MEMOIR: I never knew my grandfathers
I have always envied the special relationship that so many grandsons seem to have with their grandfathers. I've felt deprived because I never knew my grandfathers, both Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Poland and Russia, who brought their families to the U.S. around the turn of the last century.
I did know my two grandmothers. Both lived until I was an adult with my own wife and children. However, I was never able to establish the intimate personal bond with them that I imagine a young man can more easily form with a grandfather. Perhaps it was an early case of male chauvinism on my part. But how can a growing boy relate to an "alteh bubbe" [old grandmother] on matters involving manliness?
As I have grown older, I have developed a passion to learn as much as possible about my unknown grandfathers. And now that I have three grandsons of my own, that sentiment has become more intense. I theorize that if I can discover what kind of men my grandfathers were, I might gain a more profound sense of self. Curiously, I cannot recall that either of my grandmothers ever told me very much about their husbands.
My maternal grandfather, Chaim Josef Rabinowitz, died in 1907, only four years after he arrived in New York with a wife and three small children. My late mother didn't even remember him. I have found very few clues about his life. He came to America to escape imprisonment in a Czarist Russian jail. In moving to his wife's native village in the province of Minsk to work for his father-in-law, a miller who leased land from a local nobleman, my grandfather exceeded the number of Jews legally authorized to live there.
Bankrolled by has father-in-law, he fled with his wife and children to Rotterdam, Holland, from where he sailed on the S.S. Nordam to New York. According to the ship's manifest, he arrived with $110. Only one of the 27 individuals listed on his page is shown to have come with more money. He was 37.
Settling in East Harlem, he went to work for his wife's two older brothers, who were men's clothing manufacturers. Nearly four years later he died in Mt. Sinai Hospital. The death certificate shows the cause of death as "cardiac failure." It lists his occupation as an "operator"--of a sewing machine, I assume. After his death, his two brothers-in-law supported my grandmother and her children until the children were old enough to work.
I have two other pieces of evidence that my maternal grandfather ever existed. One is a timeworn photo taken shortly after the family's arrival here. Attired in what is obviously his most elegant suit--perhaps rented--he sits stiffly in an ornate chair staring away from the camera. He has dark hair and a black, handle-bar mustache. He looks like no one I have ever known in my mother's family.
My grandmother, a pretty woman with Slavic features, stands demurely to his left, her hand on her husband's shoulder. She wears an ornate white blouse and a white ribbon in her hair. My mother, who was probably about seven, stands to her father's side in white dress, petticoat, and stockings. To my grandfather's left stands my late uncle, several years older than my mother. An infant girl, my late aunt, stands in her father's lap.
The only other evidence I have of my maternal grandfather's existence is a penny postcard, dated Dec. 21, 1906, which he wrote to his wife from the hospital just weeks before his death. The card is pencil-written in Yiddish. About all that can be deciphered now is the salutation, "My dear wife."
I know considerably more about my paternal grandfather, Avraham Shmuel, a renowned Talmudic scholar who was widely known as Reb Shmulkeh. He was born in Ostrow (also known as Ostrava) in the province of Lomza, northeast of Warsaw in what was then the Russian-governed region of Poland. His father was a lumber dealer and his older brother a distiller. He was ordained as a rabbi, but never earned a livelihood as a clergyman.
After he married my grandmother, whom he did not meet until their wedding day, his brother set him up in the vegetable oil business. My grandfather had little taste for business. He spent most of his time studying and praying in his Hasidic synagogue. His wife, a strong-willed lady, ran the business and turned it into a thriving enterprise.
Several years later, he left his family to migrate to the U.S., perhaps unhappy about the marital division of labor. In New York he worked as a steamship agent and sewing machine salesman. His American experience was apparently unpleasant, for he went back to his family in Poland shortly after becoming a U.S. citizen in 1903.
Three years later, he returned to the U.S. with his wife and children, including my 9-year old father. They arrived aboard the S.S. Fatherland after a brief stay in Antwerp, Belgium. According to family legend, he was urged to return to the U.S. by the Gerer Rebbe, head of the Hasidic sect to which he belonged. The Rebbe convinced my grandfather to return to America to establish a Hasidic presence in New York.
Upon the family's arrival in the city's Lower East Side, my grandfather established Beth Hasidim de Palen, one of the nation's first Hasidic congregations. To support the family, my grandmother opened a small dairy store on the ground floor of the tenement building in which they lived.
In the early 1920s, weary of life in their teeming city neighborhood, my grandfather decided to seek a new life in a rural setting for his family. Through the Baron deHirsh Fund, an organization that encouraged Jewish immigrants to become farmers, he obtained a low-interest loan to buy a farm in Windsor Locks, Conn. The main crop was a strain of tobacco used as a broadleaf wrapper for cigars. The seller was a Jewish farmer who wanted to retire.
As part of the deal, the farmer agreed to remain on the premises until my grandfather, who knew nothing about farming, learned how to run the property. He temporarily left his wife and children in New York. But a week after taking possession of the farm, the old farmer died.
My grandfather was shocked at his inability to round up a "minyan" of 10 adult Jewish males to recite the prayer for the dead three times daily for a week, as required by Orthodox tradition. So he abandoned the idea of becoming a farmer in a community with so few fellow Jews. He surrended the small deposit he had made to buy the property and quickly returned to his family in New York.
In the mid-1930s, when his five children were adults with families of their own, my aging grandfather decided to leave the U.S. and settle in Palestine so that he could die in the Holy Land. My grandmother refused to go with him. She remained in New York until her death about 20 years later.
In late 1945, I almost had a chance to meet my grandfather, who was living in a Hasidic home for the aged in Jerusalem. I was a soldier based in India, awaiting shipment home after the war's end. I decided to apply for an emergency furlough to visit him while en route back to the States. Getting to Palestine would be simple, I figured. There was a regularly scheduled military air transport route from Karachi to Tehran, Iran where U.S. troops were stationed, and then on to Alexandria, Egypt. At that time, the British operated a rail line from Egypt to Palestine.
To obtain a furlough I needed documentary evidence of my grandfather's existence. With the aid of a Jewish army chaplain I composed a Yiddish letter to him, instructing him to respond as quickly as possible. I asked him to identify himself as my grandfather and to emphasize that he urgently needed to see me. I began by explaining who I was and enclosed a photo. He had 10 grandchildren, few of whom he had ever seen.
I received a reply in Yiddish dated Dec. 9, 1945. On the back of the letter was a broken-English translation, apparently written by some one else. My grandfather blessed me, the U.S. army, and my commanding officer, and pleaded that it was urgent that I visit him. He was an old man, he wrote, with "matters of estate to settle before his imminent death."
Clearly, he knew how to make a case that would impress the army. In fact, he was penniless and completely dependent on his children in the U.S. for support.
My chaplain translated the letter, which I attached to my furlough application. I claimed that I would be the last blood relative that my rabbi-grandfather would ever see.
After several weeks dealing with military red tape, my application was approved. But the approval was quickly rescinded. Fighting between the Jewish underground militia and the British forces had become so intense that Palestine was placed out of bounds to American troops.
My paternal grandfather died in 1950, separated from his family, in the Jerusalem home for the aged. My daughter was born four years later. Her Hebrew name, Avigayil Shoshana, is a memorial to the grandfather, Avraham Shmuel, I never knew.