By Levi Clancy for לוי on
פלטיאל יוזל Yosel Paltiel was born in Russia and his birthday was celebrated on October 20th 1897.
My birthdate is October 20, 1897. I was surprised that, when Sarah Levi had my Russian birth certificate translated, it said September 20, 1897. My mother always told me that I was born on Shabbat Shuva, the Holiest Sabbath of the year, which comes between Roshashona and Yom Kippur. I'll try through the Jewish agencies to see if that date in 1897 on the Jewish calendar can be matched to the current calendar. [A modern-day internet search turns up that date as October 2nd 1897.]
Life in Leeds
His family moved to Leeds.
In Leeds, when I was 10, I was asked to pull bastings in my dad's tailor shop which was in our home. It was like a small factory in the house and my dad employed some workers. Morris (Lewin) Levi worked with my father. ... While playing on a playground, I broke two front teeth on a steep angle so that the missing edges formed a large letter "A" and it was my trademark for a while. When on the playground, the teachers would blow a whistle once and we had to "freeze" in our tracks. When they blew the whistle again, we would queue up according to our height. I was the second shortest in the class.
I went to school until I was 13 and then got a work permit. From about the age of 10 until I was 13, I helped my father in the tailoring shop. I also took odd jobs in various stores but was very independent. If I didn't like the boss, I simply walked out. I earned 3 shillings a week which was about seventy five cents. For that, I worked ten to welve hours a day and, if I arrived 5 minutes late, I was penalized a whole hour on my pay. One boss would lose me in the morning and I'd have a new job that same afternoon.
Life in Toronto
"My brother Ben and I worked in a factory to reclaim rags."
Ben worked downstairs on a big machine that shredded the old rags. The shreds were then transported upstairs where I worked. The shreds were recycled into some kind of material and woven into fabric. It would then come to me to be fed into another big machine and to be cut automatically into sheets of a particular size. I was able to set up the load make it self-feeding so that I could nap for a couple of hours while it ran.
My brother downstairs had no such luck and had to work hard all of the time, whereas I could catch up on my sleep. I also worked as a plumber's helper and in a glove factory. When the first world war came along, I didn't want a temporary occupation, so I rented myself out as a plumber's helper or $5 a week for the first year and then $6 the second.
Move to United States
"I was worried about being drafted when I was about 17 and I didn't want to serve the anti-Semitic English, so I decided to go to the United States."
I got on a train in Toronto with my uncle, Reuben Levy, and we went to Windsor, Ontario, Canada where we were separated. Uncle Reuben was interrogated and arrested and sent back to Toronto. I had been "primed" to tell the right lies such as where I was from in the United States and what school I went to. It worked and I entered the United States illegally. I went by Ferry boat to Detroit and stayed there with a friend of an aunt while I waited for my brother Ben in Fresno to send me a ticket to go to California. I waited and waited only to find out, in a few days that the moment had been waiting for me all the time at the telegraph office.
Before I was able to leave Detroit for California, I had grown long hair and whiskers and I wanted to get cleaned up to look presentable so I went to a barbershop. He must have thought he had a sucker and he tried to give me the works. I told him that he could do whatever he wanted but that I was only going to pay for a haircut. He quickly changed his mind.
"When I finally got going, I had very little money and I couldn't afford to tell Uncle Morris and Brother Ben where I was."
Every day, they would go to the Santa Fe depot to look for me. When I finally got as far as Bakersfield, I sent them a telegram to Fresno where they were at the time. When I got to Fresno, we all greeted one another and sat down to eat. The doorbell rang and I answered it, only to receive my own telegram. My mother was there visiting Morris and Annie who sent her back to Toronto to get the rest of the family.
Life in Fresno
Joe started out in Fresno by scavenging for junk for Morris and Dave's business, but around 1921 he went to Hanford to run Morris' furniture store which he had kept there.
I went into partnership with Simon Forman in Fresno where we would comb the countryside for junk and then sell it to Uncle Morris.
To form the partnership, Simon had $150 in cash and I had just bought a Model-T Ford truck from Brother Ben. The crankshaft broke the first day.
Life in Turlock
Simon (with Fanny and Leonard) and I then moved to Turlock to start a junk business. We rented an old stable [Yosel later says, "really a junk yard"] in Turlock on Rider Street and were the first and only junk business there at the time.
A year later, we bought a 40x100 foot building on Broadway that had a backyard big enough to hold junk metals, etc. We named it the "Turlock Bargain House" and it was a big success for a few years.
Joe and May married
"In 1923, I went on a picnic in Oakland where I met my wife, May, who was singing. We fell in love and were married 60 days later (on July 30th 1923) at the San Jose Court House."
We couldn't find a San Jose Rabbi but found out that a Rabbi from Pasadena was visiting with his brother who had a furniture store in San Jose. He agreed to marry us. We decided to honeymoon in Southern California. (Their honeymoon began August 1st 1923.) When Itka and David Singer heard of this, they wanted to go along for the ride. When we got as far as Fresno, Ida Lazarus, wife of my brother Ben, wanted to go along too. So, we had a car full on our honeymoon which limited privacy.
I had an old Overland car which overheated on the ridge-route (now highway 5 between Bakersfield and Los Angeles) because it was carrying so many people and their luggage. However, we eventually made it to Los Angeles. We stayed overnight with Uncle Reuben and Aunt Brina and the next day left for Santa Maria which was up the California Coast. From there, we went to Turlock and my business. (Family Book § 4)
Life in Oakland
Joe and May moved to Oakland to avoid the Central Valley's heat.
As we were married in the summer, it was very hot when we got home. May couldn't stand the heat so I sold out my share of the Turlock Bargain House to Simon, we gave up our rented house of only a couple of months, and we moved to Oakland where I found a store at 2321 San Pablo Avenue. I didn't have enough money so got my uncles Dave and Morris Levi to co-sign a note so I could buy the business from a black gentleman. Meanwhile, Ben and Ida Lazarus who were married the prior year, stayed in Fresno, moving on to Delano some years later. The rest of the family, that was still kosher, remained in Oakland close to kosher butchers, etc. [Sam had a tailor shop in Oakland.]
Business in my store in Oakland wasn't too good so, around 1923-4, I decided to move to 3333 Foothill Boulevard. The idea was to live upstairs in the back of the store and save some rent. May's sister thought it was terrible to raise a boy in those surroundings so I rented a room next door which increased my overhead again. I finally had to close the store as I couldn't make a go of it. (Family Book § 4)
Life in Petaluma
"My experience on Foothill Boulevard wasn't pleasant so we moved to Petaluma."
I bought an old Dodge truck and bought old sacks from farmers and sold them to Simon Forman or a milling company. Once, they gave me a counterfeit $10 bill but, when I confronted them, they admitted it and gave me a good one. I turned the bad one over to the postal authorities. On making my rounds one day, I came upon a poultry farm which was about to dispose of a couple dozen "scrub chickens", those that didn't meet quality standards or something like that.
I said, "don't waste them. I'll take them." They gave them to me, I took them home, fed them for a while until they were fully grown and fat, and then had the whole family in Oakland over for a big feast.
Settling in Napa
"After a year in Petaluma, May wasn't happy, so we looked around for a while and decided to move to Napa."
We found a place at 620 Coombs Street in 1929 but the rent was $20 a month. I didn't have $20 so had to pay the rent in installments. The police didn't like me piling up junk I had collected at the rental place as it was not the proper zoning. I got away with it for a year. My brother Ben was in he wholesale automobile parts business at the time and he suggested that I take along some automobile accessory items on my route to see if I could sell them to dealers, garages, etc. I took $15 worth of accessories from Ben with the provision that he take back any that I couldn't sell.
It was a good suggestion because from that meager start from Ben, in a year we couldn't see the living room floor as it was all covered with merchandise. In 1930, I rented a store at 932 3rd Street in Napa and got glass showcases from a department store that was being remodeled, at a cheap price. So, I opened my auto parts store. Dad's tailor business in Oakland wasn't doing so well so he moved to Napa and helped me in the store for a while. He could neither read nor write English but managed to care of the store so I could continue my route selling automobile accessories.
"That first store of mine in Napa was very small and overcrowded so I rented a store on Main Street which was much larger and stayed there two years until the lease we had assumed ran out."
Rentals were hard to find during the war in the early 1940's. The building across the street became available but the price was a huge $50,000. It had several storefronts downstairs and upstairs had some offices and a lodge hall. [Located at 1032 Main Street, it was called the Reavis Hotel.]
I was finally able to borrow the money and bought the building. I took two storefronts for myself and raised the rents on the rest of the building so that the income made the property self-supporting. [Yosel and Martha converted the building name to MAJOR for May and Joe.]
Joe, May and Nathan
"Nathan grew up in the store and learned to be a good salesman and manager."
In 1950, when I was worn out running the business, Nathan went to Armstrong College which was a private school. Within 6 months, we had to recall him to run the store as I had to go to a sanitorium for recuperation from exhaustion. Nathan did most of the buying and it was often hard to get merchandise. Once, he went to San Francisco to the U.S. Rubber Company.
He was looking for thin sheets of rubber which were recycled from old tires and used as a relining inside of worn tires to make them last longer. This was a common remedy during the tire shortages of World War II. Anyway, these items were called "boots". When he asked them for boots, they said sure and took him upstairs where they had stocked hip boots. Just a funny memory.
Napa Jewish Building
"Around 1935, the United Jewish Appeal asked me to collect money for them in Napa. I didn't know how many Jews there were in the town but, with some help from the Jews I did know, we counted about 100 adults."
Thus, we started to socialize and we started the "Napa Jewish Group". We were advised not to use the word "Jewish" but I insisted. This was not a religious group. For Jewish services, we drove to Vallejo.
I was President of the organization for 5 years but couldn't get anyone to take over so we disbanded.
"Those of us in the Napa Jewish community collected money for overseas relief and then we finally started saving for ourselves for a Napa Jewish building."
We bought a building at Brown and Clay Streets from a contractor for $1,500 and had it cut in half and moved to 1458 Elm Street and then reassembled it. Ben Baylinson was very much involved in this project. Today, the building and property is worth more than a quarter of a million dollars.
We have a part-time Rabbi, 150 members and, thanks to Ben Baylinson who saw one at a Jewish Center in Mexico City, a swimming pool. We have started a new building fund to add a social hall or something like that.
"A little something now about the B'Nai Brith."
I was a charter member of the Modesto lodge when I lived there in the early 1920's and then became a charter member of our Napa group. In 1987, I was awarded a 50 year membership certificate.
In the early years, I let the Jewish community use the lodge hall I had in the upstairs of my building. I charged them rent but donated that amount back to the community fund.
I joined the Lions Club and was active for fifteen years.
They had to accept me as I was their best ticket seller. Selling tickets for the Lions Club gave me a championship reputation so now I sell tickets for the Jewish Community Center. On one of the Lions Club world cruises, I took along Napa Valley wines and attended Lions Club meetings around the world. The Lions required perfect attendance so I attended wherever I could to meet the requirements. On another cruise, on the steamship President Roosevelt which was not in a good state of repair, I wanted to have Passover services. There was a Rabbi aboard, on vacation, and he was exhausted.
However, after considerable rest, he agreed to conduct the services. On another trip, we had Passover in Sydney, Australia. On another trip, I asked around to find out if any Synagogue was going to hold Passover services. None were but a Rabbi invited May and I to have dinner at his home, after regular orthodox services in his Synagogue on Friday night.
Joe's later years
I retired at age 54 after recuperating in the sanitorium. That was in 1951. From 1951 to 1960, I rested. Now, I'm 91.
My wife died January 30, 1986. Now, I am working fort he National Federation for the Blind as I am gradually losing my eyesight. However, I have initiative and stay active and take care of myself. I have an enlarger to project magnified images so I can still read. I recently spent a couple of hours on a local radio talk show where people called in with questions. I told of my story of rags to riches in Napa.
I must be one of the oldest living Napa residents who can remember the old days since I have lived her for 60 years. As I can still get around quite well, I recently traveled to Alaska and to Israel and stopped in Hawaii on the way back to visit my sister Mimi.
Lazarus, Hillel. 1989. Family Book § 4 Malka Lewin (transcription of a video tape of Yosel Paltiel recorded by Cindy Kirkland)