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A Birke’s Department Store Memory, Submitted by Hersh Goldman

July 26, 2012

Letter to the Editor, Jewish Advocate

“I saw the article about Birke’s clothing store in Lowell with the ‘No Browsing’ sign. I grew up in Lowell and took the unique store-front sign for granted. After I got married, my brother-in-law who grew up in Scranton, PA visited us. My wife and I took him on a walking tour of downtown Lowell. We walked along as I pointed out this and that. Suddenly, my brother-in-law stopped in his tracks and I backed up to see why he stopped. He was staring at the ‘No Browsing’ sign in Birke’s store. He said, ‘What’s this? I don’t believe it! Is this for real? How can he stay in business? I think I’m going to go in and walk around and browse and see if he tells me no browsing.’ But we found the store to be closed. The store and its sign seemed to make a bigger impression on my brother-in-law than any other sight in Lowell…

I always thought of Nathan and Sally Birke as Boris and Natasha, the two Russian spies in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon show. Nathan Birke was short and squat and had a sly half smile and Sara was tall, elegant and poker faced. I thought she looked a little like Ava Gardner.

Nathan Birke made me laugh. He didn’t have anything funny to say but he sounded funny. He swore with a heavy accent. I never heard anyone over forty swear as much as he did. It was ‘f’ this and ‘f’ that and the words were uttered as calmly as though they weren’t considered the least bit offensive. His heavy Yiddish accent made the short ‘u’ vowel-sound in the F-word come across like the European pronunciation to the Hebrew vowel, ‘kometz’. Every time Birke swore I couldn’t help laughing, even though he wasn’t trying to be funny. Normally I would feel it is rude to laugh at a person’s accent. But in Birke’s case I felt that it should be permissible. If he was rude enough to swear so much it shouldn’t be inappropriately rude for me to laugh at the accent he swore in.

His wife never swore. I couldn’t imagine her as ever swearing. They were truly an odd couple.”

Hersh Goldman
July 11, 2012
Swampscott, MA

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