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Home Is Where the Rug Is

What ‘Persian’ carpets meant to a generation of Jewish families in search of a place to call home

by
Carol Ungar
July 12, 2021
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

When The New York Times reported that the Karastan rug factory would be shutting its doors, it seemed to me that yet another piece of the world I had grown up in was about to disappear. Karastan—I knew the brand name from its advertising campaigns—had been America’s leading manufacturer of the richly patterned, vibrantly colored carpets that were once called “Oriental rugs,” a name that’s since been scrapped due to its colonialist associations. The company retained the rugs’ exotic veneer by naming them after the rug-producing regions of the Near East, but their rugs were actually made closer to home, in an American factory.

These carpets—both Karastans and the more expensive originals made by craftspeople on the other side of the world—were much loved by the Jewish aspirational class to which my family belonged. Decades ago, these rugs covered the floors of every good baalebatish home not only in the U.S. but around the world. In my childhood home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, we had three imported “Persian” rugs—a huge one in the living room and a smaller one nearly identical in the dining room and another in my parents’ bedroom. Our neighbors and my classmates at Ramaz, the tony Upper East Side day school I attended, had similar rugs in their homes, too.

The rugs, I believe, symbolized permanence, a home where they could put down roots—something my parents and other Jews of their generation thirsted for, after years on the run: My father had been in a DP camp in Europe; my mother spent time in three other countries on two continents before arriving in the U.S. in 1955. Having those heavy rugs was their way of saying that they wouldn’t be leaving—and they didn’t. My father stayed in that apartment until he died, my mother until three years before her passing. Even in Jewish religious practice, the notion of a place—which first and foremost means a prayer spot (sometimes decorated with a selfsame rug)—is a foundational concept. In Hebrew, peace of mind is yishuv hadaat; its root word shev means “sit,” implying that one has found peace when one has a place to sit.

Our own rugs were the real deal: authentic, handmade, hand-tied. We called them “Persian” even though they weren’t from Iran, which in those pre-revolutionary days was still ruled by the shah. My parents bought their rugs from a Bukharian Jewish dealer who imported them from what was then the Asiatic part of the Soviet Union.

Though their small social circle consisted mainly of people like themselves, Hungarian-speaking Holocaust survivors—in those years they called themselves refugees—they had somehow befriended three Bukharian brothers, short, sallow-skinned, balding men who supplied them with pearls for their jewelry-manufacturing business and partnered with them in their real estate investments. I don’t think my parents had ever encountered Sephardic Jews before—in those days, oddly, we called them “Oriental” as well—but my parents’ hearts were won over by the brothers’ scrupulous honesty.

Those brothers put them onto the rug merchant, who I believe plied his trade deep in the wilds of Queens. The man had no fancy showroom, no floor samples. He sold at deep discount from his living room.

Like the other objects in my parents’ home—a mahogany dining room set, a large breakfront, Rosenthal china—the rugs, with their elegant geometric patterns and rich scarlet tones, looked like they belonged in an embassy or a palace.

Looking back, I think that owning accoutrements of aristocracy—Rosenthal china, Michael C. Fina silver, and the dining room set—were my parents’ way of showing the world not only that they had survived (my mother spent a year in Auschwitz and my father in a Munkatabor, a Hungarian forced-labor camp) but that they were deserving of the best that life had to offer. But even if they wanted to buy the best, they wanted to pay the least. So all of our goodies came at a discount: the diamonds purchased not in Tiffany’s but on 47th Street, the china and silver on factory clearance, even my mother’s mink from the iconic, now defunct, off-price emporium Loehmann’s.

Though they were feinshmekers, a Yiddish term for people who appreciated quality, my parents saved more than they spent.

My friends’ parents shopped full-price at the poshest department stores, so I thought that everything my family owned was second-best, including the carpets. They came from Bukhara, or somewhere in the vicinity, when they should have really come from Persia. And yet I loved the rugs. They were soft enough to sit on and even after decades of use their colors never faded. Like most of our possessions, they seemed immune to the natural process of aging.

When my brother and I divided our parents’ things following their deaths, I requested a rug. I wanted to put it in my bland, beige living room for what I thought was a much-needed punch of color.

With the help of one of my sons, I rolled the rug, encasing it in heavy shrink-wrap, and mailed it home to Israel. It was heavy—my son had to help me unravel it—but it fit perfectly, covering the area under our couches and coffee table. How happy I felt; I’d brought a piece of West End Avenue to my home in the Judean hills. The rug warmed up the room and provided a safe space for my youngest grandchildren to play.

But as weeks turned into months it became clear that the Bukarian carpet was turning into a dust trap, spilled juice and cookie crumbs squashed into it by little feet. Despite our efforts to vacuum it, my husband and daughter complained that it was unsanitary; I think “gross” was the word they used. Finally, my husband rolled it up. It’s gone now, moved into the basement, where it sits under a drum set providing soundproofing and insulation.

Judging from the fate of the Karastan factory, my story fits in with the spirit of our times. According to The New York Times, today’s rug of choice is an inexpensive and lightweight Moroccan Berber. We are more mobile, seeking portability more than permanence. According to 2007 U.S. census data, the last time this was calculated, the average person can expect to move nearly a dozen times in their life. We no longer want to be burdened with heavy furniture, drapes, or even carpets. And yet there’s something about Persian rugs: their never-fading bright colors, their timeless design, and an illusion of permanence that I deeply miss.

Carol Ungar’s writing has appeared in NextAvenue, Forbes, NPR, the Jerusalem Post Magazine, and Fox News. She also leads memoir writing workshops on Zoom.

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