Sadie Dweck & Virginia Sultan: Growing Up on the Lower East Side

Joseph Sultan as a rug merchant in Aleppo

Sisters Sadie Dweck and Virginia Sultan were interviewed together for the Sephardic Heritage Museum’s documentary film series in 2008. They are pictured above with their sisters – from left to right: Sadie, Virginia, Mollie, Betty. Sadie recalled “There was a Syrian man, Zalta, on 20th Avenue, and he used to cut our hair Buster Brown, straight down and bangs, and he used to put a razor in the corner of each corner to make sure the hair doesn’t grow in that spot. I hated it. But we all looked alike.”

Virginia: “I was born on the East Side in 1916. And Sadie is the youngest of a family of seven. And there’s a brother in between Sadie and I. So I’m the third youngest.

When I was born, my father, Joseph Sultan, was a peddler who was born in Aleppo and arrived to the United States. And my father used to peddle in the state of Virginia, and my uncle said ‘That’s a nice American name,’ so they called me Virginia. A few weeks ago I was with the rabbi, and I told him how I got my name. He said ‘Don’t you have a Syrian name?’ I said no. ‘Don’t you have a Hebrew name?’ I said ‘No, my name is Virginia.’ That’s it. But they call me V.”

Joseph Sultan was one of the first Syrian men to come to New York and settle on the Lower East Side. Almost immediately, he got involved with the community’s burial society, Rodfeh Sedek.

Sadie: “My father, Joseph Sultan, was very prominent in our community, and he was on the committee that took care of each other when people died. They used to come to our house and ring the bell, and he used to take care of the preparation of the burial. The poor people didn’t have to pay for their funeral. He used to get extra money from the rich people in order to balance it. But he took care of everybody. And he was one of the founders of the current cemetery, and he bought the lot in Staten Island. Before that, they used to go somewhere out in Long Island. That was very far.”

“We used to sit around the dining room table Friday night and talk. My father used to talk about his experience as a salesman, a peddler on the road. He had one instance where he sold merchandise to nuns. They were his best customers. They bought everything he had. We had a very nice home life. And when the synagogue on 67th Street was built we were little children, and marched in the parade, and I remember I was wearing a white dress, and held the flags, and we marched and they took our pictures. It was a beautiful day.”

Magen David Synagogue opening day parade, 1921

Virginia: “We were four children. We slept in one bed. Head and toe. And then when my brother Abe and Adele got married, they lived with us, and they had three children. Like my nieces, I feel as though they’re my children. Of course I used to bathe them and dress them. But we had a very nice childhood. Money was not ever important to me. Clothes were never ever important to me. Makeup or anything was never important to me. Just to be with each other, to have respect for each other, to get along. That’s it. Whatever it is, that’s what’s important, and to be happy and healthy, and keep moving. Don’t sit. If you don’t use it, you lose it. I’m 92 years old, and I do everything. I walk. I cook. I bake. I go the Center. I do exercise. I go on trips. The Center has trips, I go. I try to do everything. I never say that ‘I can’t do it.”

“Keep your heart free from hate. Keep your mind free from worry. Live simply, and I live very simply, Expect little. Give much. Sing often, and I sing, Pray always. Fill your life with love, scatter sunshine. Forget self. Think of others. Do as you would be done by. These are the true, tried links of content gold chain. I have it in frames all over the house.”

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