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Knitting Women Together

Barbara Bensoussan

The picture of granny sitting in a rocking chair and clacking away with her needles is the stereotype we associate with knitting. However, this age-old art has reemerged as a hobby, with enthusiasts from across the age spectrum, women who enjoy both the soothing act of knitting, and the beautiful items they can create.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012


When Sara Hershkovitz’s father was hospitalized last fall, she spent many stressful days and then weeks, sitting at his bedside. Unable to read for so many hours, she found herself a prisoner of boredom.


“When my sister came to visit, she started knitting a gartel,” Mrs. Hershkovitz says. “She looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you do something?’”


Her sister directed her to a basement yarn store in Boro Park, where the warm and welcoming owners patiently helped her get started. Mrs. Hershkovitz undertook to create a baby blanket, and was so pleased with the results she made another, and then another.… By the end of the winter, she’d made four baby blankets: one for a grandchild, and three for great-grandchildren. When Purim arrived, she proudly presently them to her offspring as part of her annual mishloach manos offerings.


While her eineklach were thrilled to receive these handmade gifts, Mrs. Hershkowitz felt she had gained as well. “The knitting got me through a very hard time,” she avows. “It was even better than medicine! I’d been on medication for high blood pressure, but ever since I began knitting, I don’t need it anymore!”




Spinning Yarns


Following Mrs. Hershkovitz’s glowing report, I decided to pay a visit to the knitting store. But if you don’t know where M & M Yarns is located, you could miss it: the brick house with the front porch and neat tulip-lined yard is set back from the street, and there’s no sign on the basement door. Once inside, you have to follow the knitting posters to be sure which of several doors leads to the “store” — a medium-sized basement room outfitted with cubby-type shelving for yarn and a rack holding a few instruction booklets.


When I push open the door, I find co-owner Pessie Meller standing behind a counter, elegantly turned out and smiling. Her partner, Esther Mandelbaum, is heimishly holding court in front of an old white desk, one foot stretched out in a Velcro cast covered with a lacy knitted throw (she’d just had minor foot surgery). Esther’s daughter Chana Mindy, who looks much too fresh-faced to be a grandmother herself, is also helping out. There’s a fringy knitted neck shawl around her neck. The mother-daughter resemblance is nowhere more apparent than in the radiant smiles that regularly light up both faces. “You finally came!” they say.


The store was established 32 years ago, and one has the impression that not much has changed in all that time. The basement is the simplest of rooms, with sample knitted garments dangling on hangers from the pipes on the ceiling. There’s an old, paneled kitchenette against the back wall, a few white folding chairs scattered around, and celadon-colored wallpaper with pink roses. A few knitting-related newspaper clippings are tacked up on a wall, and a plastic file box holds folders of patterns and instructions collected over the years.


Pessie and Esther, friends since seventh grade, started the business together in 1979. Esther had learned to knit from her mother when she was nine years old: “We were in the country, and one of our neighbors had two girls who used to fight all the time. In order to keep them distracted, my mother taught us all to knit!


“There was a truck that used to come around with yarns and needles and books,” she continues. “I remember I made myself a sweater out of pink wool, but I didn’t know how to size it right, so it was way too big for me. I threw it in the garbage, but my mother rescued it and kept it. Decades later, we were in the country and one of my kids was cold, and I was able to pull it out for her.”


Esther’s skills progressed steadily after her pink sweater fiasco. By the time she was married, her bungalow colony friends used to beg her, “Come with us to buy yarn and you’ll help us make something.” With a chuckle, Esther and Pessie recall the olden days when they’d frequent a particular store on Nostrand Avenue, where the yarn was cheap but the owners barked at the clients.


Eventually Esther realized she was spending so much time helping other women knit, and running with them to buy yarn, that maybe it made sense to open her own place. It was only logical that Pessie should be her partner. “People told us, ‘It’ll break up your friendship,’ ” Pessie says. “But from the beginning we agreed that if it ever caused problems between us, we’d close the business rather than endanger our friendship.”


The ladies opened up “as a lark,” promising their husbands it wouldn’t interfere with running their homes. “There was one time I ended up staying very late with a customer, and then my husband came home and found the house upside down and no dinner ready,” Esther says with a twinkle. “After that, I established a firm closing time of three o’clock to be sure I’d be available for my family.”


And she’s obliged to set limits, because knitting is “mamesh an addiction” for some of her clients. “I remember once in the country a lady came for advice Erev Tisha B’Av, and I couldn’t get rid of her! I kept reminding her I needed to go eat before the fast, but she just wouldn’t leave!”




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