Media Files
Interview with Nathan Sweet, July 27, 1979
Wisconsin Jewish Archives Oral Histories
Wisconsin Historical Society
summary Interview conducted on July 27, 1979 by Sara Leuchter of the Historical Society staff with Nathan Sweet for the Wisconsin Jewish Archives; concerning his youth in Kapule, Russia, his escape to London, Yiddish plays he saw there, his coming to Madison, Wisconsin in 1908, the Madison Jewish community, and the anti-Semitic feelings of some of his fellow workers.
accession number WSA0136
summary Interview conducted on July 27, 1979 by Sara Leuchter of the Historical Society staff with Nathan Sweet for the Wisconsin Jewish Archives; concerning his youth in Kapule, Russia, his escape to London, Yiddish plays he saw there, his coming to Madison, Wisconsin in 1908, the Madison Jewish community, and the anti-Semitic feelings of some of his fellow workers.
created 1979-07-27
Interviewee Sweet, Nathan
Interviewer Leuchter, Sara
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Partial Transcript: Born in Kapule, Russia, on June 15, 1887. Parents born in same area, as were Sweet's brothers Israel, Moshe Mordechai, and William, and sister Sarah (Mrs. Meyer Eglash) of Milwaukee.
Partial Transcript: Father was jack-of-all-trades. Sold milk cattle in town when they did not produce. Sold fruit during the fall.
Partial Transcript: Older sons went to Hebrew School in the city. Younger children attended cheder on the farm.
Partial Transcript: Jewish families in each village operated small stores which sold kerosene, sugar, salt, and pepper. Typical job on the ranch farm was cow-chasing at milking time.
Partial Transcript: Cheder taught by traveling rabbis, hired by father. Neighborhood children came to the farm for cheder. Rabbi remained on farm through summer but returned to city for High Holidays. If rabbi was good, he would return for winter; otherwise, another was hired. Rabbi prepared boys for Bar Mitzvah at age 13.
Partial Transcript: One brother learned Gemorrah and became a rabbi. The neighbors helped to form a minyan on the farm. Sweet learned Chumash.
Partial Transcript: Gentiles on farm were friendly towards Jews. There were fights and arguments between Gentiles and Jews in the cities. No pogroms in Sweet's village.
Partial Transcript: Family kept in touch with world events through Jewish newspapers. Covered international Jewish news as well as events in Russian cities.
Partial Transcript: Family had several uncles in Madison who wrote. Sent boat tickets to Sweet's four brothers for emigration after serving in Russian Army. All brothers, except for oldest, went directly to Madison.
Partial Transcript: Father unable to buy ticket for Sweet to travel to Madison. Instead, he lived in London from age 17 to 2O.
Partial Transcript: Father hired guide to take Sweet to a border town, where guide bribed border police with money to buy liquor. Escaped at night with others and slept at boarding houses along the way.
Partial Transcript: Sweet's brothers wanted him to come to Madison, but London too exciting to leave. Attended dances and Yiddish theater, where he saw Tomashefsky and Adler perform.
Partial Transcript: Remembered scene in which a prepared wedding table was destroyed by son of widow soon to be married. Her husband-to-be, an old rabbi, was assaulted by the angry son.
Partial Transcript: Detailed wedding scene and destruction of prepared table by Tomashefsky.
Partial Transcript: Described another Yiddish play in which rabbi advised parents of Jewish girl to accept her back into the family after she eloped with Gentile.
Partial Transcript: Arrived with only one trunk and surprised friends; lived with family friends who were old neighbors from Kapule who would open their house to Sweets in the city during High Holidays.
Partial Transcript: Worked briefly in London as brushmaker. Apprenticed to builder for three years at $25.00 annually. In third year, met other apprentices who made more money and worked briefly for their contractor, until father forced him to return to original contractor.
Partial Transcript: Left Madison for three years to work in Chicago. Was walking around city and sighted group of builders. Asked one where he could find the contractor, and the man said, “Don't I know you?” He was Sweet's second boss from Russia. Discovered that builders had specialties and bricklayers paid six cents more per hour. Thus, became a bricklayer.
Partial Transcript: Brothers sent him ticket to Madison via Canada. Mad at brothers because he did not want to leave London. Boat trip lasted six days during which he ate only herring and potatoes.
Partial Transcript: Oldest brother worked at shoe factory for $4.00 per week. Younger brother also worked there but got fifty cents more because he was foreman.
Partial Transcript: Arrived in 1908. Lived first few weeks with oldest brother, who sent ticket to fiancee in Russia, Brothers bought tickets for parents and sister ten to twelve years after arrival of Nathan Sweet.
Partial Transcript: Found a job cutting ice from lakes around Madison. Boss sold ice in summer, wood in winter. Blocks cut 2' x 4' and stored until summer. Straw placed between pieces to prevent adherence of blocks. Job lasted three weeks, after which he went to Chicago.
Partial Transcript: Met old contractor from Russia and worked as builder in Chicago. On hot day was working on skyscraper and begged for water. It arrived in a pail with no dipper and was fought over by the workers. When Sweet got it, there was nothing left in bottom but tobacco juice. He threw it out a window, quit, returned to Madison.
Partial Transcript: Would take train to Chicago on weekends to see girlfriend Molly, whom he married. Were married for 64 1/2 years.
Partial Transcript: Had four children: Norman, Lillian, Bernice. Could not remember the name of second son.
Partial Transcript: Was one of original members of Agudas Achim Congregation on Mound St. German Jews built Gates of Heaven Synagogue on West Washington St. as a conservative temple. Agudas Achim was orthodox. Oldest brother left Agudas Achim to form B'nai Jeshurun Congregation.
Partial Transcript: Morris Stein and brother-in-law Shapiro (no first name) were kosher butchers who fought constantly over customers.
Partial Transcript: Fighting between older and younger members of Agudas Achim led to establishment of B'nai Jeshurun. Did not last long and was torn down by city to build low-income housing.
Partial Transcript: German Jews and Eastern European Jews separated through synagogue affiliation. Not much interaction on social or business level. Most German Jews moved from Madison to bigger cities.
Partial Transcript: Jewish women in Madison raised money for Palestine. Sweet's wife active in Jewish fund-raising.
Partial Transcript: Workmen's Circle, or Arbeiter Ring, hired teacher for the children. Had building on Mills St., which Sweet constructed. Only two members now surviving.
Partial Transcript: Sweet not much of a Socialist, because he believed in teachings of orthodox congregation. Socialists came to Madison to speak to Workmen's Circle, but Sweet never convinced.
Partial Transcript: Abe Mintz president of Chevra Kadisha (burial society). Sweets active members of Chevra Kadisha and Hebrew Free Loan Society. Women engaged in fund-raising for Israel although Jewish community as whole not too generous.
Partial Transcript: Helped build north wing on Capitol. Did not mean anything special to him other than having a job.
Partial Transcript: Worked for John Kelly as foreman on two high schools - one on east side, one on west side. Also built two public schools.
Partial Transcript: Encountered anti-semitism from Irish laborers while building West High School. Kelly got contract on Tenney building but did not name foreman. Laborers shocked when Sweet offered position.
Partial Transcript: Sweet allowed to gather crew for Tenney job. His Irish enemies were working with him on West High and wanted job on Tenney building. After Sweet hired them, they became friends. Wanted him to run for union presidency, but Sweet not interested.
Partial Transcript: Not much change in Jewish community. As a whole, changes in society for better. Youth well off and smarter now. Times better for families. Children no longer forced to Hebrew School or to work at early age.
Partial Transcript: Never very fond of Madison, small and uninteresting. If he could have changed his life, would have stayed in London, where life was exciting.
No transcript.