Moment Memoir | My Mother’s ‘Knippel’

By | Aug 15, 2022
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This piece is part of Moment Memoir, expanding the conversation through a monthly exploration of the personal and beyond by some of our finest writers.

Long story short: my father, Jack, controlled the money in my parents’ marriage. All of it. (Which was not a lot, though I wasn’t aware of it at the time.) Their checking account was in his name; he paid the bills, filed the tax returns, and refused to tell my mother, Ceil, how much he earned or what was in the bank. Many husbands of his era did the same and some still consider it a man’s role to provide for his wife and family and handle all the finances. I don’t think he used his control of the money to make her servile or beholden. But by asserting his right to privacy about all things financial and withholding essential information from his nonworking wife that affected her security and well-being, he established, without making it explicit, that he was in charge and Mom wasn’t. 

To put it baldly, she and I were equally dependent on my father for our food, clothing and shelter, not to mention special treats. Yet he used to congratulate himself for his magnanimity because my mother didn’t have to ask for money. Every Friday morning, he gave her an allowance based on his estimate, not hers, of the weekly budget required to buy what was necessary to run the house and take care of me. She assumed that he was managing their savings and investments, which, as I said, would turn out to be nonexistent. She didn’t know that then, but like many women, she found ways to compensate for her involuntary ignorance and disconcerting powerlessness. Much as she did in her young teens, working in a garment factory to help cover her parents’ expenses, and in her twenties and thirties when she was a single mother working to support herself and pay my older sister Betty’s boarding school tuition, Ceil was frugal to a fault—bargain-hunting, buying day-old bread, choosing recipes that called for cheaper cuts of meat. She also managed to squirrel away a nut or two from her weekly allowance and hide it from her husband in a secret place. 

One day, while playing dress-up, I was rooting around in her lingerie drawer for a frilly nightgown that might transform me into a nymph or diva, when I found under her bras and girdles a nylon stocking with cash in it. I presented it to her as if it were a specimen requiring an identification tag. Flustered, she said it was her knippel and she was hiding it because she wanted to be sure I’d have a nest egg when I grew up, money no one could touch. Even Daddy. 

It must have been hard for her to break ranks with my father and confide in me. Then, hesitantly, choosing her words with care, she explained the purpose of a knippel. “If a woman has money of her own, she won’t have to ask anyone’s permission to spend it. I’ve been chiseling a few dollars out of my allowance every week and tucking them in here and look!” Mom held up the nylon stocking so I could admire it. “See how much I’ve saved!” The stocking was about half full. Dollar bills, mostly, some fives, even a couple of tens peeking through. 

“Is knippel Yiddish for stocking?” 

Mom laughed. “No, sweetie pie, it’s Yiddish for mad money.” 

Belated curiosity recently sent me to Google where the literal definition of knippel popped up in a newsletter called HerMoney. The word derives from knop, Yiddish for “a pinch,” writes Jean Chatzky, whose research is illuminating. While Jewish women used to pinch a knot of fabric in their aprons and hide money in it that they’d salvaged from their household allotment, keeping a stash of secret money for their own purposes is a cross-cultural female phenomenon. Indian women call their version of the knippel “God’s money” and use it to make donations to charities or buy candy for their children. Fifty-five percent of Japanese women admit they keep their hesokuri, or “belly button money,” hidden from their husbands. An Italian grandmother might use a pillowcase as her savings account or “wear many aprons, one on top of the other, and hide her money in the pocket of the bottom one.” These days, says Chatzky, women all over the world hide their money where “a partner wouldn’t think to look—in a box of tampons in a bathroom drawer, a jar tucked behind the soup cans, or zipped into the inside pocket of a rarely used purse.” 

“What’s mad money?” I’d asked my mother. Remember, I was a child. 

“When I was a girl and my friends or I went out with a man, we always kept a few dollars in our purses in case we got mad at him and wanted to go home,” she explained. “We hid the money in a secret compartment because we knew he would be insulted if he saw it, as if we thought he might not be able to pay for our dinner. Mad money was like an emergency exit. I knew I could always escape from a bad date.” Or a bad marriage, Mom was probably thinking. The possibility of escape, be it from poverty, a sweatshop job, her first husband Joe’s violence, or my father’s insensitivity, I now realize, was never far from her mind.

I was no child prodigy, but thanks to New York City’s “Special Progress” program, I skipped a grade in elementary school and a grade in middle school, which explains why I was only sixteen years old in September 1955 when my father drove me up to Waltham, Massachusetts, and dropped me off at Brandeis University. A few weeks into the semester, I realized that I was both the youngest member of the freshman class and the only motherless child in my dorm—Ceil had died barely five months before—and that any sign of grief on my part made several of my fellow students squirm. I learned to skate past the unpleasantness of my loss and hide those aspects of my personal situation that might arouse their judgment or pathos. Most kids that age have yet to master the skill of conveying sympathy without awkwardness. To spare my friends discomfort, I kept my feelings under control and mindfully cultivated the confident façade of a cheerful college coed. I wanted to be liked, not pitied. 


Which didn’t stop me from feeling sorry for myself when, in an unconscionably short period and without discussing any of it with me, my father sold our house; rented a one-bedroom apartment; assigned me a daybed in his vestibule; parceled out to relatives most of my mother’s personal effects, china, and silver; and gave away everything in my childhood room, including my bedspread and drapes, both hand-made by Mom, my desk, bureau and night table—even the little white Arvin radio I used to play at top volume to drown out my parents’ arguments. I’m not saying Jack was a cruel man, just practical, insensitive, self-involved and proud. Which is my indelicate way of introducing the embarrassing subject of money. 

My father had supported himself through school—Townsend Harris Prep, the city’s most selective school for gifted boys; then City College, which he’d entered at sixteen; then NYU Law School—by teaching Hebrew school twenty hours a week and tutoring four bar mitzvah boys per year at $150 each, a princely sum in those years. His earnings bought him a spiffy little canoe with a sail, his one personal indulgence; the rest of the money went to his father to help cover household expenses. (Scrap irony: Long before my parents met one another, Mom named herself Ceil, “heaven” in French, Dad named his sailboat Heaven. Just sayin’.) Enforced self-sufficiency had been character-building for him, he said, as it would be for me. That’s how he told me he would be paying my tuition, room and board, but all my other college expenses over the next four years—books, clothes, activity fees, pizza, beer, aspirin, “feminine stuff,” cigarettes, movies—would be my responsibility. 

We arrive at my dorm, Hamilton C. My father helps me carry my belongings upstairs, then leaves without much ado, no reveries about this landmark transition or how much he’s going to miss me. Totally his style. No surprise. Once he’s gone, I focus on what’s happening around me, girls popping into each other’s rooms, putting up posters—Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Monet’s lily pads—introducing themselves to one another, making conversation as they, with the help of their mothers, empty the contents of their trunks into closets and drawers. Batches of cashmere sweaters—V-necks, turtlenecks, sweater sets in every color—spill from their luggage. At sixteen, I do not own a cashmere sweater nor have I ever owned a cashmere sweater. The girls admire one another’s clothes. I’m in no hurry to open the three white leatherette valises (high school graduation gifts from my sister Betty and her husband, Bernie), in which I’ve deposited all my worldly possessions. The small one is a boxy cosmetic case worthy of Kim Novak, but my collection of cosmetics amounts to a tube of Pond’s “Honey” lipstick, a compact containing Max Factor’s pancake makeup, a face sponge and an eyelash curler, so I’d filled my case with pjs and underwear. I leave the valises unopened on the floor where my father had dropped them. I wait until my roommates and the other girls have gone to the dining hall before I retrieve my wool and Orlon sweaters from the glamorous faux-leather suitcases.

Another slide clicks into my mental viewfinder: my freshman friends invite me to go with them to Brighams, the Cambridge sweet shop, to buy ice cream cones. While they’re asking each other if they have enough time to get there and back before our late afternoon classes, I’m thinking, do I have enough money for an ice cream cone? I don’t. “Gotta stay to write a paper,” I tell them, embarrassed to admit that though I may appear to be a middle-class coed like them, they have fathers who would never let them run out of money, while my father will pay my tuition and room and board but not a penny more. 

After settling in at school, I wrote to my sister, “Please save all the letters you receive from me while I’m at Brandeis. I’d like to reread them someday and trace whatever growth and maturity takes place.” Betty, a natural saver, thankfully did as I asked and deposited all my college letters, about two dozen of them, in the commodious shopping bag that she later gave me, days before she died—a ragged plastic bag in which she’d stuffed hundreds of old family letters and documents, including my college letters to her, which ooze with my adolescent angst.

I don’t remember feeling deprived or being stressed out about money, but reading my words now for the first time since the 1950s, it’s clear that I kept myself on a tight financial leash. 

November 1955, two months into my freshman year: “Dear Betty, Brandeis has done so much for me already, it’s fantastic! 1) I am so conscious of being educated. I feel like a magnet attracting all this marvelous new information. 2) I’ve become extremely discriminating in my choice of courses, friends, movies, ways to spend my time. 3) I’ve learned the value of time and I use every second of it. 4) I’m so conscious of money and its conservation that I border on the point of parsimony. 5) I’ve learned to hold my beer.” 

January 1956: “My date took me to a luxurious delicatessen, Jack & Marion’s in Brookline. For $1.25, I ate ten bigger than jumbo shrimp, French fries, coleslaw, and tomatoes. Delish!” 

May 1956: “Never mind sending my high school prom dress. I won’t be needing it ’cause I decided not to go to the spring dance. I don’t want to spend all that money on one night.” 

Cheerleaders in basketball season. The author is second from the left.

My sister had money troubles of her own, four kids to feed on the modest salary Bernie earned as principal of Peekskill High School. Still, her packages kept coming—a throw pillow, a wrap, home-baked brownies, an occasional check. Judging from my ardent thank-you notes, Betty also made occasional deposits in my hope chest, a large metal foot locker kept in her attic, to which she was the only contributor. One of my thank-you notes refers to a copper-bottom Revere Ware saucepan, about which I was “thrilled to pieces. It would have taken me years to afford it.” The gifts she sent me on my 17th birthday elicited an extravagant gush of gratitude: 

“I have to drop everything to write and tell you of my amazement and excitement. The dress is absolutely gorgeous and thanks for buying it in the shade of green that’s my best and very favorite color. The bag is stunning, perfect for the dress and the beads add that extra touch and match beautifully. My dorm mates are drooling—they wish they had such a thoughtful, generous and unselfish sister.” 

Meanwhile, my dorm mates didn’t think twice about buying an ice cream cone. They owned circle pins, Ferragamo shoes, and silk neckerchiefs. They had moms who took them shopping at Bergdorf’s and Bonwit Teller, and dads who sent them flowers on their birthdays. I was too embarrassed to admit that my dad—who they knew was a lawyer, drove a nice car and wore snazzy sports jackets the few times he visited me—wouldn’t contribute a dime to my expenses.

Freshman tea held at the home of the first president of Brandeis Abram Sachar. The author is on the right side of the photo with her white gloves, which, at the time, were required accessories for well-bred women.

In one report to Betty, I described taking two jobs on campus, twelve hours a week at ninety cents an hour—six hours at the university’s Office of Public Affairs doing typing and publicity and six hours as secretary to the Hillel director, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg (a brilliant theologian who, with his wife, Blu, would later become dear personal friends). On the side, I tutored athletes in English and biology. “You’re probably thinking I’ve assumed too much responsibility,” I wrote, “but I feel I should start saving for my marriage and my future.” 

Three months later: “I’ve put away $125 from my campus jobs! I opened my own savings account in a Waltham bank and I am not going to touch that money!” 

On June 9, 1957, Dad came up to Brandeis to take me out to dinner for my 18th birthday. When we met in the lobby of my dorm, he presented me with an odd-shaped gift. “Before your mom died, I promised her I’d give you this when you turn eighteen—and I always keep my word, right ketsileh?” I tore off the wrapping and burst into tears at the sight of my mother’s knippel. Years before, when I’d happened upon it in her lingerie drawer, the nylon stocking was limp, half full of crumpled bills. Now, stuffed thigh to toe, it was as stiff as the leg of a mannequin. At the end of the evening, after my father dropped me back at my dorm, I shook the knippel out on my bed and counted the money. Somehow, between the day I found it in her bureau drawer and the day she died, Mom had squirreled away from her paltry household allowance almost $2,000, the equivalent of $18,000 today. It was more cash than I’d ever seen and, doubtless, more than my poor mom had ever in her life accumulated in her own name. I used some of the money to buy myself a compact car, a nifty powder-blue Simca (a French brand discontinued in the 1970s), which transformed me overnight into the most privileged girl in my group, the one who could drive other girls into Cambridge or Boston. The rest I deposited in my Waltham bank account and vowed not to touch until after graduation. 

I must have kept that promise because Betty kept sending me cash infusions. 

“Your $50 check was like a deus ex machina. I shall treat it prudently and I’m sure it will carry me comfortably until June. Will pay you back as soon as possible. Hope it wasn’t a strain on you, but I was really at rock bottom—like down to 48 cents. Being a senior has been expensive. My books for the semester ran more than I’d expected but don’t tell Daddy because I don’t want to spend even five minutes justifying my expenditures and listening to him lecture me on how to live within my budget.” 

Then, a week before graduation: 

“I’ve been selected to receive an English award at an Honors Convocation next week. I sure hope the prize is money. It would solve so many problems. I’m terribly sorry I haven’t been able to afford to give your children any presents recently. Believe me, I want to, and I look forward to years when I can make up in some measure all that you and Bernie have done for me and all that your four little darlings have meant to me. I don’t want to ask Daddy for help. Maybe you could tell people in the family who ask what I might like for a graduation present that they should give me money.”

The author receiving her diploma from Dr. Sachar.

For four years, I struggled to live on my meager earnings from a patchwork of jobs that took me away from my studies, yet I never questioned the cognitive dissonance of my situation—or why my father, a seemingly successful middle-class lawyer who supposedly earned a good living, would demand that I support myself through my teen years with not a lot of help from him. Now, the revelations in my parents’ letters of more than eighty years ago—which my much-older sister somehow inherited from our mother and saved for me—have raised the distinct possibility that his success was a posture and his “good living” a mirage. Rather than stoking my resentments, the letters have moved me toward a more sympathetic interpretation of what had always struck me as my father’s callous indifference. I used to view the fear of shanda as Ceil’s signature fixation, a product of her shtetl origins and childhood humiliations. But I’ve come to believe that Jack, too, was weighed down by the threat of shame, only his was a product of his gender, his patriarchal family, and the social milieu. In the Jewish world of the 1950s, a man who couldn’t support his family was not a man. 

Was it possible that my father’s unilateral decision to sell our house and relegate me to a daybed in his new apartment’s entry hall was not born of selfishness and insensitivity to my feelings of loss and abandonment, but of shame and his refusal to admit that he was unable to afford an apartment with a second bedroom? Could it be that the reason he didn’t give me any spending money in college was not to teach me financial independence but because he didn’t have a dollar to spare? What a great relief it would be, even these many years later, were I able to believe that his actions sprang from a paucity of resources, not of love. Was he performing prosperity to save face? If so, I would sympathize with him retroactively and forgive him posthumously. Few things could shame a husband or father more than being unmasked as an inadequate provider. I knew that. But I never imagined my self-assured dad would wear any kind of mask in the first place. Looking back, I recognize now that compelling social forces in his upwardly mobile Jewish community—namely masculine pride and the loom of the shanda— were enough to make my father, or any man of his generation, lie about his finances. If that’s what he did and why he did it, I would move the knob on my icebox to defrost. I would understand. 

Mom’s knippel bought me my independence. After graduation, I moved to an apartment at 344 West 12th Street in Greenwich Village. “I’m paying $68.42 per month for a 15’x 14’ living room with a small working fireplace, built-in bookcases, a mini kitchen recessed in the wall, and a 13’x 14’ bedroom with a closet,” I wrote to Betty (who lived with Bernie and their four kids in a rambling Victorian pile in Peekskill). “I also negotiated with the previous tenant to buy his nearly new sofa and double bed and two lamps for only $230!” Perky, proud of myself, and just turned twenty, I had a roof over my head, a secretarial job in the editorial department at Simon & Schuster, and a mutt I named Morpheus (for the god of dreams, of which I had plenty). And I bought my first cashmere sweater. 

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a writer, activist and founding editor of Ms. Magazine, as well as a longtime columnist for Moment. This article is an adapted excerpt from the forthcoming Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy © 2022 Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Published by Post Hill Press. Used with Permission.

7 thoughts on “Moment Memoir | My Mother’s ‘Knippel’

  1. Cindy Chazan says:

    I always had a knippel, as did my mother and my Bubby.
    You Never Know !
    You may want to buy yourself a gift
    You may want to pay airfare to get your struggling children home.
    It was a commandment that came after, always wear clean underwear in case you’re in an accident; and make sure you never leave home without a dime (!) to call home and cab fare.

  2. Suzanne Serbin says:

    This is a wonderful memoir of times gone by. Yes, my mother, as well, had a kippel, and she somehow managed to dress herself, my brother and me so that none of us looked like ragamuffins. We always had good meals thanks to her adept management of household expenses and her expertise in cooking and cleaning her own house from top to bottom. She was a gifted pianist, a refined, highly intelligent, and beautiful woman. Now 58 years after her death I still miss my outstanding mother.

  3. Nancy K. Kaufman says:

    Love this excerpt, Letty. I have always known we had a lot in common….feminism, Brandeis, early marriages, loss of a parent at a young age, but did not realize we also had the financial worries during our college years and a parent who did not have the means for any “expenses”. In my case, it also meant, loans, work-study and scholarships! But who know we also had Jack and Marion’s and Brigham’s! Cannot wait to read the book- I just ordered an advanced copy!!

  4. Ted Hochstadt says:

    My father often expressed to me his wonderment at how his mother always had been able to buy chicken for Friday night shabbat supper even when his father had been out on strike for weeks or months. Now I know: she had a knippel .

  5. My mother too had her own knippel. She also found a bookkeeping job to gain financial independence while I was in high school. She taught me to never be dependent on anyone for money. I understood that well. After my divorce which left me with 3 very young children and a paltry amount of child support, I worked at 3 jobs in order to live and give my children a good, but not terribly extravagant life. We got by and they all ended up doing well, and graduating from various colleges. They all are successful women with grown children and all of them are professionals.

  6. Laurie Nada says:

    I can’t wait to buy your book. This excerpt is a great tease! My mother didn’t call hers knippel — she called it a Jewish pocketbook! It was a small tan leather coin purse that I knew about. And it was in her lingerie drawer! BTW, my son and daughter-in-law are Brandeis grads class of 2010. My son found his way there from here, southern California and it was the best decision he could have made!

  7. Richard Kahane says:

    A wonderful memoir, and I am now looking forward top reading the whole book. One minor quibble, if I may: The French word for heaven is “ciel,” not “ceil.”

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