I was in Pittsburgh for a work conference and took some time to call up John Seekings, the central figure throughout my seltzer book, to both meet him in person for the first time AND visit his seltzer works.
It was a beautiful, hot summer day and I arrived at the Works to find the overhead lighting was under repair – nonetheless, my trusty iPhone worked its hardest to capture this lovely 20-minute tour, led of course by the indomitable, and always gracious, John Seekings.
I wrote recently about this fascinating CD tale, When Zaidy Was Young. I promised to share the cover art, as well as the back cover and the CD art.
Note both the prominent role played by the seltzer siphon and, equally interesting, how little else but that siphon (and of course the title’s Yiddish) codes it as a Jewish story.
The following is a tale nearly 200 years old, told on pages 134 – 146 of Sir Francis Bond Head’s “Bubbles from the Brunnens of Nassau.” The text is from Google Books, where each page, scanned from the original, can be viewed or searched through the computerized OCR reading (which explains some of the oddities you’ll encounter below).
Head is a very entertaining writer and brings the scenes of Neider-Selters to life better than any I have read and I am excited to share it with you now.
…Descending, however, into valleys, we occasionally passed through several very large villages, which were generally paved, or rather studded with paving-stones; and as the carriage-wheels hopped from one to another, the sensation ( being still too fresh in my memory) I had rather decline to describe : suffice it to say, that the painful excitation vividly expressed in my countenance must have formed an odd contrast with the dull, heavy, half-asleep faces, which, as if raised from the grave by the rattling of ray springs as well as joints, just showed themselves at the windows, as if to scare me as I passed…
Last Fall I wrote about being amazed at how much research has changed since I first began this project. Five years ago my challenge was finding the slightest reference to seltzer, seeking the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Now, with Google Books, they’ve given me a new problem. Serving as a magnet pulling the needles all together, I have TOO MUCH information. Thus, feeding my info porn addiction, it’s hard to know when to say “I have enough.”
I imagined at the time that in the future people who write books and papers will be expected to link to their collection of resources on Google Books. I didn’t realize it would come to pass in just a few weeks!
So, with little further adieu, here is the start of my public bibliography of primary and secondary sources on seltzer. Enjoy. And then, if you write fast than I, write your own book on seltzer (and thank me in the credits for the groundwork).
I am finally relistening to my original podcast series, which oddly enough has become a great source of research for me. The irony of course is it’s my research, but I did it so long ago I have already forgotten the details!
One of the interviews, yet to be aired, was with an Orthodox woman speaking of the role seltzer played in her very religious home as a child. In it she mentioned an album all the Orthodox boys and girls loved to listen to, called When Zaidy Was Young, which is all about life on the Lower East Side.
I am still tracking it down – as one of the tunes is about the seltzer delivery man – but in the process I found this outrageous video with the same name – a sort of Yiddish Muppets. It’s about a grandfather telling his grandson about how “it once was” on the Lower East Side.
But starting at around 14:30 it’s all about their love of seltzer! And then jumping to about 25:00 until the end it focuses on the use of seltzer to put out a fire and how, as a result, it helps the dad to maintain his Jewish identity in the face of assimilationist pressures while supporting his family – once again, seltzer both celebrated and saddled with so much responsibility. Check it out!
Here is what happens when you tell Jewish children: No seltzer for shabbat!
Part of what I love about this video is that seltzer is associated with so many different things: being Jewish; refreshing; humorous; seltzer business; and putting out fires. If it only had health and cleaning carpets it would have summed up nearly all popular associations with the drink. I wonder if in my research I will come across something else with containing all of the associations. What have you seen?
Thank you to all who made sure I didn’t miss this article in the New York Times about the recently injured seltzer delivery man and the impact is it having on his clients. We wish Mr. Beberman a fast recovery.
Be sure to read the article and, afterwards, to click to read it’s associated video of the Gomberg Seltzer Works, “the last seltzer factory in New York City” in Canarsie, Brooklyn.
Seltzer Man Is Out of Action, and Brooklyn Thirsts
By COREY KILGANNON
Published: September 25, 2009
The cellphone would not stop ringing. “Ronny, you’re 10 minutes late,” one caller whined.
But Ronny Beberman had a good reason. Having tumbled eight feet off his own seltzer truck, Mr. Beberman, 62, was answering the phone while laid out on West Seventh Street in Brooklyn, bleeding from a head gash and having broken a foot and several vertebrae. The news was also bad for his customers: Ronny the Seltzer Man would be out of service for a while.
Mr. Beberman drives the last real seltzer truck in New York, a wooden-slatted affair with crooked racks and side doors that are stuck open — the easier to strap the worn wooden cases to the side.
The weekly Forward, now in English, summarizes history highlights from its Yiddish past. We have seen in past years an imminent seltzer worker strike. This week we learned more about the conditions that led to it, reported one hundred years ago:
“Seltzer is far and away the most popular drink on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. As a result of the beverage’s popularity, seltzer bottlers work overtime. But most seltzer drinkers are not familiar with the dangerous realities of working in a seltzer factory. Accidents are daily occurrences, and workers come home with bandaged heads, sliced-up hands and missing eyeballs. The pace in these factories is so fast that the workers don’t have time to check the quality of the bottles. This means that if there is even a hairline crack in the glass, it could easily explode, leaving workers with gashes on their hands and heads, or shards of glass in their eyes. It is known that in the uptown shops, where most of the workers are Christian, the employees are provided with protective masks and gloves. But here, downtown, where the workers are Jews, no protection is available and there are injuries every day.”
Read a previous story from the Forward here.
The most well known character who will appear in my book is undoubtedly that of Joseph Priestley. His memory is kept alive in a variety of circles – by scientists, by Unitarians – but his memory is being recast by Steven Johnson in his new book, The Invention of Air as (to quote Newsweek’s review) a “lost Founding Father.”
I, of course, am interested in Priestley as the father of carbonated water. I just ordered the book and look forward to reading what Johnson has to say. Johnson’s earlier books, on emergence theory and how media is making us smarter, have been influential books on how I view the world, which makes my excitement even greater.
At first I was scared I might have missed my shot and he stole my thunder (and if anyone were to do so I would want it to be he!), but I think more likely than not this will simply show there is an interest in the subject, if as I suspect the Invention of Air follows in the footsteps of its bestselling predecessors.
Finally, I am also interested to learn if he talks at all about what I unfortunately will not be able to address in the book – his public relationship with Jews. Hurry up, Amazon!
This week I spoke at North Shore Synagogue, in Syosset, Long Island. My sister was gracious enough to to film the event with a handheld.
The video comes in multiple sections, so as one part ends the next will begin. It is around 40 minutes. It will look better on the web if you view it here.
Beneath the video jukebox you will find the powerpoint of my presentation, so you can follow along, if you like (the audio and videos slides, however, won’t work, but you can read the text).