Leonard Orkin, 66
Nat Arkin, 72
Former residents of 441 Main Street
Interviewed December 10, 1998
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Leonard Orkin and Nat Arkin were the sons of Sam Arkin the tailor, and for a time they were the only Jewish family in Concord.
Leonard - My name is Orkin. At best it is good speculation, but my father was somewhat cavalier when it came to our names. In point of fact, my brother's birth certificate is Arkin, my birth certificate is Orkin and our older sister's birth certificate is also Orkin. His citizenship papers were Orkin, his union papers were Arkin or vice versa. My guess is that the true name when spelled in Yiddish would use Hebrew characters such as aleph for the letter "A" but the sound of it is determined by the vowel sign that goes underneath it. As once written by my father for me, the underlined vowel sound makes it sound Orkin as opposed to Arkin, but the letter "A" remains the letter "A" so probably we should all be Arkins but we're not.
Nat - Both my parents came from the same small town in Russia. I can't give you the spelling but it's pronounced Glusk, and it is approximately 50 miles south of Kiev. My father came here as a teenager somewhere around 1916. We're not exactly sure but somewhere in that neighborhood. The reason he came into Boston was that his sister had preceded him to the United States and was living in Gardner, Massachusetts with her husband and family so that became the logical place for my father.
Leonard- He lived in Gardner for a brief period of time and worked with his brother-in-law who had a haberdashery store. As was the norm at the time in those early years, there were tailor shops all over New England and they were generally operated by Jews. As quickly happened, my Aunt Freidda heard of a tailor shop in Keene, New Hampshire where the local tailor had died. What do you do? Well, you send a Jew to pick it up. So my father went off to Keene or Wolfeboro, New Hampshire and picked up the tailor shop. He spoke no English, literally no English. As he pointed out, people would come in, bring their clothes, explain what they wanted him to do, and he would smile as well as he could. They suspected he didn't understand a word they said and they would take their clothes and walk out. The turning point came when an English teacher from the local high school brought her clothes in and explained to him what she wanted him to do. He again did his usual shuffle and she said, "You don't understand a word I'm saying but I'm going to teach you." Then she came in for the next few weeks and taught him rudimentary English and he said she saved his life. Thereafter, he was able to practice.
But he felt terrible when he lived in New Hampshire. He felt physically awful. One day he went to the doctor and explained his terrible feeling. The doctor suggested that he go to a nearby city where they had ladies that could fix his problem. My father was absolutely scandalized at the thought. In which case the doctor said, "Well, I think you'd better go someplace where you can find a girl and get married." So my father went to his sister and explained the problem, and she said you are to go to New York because that's where all the people from the shetel are. So my father went off to New York. When he came to New York, the first thing he did was find a "shadchen," someone to fix him up with a girl. It was a blind date. He went to pick her up and she came to door and he fell in love. And that was my mother, Rose Kaplan. His name was Sam Orkin or Sam Arkin as the case may be.
Nat - In different parts of his life, he was both of them. Initially when we arrived in Concord, which I believe was in 1937, the first place we moved into was a house on Hubbard Street, at that time 44 Hubbard Street. It was a house that we rented. My recollection was we were only there three or four years.
Leonard- I know we were there through ‘38 because the hurricane took place there.
Nat- I remember that clearly. In fact I have a scar on my leg from that. After three or four years on Hubbard Street, they purchased a home on Main Street. At that time it was 113 Main Street, the last house on the left going toward West Concord before you came to the South Bridge. Now it is I believe 441 Main Street very close to the railroad track. The rumbling of the trains was a part of our life. I'll never forget having guests stay overnight in our home and having a train come through, especially during the war when some of those trains were literally a mile long, and the house would shake and they would think the train was coming through the house. We were always surprised because we'd become so used to it that we didn't even notice a train come by.
Leonard - My father was a very skilled craftsman. He had worked in New York as a tailor obviously trained as a tailor in Europe. After a strike, and it's hard to believe that my father was involved in a strike, it appears at the end of the strike that my father was not invited back so that's when he went back to New England where his brother had set up a tailor shop in Concord. His name was Max Arkin and they became partners for a brief period of time. My father was a skilled craftsman and well regarded by the ladies in Concord because he turned out wonderful suits and Concord was very conservative from a sartorial point of view. They liked his kind of clothing which was very, very conservative and very well made, very beautifully constructed. I can't tell you when we moved away and when he died how many letters came from people in Concord praising his skills as a tailor and also as a fashion consultant because many women really relied on his good judgment and taste. He was a well loved person in Concord.
Nat - To give you an example of how skilled he was, there were women who came from Boston with pages they had taken out of magazines with a dress or a suit and would ask my father to reproduce it and he could. At one point, somebody who was aware of his ability recommended him to the Rhode Island School of Design where they offered him a position to teach pattern making. He turned it down. I really think the main reason was he didn't think his English was good enough and he was dead wrong on that. His English was more than adequate for that kind of teaching.
To tell you a little family story that was humorous. A woman brought in a coat, a rabbit coat, and she wanted it modified some. She asked him, "Mr. Arkin, what happens if I wear this in the rain?" My father's response was, "Did you ever see a rabbit walking through the woods with an umbrella?"
Leonard - His shop was located where Henry Dane's law office is now. Richardson's Drug Store was downstairs. And my uncle's shop was above Vanderhoof's Hardware Store. They closed their shops on Jewish holidays. Not much was known about Jews and because of that when we did not go to school on the high holidays, we had to bring in a note from our parents. When I came to law school in New York at Columbia and on the first Roshashana I walked out on Broadway and saw that nobody was working and the place was thick with human beings going to temple. I was astounded. I intellectually knew but never really realized how many Jews there were in the world.
Nat - My own experience in terms of anti-Semitism was entirely when I was pretty young and we were relatively new in Concord and typically it was from kids about my age. But I definitely do not have feelings of ongoing anti-Semitism in the town. I felt that by and large I was accepted in every aspect of the town that I cared to participate.
Leonard - I would echo that. Obviously I was younger than my brother so all of my years were spent in Concord. Occasionally somebody would talk about dirty Jew or Christ killer. I remember once a fellow named Kelly was really taunting me and I was really not much of a fighter. One of my friends, a kid by the name of Frank DeFord, his father had been a runner for the IRA, said, "How dare you do that to my friend" and whaled into him and beat the hell out of him for picking on me. I remember very little anti-Semitism. I would have to add to that I was a very social person. There was always a girl in my life. In retrospect I think back to how many father's hearts must have fallen to their feet when I arrived at the front door to take out their precious daughter. But I have to say if I was ever refused a date they sure as hell hid it from me and I never thought of it in any way that it was because I was Jewish. I think there was a little interest but remember anti-Semitism I don't think has much of a chance when you have a) a town that has a history like Concord's which is open to new ideas from Emerson to Alcott and so forth and b) when you're talking about five human beings in the whole bloody town, it's not a threat in any way. We were just sort of an oddity which Concord kind of prided itself in having a few oddities here and there and we were one of them, I guess.
Nat - But in terms of being curious about us, I don't recall a lot of questions about being Jews. Occasionally as we came to a holiday or approached a holiday, somebody would ask us to explain what was the basis for this particular holiday, but generally speaking I don't recall a lot of questions about the nature of our religion.
Leonard - I'll add one more part about that which I think is sort of indicative of Concord. My freshman year in high school my homeroom teacher was Jack Donovan who later became principal of the school. In those days you will recall you started the day with a prayer and a reading from the Bible as well as saluting the flag. Here I was a kid in high school and Jack Donovan on the first day took me aside and said, "Len, in order to make it more comfortable for you we will only read from the Old Testament this year." I thought that was a very sensitive thing to do.
There was really only one other Jewish family living in Concord at that time. My brother held up two fingers but I don't think Max lived in Concord any more.
Nat - Oh, I thought he lived over Vanderhoofs.
Leonard - No, they lived in another town.
Nat - But at one time they did have a flat in Concord.
Leonard - Yes. But the other family was the Jacobs. Mrs. Jacobs lived there and she had a daughter and son, Dorothy and Heime. She ran a little farm and had a stand out on Thoreau Street heading out toward Walden Pond. I think he had been the tailor in Concord before Max came. He died and Max followed him. She lived there a few years. I remember we went there sometimes on Sunday to visit. Then she died.
Nat - When I was in high school, I was the only Jewish student.
Leonard - I was too. Since we weren't there at the same time, we were both the only Jews. My sister Norma was too when she was in high school. She was four years older than Nat.
On the high holidays we went to Maynard. There was a little orthodox synagogue in which after you got to 13 on Yom Kippur and somebody had to go to the bathroom, you had to count heads to make sure you still had a minion. We would also occasionally, because my father in a desire for really classy stuff, would go to Boston for the high holidays where we would hear a real cantor carrying on. My father and mother were kosher and they kept a kosher home as long as they were in Concord, but the only time we went to services was on high holidays.
Nat - Of course because the closest synagogue was 7 miles away and almost all the time we did not have a car, it would have been pretty difficult to get there and also he was working six days a week. Just the logistics of it were very difficult.
Leonard - Certainly when they retired and went to Florida, they became very much involved in a synagogue there.
Nat - Initially when my father arrived here he registered Democrat. Of course both of my parents voted for Roosevelt, but the custom in Concord was when you came to vote, somebody would shout out your name and your party affiliation. Concord was a very Republican town then. So the first time he voted in Concord, everybody preceding him was John Doe, Republican, and they came to Sam Arkin, Democrat, and the place went silent and everybody stared at him and he was embarrassed. So he decided he would register Republican and vote Democrat. He was a pragmatic man.
The town was a different type of town then. We had a mix. Certainly at that time there were bankers, lawyers and people who owned stores and were proprietors of stores, and then there were the blue collar workers such as chauffeurs, laundresses, and cooks.
I clearly remember Richardson's Drug Store which was sort of a hub for young people. That's where we went to have a soda and meet other kids. Also my father's shop was above Richardson's but there were two other places right there that also occupied that space. One was Fred T. Boyd, a realtor and the other was John Brooks, a barber. As a matter of fact, John Brooks' son, Bobby Brooks was my friend. Another place that we used to frequent was Vanderhoof's Hardware and also Peterson's Clothing Store. One of my classmates was a grandson of the founder of the clothing store. His name was Kenneth Peterson. The place we shopped at generally was The Economy on Walden Street just about opposite where the Anderson Photo Shop now is. I used to hang out there a great deal.
Leonard - I was in Concord last summer and I was surprised to see that Mary Curtis is still there. Right next to where Mary Curtis is was a fruit store which my parents referred to as "the Greeks." It was the only place in town to get nice fruit and vegetables. There was a cobbler I remember. When we grew up, the town had the service people in their regular ordinary way of life. The people who commuted to Boston were in the minority and the town itself was basically self-functioning.
Nat - By the way, speaking of Boston, Len mentioned kosher. In the early years that was part of why my mother went to Boston once every week to come back with kosher meat in particular and whatever other products they had.
Leonard - Let me correct that a little bit. She would go in maybe like once a month. She would call on a weekly basis for the butcher to pack her order in dry ice and put it on a train. He would tell her which train it was on, and she would meet the train and take the stuff home. It was very difficult to do but she maintained a kosher house as long as we were there.
Nat - I arrived in Concord when I was 11 and so I started off in the junior high level of Concord schools and continued through the public schools until I graduated from high school. The first school was the Peter Bulkeley School, then I went on to the high school which was on the same street as Peter Bulkeley on Stow Street. We had the gym across the street from the Peter Bulkeley, a shop building somewhere in between Peter Bulkeley and the high school, and of course the playground which is still there. When I graduated from high school in 1943 almost all the males in the class went directly into the service if they were of age. I was 17 when I graduated. I enlisted at that point and I was on active duty a year later.
Leonard - From my point, growing up at the time, the war was pervasive. Every day you looked at the newspaper and saw where the troops were. I lived through the agony of the early part of the war and the triumphs of the latter part of the war. After 1943 and 1944 I knew where my brother was, and my sister in the Navy was stationed in the U.S. I don't think the Navy put women outside the 48 states. I knew where my brother was all this time and I had a map on the wall where I charted the war, but it was sort of part of your every day life, all pervasive but no more so than the weather. You lived with it. Virtually every house in town had the blue, or God forbid, a gold star in the window which indicated people off to war. It was the last "good war." There was no dissent about it, everyone knew it was the right thing to do. It was simply part of what you went through every day.
Nat - I have a memory of gas shortages. Everybody who had a car or a truck had ration stamps of some kind. As a matter of fact, at one time I worked in a printing company in Waltham where they produced ration stamps. I remember there were certain foods that became a shortage. Butter disappeared and was replaced by margarine and it was uncolored. I remember there was a tab built into the plastic bag with the coloring and you kneaded it until the color was uniform.
Leonard - That was the job Nat and I had. We threw it back and forth like a football because it was in a plastic bag and we threw it back and forth until it got the right color.
Nat - Soap of course disappeared during that period. I think there was a pervasive feeling of patriotism in town. Everybody felt that the war was the right thing and supported it.
Leonard - Well, you were a spotter, Nat.
Nat - Yes, that was another thing I did in high school. Somebody decided that there was a threat from German airplanes to the east coast of the United States so they established spotting towers along the east coast and the one in Concord was on top of Nashawtuc Hill. They built a tower and I was one of the volunteers. One night a week one of the adult volunteers would pick me up by car and take along a thermos of coffee or whatever and spend several hours up at the tower -- never saw a thing.
There was a camaraderie among the spotters and there was just generally throughout the town during the war. There was a united feeling about that this is something that should be done and we're pulling together.
Leonard - I don't think I have ever seen or we will ever see anything like it again in our lifetime. We may never ever see it again in this country. I think Vietnam and its brethren were too destructive.
I do remember VE day though. What a day! Everybody went downtown. We lived a mile out of town and we walked downtown. Cars were tooting their horns loaded with people and just went back and forth, back and forth. Not like there were any speeches or anything, just pure glorious joy at the end of this awful thing. Everybody was there.
Nat - You asked before about friends. My closest friend or buddy was Chuck Locker, Charles Locker, Jr. Other friends were Bob Brooks, Bud Phillips, John McPhillips who lived behind us when we lived on Hubbard Street, and John Dunn who was our neighbor when we lived on Main Street. His father was a chauffeur for I believe one of the Buttricks.
Leonard - My best friends were Johnny Russell whose father was a veterinarian in town, Frank Clarkson whose father worked for Hood Rubber and Hal Pratt whose father sold real estate. Those were my three best friends in high school. For many, many years I would see them one or twice a year but I guess I haven't now for about five or six years. Johnny lives over in Reading, I lost track of Hal and I think Frank lives on Cape Ann or around there someplace. My fiftieth reunion is coming up but my class is pretty non-interested. We had a 35th reunion and no one seemed to be terribly interested in doing another one. But if it happens, I'll be there.
Nat - I'll be having my 55th reunion and you just heard Len's comments about the probability of having a 50th for himself. The first reunion I attended was my 50th. I had not remained in contact with my classmates after I left Concord after getting out of college. I left Concord in 1949 and never lived there again. I moved around to different parts of the country and didn't maintain contact. Anyway I decided to attend the fiftieth. There was some question whether I would have anything of common interest with my classmates and found just being back in Concord and seeing my classmates was something I enjoyed very much. In fact the group enjoyed it enough so we decided to have a mini-reunion on the 51st. Then just the winter prior to the 55th which was June of 1998, I was exchanging cards with some of my classmates and several had mentioned that there had been no word about a 55th reunion. So I called one of my classmates and he said, "Well, the people that have been doing it are probably tired of doing it and unless somebody steps up, I don't think it's going to happen." So John Galvin who lives in Stratford, Connecticut and I decided that we would plan it, and we did and it took place in late June of this year. There were 29 classmates and with guests we had about 39 people. Concord is really my hometown.
Leonard - Absolutely for me too. If you asked me where I'm from today I would probably say Concord even though I am a New Yorker by all other sides.
Nat - A few events that I recall that you might be interested in was the April 19th parade, always something everybody looked forward to and made quite a fuss over it. I also have a memory of Friday evening band concerts in the center of town during the summer months. High school sports was something that attracted a lot of people. Len was one of the track team athletes. I was manager of the basketball team for a year. I also remember that there was never a movie in town but during the war there were movies shown in the Veterans Hall on Walden Street on Friday and Saturday nights.
I'll just mention some of the places that I have fond memories of. Lake Walden where I learned to swim. White's Pond where friends belonged and I used to swim. A place that was called Fairyland at the time was a place where we used to skate in the wintertime. We also used to skate on the meadows when the river flooded. And I have very fond memories of the Concord Public Library. I spent a lot of time there. When I'm in town I try to visit it again.
Leonard - By the way, Fairyland was also a source of the best blueberries the world has ever seen. We would go off and pick blueberries and mom would make blueberry pies. I've never tasted a blueberry pie of its like since and I've tasted, unfortunately looking at my girth, too many.