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Interview with Herbert Levine

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Herbert Levine talks of his father's family and their immigration from Russia to the United States because of the religious persecution against the Jewish people. The family initially settled in the lower East Side of New York City. Levine's father, who had apprenticed with a jeweler in Russia, was able to find work in a jewelry factory, but left due to ill health. He then went to an agriculture school and upon graduating went to work on a farm for a short period of time. He then settled in Syracuse, NY where he went to work for his brother as a jewelry salesman. Being able to several languages was advantageous in his sales. During World War I he entered the armed services and was wounded. As a result he received a Purple Heart. Upon returning home he settled in the Triple Cities where he became a successful jewelry salesman because he spoke several languages. He later married and opened a jewelry business in Endicott, NY. Levine briefly talks about his mother's family. Levine also discusses his own life. He attended Syracuse University and after graduation went to work for Kay Jewelers until he was drafted during the Korean War. After the war ended he went to work at his father's jewelry business, Ruby and Sons, which he continued to operate after his father's death. He later sold his interest in the store to his brother and then purchased Van Cott's. He discusses his life in Endicott, as a child and as an adult, the Jewish population in Endicott and the organizations he belonged to.


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Broome County Oral History Project

Interview with: Herbert Levine

Interviewed by: Nettie Politylo

Date of interview: 15 September 1978

Nettie: This is Nettie Politylo, interviewer, talking to Herbert Levine of Hazard Hill Rd., Binghamton, [New York] on September 15, 1978.

Herbert: Is the microphone in here?
Nettie: Herb, will you tell us about your life and experiences in the community? 
Herbert: Yeah, well, let me just use this as a guide. Okay? [clears throat] Um, first, I think we ought to talk about my father's background in, uh…in Europe. My father was born in Kharkov in Russia, actually the Ukraine. And, um…as a youngster, the family later moved to Kiev - where he grew up. My father went to school until age 12 or 13. He went to a Russian school during the day, and at 3:00 in the afternoon went to a Hebrew school where he learned to read Hebrew and to, uh, learn about the, you know, prayers of the Jewish religion. After, um….after leaving school, at about 13 years of age, he  went to work as an, uh, an apprentice to a German jeweler who lived in Russia - and just as we used to read about in the days of Charles Dickens, he lived in this man's place and slept on the floor and ate the food that was left over and that's, that’s what he did. And, ah, it's hard for us today to visualize just how they treated, eh, someone who was an apprentice. But he, he told of how one time he looked over the man's shoulder as he was working on a watch and fixing a watch - and the guy just knocked him for a loop and said, "Lookit: When I'm ready to have you know what I'm doing - I'll show you. Until then, you just sweep the floor and do what you're supposed to do." So, so that's what it was.
Um, [clears throat] part of the interesting background that my father's family was that his mother died when he was eight years old, leaving four children. Uh, for a father to bring up four young children in, in Europe at that time was almost impossible, so he married a woman who was a widow. And she had four children. So together, there was, eh, four of our kids, and four, uh…four of my kids, four of your kids [laughs], and then they had three children. So there was a family of 11…uh, let me see…10 of whom came here. 10 children and a mother and father left Russia in 1905 to, uh, come to America. Uh, the reason they left Russia at that time was that, uh, unrest was already beginning. The workers were beginning to march in protest against  the Czar - the seeds of the rebellion, the revolution was starting. There was a  tremendous pressure against the Jewish community. My father tells of meeting out in the woods where they had protest meetings, complaining about the Czar, and what they're doing, and how the Cossacks used to come riding on horses with whips and swinging, uh, whips around their heads and chasing the people through the woods after them, so they used to, used to get out. So the young, Jewish people, at that time, were conscripted into the army - were just drafted into  the army - were put into the army for 20 - 25 years. His grandfather, he  recalled, who lived with them as a boy, 10 - 12 years old was conscripted  into the Russian army and served in the Russian army for 25 years. During  this period of time, on numerous occasions, uh, somebody, I don't know who - whether they be soldiers, whatever - were interested in converting him to Christianity. And to make him bow down to the cross. Well, one of the facets, tenets of the Jewish religion, is that our interpretation of the Ten Commandments is that you don't bow down to anything, and it means don't bow down. So it means Jewish people don't bow. And he - my father's grandfather - used  to show us the whip marks - scars on his back where he was whipped - to try to make him bow down and he just wouldn't do it. Never did. And so, that, that certainly re-enforced their, ah, feelings of religion because if their grandfather suffered through that, there’s something that you weren't going to give up in a hurry.
But, he left Russia at the age 15 - together with, uh, with all his family. And they left, came, you know, steerage - they took every, almost all the money they had, um, to pay for their way to come to America. And, um, and to America, they came. They landed in Ellis Island, as did most of the immigrants at that time: 1905. And there was a slight problem with my father's health. They checked his lungs and they weren’t too happy about it; they were almost to send them back  because they were concerned about TB - tuberculosis. But, they finally let  him through. When they came to America, they were greeted by some sort of a cousin, distant cousin or something who was going to set him up in business. And they gave him whatever money they had left and he just ran off with it. So that took care of all the money they had. Like many immigrants at that time, they settled in the lower East Side of New York City. All these people - 10 children and a father and mother - in a little, tiny apartment. And everybody went out to get a job. My father, having worked in a jewelry business, went to work at age 15 in a factory, in a jewelry factory that made watch cases - pocket watch cases. And he was a polisher, just as you see a guy working on shoes in E.J. polishing all day long? That's what he did; he worked on a polishing machine. We have to realize, at this time, that he came here speaking only Russian, Ukrainian and German - those were the only languages he knew at 15 when he came here. So, uh, he went to night school in New York City to learn English to be able to get along as best he could. Incidentally, they never spoke Jewish or Yiddish because the Russian Jews who came to America thought it was nekaltoorne - it was not cultured to speak a low language like Yiddish. So in their homes, they spoke Russian. And they continued to. So at age 15, he, he worked in this factory. And, uh, did for a couple, three years until he started having trouble with his lungs. It was working in the sweatshop with no ventilation and so for forth - it wasn't good for his health. So his father suggested to him he oughta work outside where it's, uh, health, er, healthy and vigorous. So my dad went to a school that was organized at that time by a Baron de Hirsch - was a wealthy Jewish philanthropist - set up a school to teach agriculture in New Jersey. And went to this agriculture school for two years, studying agriculture and  horticulture. He said he didn't do too well in the theoretical parts of it because he did have trouble in the reading and writing, but when it came to the practical year - working with trees, vegetables, and so forth - he was top of his class.
After taking this training, he was placed on a farm up near Rochester. And he worked on this farm, but he really found out that the farm life wasn't for him. He could remember that the farmer paid him very little and, and he really didn’t get much to eat. And he tells me how they used to go into the chicken coop and take a little pin prick and pick, prick a couple holes in the eggs, and-
Nettie: [chuckles]
Herbert: [chuckling] suck out the eggs, and put it back, in the egg, in the egg shell, back in the chicken's nest. Whatever.  But that, that didn't work out too well; he really didn't enjoy being a farmer. And so he went to Syracuse at this time. And his older brother - my uncle - married a woman in Syracuse whose family was in the jewelry business. And they were in the jewelry business such that they did business house to house - face to face with people. Not just in Syracuse, but around the upstate New York area. So my father was given a route and he went out with a suitcase full of jewelry. And he went one day to Rome, to Ilion, to Herkimer - in that general neck of the woods. And he developed a route, just like the Jewel Tea man did. Went to people's homes, and met them, and spoke with them. Now, one of the advantages that he had was his ability with languages because he came to America speaking Russian and Ukrainian very easily. He was able to pick up other Slovak languages enough to get along - Polish and Slovak. Uh, he spoke German because he had a background in German, and it wasn't too long before he was able to pick up Italian. And he was able to get along and, and…and if he didn't know what a word was, he would just show a thing to a person - an earring, necklace, whatever - he had to learn these words, you know. And the people told him what it was, you know. Koletso [sic]. He knew what it was, but in, in Italian they told him what a ring was, what an earring was. So he was able to sell the thing. In those days credit was very important because, uh, these were just working people, really. And, uh…so, they would buy something and pay for it a little bit each week - you would come back  to see them [cough], you were invited in the home - if a christening, a wedding or  birthday or gift was coming up or something, they would say to him, "Ruby, why don't  you bring something next week because I have a special gift coming up?"  My father's name was Rubin Levine - uh, Ruven (R-U-V-E-N), I guess is how it, how it was in Russian. And we have his birth certificate, and it’s interesting to see the name Levine spelled in Russian - because Levine in Russian is spelled with five letters (L-A-V-E-N). “E” is a hard sound; an “e”, a Russian “e,” is a hard sound, “e.” There was a meakhnozak [sic] at the end, you know?
Nettie: Yes.
Herbert: But anyway, there was a hard “e” sound. And so today, when you see people's names - “Levine,” sometimes it appears as “Levin” (L-E-V-I-N) because they just took one letter from each letter in the Russian alphabet and called it “Levine.” And it came out in English, “Levin.” To make it sound like “Levine,” in our case, they put a [sic] “e” on the end. So it would, instead of…it really sounds like “Leh-vine...”
Nettie: Mm-hm.
Herbert: If you pronounce it exactly. Some people spell it  L-E-V-E-N-E, with an “e” on the end.
Nettie: Oh, nice.
Herbert: Maybe keeping it “Levine.” But I, I've asked him if it ever was Levinsky or anything like it, but it  wasn't Levinsky. It was really Levine, which is an old, old Hebrew word; it comes from the Levites. The Levites, if you read the first testament, they were priests and Levites who took care of the Temple in the early days. And that's where the names Levi; Livi; Levin; Levine comes from - sort of a historic thing.
But, [clears throat] where were we? He, he was working in Syracu-out of Syracuse, traveling to Ilion, Rome, so forth, when World War I came along. And, uh, having never served in the Army - boom! - first thing you know - away he went. Uh, let's just see what it was [clears throat] - in 1917, I think, 1917 or 1918 is when he went. So he went into the army at 27 - 28 years of age - no youngster. And, uh, went through training, was assigned to a machine gun battalion, was sent to France. In France, uh, he learned French because he had this ability to pick up languages. Uh, spent some time in France. He was wounded; received the Purple Heart. Spent some time in the hospital in France. And, uh, came back finally. And, ‘bout a year and half later, in 1919. Uh, from the army, a veteran. Decided, well, maybe he would go back to Syracuse where he left off and go into business - in the jewelry business. Uh, lo and behold, he found that, number one: He was replaced. [chuckles] There was a man who was traveling the same route that he was and he told everybody he was Ruby's brother. “Ruby’s in the army - I'll ta-I’ll take care, I’m his brother.” So he stole all of his customers; this guy took all his customers. Secondly, his actual brother, who was  the son-in-law in this business, wasn't that happy with him coming back to settle permanently in Syracuse.
So my father heard of the Triple Cities - he heard of this place, you know, eight-80 miles away from Syracuse that was filled with shoe workers, and new immigrants, and workers, and there was, uh, a busy, thriving, growing community. So in the spring of 1919, 1919…he came to Binghamton. And he, uh, had a house - had a room, lived in a rooming house. I guess on Carroll St./Susquehanna St., someplace. And he opened up an office in the Press Building. At that time, there were many jewelers operating out of the Press Building - some with little shops, there manufacturing jewelers, watch makers - and he decided he would start from scratch. And, and as he did before out of the Syracuse area, he went house to house, people's homes- introduced himself; came in; sat down; told them he was a jeweler; he would be happy to sell them things; had nice things - and through his personality and his ability to get along, speaking all of these seven or eight languages…it was easy for him to make contact with, with, uh, immigrants. And, and by treating people fairly and honestly, little by little, his reputation  grew as an honest man. And, uh, and his business became established. He met my mother in  the early 20's…and, uh, [clears throat] let's see…1922, [cough] moved to Endicott. He decided Endicott didn't have anywhere as many jewelers as Binghamton did and perhaps, it  would be better to be in a smaller community and be more important than being  in Binghamton with a lot of jewelers. So, he came to Binghamton - opened a business and still continued to go visiting his customers door to door. However, i-it was difficult- tough on his stomach because in those days everybody made their own wine. And [coughs] when you were invited into someone's house, you had to accept their hospitality, and accepting their hospitality meant drinking whatever they had to offer was. After doing that eight - 10 - 15 times, you came home upset to your stomach and pretty sick. And my mother said, "Hey, you better cut this out. If you’re gonna be in business, these people better come see you. If they're not interested enough in comin’ to see you, then [chuckles] that's just too bad."
Nettie: [chuckles]
Herbert: So, so he stopped going out house to house. Maybe did on Sundays, but he, uh, but he did…uh, organize his own business and had a business where people came to him. One of his first drivers was a, a young man who liked to drive a car. His name was Sammy Moriello. Now, I don't know if you remember the name. But, he was a very notable youngster in Endicott's history. He was a, a [sic] Air Force ace. He was a pilot and, and an ace - I don’t know how many planes you had to shoot down. I think he was later killed flying.
Nettie: Mm-hm.
Herbert: But, he was, ah, he used to drive my father from house to house and door to door so that he was able to, uh, have more freedom to take care of his business and his customers. During this period of time, you know, in the early 20s - Endicott was  sort of rough and tumble. There were all kinds of things going on, and it probably wasn’t the most, uh, civil, organized, uh, community way of life. If there was a police chief with one or two policemen, that was probably a lot. And there was a lot of robbery and, and such things going on. [coughs] He told a story, one day, of going to someone's home, he knocked on the door, and the man lets him in - some place on the north side of Endicott - and the man…my father has a little suitcase full of jewelry. The man pulls out a gun and points it to my father, and he says, "You know, Ruby?” He says, “I could let you have it right now.” He said, “But, I'm not going to because they told me that you’re a [sic] okay guy and to leave you alone." And so, that's just what they did. They, uh, they did leave him alone and never bothered him.
Throughout the many years that I worked with my dad in 1953 - 1965, uh, I used to ask him about those times and what went on. And of course, he could understand everything everybody spoke: He could understand Italian; Russian; Polish; Slovak. Many people were speaking Italian…but he never repeated stories. I used to ask him  about Barbara and what-
Nettie: Mm-hm.
Herbert: -went on in those days, but he never used to talk about it. He said, "Some things you listen and ya, and you don't repeat.” And he said, “That’s how you [laughs] get along in this world."
Nettie: [laughs]
Herbert: And, and so, that's, that’s what he did. Um, just briefly on my mother's background - she was born in Syracuse. Her family came to America. Perhaps, uh, 20 years before my father's family did, coming from Austria-Hungary. And this family, also, again, 10 children. Her mother and father came and settled in Syracuse, New York…and, uh, were brought up there. These children had much more of an education. My mother went to high school; graduated from high school; worked as a secretary in the Syracuse area before coming to Binghamton. So, uh, culturally, uh, they were on a different plateau. Uh, they spoke Yiddish in their home. Especially when my grandfather died at an early age. But, the grandmother spoke to her Jewish and Yiddish quite often. Um, so my mother certainly had no ability to speak foreign languages other than, uh, a little bit of Jewish and, uh, and English. In our home growing up, the youngsters once in a while, the only time they ever resorted to a foreign language is when they didn't the children to understand.
Nettie: [chuckles]
Herbert: As happens in, in so many families. From the beginning, I think my father's whole concept of business was to present a feeling of interest in his customers. That he was concerned about them - that he gonna treat them right and be honest. And, and, uh…to his very last year, as I can recall in Endicott talking to people as we stood there, standing beside him - and, and he told customers in whatever language that he was speaking that he wasn't going to leave his children a million dollars, but he was going to leave them an honest name. And, and this was really his, uh, his whole concept. And I think, you know, a very valid one for, uh, for running a business today. Uh, my dad was very much involved in the community. Uh, during the war years, I recall…well, let's go back. He, he became a Mason and was involved in Masonry, which was a, a very big thing. Interestingly enough, although Masonry was a very strong Protestant movement, Masonry did allow Jewish people to belong to it.
Nettie: Mm-hm.
Herbert: Catholic people didn't, but Jewish people did. And, uh, and so, at Round Hill Lodge in Endicott, my father became very much involved - was in Consistory, a member of the shrine, and took much pride in, in participating.
I can recall that, ah, my father always was interested in going to adult education courses in UE High School, way, way back. Uh, courses were given on current events, and world politics, and national politics. And, and, uh, rarely did he miss attending one of those types of courses. Like many people who, uh, came up from nothing, my  father knew very little about hobbies. He didn't play cards, play golf, gamble - he, he really just, uh, worked. Had a little garden - took care of his garden. And, uh, between the energies that he consumed - bringing up his family; being a father; and working; and taking care of his house...that, that took care of everything. Uh, in those days, of course, a six day week existed in a retail business. There was no such thing as a vacation. We never went on a vacation for a week or two because to go on a vacation would’ve meant to close the business and that, that just was never done. So I have to admire greatly those people who came before us, such as my father and,and his many friends and customers. Because, you know, these people were of two worlds and of two cultures. They lived in, in America, in Endicott. And they were able to keep up with the problems of  the community, and the state, and the nation, and so forth. But at the same time, they never lost touch with what happened in the Old World. And they were able to talk with someone about Europe, and what went on there and what is going on there - at the same time as keeping track of what was going on in America. They lived in two worlds.
Nettie: Mm-hm.
Herbert: And sometimes, we, who have an opportunity to go to college, uh, think that we have it all, but we really don't. We probably have, ah, just a finger, thumbnail full of background of knowledge compared to what these people did who were have enough, you know, to pick up their whole family. 10 children, a husband and wife - go to a place where they couldn't even speak the language and didn't know what was ahead of them. It was, uh, an amazing - it was an amazing chore, but everybody did it in those days. I guess, I guess it, you just took a chance. Today, people are worried about moving to Charlotte, North Carolina; and they’re debating and going - and you know, it's a, it’s a big challenge. Here, people left to go to a new country. And didn't know what was ahead of ‘em - didn't know, didn’t know what was coming  Uh…now, how did I happen to end where I am? 
Uh, I went to college in Syracuse University in 1945. And, uh, my parents thought that certainly, anyone who is able ought to go to college and be educated and be something. My father said, "Well, why don't you become an optometrist? Ya know?”
Nettie: Mm-hm.
Herbert: “And I'll put a little place for ya in the back of the store. I'll tell all my friends-”
Nettie: [laughs]
Herbert: “-you know, my son’s here, you’ll take care of him." In those days, Rudolph's had an optometrist - uh, you used to get your glasses in a jewelry store. That was the thing to do. Hilkins, which was one of the oldest - the oldest jewelry store in Endicott - was originally an optical place and a jeweler. That's what Mr. Hilkins needs, an optician; and that's how they got into business. So in those days, at least on that particular point, I didn't argue. So I went to Syracuse University and took the necessary courses to go to study optometry at Columbia University. In those days, you went to college for two years and then studied optometry for two years.  And so, I underwent some courses in math; in calculus; in physics; in chemistry; in scientific German; whatever I needed to do. And, uh, applied to get into Columbia. Just at the time I applied, all the veterans were returning  from the war, and I was a youngster who just went to college at just being, just a little over16 years old…so that I was only 18 years when all the veterans of 24 - 5 - 6 - 8 were coming out of the service. They were given preference and I didn't get in. I really wasn't too sad because I, I really [laughs]…it wasn't my idea in the first place - it was father's.
Nettie: Mm-hm.
Herbert: So I continued my education, and majored in sociology which I found very interesting, and studied about world population problems and, and ethnic backgrounds and all the things that we’re interested in today. Juvenile delinquency, criminology, and so forth. It, it was an interesting way to, to see life. I was very much involved in the  campus activities, and the dean knew my name, and the chancellor knew my name. And, however, very - hardly a teacher knew who I was. I wasn't the most excellent student. But, upon graduation, I thought certainly the world had - is looking for a guy  like me with all these talents, and abilities, and so forth. And, and I went out to look for a job. During this period of time, I’d met the girl who later became my wife, and, uh, she was interested in seeing me get established and get going. And so, the pressure was on. So upon graduation from college, I had to do something. And lo and behold, there weren't too many jobs available in 1949.
Nettie: Mm-hm.
Herbert: But, uh, because I helped my father after school, and a, maybe couple summer vacations, in the jewelry business, I ended up getting a job with Kay Jewelers. Which at the time had its headquarters in Washington, D. C. In 1949, Kay Jewelers was the largest jewelry chain in the country. And they had a training  program for young people, such as myself. So, so I went to Rochester, N. Y. where I went to work as a trainee for $45.00 a week. And I worked six days a week; the store was open two nights and we trimmed a window one night. So I worked three nights a week and our manager liked to work every Sunday morning. So I worked every Sunday morning as well. So that was an interesting introduction to how-
[Both laugh]
Herbert: -how to have to work for a living. I didn't have a car, and I used to ride back and forth on a bus and lived in a room in a rooming house. And many times didn't talk to anybody from the day I left the s-time I left the store ‘till the next morning. Because I'd go to a restaurant and have something to eat, went home, and went to a movie, and that’s about it. But a year later, I was married. My wife and I settled in, in Rochester and she worked across the street in the Girl Scout office, and I in the, in the Kay Jewelers. And there I was until I was rescued from this terrible fate because I really didn't enjoy the level of the business. It was a credit business doing business with, um, uh, the black population. At that time, I felt they were really being taken advantage of - 50¢ down, 50¢ a week, selling things to people who couldn't afford it. It was, uh, it was not a nice thing to get off. But I was rescued by all this by Uncle Sam who said, "You'd better come with  me," because Korea had just started and I was about to get drafted. So I entered the U.S. Coast Guard where I went to Officer Candidate School - later became an officer and skipper of a Coast Guard cutter in Norfolk, Virginia. I stayed in  Norfolk, Virginia for two years. Didn't know quite what to do - maybe I’d go to law school, maybe I’d do something; go back to get a graduate degree in business. When my father wrote me a note one day-
Nettie: [clears throat]
Herbert: -that he was going to buy a jewelry store - Abraham’s Jewelry and, and Luggage Store - on Chenango St. And said, “You’ll come home - we'll have a second store, you’ll be en [sic], it’ll be terrific.” So we made plans to come to Endicott, and to move there, and to settle. And now we have a youngster: Our oldest son, uh, Rick. And we were all set to come when my dad called to say, “The deal fell through, but come here, anyway.” So come home, anyway, we did. And we lived in Endicott in a, on a house on McKinley Avenue. I went to work joining my father’s business in 1953. I stayed with him, working with him side by side from 1953 until he died in 1965. Our, after our parents died in ‘55 and ‘56, my brother and I remained owners of Ruby & Sons. And in 1969, uh, Kenneth Van Cott had decided to retire. At first, my brother Carl and I were both going to, uh, buy this store and run them together. But, as we worked out the details, it appeared that we would be much better off if, uh, each of us had our own business. So I bought Van Cott's, selling my interest to the Endicott store to Carl. So as of the past nine years, Carl owns Ruby & Sons and I own Van Cott' s, and we're best friends, and it works out, works out very, very good.
Um, after getting involved in the jewelry business, one of the first things I did was to  start taking courses in gemology and diamond study because it appeared to me from the very start that, that Mr. Van Cott had the right approach on the, on the jewelry business. He was a professional and he was an expert; he was a registered jeweler in the American Gem Society. And it appeared that that's the kind of person you should be: If you’re going to be a jeweler, be first class in all the way. So we sort of copied everything he did in, in organizing our store and changing it from a credit store to what we call a fine jewelry store. And so we copied everything in Endicott to make our store as close as it could be to Van Cott’s. So now our two stores are similar in character. Uh, Van Cott's still has a tradition that goes way back to the early 1900s as the-
Nettie: Mm-hm.
Herbert: -quality store in Binghamton. And we still have customers coming in, uh, as a result of that. But we, I did become a registered jeweler in the American Gem Society, and for a number of years it was just Mr. Van Cott and myself who held this title. Today in our store we have two other young men plus myself who hold the title of, uh, of registered jeweler.
Nettie: [coughs]
Herbert: At the present time, I am on a board of directors at the American Gem Society- one of 12 jewelers in the whole country who was elected to this post. I am also serving this year as president of the New York State Retail Jewelers’ Association, uh, for the second year in a row. So I think being involved in, in organizations and in the jewelry business is very much important. Incidentally, uh, there's a third generation of Levine’s involved in the, the jewelry. Our son, Bill, who graduated from Syracuse University two years ago, is now in California at the Gemological Institute of America where he teaches  courses in diamond study and diamond grading. People from all over the world come to take these courses. And he's been there now going on two years and enjoys very much what he’s doing. He's become quite a speaker and traveled to Kansas, and to Missouri - addressing retail jewelers’ groups on how important it is to be a professional jeweler and, and have the knowledge and ability that is required to grade diamonds and gem stones. The jewelry business today keeps going on, and will go on forever because from day one - from the very first time when a primitive cave man looked down and saw a shiny pebble that shined just a little bit more than the rest, he put it in his little pouch  and saved it because it looked special. And if he liked someone extra special, maybe he even gave that little, beautiful, polished stone to him or to her to show his feelings. And jewelry throughout the years has done the, just that: It has conveyed people's feelings and emotions. I'm not sure that people even felt stronger about how much they would put into a piece jewelry years ago than today. My father had told me how to give, to be a godparent of a child was a very big  thing a couple generations ago - 50 years ago. When you were named as the godparent of a child, it was an honor that, that you know - above everything. You bought all of the children's  clothes, and you did everything and, and…if he was a boy, you bought him a pocket watch. And my father would tell me how people would buy a beautiful pocket watch - which today are back in style - and people would spend $50.00. $50.00 on a solid gold pocket watch. And these people didn't make good…$20.00 a week. Can you  imagine that? They spent 2 and a half weeks’ money on a christening gift. That’s today like giving somebody - I don't know - a $500.00 christening gift. You wouldn’t think of it. So…I'm not so sure that even though we give jewelry today, I don't think we stretch our, the limits of our involvement as much as we did way back when, when we realized that we wanted to give something extra special. And it would be nothing - I can recall in the early 50s when we did a lot of business with Endicott Johnson workers - for an Endicott Johnson worker to buy a Christmas gift for $50…for wife or husband to give a gift to each other…and in those days, usually both people worked in the factory. And they came in on a Friday afternoon with their paycheck; Friday afternoon, they came in and paid on their account with their paycheck, and they cashed their checks. Rarely was the check over $50.00. And they paid $1.00 on  their account. They paid $1.00. It would take a whole year to pay for their Christmas gift. And they never missed a week because the Endicott Johnson people had this  reputation for being most credit-worthy and being very, very responsible. For, uh, even though they didn’t make big incomes, when they accepted an obligation, they accepted it, uh, very wholeheartedly. And they very rarely backed down on it. One time, though, he, my father told me of an incident where a man didn't - wasn't quite so honest. And he bought one of these big, beautiful pocket watches I'm talking about which was $100.00 with chain and gold chain, a pocket watch. And…he sold it. My father sold it on credit, as he often did - this is without a credit bureau - nobody called the credit bureau, [laughs]­ nobody called anything. you looked at a guy - he looked honest, he worked at E.J., so you trusted him. What the heck! But o and behold, the next week, a man came in to my father and said, "Ruby, did you sell a pocket watch to such-and-such a fellow's name?"
And he said, "Sure."
He says, "Well, you know, he's going back to the Old Country for good. He's leaving town and he's not corning back, and he's taking your watch with him."
Well, $100.00 is a lot of money, especially in those days. So my father got on the very early morning Erie train at 4 o’clock in the morning, rode all the way to New York City where the man had told him the name of the ship that this man was going to sail on. So he got there to the ship where the people were loading up - and lo and behold! There's the man. My father said, "What's the big idea? Where's my watch?" It was right there in his pocket. He said, "What kind of guy are you to take - steal that watch from me- take it all the way to Europe?" So he got his watch back. Another interesting story he told is: In 1934, one day, he got a call in the middle of the night from the police department that his store was broken into on Washington Ave.­ So that, uh, they went down and that’s just what happened; the front door was broken, people gained entrance to the store, and many of the rings, watches, and so forth were in trade, were all taken, strewn around. Almost everything was missing. Well, you didn't have insurance - at least, he didn't have insurance to cover himself that day, and he was really sick. However, the next day, he had a visit from a man, friend, a customer. And he said, "Ruby.” He said, "I know who robbed your store." He said, "And I'll tell you who it is." He said, "I was having a drink in a restaurant last night, and I heard these two fellas talking about doing a job.”
“They were gonna do a job? Well, what were they gonna do?”
And he [the customer] said, “I don’t know nothin’. They never mentioned the name of the place. But he said, “I’m sure that’s the people." So he told him who it was. And they were arrested, and they were able to recover, uh, some of the things.
[phone interruption] Hello? Hello? [hangs up phone]
So that was just another instance where my father's, uh, friendly relationships with people, you know, was, was such that, uh…
Nettie: Mm-hm.
Herbert: It, it really helped him. And, and, and I think that's probably the most important factor, uh, in the life of those people who, like himself, came and settled in a new country in the early 1900s. They came without a formal background, a formal education, but they, they had a sense of pride and responsibility. Um, when the American Legion had a parade, when Fourth of July came, or Veteran's Day, Memorial Day - it was a big thing. It was a big thing in Endicott and everybody was there. And even though these people, uh, didn't have roots that went back to the, to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, or the Civil War, or anything else
Nettie: Mm-hm.
Herbert: I think these new immigrants felt more strongly about the pride in their country.
Nettie: Mm-hm.
Herbert: And respect to the flag than, than many of  our children feel today. They take it for granted; we all, we all take it for granted. Um, growing up in Endicott was an interesting experience, and quite often I'm approached by people who are studying economics, and they hear about the terrible monopoly that existed in Endicott when the Johnson family took advantage of all the people, and re-surfed them, and became now - wealthy and millionaires. And I disagree with them heartly [sic] because growing up in Endicott as I did, I don't remember depressions or breadlines…I can remember a couple times people came to our house for something to eat, and my mother would say, "Well, why don't you rake up the leaves and do something?" So they didn’t feel like they were beggars. And, and they would do a little bit of work. And for that, in return she would give them something to eat. But, um…yeah, I think it was just a warm, friendly relationship. People used to sit on the front porches. This is a thing gone - of sitting on a front porch and saying "hello" to your neighbors, and talking to people as they wen up and down the street. Across the street from Endicott…ah, ah, in Endicott on McKinley Ave. was a little bend in McKinley Ave. where an alley is. An, an area was set up there where men used to pitch quoits every night. I don't know if you remember a family - Sutton. Sutton owned a drug store and there was a man named Kent who was an IBM’er…and a man named Bradley. Worked in the tannery; his son, Bob Bradley is head of Maine-Endwell. I think, uh, [of its] physical education department. His son, Tom, has a bar - redheaded - has a bar-
Nettie: Yeah.
Herbert: -on Arthur Ave., someplace. Anyway, they used to pitch quoits every night. And they went to Nanticoke Creek - we used to call that Nanticoke Crick.
Nettie: Mm-hm.
Herbert: And I still do. And they got clay and they, they made these, uh, pits. And as youngsters, we used to sit there, they used to play, and we would keep score. Well, this was, this was sort of a community get-together. Everybody went there and, and it was just an informal get-together. But, everyone knew everyone. And I can recall as a youngster that you could go from one block - from Monroe St. to Broad St., behind all the houses on McKinley Ave. There wasn't a fence; there wasn't a fence. And little by little, the fences started coming - and the shrubs and the hedges. Whereas today, you know, we live in the backyard society. Now, if you want to have sun you, you sit in the backyard. And when you’re there, you don't see anybody and nobody sees you. That’s the way we live today. But, growing up in Endicott as we did, you sat on the front porch and watched everyone go by - it was a wonderful  institution. But, getting back to the Johnsons…when we went to a band concert on Sun, on Sunday night, as everybody did, and Mr. George F. used to come, sit in the front row and pass out nickels, or shake hands, or whatever he did…um, he didn't have a body guard that I know of. I don't think anybody was worried he would be shot, or hurt, or anything. Because he really, uh…the people had a love and respect for him. Everybody knew that his door was open; if you had a problem, you went to see Mr. George F. And if you wanted to have a church, a handful of families got together and said, "Look: We'd like to pray in our own, certain way.”
And he said, "How much money do you need?"
And you had a church. And when the people in the  American Legion wanted to have an American Legion, he said, “Here’s, here’s the money. You know? Build one.”
And they had one in Endicott, one in West Endicott, one in Johnson City - wherever they wanted. He saw to it that, uh, the people's basic needs were provided for. It’s amazing how he understood people's basic needs. He knew they wanted their own home, a place to raise a garden, a place for recreation - built these beautiful parks and golf courses. I mean, who would ever think that the best golfers in Endicott 40 years ago used to be fellas who worked in the tannery? And they got out at 1 o'clock because they did all their work, and they used to go, and they used to go to play golf. The best golfers in Endicott used to work in the tannery. I mean, it’s unheard of. Today we think of people at a fancy Country Club who are going to be golfers - you know, the millionaires? In those days, it was the big strong fellows that could pull those hides out of the tanks and had all afternoon to learn to play golf. So that it, uh…it was a wonderful heritage growing up in Endicott. Uh, I think it was a melting pot - people of all, uh, backgrounds, uh, felt that they had something in common.
Nettie: Mm-hm.
Herbert: And, uh, they shared and helped one another. I don't think there was tremendous bigotry. Uh, growing up as a person of the Jewish religion in Endicott, it was  certainly a tremendous minority. One thing I can remember most vividly is that, in eighth grade, we used to take a course called, “civics.” We used to have to take, “civics” and “citizenship.” It, it was always frightening because those were the first two regents things you took before ninth grade. And everybody had to take civics and citizenship. And I could remember in one of the courses - civics or citizenship - the teacher was trying to have us understand that, the concept of a melting pot. How America consisted of all these people from all different backgrounds who sort of came together.
And she said, "You know? It would be a fun experiment if we could see right here in our class what countries are the backgrounds people came from.” So she said, “Let's try this: I'm going to mention these countries, and if you have a parent who came from one of these countries, why don’t you stand up and we’ll see what it is."
So she mentioned England - a few people stood up. You know, Scotland; Ireland; Germany; Italy; Czechoslovakia. And they finally got to Russia. And she said, you know, "Anybody's parents who’re from Russia, stand up."
And I stood up. Along with four, five, or six kids. And these kids looked at me and said, "Why are you standing up? You're not Russian! You’re Jewish."
Nettie: [laughter]
Herbert: So it was hard for them to understand that in Russia, some people were Jewish, too.
Nettie: Mm-hm.
Herbert: They weren’t just, uh, Russian Orthodox or whatever church the Russian people belong to. But, uh, our children probably missed this. And they'll never quite understand what, uh, what it meant to grow up in a community where…I guess everybody started from base zero. And where they got, was closer to, to being close together. And now, after a couple generations, uh, perhaps in a sosh, socio-economic level, uh…some people's children are going off to private schools, and colleges, and living in fancy homes. And, and no longer come in contact with a general mixture of people of all different backgrounds. Of course, the people of the second generation greatly resisted their cultural background. I can recall how customers would come into the store with their parents. And my father would conduct the conversation with their  parent - in Italian, Polish, Slavish or whatever it was - and the kids would listen. And my father would talk to them in their native tongue and the kids would answer back in English.
Nettie: Mm-hm.
Herbert: He said, “Don't you do that.” He said, “You’re going to be sorry if you don't take advantage of learning this language when you have the chance.”
But, so many people - second generation - just wanted  to be Americanized. And they didn't want to be identified with anything old; they just  wanted to be identified with the new. In fact, some of the children, I'm sure, were embarrassed a little bit that their parents spoke with an accent and didn't speak perfect English. And, um, it certainly is nothing to be ashamed of. Because as I mentioned in the beginning, these people are heads and shoulders over us. They understand two worlds and we don't do too much of a job, uh, understanding one. As to my, uh, background and club affiliations? Uh, early in my life, probably one of the most important things in my life I ever did was to get involved with the scouting movement - in boy scouting. Much of my time as a teenager was spent concerning myself as a Boy Scout Troop, Sea Scout Troop. Which incidentally met at the First Methodist Church. And I can recall every Scout Sunday, during Scout Week - on Scout Sunday, I marched into the First Methodist Church with all the other scouts and sat and listened to this church service. Which, you know, was very, uh foreign to me. I listened to it; I wasn't 100% comfortable.
Nettie: Mm-hm.
Herbert: But, I thought it wouldn't hurt if I did that. And then that was…that’s certainly what we did. On returning to Endicott in 1953, I became involved in Endicott Kiwanis Club - which certainly was a, a rewarding experience. Uh, throughout the years, l’ve been involved in many community activities. Uh, at this time, I happen to be serving as a trustee on the Binghamton Savings Bank, as a trustee on the Board of Binghamton General Hospital, I'm on the Board of WSKG TV and Radio as a trustee. I happen to be involved as President of the Jewish Cemetery Association, as a necessary job someone  has to do. I’ve served in the past year as a Vice-President of the Boy Scouts’ Council. Uh, Vice-President of the Temple of Israel. Uh…I, I try to get involved in as many things as I can. Years ago, I was, uh, President of the Endicott, Vestal-Endwell Chamber of Commerce when we had such an organization. I was Chairman of the Merchants’ Organization when I was in Endicott on Washington Ave. Few years ago, I was Chairman of the Merchants’ Association here on Court Street. But, when we opened our new store at the Oakdale Mall, seemed it wasn't right for me to be Chairman of the Court Street Businessmen…well, because I had two stores, perhaps competing with the Binghamton merchants. How much more time do we have on this tape? Do you know?
Nettie: [unintelligible]
Herbert: Let's just speak for a few minutes about the, uh, the settlement of the few Jewish families who did settle in Endicott. Um, in the early 1920s, there were probably a handful, maybe 10 - 15 Jewish families who settled in the Endicott area. Most of these were small merchants that had small shops. Some even started out on Washington Ave. with a little store front and, uh, lived in the back of the store. Uh, over the store. I think that, uh, Shapiro's did - Shapiro's Men's Shop. And Lachman's - Buddy Lachman's parents had a haberdashery store. I think this is how they started. Uh, with a store and a little house - a little apartment behind a store or above a store. So this little handful of people became very much involved…they were never large enough to have their own Jewish congregation. Although, the women saw to it that they got together on a regular basis - that the children were given Jewish education. Uh, we used to drive to Binghamton in a car pool, to a Sunday school every Sunday. And during the week, we went to religious instruction after school. The Endicott school system used to provide a classroom for the Jewish people to have Jewish instruction. And I can remember I had to go off after school. The other kids wanted to play ball or something. And Nick Paks, and Paul Kominos, and some of the Greek kids were going to Greek lessons and we were going Hebrew school. And, and we both had to do the same things after school. So the, um…the Jewish people did cling together because they had a common, common heritage. Common background. Uh, without a, a permanent place of religion to worship in. Uh, arrangements were made to rent space in the Odd Fellows Hall. And the Odd Fellows Hall - which was on Riverview Drive right next door to the American Legion - had big rooms above it. And so, during the High Holy days on Yom Kippur; Rosh Hashanah; the Jewish New Years, we would hold, uh, our religious services in this building. On those, these three days. Oftentimes on Sunday afternoons, uh, a get-together would be held. And using the social facilities on the main floor of this Odd Fellows Hall, we would have a joint, uh, dinner, or program, or such. And again, the children knew each other; everyone was sort of together. And, uh, it was quite a, it was quite an involved, close, closely knit community. The day finally did arrive - I believe in the late 1940s when Temple Beth-El was built - my father and a number of other people were most instrumental in seeing that a building was built. A permanent house of worship. And, uh, this building was built, uh, Jefferson Ave., in Endicott. Interestingly enough, uh, the St. Paul's Episcopal Church was going to do some remodeling and the  church had to be shut down. So that the two congregations got together and shared the use of Temple Beth-El on Sundays. The Episcopal people came to use the facilities, and on Friday and Saturday, the Jewish services were held. Uh, uh…for me to get totally into a discussion involving the basis of the Jewish religion probably would take three/four hours, and I don't know if I'm the most capable person to do that. But, I think it is interesting to note that, uh, many of these people who started out in this community have, have grown and, and settled in Broome County and found their way in prominence…uh, Herb Kline, son of Jim Kline Men's Store, is now a very prominent Binghamton attorney. Bud Lachman, also an attorney. Uh, happens to practice in Endicott; lives in Binghamton. Bruce Becker, whose father was an attorney - following in his father's  footsteps. He’s, uh, an attorney today, as well. Irvin Shapiro, who runs a very fine men's store - following in his father's footsteps. My two brothers are in Endicott running a jewelry business - it goes back to 1990. So that you can see that, ah, a number of these people came to the community, stayed and settled. Sandy Salerson, whose father was a, a well known figure on Washington Ave. now works at, uh, - had his own business for a while with his father-in-law, now works in Montgomery Ward in the appliance department. So that, many of these people are still here. Uh, Murray Shapiro - whose father was manager of Rudolph’s for many, many years - still lives in this community. He’s, uh, holds a position at IBM. And you can see that from this tiny, little community evolved a very strong background of, of people who were involved in the community, and they stayed here, and contributed to it. And were lucky enough to share in those early years when, when they got to know the community of Endicott, and, and they grew up with all, with kids from all over. You know, in those days, the north side was a sort of a no-no place. Today, the north side of Endicott has the most beautiful homes, the most beautiful golf course; it’s, uh, the most elegant, lovely place. Upper Taft Ave., is, is just beautiful.
Nettie: Mm-hm. And downtown, which used to be so terrific is, is [chuckles] where-
Nettie: [lightly chuckles]
Herbert: -all the decay is. So it took 50 years for the tables to turn, but, uh, but it certainly did. And it’s interesting to look back on. Okay?
Nettie: Yeah, that’s-
Herbert: That would give us something to do.
Nettie: Mm-hm.
Herbert: How ya doin’?
Nettie: Well, Herb, this was very interesting interview, I wanna thank you very much.
Herbert: Good. It’ll be interesting to see what it all looks like when we’re done.
Nettie: Mm-hm. Okay.

Date of Interview



Politylo, Nettie


Levine, Herbert


33:42 Minutes ; 14:36 Minutes ; 21:13 Minutes

Date of Digitization



Broome County Oral History Project

Subject LCSH

Levine, Herbert -- Interviews; Broome County (N.Y.) -- History; Immigrants; Endicott (N.Y.); Russians -- United States; Jews; Syracuse University; Korean War, 1950-1953; Jewelry trade; Jewelry stores

Ruby and Sons; Van Cotts

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The Broome County Oral History Project was conceived and administered by the Senior Services Unit of the Office for the Aging. Funding for this project was provided by the Broome County Office of Employment and Training (C.E.T.A.), with additional funding from the Senior Service Unit of the National Council on Aging and Broome… More

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“Interview with Herbert Levine,” Digital Collections, accessed July 25, 2024,