Manny (Menachem Mendel) Samuels, born in April 1949 in Chicago, Illinois, is a third-generation American whose parents were born in the United States — unlike those of most of his friends. “So my parents were more laid back,” he says. Which partially explains why, although he attended a Jewish day school and a religious high school, “I did my own thing. Unfortunately, I used school more as a country club than as a religious experience. I wasn’t particularly religious at the time.”
In 1969, he left home to study sociology at the University of Illinois in Champagne. He still had an affinity for his Jewish roots, which he expressed as a leader of a Young Judea group. A discussion about Israel with this group was his first catalyst to visit the Land.
“Here I was, talking about Israel with these kids, and I’d never been there myself. I felt like I needed a break anyway, and so I decided to take off from my studies and spend a year in Israel.” It was 1970. Manny was twenty-one.
He bounced around Israel for a while, spending some time on a kibbutz, touring, and visiting friends. In Arad, visiting a friend, he met his bashert, and got married. Manny and his new wife rented an apartment in Arad, and he set out to find a job, stumbling through various positions, not yet really knowing where his niche in the working world was meant to be.
“I had about five or six different jobs at that time. I lost one every couple of weeks. I worked as a night guard. I worked building up the hotels at Yam HaMelach, taking cement bags with the Arabs off the truck. When it came lunchtime, I didn’t know if I should sit on the floor with the Arabs or sit with the Israelis in the shack, so I sat on the floor, but they dragged me into the shack. Then I moved up the rungs to be trained as a carpenter. After a few days on the job, I stepped on a nail. That ended my career as a carpenter.
“I worked at a garage training to be an auto mechanic. They handed me an oil pan to clean. You’re supposed to just dip it into a rinse and put it back, but I scrubbed it clean and brought it back twenty minutes later. It was the cleanest oil pan they’d ever had at that garage. That and a few other mishaps ended my career as an auto mechanic. “
After over a year of failed career starts in Israel, Manny and his wife decided to go back to the US so that he could finish his degree. But being in Israel had nourished a certain spiritual hunger. “We had felt very Jewish in Israel, although we weren’t religious. We were sitting in a ‘kosher style’ restaurant in Chicago. Here we were about to have our first child. The secular life had nothing to offer us; no spiritual or intellectual stimulation. We said ‘Let’s try to be religious.’ ”
Religious life wasn’t foreign to him; he understood that the engine driving any religious commitment was Torah learning, and so Manny joined a night kollel. “I was learning three nights a week and I had my old high school chevrah back. They were still learning while I’d gone in a different direction. It was a good practical bonus to having returned to Torah.”
Meanwhile, he completed an undergraduate degree in liberal arts and applied to graduate school, but was rejected because he’d been arrested in the turbulent sixties for demonstrating against the ROTC [Reserve Officers Training Corps] on campus and interrupting their military exercises.
Little did Manny know to what extent the academic world’s loss would lead to the Jewish world’s gain. With a baby on the way, Manny was forced to try his hand in business. His father was a salesman, a manufacturer’s representative for Liberty Jeans of Birmingham, Alabama. He gave Manny a bag of samples and said, “Go out with this.” Manny was out of samples on the very first day. “This is fun,” he said. “I can do this.” Many years later, that tiny seed of success, planted in the American Midwest, would bear fruit in the Holy city of Yerushalayim.
For the next eleven years, Manny sold clothing to retailers in Chicago. “I had samples of men’s jeans. I’d go out to these ma-and-pa stores — little neighborhood stores in Chicago. A little chatting here and there, and I’d convince them that they should see my line. They’d see the merchandise and order it.”
But by the early 1980s, things were beginning to change in the United States. The mom-and-pop stores were being bought up by national chains operating in the malls. Neither Manny, nor the company he was working for, had any experience dealing with national chains. Manny weighed the effort involved in breaking into the conglomerates with the risks involved in jumping out on his own, and decided to enter into his own independent business.
He traveled to fashion shows in New York, where he’d find the best deals, buy in bulk, and have the merchandise shipped to Chicago, where he’d sell it to retail stores. His overhead was low, because he was working out of his basement, and so Manny prospered, gaining valuable business experience, which would serve him later.
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