This post is part of the JCPA’s project “Celebrating New Americans” as part of Jewish American Heritage Month. Sol and his family immigrated to America from Vilnius in 1903 in the steerage of a ship. They settled in Manhattan tenements just off Delancey Street, an area filled with Jewish and Italian immigrants and before long, Sol was fluent in Yiddish, English, and Italian. Because of his friendships with Italian immigrants, he became a life-long lover of opera!
Like most immigrant children, Sol started working soon after arriving in America, selling ice selling fruits and vegetables from a cart, delivering milk, etc. His need to work meant he never received a formal education, something that dogged him the rest of his life. It is said he always carried a newspaper tucked under his arm so people would assume he could read.
At about 16-years-old, Sol got his first job in a factory making knapsacks which started a long career in the garment industry as well as a life-long association with the American Labor movement, including its violent beginnings. In fact, the “Ladies Handbag Workers Association” was a branch of the Textile Workers Union which was organized by Samuel Gompers. Sol personally knew Gompers as well as Eugene Debbs. Herb remembered whispered conversations around his parents’ kitchen table about managements’ goons dubbed by the press as Murder Incorporated. There were times they even feared for their lives. Sol also flirted with the socialists and even the communists during the Great Depression, but he greatly admired FDR and remained true to his Democratic beliefs. Ultimately, Sol was promoted to management at which time he negotiated with the unions from the other side of the table.
The family survived the Great Depression by moving about, taking jobs where they could be found, including a move to Catskills, NY. Sol’s love of opera never diminished. He was a beautiful tenor and sang regularly for the Shul, Bar Mitzvahs, and even social groups. Raised as an Orthodox Jew, he became ambivalent about his religion – but not his Jewishness – as an adult. Family came first, and his children were well cared for and well-educated. Herb attended New York University, receiving a degree in aeronautical engineering. He went on to build helicopters and eventually retired as the President of Aérospatiale Helicopter Company.
You can read the full story of Sol Epstein here: