly got off. I wanted to pursue him, but I saw that he was tired of my badgering and my judgments.
Since then, I cannot forget that child whose father was a pharmacist in Boro Park. Moreover, I cannot forget those Cheka which drove this child to alter the course of his life. When they dragged the old zeide into prison, this 11 year old child turned into an old, frum chossid.
When I was 11 years old, the Kozaks would torture us because we were Jewish, and I vowed that I would come to America and throw it all away.
Through much research, it became clear that this boy was none other than R’ Moshe Velvel Katz, a prominent Boyaner chossi, whom we will one day profile more fully.