The Answer of
Ludlow Street by Jacob A. Riis
You get the money, or out you go! I ain't in the business for me
health, and the bang of the door and the angry clatter of the
landlord's boots on the stairs, as he went down, bore witness that he
meant what he said.
Judah Kapelowitz and his wife sat and looked silently at the little
dark room when the last note of his voice had died away in the hall.
They knew it well enoughit was their last day of grace. They were two
months behind with the rent, and where it was to come from neither of
them knew. Six years of struggling in the Promised Land, and this was
what it had brought them.
A hungry little cry roused the woman from her apathy. She went over
and took the baby and put it mechanically to her poor breast. Holding
it so, she sat by the window and looked out upon the gray November day.
Her husband had not stirred. Each avoided the question in the other's
eyes, for neither had an answer.
They were young people as men reckon age in happy days, Judah scarce
past thirty; but it is not always the years that count in Ludlow
Street. Behind that and the tenement stretched the endless days of
suffering in their Galician home, where the Jew was hated and despised
as the one thrifty trader of the country, tortured alike by drunken
peasant and cruel noble when they were not plotting murder against one
another. With all their little savings they had paid Judah's passage to
the land where men were free to labor, free to worship as their fathers
dida twice-blessed country, surelyand he had gone, leaving Sarah,
his wife, and their child to wait for word that Judah was rich and
The wealth he found in Ludlow Street was all piled on his push-cart,
and his persecutors would have scorned it. A handful of carrots, a few
cabbages and beets, is not much to plan transatlantic voyages on; but
what with Sarah's eager letters and Judah's starving himself daily to
save every penny, he managed in two long years to scrape together the
money for the steamship ticket that set all the tongues wagging in his
home village when it came: Judah Kapelowitz had made his fortune in the
far land, it was plain to be seen. Sarah and the boy, now grown big
enough to speak his father's name with an altogether cunning little
catch, bade a joyous good-by to their friends and set their faces
hopefully toward the West. Once they were together, all their troubles
would be at an end.
In the poor tenement the peddler lay awake till far into the night,
hearkening to the noises of the street. He had gone hungry to bed, and
he was too tired to sleep. Over and over he counted the many miles of
stormy ocean and the days to their coming, Sarah and the little Judah.
Once they were together, he would work, work, workand should they not
make a living in the great, wealthy city?
With the dawn lighting up the eastern sky he slept the sleep of
exhaustion, his question unanswered.
That was six years agosix hard, weary years. They had worked
together, he at his push-cart, Sarah for the sweater, earning a few
cents finishing pants when she could. Little Judah did his share,
pulling thread, until his sister came and he had to mind her. Together
they had kept a roof overhead, and less and less to eat, till Judah had
to give up his cart. Between the fierce competition and the police
blackmail it would no longer keep body and soul together for its owner.
A painter in the next house was in need of a hand, and Judah
apprenticed himself to him for a dollar a day. If he could hold out a
year or two, he might earn journeyman's wages and have steady work. The
boss saw that he had an eye for the business. But, though Judah's eye
was good, he lacked the strong stomach which is even more important
to a painter. He had starved so long that the smell of the paint made
him sick and he could not work fast enough. So the boss discharged him.
The sheeny was no good, was all the character he gave him.
It was then the twins came. There was not a penny in the house, and
the rent money was long in arrears. Judah went out and asked for work.
He sought no alms; he begged merely for a chance to earn a living at
any price, any wages. Nobody wanted him, as was right and proper, no
doubt. To underbid the living wage is even a worse sin against society
than to debase its standard of living, we are told by those who
should know. Judah Kapelowitz was only an ignorant Jew, pleading for
work that he might earn bread for his starving babies. He knew nothing
of standards, but he would have sold his soul for a loaf of bread that
day. He found no one to pay the price, and he came home hungry as he
had gone out. In the afternoon the landlord called for the rent.
Another tiny wail came from the old baby carriage in which the twins
slept, and the mother turned her head from the twilight street where
the lights were beginning to come out. Judah rose heavily from his
I go get money, he said, slowly. I work for Mr. Springer two
days. He will give me money. And he went out.
Mr. Springer was the boss painter. He did not give Judah his wages.
He had not earned them, he said, and showed him the door. The man
pleaded hotly, despairingly. They were hungry, the little kids and his
wife. Only fifty cents of the two dollarsfifty cents! The painter put
him out, and when he would not go, kicked him.
Look out for that Jew, John, he said, putting up the shutters. We
shall have him setting off a bomb on us next. They turn Anarchist when
they get desperate.
Mr. Springer was, it will be perceived, a man of discernment.
Judah Kapelowitz lay down beside his wife at night without a word of
complaint. To-morrow, he said, I do it.
[Illustration: HE TIED HIS FEET TOGETHER WITH THE PRAYER SHAWL, AND
LOOKED ONCE UPON THE RISING SUN.]
He arose early and washed himself with care. He bound the
praying-band upon his forehead, and upon his wrist the tefillin with
the Holy Name; then he covered his head with the tallith and prayed to
the God of his fathers who brought them out of bondage, and blessed his
house and his children, little Judah and Miriam his sister, and the
twins in the cradle. As he kissed his wife good-by, he said that he had
found work and wages, and would bring back money. She saw him go down
in his working clothes; she did not know that he had hidden the tallith
under his apron.
He did not leave the house, but, when the door was closed, went up
to the roof. Standing upon the edge of it, he tied his feet together
with the prayer shawl, looked once upon the rising sun, and threw
himself into the street, seventy feet below.
It is Judah Kapelowitz, the painter, said the awed neighbors, who
ran up and looked in his dead face. The police came and took him to the
station-house, for Judah, who living had kept the law of God and man,
had broken both in his dying. They laid the body on the floor in front
of the prison cells and covered it with the tallith as with a shroud.
Sarah, his wife, sat by, white and tearless, with the twins at her
breast. Little Miriam hid her head in her lap, frightened at the
silence about them. At the tenement around the corner men were carrying
her poor belongings out and stacking them in the street. They were
homeless and fatherless.
Ludlow Street had given its answer.