Saturday, April 02, 2005

MEMOIR: "The Man Who Smoked Cigars on the Sabbath"

When my paternal grandparents arrived in America at the turn of the last century from Poland, they adhered to the same marital division of labor that they had followed in Europe. My grandfather, who was a Hasidic rabbi, retreated to his Talmudic studies. My grandmother went into business and became the family's primary breadwinner. I've never figured out who took care of their five children.
According to family legend, my grandfather was dispatched to this country by the head of his Hasidic sect, the Gerer Rebbe, to establish a Hasidic presence here. Shortly after his arrival, he founded and headed what was probably the first Hasidic congregation in the U.S., Beth Hasidim de Palen (House of the Hasidim from Poland) on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
In Poland, my grandmother engaged in what I like to boast was the "oil business." In her case, it was vegetable oil. My grandfather was considered a highly attractive marital catch because of his renown as a Talmudic scholar. But his scholarly talents were unlikely to provide a family with much of a livelihood. So his older brother, an affluent distiller and lumber dealer, paid to set up my newly married grandmother's vegetable oil venture.
In the U.S. my grandfather enjoyed tremendous religious prestige, but again this did not produce sufficient earnings to support a large family. Once more, my grandmother had to become the primary family breadwinner. She intended to resume producing vegetable oil, but my grandfather discouraged her, saying "Rockefeller was in that business." He obviously was so ignorant about the oil industry that to him "oil was oil."
She eventually opened up a small retail dairy store. When he was in his early teens, my father, who was a yeshiva student, worked in the store after school hours. Whenever my grandmother ran out of milk, butter, or eggs, she sent him to a rival dairy store several blocks away to obtain whatever products she needed.
Over the years the other dairy store proprietor became very fond of my father. The competitor had a daughter. Indeed, he was so impressed with my father that when my father and the daughter both turned 16, the rival storekeeper made overtures to my grandfather, suggesting that the two teenagers would make an excellent marital match. Apparently, youthful marriages were commonplace in the community at that time.
My grandfather, however, quickly spurned the other storekeeper's suggestion. The man had a reputation for failing to observe the Sabbath, much to my pious grandfather's disgust. Moreover, he infuriated my grandfather by having been seen smoking cigars in public on the Sabbath. In short, to my grandfather the man was unsuited to be linked to our family and to become his son's father-in-law.
The non-religious dairy storekeeper who offended my grandfather so much was named Breakstone.

3 Comments:

Blogger Observer said...

Breakstone?
Any connection to the "Upstate Farms" dairy products? Cottage cheese, sour cream, yoghurt?

Ivan
in Ajax

Saturday, April 02, 2005 7:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Ian Reichek said...

Hello Papa, haven't talked to you in a while. I'm happy you managed to tell a story here that you haven't told me already. Your grandfather reminds me of you a little in the sense that he took little time to make his decision not to relate himself to such an abomination of Judaism. Well I'm supposed to be doing homework, so I guess I'll talk to you on the phone sometime. I hope you take the time to read the comments on your blogs.

Love,
Ian

Tuesday, April 05, 2005 8:52:00 PM  
Blogger Observer said...

Hello Morton:

Eight days since your last (Breakstone) post on your blog.

I hope there is no health problem.

Ivan

Sunday, April 10, 2005 10:15:00 AM  

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