LIFE STORY: At age 90, Chicago Jewish author Rochelle Distelheim is out with her first novel

Rochelle Distelheim. Photo by Martha Abelson Photography.

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Sadie Schuster is not Rochelle Distelheim’s alter ago.

Sadie, a fictional Jewish immigrant living on New York’s Lower East Side in 1913, is Distelheim, a combination of a writer’s fertile imagination and her own experiences and that of her mother, Rose Cohen, both independent women not mentally hamstrung by the customs of their times.

In fact, Sadie probably would be proud of Rochelle, sketching out the former’s life in a novel “Sadie In Love,” just released by Aubade Publishing. Women starting with Sadie’s age cohort accomplished a host of firsts, so Highland Park resident Distelheim is following in good stead as a rookie novelist…at age 90.

And just like Sadie, a key man has been the love of Rochelle’s life and provided inspiration for her writing. The irony is “Sadie In Love” has come out a few months after the passing of Dr. Irving Distelheim, to whom Rochelle was married for 66 years. Irving buttressed his wife’s writing career and knew all about the development of the novel. Rochelle mourns for Irving, but knows with her mind and body still sharp, she must stay in forward gear.

That’s what strikes you when you meet Distelheim. She is vital, hardly withered and can pass for her 60s. Her demeanor is as if someone told her while attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in the late 1940s that there are no limits, no glass ceilings going forward.

Northwestern slapped on a notorious quota on Jewish students that Distelheim recalled then being 500 annually. But she sidestepped the quota, and was never discouraged to believe that female writers would be segregated to the “women’s” sections of newspapers and other publications, or “women’s” programming on radio or the nascent media of TV.

Rochelle Distelheim. Photo by Martha Abelson Photography.

Keep on cranking, she was taught. Which is why, though her first novel is just out, she’s already got novel No. 2 ready to go.

“It’s called ‘Jerusalem As A Second Language,’ and is about Russian Jews who emigrated to Jerusalem. “I went to Europe and Israel and did a lot of research. It’s set in 1993 after Gorbachev and Yeltsin told Jews they could go. If ‘Sadie’ sells, maybe my publisher will take it.”

No wonder Distelheim is going on the hustings to promote ‘Sadie in Love.’ An author knows full well one book begets another, and another. Rest is for when they say kaddish for you. Until then, try to wear out your friendly local laptop keyboard.

In addition to counseling on short-and long-form writing, after writing short stories, as well as magazine pieces for national publications, Distelheim can advise on the concept of patience. She wrote “Sadie In Love” 15 years ago and spent the intervening years trying to find a publisher.

She wrote the novel, she said, because she has always considered herself a feminist. “I was very interested in how women fared in America much before my time. My mother was a feminist without knowing what that was. She was born in London. She always felt that a woman should be independent, strong and able to take care of herself. That’s the message she gave me as I was growing up. When she was younger, she thought it was humiliating she couldn’t go to the polls and vote.”

Women did not get the right to vote nationally until the 1920 election, after decades of agitation through the suffragette movement that attracted the most famous women in public life.

“My mother and I talked about the fact a woman should not count on marrying well to get through life,” Distelheim said. “Back then, nobody thought you were in (a job or career) for life. You were going to work until you found a husband.”

Distelheim had thoughts of being an author as early as age 10, growing up on the West Side of Chicago. Rose Cohen went to work in a defense plant during World War II. Coming out of the war, her daughter went to Herzl City College. She got into Medill, one of the more prominent journalism schools in the country.

After graduation, Distelheim worked as a copywriter at several smaller ad agencies. The atmosphere was hardly the “Mad Men” testosterone-and-drinking atmosphere portrayed on the popular TV series. “Those were the big agencies,” Distelheim said.

Soon she found the perfect job where she could raise her children while not being tied down to an office five days a week. Distelheim began contributing to national magazines. And not fluff stuff, either. One assignment took her into the operating room to chronicle a pioneering liver transplant. Her husband provided her with crucial medical background going in.

Four decades ago, she’d earn $600 for a several-thousand word piece in the likes of Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, McCall’s, Glamour, Ladies Circle, Woman’s Day, Woman’s World, Working Woman, Working Mother and others.

Book cover of ‘Sadie in Love’

The discipline of putting together a non-fiction article for a magazine led her to fiction via a short-story career, during which she won a number of literary awards.

The logical next step was a full-blown novel. All of her background and interest in women’s issues led to “Sadie In Love.”

“Fiction is all lies,” she said. “There never was a Sadie except in my head. The important thing for a writer to do (within one’s imagination) is to get into somebody else’s head and heart. It was as though I was her mother and giving birth.”

The synopsis of “Sadie” is a fortyish widow who spends more time talking to Fivel, her late husband, than when he was alive. Sadie keeps Fivel informed of her daily activities, especially her pursuit of a second husband because “An empty bed is a cold place for a hot-blooded woman.” A lover of ballroom dancing, the new moving pictures and night-school English words, Sadie’s talent lies in the magic love knots she artfully crafts for lonely, unwitting immigrants willing to purchase hope wrapped in a schmatta for 50 cents.

The love knots were not some old Jewish custom, but rather another creation of Distelheim’s imagination. The narrative includes Sadie selling love knots while seeking love for herself. She consults with her magic spirits to woo Herschel, the muscled ice peddler who reads poetry and pines for his dead wife. Her daughter, Yivvy, sells second-hand, possibly “pinched” tchotchkes in her antique shop and plans to marry the Irish cop on the beat. Still another potential suitor, Ike Tabatnik, the Dance King of Riga, Latvia, emerges just off the boat to tug at Sadie’s heartstrings.

Distelheim has provided a trio of excerpts of “Sadie In Love” for Chicago Jewish News. She fleshes out the angle of the love knots:

“Sadie Schuster sold love knots, hope wrapped in a schmattah, fifty cents. A lot of money in 1912, but hope never came cheap, especially when it came from Sadie Schuster. ‘You think this business makes me rich?’ she asked her customers. ‘I do it to make people happy. The material alone costs me forty cents.’

‘She learned her magic tricks in Poland, where she and Fivel lived before coming to New York, two greenhorns, just married, and talked about love knots as though there really was magic in this world, and only she, of all the Jews in New York who came from Minsk, from Riga and Lublin, Budapest and Warsaw, knew how to put them together.

“It was a secret, she said, passed from mother to daughter. Her own daughter, Yivvy, who ran a second-hand shop, and worked the cash register nights at the Second Street Cafeteria, didn’t believe in love or magic. Take it or leave it, Sadie Schuster was the only love knot person in New York City.

“The love knots were works of art. For women customers, Sadie braided strands of the loved one’s hair with red thread, added a shirt button, a shoelace, fringe from a prayer shawl, cigar bands, suspender bucklets. For men customers, she stole a tooth from the loved one’s comb, the lace of a handkerchief, hairpins, boot heels, a snip of corset bone.

Distelheim with her late husband Irving, in 1950 and in 1988.

“Showering scented water over the scraps, she wrapped them in a square of flowered cotton schmattah, and tied the four corners together, making a plump little bundle the size of her thumb. If she could get her hands on a little perspiration from the body of the loved one, and rub that into the knot – ha! Perfect. Cupping the knot in her palm, she half-chanted, half-sang, murmuring strange sounds softly; so softly, her customers couldn’t recognize the language. Precisely what Sadie hoped for: her certainly, their bewilderment. It made her seem powerful. It made her customers feel better about parting with fifty cents.

“This was the promise; the love knot pulled the loved one against his/her will, against all reason, against the laws of nature and the Old Testament; against, it seemed, everything except Sadie’s say-so. Love always begat love, until two separate people turned into one absolutely and for-all-time happy couple.

“Up and down four flights of stairs, breathing hard, sweating, even in winter, Sadie stirred up love knot business when she collected rent. ‘Love knots,’ she crooned, money for me today, love for you tomorrow. Open up for Sadie’…Fifty cents bought a shave and haircut, two steam baths at Silberstein’s Private Water Works, five dances at the Irving Street Saturday Night Social Club. A second-hand derby hat. Spats. Three pairs of used, embroidered gloves, the fingers still like new.”

Distelheim makes modern women cringe at the description of a well-dressed, well-corseted female of 1913:

“She looked good – a pity Herschel wasn’t here to see her – thanks to Klein’s Emporium, Mitzi’s make-up tricks, and not-so reliable electric light bulbs strung around the hall.

“Her new earrings whooshed a satisfying sound against the collar of her silk taffeta shirtwaist. Her corset was also new, bought the day her mirror told her she’d lost three pounds, maybe more. Mitzi, helping her get dressed, had pulled hard at the corset strings until Sadie hollered, ‘Enough!’

“She couldn’t breathe, then she couldn’t sit. Men didn’t wear bone torture chambers under their clothes, they’d never put up with it. Take them or leave them, that’s what you got. Worse, her new shoes, shiny and red, with curving heels, made her feet, her best feature, everyone said so, look smaller, but hurt harder than the corset.

“She was still standing in the entry, thinking that the path leading to Herschel Diamond was through the first room, into the second that nothing good comes from doing nothing, when the band struck up a waltz. ‘So, Sadie..’ He smiled, his gold tooth winking. He needed a new dentist, maybe the one on Dean Street upstairs of the barber who sold Fivel those beautiful teeth the summer before he died.”

Distelheim also detailed the preparations and fears of a suffragette march:

“Sadie made a list: Print up banners, papers for handing out, people should know why women were being cheated, don’t blame George Washington. Find drums or trombones or some noise marching music, find chairs for speeches at the end. Balloons. Confetti. Clean cloths, bandages, aspirin.

“Sadie wrote notes in ink on her best business paper, telling the ladies in her library group they would begin at the corner of Houston and Rivington, ten o’clock Sunday, August 19, and finish in Union Square, two, maybe three miles, good exercise, no boots with high heels, no tight corsets, better comfortable than thin. A friendly tip: No tea, no coffee for breakfast. Clean public bathrooms don’t grow on trees. After, stay to hear the speaker, two lady writers just now out of the Canal Street Jail.  Bring clean underwear and pajamas, in case of emergency overnight stay in jail. Jail fine, maybe ten dollars, to be paid by the New York City Women’s Suffrage League.”

The descriptions take the reader back into an important part of history. Distelheim could fashion at least a short story out of her late husband’s climb out of poverty into service to his country and then his patients.

Irving Distelheim was about to quit high school after two years (to support his father-less family in the Great Depression). But he was directed to call the Jewish Family Service. They said come on down. He took a test. He got $5 a week to stay in high school. Then he went to college and worked his way through medical school by teaching a college chemistry class.

The U.S. Army called the young physician into World War II service. He followed the front lines into Germany, working in the equivalent of a M*A*S*H* unit desperately trying to save wounded GIs. During calmer moments, Distelheim treated German POWs. They realized a Jewish doctor was about to see them, so several bristled about the “dirty Jew.” However, Distelheim’s German was good due to his Viennese family background, and he fully understood his patients’ recalcitrance. He ensured the doctor’s “waiting room” was as uncomfortable as possible.

“He made them wait out in the rain before they came in to be treated,” Rochelle said.

Coming back from the war, Distelheim started his family and established a dermatology practice. He was familiar to many West Rogers Park Jews with an office in tandem with Dr. M.  Barry Kirschenbaum at Arthur and California avenues. Distelheim practiced until age 93.

All along, the good doctor was his wife’s biggest fan, and his spirit continues in that role as she works as a late-in-life novelist.

“I am continuing on as the mother of grown daughters,” she said. “My husband would say to me sometimes, ‘Give ‘em hell,’ when I’d take a plane (to an out-of-town assignment). We really liked each other besides loving each other.  I know if he were here now, he would tell me there’s nothing to be afraid of. I feel I have to prove again that I am confident and self-reliant, and fill my time, and not tell my children to come hold my hand.”

Distelheim’s own life story is a good indication she doesn’t have anything to prove with “Sadie In Love” on the bookshelves and “Jerusalem As A Second Language” coming up right behind.

1 Comment on "LIFE STORY: At age 90, Chicago Jewish author Rochelle Distelheim is out with her first novel"

  1. Awesome!!!

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