Recap: “Found Objects, Forgotten Stories” at the Eldridge Street Synagogue

Posted on: April 18th, 2012 at 11:37 am by

It’s the little things that count. Or perhaps it’s the little things which often make us the most curious. For example, a coin purse found at a flea market, sparking a Herculean quest to learn more about its original owner.

Such was the case with “Found Objects, Forgotten Stories,” a talk at the Museum at Eldridge Street this past Sunday by Benjamin Feldman, a historian, writer (Butchery on Bond Street, Call Me Daddy) and flea market aficionado. Finding the purse at a Chelsea flea market a little over a year ago, his curiosity was piqued by the printing on the front. In gilt lettering, it read:

“Compliments of Sol Goldberg’s Cafe, 71 Canal Street, Tel. 2111 Orchard.”

The coin purse was what we now call “swag,” a giveaway enticement, in this case to lure people to a local business. As soon as Feldman saw it, he had to find out more.

“I thought of the phrase, ‘you can’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse,” he said, explaining that the mystery of the purse made him exceptionally curious.

Trying to look up a “Sol Goldberg” in New York City from an unknown time period was not exactly an easy task. The “2111 Orchard” phone exchange was a good place to start. Those exchanges were no longer in existence after 1920, which narrowed down the search to a few decades. Still not ideal, but it was a beginning.

The day that Feldman bought the object, he went straight to the coin purse’s address, 71 Canal Street. He walked right past the sleeping concierge at the front desk, and wandering through the building. Typical of many Chinatown buildings these days, each office door had a foreboding locked gate denying access to curious historians and the like.

After going through listings at the New York Historical Society, the Municipal Archives, and a real estate registrar’s office, he found an earlier lease for Sol Goldberg at 17 Ludlow Street, where Goldberg had operated a tavern and lived above it with his family.

Feldman showed the audience slides of his quest to find additional clues, including an image of the Jewish newspaper The Forward. Long thought of as a socialist periodical documenting workers’ strife, Feldman said that in 1903, it was a different story. “The Forward was the Yiddish language version of Fox 5 News.” As Feldman translated the front page headlines for us, highlights included a sensationalist story about a gang of midwives who were kidnapping babies, along with an article about a cigar store dealer on 14th street who would earn extra cash by getting audiences to watch him crack a lead pipe over his head.

Tracing the Goldbergs to a few more addresses, Feldman visited each location. After discovering a residence in Brooklyn, he noted that the ownership of the house was in Goldberg’s wife’s name, which was unusual for the time. The trail ran mysteriously cold after that, around the era of Prohibition.

He found several Sol Golbergs, including a man who sued Macy’s, causing Feldman to call the main store, to see if anyone there could shed any light. Feldman comically then told the audience, who were on the edge of their seats at this point in the talk, “Macy’s was no help. So, don’t shop at Macy’s, ever!” It turned out to be one of a few false leads.

Undeterred, Feldman hired a genealogist friend to help out. In just one day, the friend was able to find someone who he thought could be Sol Golberg’s grandson, who had changed his last name to Gardner. Telling a skeptical Feldman to call the number in Reno, NV, he said, “Give it a try, what could it hurt?”

When Feldman got Gardner on the phone, he not only found out that he had the right person, but realized that he had learned about Alan Gardner and his wife Beatrix in a childhood science class. The couple were primatologists who had become famous teaching sign language to a chimpanzee in the mid 1960′s.

Feldman also learned that Gardner had a brother Herb, author of the play “Conversations with my Father,” which Feldman had seen on Broadway. He immediately recalled Judd Hirsch playing the role of a Russian immigrant who owned a tavern on Canal Street, and realized that Hirsch had been playing a character based on Sol Goldberg’s son Milton (Gardner).

In the play, Hirsch’s character refuses to work with bootleggers during prohibition, whereas in real life, Sol Golberg became a bootlegger (hence the house being in the wife’s name at the time, along with the trail running cold). Gardner told Feldman stories of riding in the family car as a baby with his grandparents at the front wheel, and the trunk filled with illegal liquor. The police never stopped them because it never occurred to them that bootleggers would travel with a baby along for the ride.

The talk ended with Feldman signing books and chatting with guests. Coincidentally, Feldman’s name had come to our attention right before working on this story. A friend on Bond Street had recently told us about Feldman’s book Butchery on Bond Street, a true story about a murder of a prominent dentist by his mistress in the mid 1800s. It was the most sensational trial in New York City at the time, comparable now to the media frenzy of, say, the OJ Simpson trial. Needless to say, we made sure to get a signed copy from Feldman on our way out.

-Writeup and photos by Lori Greenberg

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