Moses on the Inside - Lisa Harris
Updated: May 13
Above Boston Harbor’s murky waters, gray and white seagulls swirled and screeched at one another in the morning sunlight. The air reeked of dampness and dead fish. Riggings clanged against the schooner’s mast pole. Waiting in line to answer the captain’s questions before heading down the gangplank and onto the wharf, I watched sailors hurriedly stuff canvas sails into the boat’s hold. After six weeks of battling waves on the voyage across the Atlantic, they wanted to secure the ship and be off to enjoy their free time, before the boat loaded again and sailed with the next high tide. At last, my turn. “Name?” Not looking up at me, the captain stared at a large book of lined paper. He held a pen in one hand above the ledger’s half-filled page, waiting to mark my answer in one of the columns. I peeked at his book and read “October 18, 1868,” written in loopy handwriting at the top of the page. Near Yom Kippur, the most important holiday in the Jewish year. A day for atonement, of making apologies for wrong-doings. I passed my satchel from one hand to the other. “Moses Israel.” He scribbled my answer in the first column of a new line. “Number of people traveling with you?” “Just myself.” We could barely afford my passage and it was in steerage, the least expensive. Father and Mother said they would sail in a few months, maybe a year, along with my four younger brothers and sisters. Once they had saved enough. “Age?” “Fourteen.” For the first time he looked up from his ledger and saw me. “Where’re your parents?
You’re young to be traveling alone.” “Times are hard.” I wrapped the satchel’s rope around my finger. “My family stayed in London. They’ll be coming over soon.” With the amount needed for six more steerage tickets, it may be longer than a year. I hoped to find a job quickly so I could send money home.
Below, wooden barrels thudded as men rolled them down from the ship’s slanted plank onto Boston’s wharf. The men cussed at one another, using words Mother would have washed my mouth out with soap if I’d said them at home. I scuffed my worn right boot on the deck, the hole where my big toe punched through the leather was stuffed with scrunched-up newspaper. Home wasn’t London anymore. This was home now. The captain removed his navy-blue cap, raked grimy fingers through oily hair, and returned his eyes to his ledger. Finding his next question, he snugged his hat back on so the braided band tilted askew. “Birthplace?” “Prussia.” “Not English? You speak with a Londoner accent.” I shook my head. “Moved to London when I was a lad.” Beyond remembering feeling cold down to my bones from the long dark winters, I had no memories of Prussia, only stories from Mother and Father, none of them pleasant. “You’re still a lad. Jewish?” I nodded. After I found a room in a boarding house, I’d search out the nearest synagogue. Make sure I had not missed Yom Kippur. Reaching over the side of the ship’s railing, the captain spit a stream of tobacco juice into the water. “Occupation?” “Tailor. Like my father.” Like his father, Israel Eckiniska, before him. Father had said that at one time, when he was a lad, the Eckiniska name was synonymous with fine, even stitching in our Prussian village and clients paid a premium for our clothing. But then hard times came and nobody had money for food let alone fancy stitching. “Lad, bit of advice,” the captain said in a hushed tone. “You’ll find work quicker if you change your name. And, since you talk like you are, say you’re from London. Now, off with you.” With a wave of his hand he dismissed me. “Name?” he asked the man behind me. I stepped onto the plank, felt the wood sway as I walked downward, and held my bag closer. What’s wrong with Moses Israel? Father said it would be different here, that I would be accepted. He said I wouldn’t have the same problems he faced after fleeing war-torn Prussia. He told me Londoners wouldn’t buy a suit from a Prussian, so my father, Harris Eckiniska, took his father’s first name as his last, becoming Harris Israel, a moniker that sounded like its owner spoke English rather than German and Russian. I turned my head and glanced up at the City of London schooner at the base of the gangplank. It had to be different here as there was no going back. London overflowed with tailors, and nobody paid a premium from clothing made by an Israel, regardless of how tight our stitching. The wharf looked more solid than it was. With each step, it swayed beneath me. My head began to spin and I leaned against a stack of barrels to steady myself. “Lad, you’ve been on the boat too long,” a dockhand said as he passed. “Takes a bit of adjustment before your land legs come back. You’ll be walkin’ crooked for days.” His words sounded odd, said with an American accent, one I had to get used to. Another man with huge arm muscles slapped the first one’s wide shoulders with his cap.
“Folks will think he’s drunk.” They both laughed as they knocked a barrel on its side, and together rolled it toward another schooner’s gangplank. Hearing them grunt as they pushed the barrel up into the boat’s hull, I patted a small pouch tied inside my pants. Silver jiggled. Not many coins. I didn’t have days to find my land legs. I needed to find work. I set off, trying to walk straight. Ahead of me, two cats tussled over a fish head. A tabby missing an ear cuffed at a smaller, skinny gray and when the gray hesitated, the tabby lunged, biting the gray in the neck and kicking hind legs into the gray’s stomach. Twisting sideways, the gray freed itself and darted off, hiding behind a stack of barrels. My stomach began to ache after the orange cat started to eat. I needed to find a rooming house. Mother said to make sure they offered meals, that way I wouldn’t go hungry. Burly men pushed carts piled high with dried brown leaves. Inhaling the leaves’ pungent, earthy odor, I followed one to the end of the wharf and down the cobbled street, the cart bumping along the uneven brick pavement, to a warehouse. “Jones & Grogan Cigar Manufacture” was printed in gold paint just below the eaves. The entrance was crowded with people, mostly young women, but lads, too, like myself. They talked among themselves, asking if the foreman had let anyone in. What were they waiting for? I held my bag in front so I wouldn’t bump it into anyone and weaved between people until I stood near the warehouse’s huge double doors. I didn’t wait long until one of them creaked opened and man wearing a grimy apron stepped out. “Pick me! Pick me!” people yelled, waving. Some talked with an American twang, but many spoke with English and Irish accents. The man demanded of a stout girl standing next to me, “Name and hands.” “Hannah Grace.” She thrust both hands forward, turned them back and forth. “See how small they are.” He nodded. “You’ve been here before, haven’t ya, girl?” He nodded toward the open door and she scurried inside, her long dark dress rustling as she ran. “You.” The man with the apron pointed at me. “Let’s see your hands.” I held my right up for inspection, like the girl had. “New here, aren’t ya? Ever roll cigars?” I nodded, lying. “You look like you need work.” He eyed my worn clothing and satchel. I nodded again. “Name?” He moved aside, poised to let me through the door. “Moses Israel.” He leaned into my face, his bulk between me and the entrance, his breath foul. “Get outta here!” He flung his right arm wide. “No Jews work in my factory.” I jumped away so as not to be hit. What’s wrong with being a Jew? As the crowd surged forward, I worked my way backwards and waited outside the tight circle. The ones he let inside had all called out English-sounding names. Is this what the captain meant? I walked several blocks until I located the first boarding house, a brick building with “Hanover House” on a wooden sign hanging over the door. I scrawled my name in the thick ledger and paid the old man at the counter two coins for their cheapest bed. Meals extra, he said. He showed me to a room on the first floor, near the end of the hall, it smelled dank and moldy.
There was only a narrow cot with a blanket and a washing stand. “Privy’s out back.,” He nodded to the right, along the hallway. “You’re lucky you’re so close.” He held his nose with his fingers. “Or, maybe not,” and grinned, showing a gap where his two front teeth should have been. After he left, I dropped my satchel on the floor, and plopped down onto the bed. It was thin and hard, and I could see the blanket was poorly made, the threads widely spaced. Our bedding at home was tightly woven, trapping air so we were warm at night. But I wasn’t home anymore. I fell onto the bed, tired, and closed my eyes, wanting to sleep for days. Used to the pitch and sway of the City of London, my head began to spin from laying still. Sitting upright made me feel better. I surveyed the room. The one window was grimy and the faded curtain torn. A peg on the backside of the door was for my clothes. I listened for sounds of others but heard nothing. The old man had said I had taken the last room, so where was everybody? My stomach rumbled. Working, that’s where they were. Where I should be. I stood and washed my hands and face in the basin. I removed a comb from my satchel and, looking into the mirror tacked above basin, I ran it through my hair, making myself look as presentable as possible. Best get to it. I spent the day looking for work, asking at every tailor shop I walked past. Some waved me off before I spoke, others listened to me, asked me where I came from and my name. But I didn’t have any luck and by the time the sun set, my feet ached from walking. I returned to Hanover House and paid for supper. In the dining room I recognized Hannah, the girl from Jones & Grogan. “You live here, too?” I sat next to her on the worn wooden bench. She wore the same dark brown dress, dirty at the wrists and giving off the aroma I smelled outside the cigar factory. Bowls of beans, cooked fish, and a plate of bread sat in the middle of the table. A portly woman, the wife of the old man, limped toward me, bringing me a plate and a spoon. One sole of her black boots was thicker than the other and loose hair hung in her face. “Yes,” Hannah said. “I saw you waiting outside the factory this morning, didn’t I?” She dished a ladle of beans upon her plate. “The foreman wouldn’t let me in,” I mumbled, my mouth full of crusty brown bread. I sopped up beans with another piece. I hadn’t eaten since yesterday and if it wasn’t for the old man watching me from across the room, ready to demand more coin if I dared take a second helping, I would have emptied the bean bowl. I needed to make my silver last. “Try again.” She ripped a hunk of bread from the loaf. “They always need rollers, especially people with small hands.” She held out her free hand. “We wrap leaves tight and make an expensive cigar.” I was trained to sew, not roll cigars. The next day, I headed in the opposite direction of where I had searched. I wore a jacket, pair of pants, and a shirt I had made myself, so I could show my needle skills. Three blocks away from the boarding house, I pushed open the door to Timmins and Son Tailors. A bell jingled as I entered. Across the room, a man with glasses looked up from a bolt of cloth. He placed a long pair of scissors on his work station. Another man, this one younger and probably the son in Timmins and Son Tailors, sat behind a long table just inside the door. He continued to stitch a hem on a pair of woolen britches. “What can we do for you, lad?” The older man asked. “Your master checking on an order? We’re running a week or two behind. Give me his name and I’ll tell you a new date of when it will be ready.” He opened a ledger. He thought I was a servant. I shook my head as I removed my jacket to show them my skills.
“I’m looking for work.” The older man shut the book and picked up his scissors. “We don’t need help.” Unlike yesterday, I would not leave before I had a chance to show my stitching. I held out my jacket to the younger man who was closer. “I can sew tight stitches. Cut straight. Make patterns. Stitch button holes.” “We don’t need you.” The older man returned to his own work. The younger man peered at my stitches. “Father, he can sew.” He took the jacket from me, turned the sleeve inside out, peered at the seam and studied my button holes. “His stitches are tight and small.” He waved his hand at the bolts of clothes stacked on open shelving. “We could catch up if we had help. Someone to cut patterns. Finish button holes.” The older man motioned me forward with his scissors. “Show me.” His son handed me my jacket and winked at me. This was my chance. I held out my jacket to the senior tailor. Ran my pointer finger along the turned-out sleeve’s seam, glad I had washed my hands. I showed the jacket’s front, buttoned and unbuttoned the lower button. He took my jacket, held it close to his eyes and counted the stitches along the button hole’s inch and a half length. “Very nice,” he said to the cloth. Looking up at me, he asked. “Where did you learn to sew like this?” “From my father and grandfather.” The younger man smiled at me before resuming his task. “What are their names? We might know them. We go to London once a year to buy wool. You are from London, aren’t you?” I nodded. This was how my father said tailoring worked in Prussia, before the bad times came. The tailors all knew each other, or of each other’s work. “My father’s name is Harris Israel and my grandfather’s was Israel Eckiniska. Maybe you’ve heard of them, they were well known in Prussia.” “What kind of names are those?” The old man jumbled my jacket and tossed it at my feet.
"You’re not from London. You’re just pretending to talk like you are, so I trust you. Off with you.” He shook his shears at me. “We don’t hire liars and we don’t hire Jews.” Rising, he began to walk around the work table. “Be gone.” After picking up my crumbled jacket from the polished wooden floor, I backed toward the entrance, keeping my eye on the scissors. The door’s bell jingled as the younger man opened it. Not looking at me, he stood aside so I could pass. “Probably stole the jacket,” the man said before the door shut behind me. A thief? Never had an Israel been called a thief. I searched for work, any work: sewing, loading cargo onto boats, sweeping floors in the hardware store. Clerks and captains chased me off over and over after I mentioned my name or Prussia. A week passed. Coins gone and my stomach hungry, I noticed Hannah again at supper. Sitting next to her, I sensed the cook watching me since I hadn’t paid for the meal, probably worried I would filch something off Hannah’s plate. The smell of salt cod and beans made my stomach ache, but I reminded myself it was Yom Kippur, a time of fasting. I should have spent the day at synagogue atoning instead of looking for work. “Where are you from?” I hoped she, like me, came from someplace else. Because if she did, I could fit in too, as she obviously did. “Here. I was born in Boston. Over on Jasper Place.” She said the name of the street as if I was familiar with the town. I watched the spoon full of beans move to her mouth and didn’t let on that I didn’t know the lay of the land. “Where are your parents from?” She leaned into me. “Ireland.” And put her finger to her lips. “But we tell everyone they’re from London.” “Why?” “Because people hate the Irish as much as they hate your people.” She took another spoonful. “You’re not from here, are you? Or from London, even though you talk like you are.” My stomach growled. I shook my head. “How did you know?” “I heard you tell the foreman your name. Sounds too foreign.” She paused. “If you want work, change your name. Moses Israel is too Jewish. How about Morris for a first name? And Jones or Harris or Smith or Lockridge for a last? Something which tells people you really are London, through and through.” “I can’t do that.” If I changed my name completely, I would be turning my back on my heritage. My father felt bad for saying he was no longer an Eckiniska. Using his father’s first name and his new last name was the only way he could live with himself, he’d told me. “Suit yourself. But you’ll eat sooner if you look and act like everyone else.” She pulled a piece of bread from the loaf and popped it into her mouth. Later, on my cot, I tried to ignore the pain in my stomach, but it clawed at me. I pulled the threadbare blanket over my head. The wool was rough and scratched my face. Must I change my name again and deny my faith, too? Father said things would be better here. My stomach growled. I shoved the covers off. “Morris,” I said, to see how it sounded. Perhaps I could try it, for one day, so I can eat. I can be Moses again. Someday. I dreamed of my parents in our room in London. I saw my mother light candles on our wooden menorah. The wax melted away, the last flame flickered, and darkness fell. The next morning, I was at Jones & Grogan. Early. A different man guarded the door. I spotted Hannah. “Hello, Morris.” She came alongside of me. The foreman glared at me and barked, “Hands?” I raised them, turning them this way and that. He nodded in approval. “Name?” I was silent. “Name?” he bellowed. “Morris Harris,” I whispered. “What was that?” Hannah nudged me with her elbow. “Morris Harris,” I said clearly. He motioned me with his dimpled chin toward the door. I darted inside. Dozens of worktables filled the cavernous warehouse. Light filtered in from dirty windows
located high in the walls, below the eves. Dried tobacco leaves, an arm’s length long, were stacked high in the middle of each table. I sat at the nearest and coughed, catching my breath in the musty air. At other tables young men and women my age rolled leaves into cigars, and a lean man checked each one. Hannah joined me and smiled. “Glad to meet you, Morris Harris.” I smiled back. Moses on the inside, Morris on the outside. I’ll survive like that.
Lisa K. Harris is a Pushcart Prize nominated author who writes about growing-up, outdoor adventure, and coping with speed bumps. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Raleigh Review, Black Fox Literary Review, Highlights for Children. She also co-authored an environmental policy book (Krausman and Harris, Cumulative Effects, CRC Press, 2011). Lisa lives in Tucson with two daughter, and is currently in search of an agent for her latest novel. 'Moses on the Inside, is a fictionalized account, based on historical research, of her great-grandfather's life. It is also a story of how her great-grandparents met.