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Published Date

January 1, 2004

This resource was developed as part of Linking Family History and World History by Linda Pomerantz.

Clara Miriam Sarfaty was born in Monastir in 1911, and in 1913 at the age of two she emigrated with her parents to the United States. While at sea en route to America, Clara contracted small pox, a dreaded disease responsible for many childhood deaths in the early twentieth century. Although she survived the disease, it left her face scarred with myriad pockmarks. In Sephardic society, a pockmarked girl was considered ugly and unmarriageable. This made her less valuable in the eyes of the Sephardim, and throughout her entire life, Clara remained self conscious about her scarred face and believed she was ugly because of it.

Most of Clara’s childhood and teen years were spent in a tenement apartment in New York’s Lower East Side, in a cramped apartment on a street where a child had to learn to be careful around the drunks loitering near the front stoop to the building.

An early and frightening memory concerned her younger brother Al (or Abe). As the oldest girl, the task of caring for younger siblings fell to Clara. One hot summer day when Clara was about five years old, she and Al were put on the fire escape while Mother worked inside the apartment. While under her care, Al fell from the fire escape two stories down to the street, where he lay unconscious. As there was no money for doctors, they brought Al to the neighborhood pharmacy, where  he was revived. Eventually, Al made a complete recovery, but the memory left Clara emotionally scarred. She was blamed, cursed and beaten for having let this disaster happen. Throughout her life she felt that she had been unjustly blamed. “How dare they expect a five year old child to assume such adult responsibilities,” she asked during an oral interview.

Another sad memory was of another younger brother, who died of diphtheria when Clara was about seven years old. His illness and death left a deep impression on her.

When Clara was eight years old, she began doing piece work at home together with her mother. She was such a good and quick seamstress that soon she devoted more and more time to this work — largely finishing work such as button holes, pockets, and collars. By the age of eleven she was working full time in the garment factories of New York and going to school at night. Because she was so fast, soon she was earning as much as $25.00 per week (compared to the $5.00 a week her father brought home). After juggling full time work and school at night for three years, Clara fell ill with pleurisy at the age of fourteen. When she recovered from this serious illness, she was forced to give up her schooling entirely. She had been in the ninth grade.

Having to giving up school was a tremendous blow to Clara. Early on she had discovered that books were her escape from the misery of her home life and onerous responsibilities to her family. She had discovered that she was a talented artist, and her paintings were displayed in the corridors of her school. Her childhood dream was to combine her two talents, art and dressmaking, and become a fashion designer, but she was unable to realize this dream.

Clara’s adolescent years were marked by turbulent relations with her family, particularly her mother. As an example, Clara remembered that when she was ten or eleven years old, she happened to hear the famous advocate of birth control, Margaret Sanger, giving a speech on a nearby street corner. Clara was very excited, because she herself observed that her mother was often pregnant, that they had many mouths to feed, and that they were very poor. Clara came racing home with Sanger’s pamphlets in hand and explained what she had heard to Sara. As Sara was illiterate, Clara began to read a pamphlet, but before she got too far, her mother slapped her hard on the face and said, “Don’t you dare talk dirty in this house!”

For materials about Margaret Sanger, go to

As a teenager, Clara was a rebel and in constant warfare with her mother. Sara apparently was threatened by Clara’s interest in books and the public library, at one point even throwing Clara’s library books in the garbage! At fifteen, Clara organized a walk-out against her cousin Eli, who together with her father had built a garment factory. Soon after that shocking event, Clara refused to consider marriage with a “Turk” (Sephardic) her family had found for her. She chose to remain single until her mid-twenties, which made her virtually a spinster in Sephardic terms.

Little by little, Clara made new friends on her own. Her best friend was Mollie Pomerantz, who Clara met through her older brother Morris. Morris had spent his teenage years in a sanitarium in upstate New York, where he developed lifelong friendships. One such close friend, Ben Steinmetz, introduced Morris to the Pomerantz family, and Mollie and Clara developed a close friendship that lasted until Clara’s death in 1980. Hiding her books at her friend Mollie’s house, Clara would sneak her books home one by one in her handbag, reading them secretly at night when everybody was asleep. The books and her new friends became her bridge out of the closed Sephardic world to the dazzling cultural world of New York City in the 1920’s and 1930’s. She partook of free concerts in Central Park, low-cost theater, museums, poetry and all forms of culture. She became a self-taught intellectual.

She also became a rebel in her politics. In the early 1930’s she joined the Young Communist League and became active politically. Needless to say, her radical politics placed her squarely at odds with her family, for none of them shared her perspective and arguments were frequent and heated. Still, she continued to support her family financially until her marriage in 1936 to Sam Pomerantz, Mollie’s brother.


Reflective Questions

  1. How is this immigrant story similar or different from the story of the family you are studying?
  2. How do Clara’s early experiences compare with those of the family members you are studying?
  3. In what ways did Clara’s gender influence her life, and how is this similar or different from the family members you are studying?
  4. How did (does) generational conflict manifest itself in the family you are studying?
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This page contains words or ideas that might be offensive to modern readers. To maintain the accuracy of historical documentation, the content is reprinted in its entirety as it was originally published. This accurate reproduction of original historical texts therefore contains words and ideas that do not reflect the editorial decisions or views of the American Historical Association.