Jacob and Der Gott

Guteman was a hard, hard, taskmaster. He would never show satisfaction with the bakers’ work, and he let them know of his vexation every chance he could. The economy was such that the men under him were desperately in need of their jobs. Guteman could perform the bakery work better and faster than any of them could, and they know it. Guteman had convinced Mrs. Rubin, the tough matriarch who owned the bakery, that his way of running the production was best.   As long as the output of the handmade breads and hard rolls were reasonably consistent and spoilage at a minimum, the foreman was able to establish his own small kingdom, ruling with and iron fist.

The bakers bestowed a name on Guteman (one that they dared not say in his presence): “Derr Gott” (the god). This was not said with reverence, rather it implied, “the way he acts, he must think he is God Almighty”. The name had come about some years earlier when Guteman, as was the foreman’s right, had forbidden anything but necessary talk as the men stood together at the make-up table working the dough. Guteman always maintained that idle chatter – proof of time being wasted – would ruin the schedules he had planned for the day’s work. Besides, giving obnoxious orders made him feel so very important.

Mrs. Rubin was placing her trust in Guteman more and more. He found out early in his career that Mrs. Rubin was not a person to trifle with. She had absolutely no fear of him; he would never try to talk tough to her ever again. What a strident, commanding tone she was capable. Who would have guessed that any women could make him turn tail, and just for his suggestion to bring in the bakers a few hours prior to the end of the Sabbath?

The dumb trick of his, courting and marrying the boss-lady’s stepdaughter, sure misfired. How was he to know that Mr. Rubin (her new husband) had no financial interest in the bakery, and that Guteman’s bride was far from being Mrs. Rubin’s favorite.

The other cloud on the horizon was the return from Chicago of Mrs. Rubin’s son-in-law Max, her daughter Sadie, and grandson, Jacob. It didn’t look as though Max would get a job on the outside, and, already, he was trying to learn the bakery business from the inside. The pastry baker was planning to leave, and Max was working on that shift so he could help out during the time it took to replace him. Guteman had no control over the pastry production and was praying that Max would be stuck there for a long time.

For several reasons Guteman was not anxious to have any arguments with Max. First of all, Guteman was not really sure how well Max stood in Mrs. Rubin’s eyes. Then, there was Max’s physical presence. Max, at about 5′ 8″, wasn’t any taller than Guteman, but was thicker through the chest and shoulders. Guteman’s arms were extremely muscular from his years of hard work in bakeries, but Max’s arms were just as muscular, showing that he too had been no stranger to hard labor. Most important, Guteman had heard of Max’s violent temper and wanted no part of that.

Guteman was adamant in his plan; if it worked out that Max should eventually change to his shift, he would get very little instructions on the proper ways of making bread and hard-rolls. Max would have to pickup what he could from the other bakers. Guteman was not going to show him any more than he absolutely had to, and nobody could watch Guteman’s handwork close enough to discover the secrets of making up the more difficult types of bread and rolls, such as the kaiser roll and the six-strand braided egg-bread. Guteman acted just like the jealous old mother-in-law who would never give her son’s wife the exact proportion of the old family recipe for fear the rival would surpass her. So, for now, Guteman had to be content with glowering at Max whenever the man came into his range of vision.

Max wondered, again, at the scowl on Guteman’s face; someone must be on his blacklist again. Max was not happy with what he was doing, but he felt it was because he didn’t know enough about the work yet. He was going to tell Sadie tonight that he had decided to apply for night classes in baking at Opportunity School. Maybe he could get some extra insight into the job.

It was a shame that Chicago hadn’t worked out. It would have been the answer to his itch for complete independence from family. He knew his worth to anyone who wanted a loyal, hard worker, but he still could not control his sharp tongue when confronted with a fellow worker’s stupidity or downright laziness. He had yet to realize that others might not have the same work ethics he had been brought up with. Hopefully, this would be the last move. Even though his dreams would have to be pushed back, at least there would be comfort in knowing his small family would not want for the necessities of life. Maybe the depression, that now covered the whole world, would soon disappear.

He knew that Sadie was much happier being so close to her family. That meant a great deal to their getting along. Jacob was starting to shoot up and would be taller than his father some day. Soon, Jacob would start studying for his Bar Mitzvah. He was a good, intelligent boy, a boy to be proud of, but he didn’t seem to pick up his Hebrew fast enough. It was nice to know that Jacob was not afraid to work; in fact, he acts as though work was play. There he was, bothering the oven-man again; Max hoped he wouldn’t burn himself. Those loaves of bread coming out of the oven could be handled bare-handed, but it took practice and lots of burns to learn the proper way. He wanders over this bakery as though it was a playground built especially for him.

Jacob was another person who had no fear of Guteman . He just did not understand that a shop foreman was someone who was better and had more authority than the other men. He had been brought up to be respectful of his elders, but no one in his grandmother’s bakery could ever overwhelm him with their supposed importance. His eleven years of life had been an almost continuous questioning of every activity that challenged him; and he was used to asking questions of grownups as well as his contemporaries.

Jacob happily played in the bakery every time he could, watching the men at their work, and actually made himself useful in small ways. He could put the “Union Made” labels on the breads before the oven-man peeled them into the oven; he helped his father in the pastry shop by icing the cupcakes and donuts; sometimes he helped by sweeping up when the flour and pieces of dough covered the floor around the workbench. The men at the makeup table were pleased with his flow of chatter, because they knew “Der Gott” was seething. They also knew Guteman was afraid to do anything to stop the boy.

Guteman did manage to convince Mrs. Rubin that the mixing room (Guteman’s main station) was too dangerous for the youngster. The mixers were the only pieces of machine running on electricity; the rest of the plant was strictly hand labor. She agreed that the electrical-run mixer, especially the new (second-hand) high speed mixer, would be a danger and forbade the boy that area. Jacob blithely accepted his grandmother’s restriction, because there were so many other places to play in the rest of the building.

When not clambering over the woodpile and the high stacked sacks of flour, Jacob found great pleasure watching the men at work. The bakery operated as bakeries did in the “old country”; using very little machinery, almost entirely hand-labor. The bakers helped the foreign-born of the community in assuaging their feelings of alienation by providing well-remembered tastes. He did not realize it at the time, but it was Jacob’s artistic appreciation that allowed him to see the movement of the men’s arms and hands as almost a dance. Every movement was choreographed, by experience, so that no time or effort was wasted. That their exertions showed them the tangible results, at day’s end, in well shaped loaves of bread or pans of crisp hard-rolls, was icing on the cake.

One memorable late afternoon, Jacob was watching the bakers making up five-pound loaves of pumpernickel. It was always a delight to watch how they were able to maneuver such large pieces of dough with ease. Max had finished cleaning his work space area and was ready to leave for home. He saw Jacob near the workbench and reminded him that they were eating with Jacob’s grandmother that night and not to stay too long in the bakery. Jacob acknowledged the reminder and turned back to the make-up table.

Guteman was busy in the mixing-room, so there was a little light banter going on between the men as they worked. One of the bakers tossed Jacob a piece of dough to play with. Jacob trying to copy the bakers’ movements pretended to make up a loaf of bread. Unconsciously, Jacob started to sing the big radio hit of the day:

“The music goes round and round,
Oh, oh, oh, ho, ho, ho,
And it comes out here”….

A completely nonsensical ditty that had taken the whole country by storm. At the height of it popularity, every radio station managed to play the record at least once every hour.

After the youngster finished the first verse, he was pleasantly startled to hear the rest of the bakers at the make-up table chiming in:

“You push the first valve down
The music goes round and round…”

By the time they got to the third verse, even the oven-man and his apprentice-helper were blaring out the words at the top of their lungs. The men worked faster, keeping up with the beat of the song. Six men, who hardly spoke English, were have a time like no other since they had started to work for this bakery! There was an ecstasy shining from their eyes that reached an almost religious fervor; the kind the older worshipers showed on Friday evenings in the synagogue when they chanted the welcome to the Sabbath.

As they finished the song, Jacob remembered his father’s admonishment about staying too long, and he reluctantly left the fun for the night. As he was leaving the building, he could hear the bakers start the most famous Andrew Sisters’ song, “Bie Mir Bis Du Schoen”. What a grand evening this had been, and how great it was to have been a part of it! Jacob left, almost hugging himself with secret glee. This experience was something be cherished for a time before sharing with someone else.

The next afternoon, after school, Jacob hurried back to the make-up area, positive he would be part of another concert. The men had been so happy and animated, there was no doubt that they would be anxious to keep up such a good thing. But, when he arrived, the men were working away in silence. It was as though what had happened the night before was only a lovely dream. The lad waited a few minutes, hoping that the fun would begin, but no one looked up from the work in front of him. Finally, he moved to the side of one the men and asked in a low voice, “Why isn’t anyone singing?” The baker looked around, carefully, then pointed with his chin towards the mixing room, and answered in Yiddish, “Der Gott gleicht nicht (Der Gott doesn’t like it).”

Jacob slowly crept away from the bakery, not really knowing why he felt like crying. His eyes were so filled with unshed tears, he did not see his father offer a consoling hand, or see the expression of caring sympathy on his face.

Max wanted, desperately, to put his arms around Jacob in compassion, but he knew that his son would have to learn how to handle adversity. Jacob just could not run to his father for help on every occasion of misfortune. Max had been told about the concert and the aftermath, but he promised the pastry baker he would not repeat the story. Someday, somehow, Guteman would get his due. Max worked away, dreaming of fitting retaliation to a distasteful handling of an innocent situation.

“An eye for an eye….”