MEMOIR: Remembering my grandmothers
As I have written in an earlier post, I never knew my two grandfathers. I was fortunate, however, to have known my grandmothers. Both my maternal grandmother, Merkeh (or Mary) Sivin Rabinowitz, and my paternal grandmother, Gelya (or Gussie) Kuchiniak Reichek, played important roles in my early life. Both passed away in their late 80s or early 90s.
The two of them lived long enough to see me married with my own children. The ages when they died are simply estimates because neither ever revealed how old they were. For reasons of either superstitution or etiquette, the elders in my family regarded age as secret information.
I was closer to my maternal grandmother because she lived with my parents when I was a boy. I shared a bedroom with her until I was about 11 years old. I then demanded more privacy for myself and asked to move out of her room. Actually, the move resulted in less privacy because I wound up on a studio couch in our two-bedroom apartment's living room. Grandma, who had lived with my parents since their marriage, died in her very own bedroom at home.
Grandma Rabinowitz was an extremely religious woman. For much of my childhood, my mother worked. So Grandma was the family's primary housekeeper. When she wasn't doing the food shopping, cooking and cleaning our Bronx apartment, she was usually praying at home or in the synagogue around the corner or studying the Bible at home.
It was ironic for my father to wind up living with a mother-in-law who was every bit as strictly religious as his own Hasidic parents. He had left their home at the age of 18 to seek a more secular lifestyle.
My maternal grandfather died in New York City only a few years after the family's arrival in the U.S. from Czarist Russia at the turn of the last century. Grandma never remarried. Two older brothers, who had come to America many years earlier and were prosperous men's clothing manufacturers, supported her until her own children were old enough to work. My mother and her older brother and younger sister all went to work for their uncles.
To my knowledge, none of her brothers (she had two others) were religiously observant. A photo of her husband, taken shortly after his arrival here, shows him without a hat and clean-shaven, indicating that he was also not devout. Even a picture of Grandma's father, taken in Russia in the 1890s, shows him hatless, which was unusual for an Orthodox man in that era. All of which suggests that Grandma's ultra-Orthodox ways may have been a very personal matter. I always wondered whether the early death of her husband was responsible for her strictly religious lifestyle.
Despite a half-century in this country, Grandma never learned to speak English. This presented no problem because she lived in an almost ghetto-like neighborhood where everyone with whom she dealt spoke her language, Yiddish. She spoke Russian to my mother when she didn't want me to understand.
I spoke to Grandma in Yiddish until it became apparent that she understood English. So our conversations became bi-lingual. I can no longer speak Yiddish. I can understand it, but only when spoken with Grandma's Litvak accent, which characterized Jews from Lithuania, Belarus and parts of northeastern Poland.
Grandma was the unofficial matriarch of her synagogue. Unlike most of the other ladies in the congregation, she was a literate women with a vast knowledge of religious matters. On Saturday afternoons, I recall, she would remain in the synagogue after the services, surrounded by at least a dozen elderly women, reading Bible stories to them in Yiddish.
For reasons that I did not understand, I never was entrusted with my own key to our apartment. While Grandma was in the synagogue on Saturday afternoons, without her knowledge I was often playing stickball or touch football. If my parents were not at home and I wanted to get into the apartment, I would have to hide my baseball glove or other evidence of athletic activity under my jacket as I entered the synagogue to retrieve the key from Grandma.
Grandma strived to make me as religiously observant as possible. When I entered elementary school, she encouraged me to wear the abbreviated prayer shawl under my shirt that all ultra-Orthodox Jewish men wear. In the third grade, after taking off my shirt in gym class and seeing that no other boy wore the prayer shawl, I stopped wearing mine. While sharing Grandma's bedroom, I said my morning and evening prayers with her. For a couple of years after my bar-mitzvah, I donned phylacteries as I said my morning prayers while she carefully watched me put them on.
There was always a bit of a crisis in our tiny kosher kitchen if I accidentally used a dish towel, which was carefully reserved for dairy dishes, to wipe a dish on which meat was served. Despite her strenuous efforts to instill in me the religious practices that were so important to her, Grandma Rabinowitz was neither a zealot or a tyrant. She was a gentle, saint-like woman who personified the ethical and moral standards that are supposedly the underpinning of organized religion.
To do her errands, she walked up three flights to our apartment daily until shortly before her death. I cannot recall her ever visiting a doctor or being hospitalized. She had a nephew, a physician, who frequently made combination social/professional visits to check up on her.
My Grandma Reichek, although every bit as religously devout as my maternal grandmother, seemed to me to be more worldly. The reason may have been that she was once a businesswoman, often in contact with non-Jews. She had operated a vegetable oil press in Poland and a dairy store on the Lower East Side during her early years in this country.
She had separated from her husband when I was an infant. Both of them came from Hasidic families and did not meet until the night of their wedding. My grandfather was a rabbi and professional Talmudic scholar, and Grandma was the family's primary breadwinner. I doubt whether this marital division of labor was conducive to a happy marriage.
Like all Hasidic woman, my paternal grandmother wore a wig. Despite her role as a businesswoman, my father said that, as a boy, he could barely recall when she was not pregnant. She had one child when she was already a grandmother. Only four sons and one daughter survived to adulthood. I was one of her 12 grandchildren.
After their children had grown, my grandparents separated. In the mid-1930s, my grandfather moved to Jerusalem so that he could "die in the Holy Land." Grandma lived alone for several years, then moved into an apartment in the Bronx with her married daughter. But the daughter did not keep her home kosher enough to please Grandma. So Grandma moved out. Until she went into a nursing home shortly before her death, she lived alone in several tiny East Bronx apartments.
Of course, each residence was within walking distance of a synagogue. But since she moved so frequently, she never could establish the intimate relationship with a congregation that my other grandmother enjoyed. It must have been a traumatic social comedown for a woman who once had the prestige of being a "rebbetzin," or rabbi's wife, a status she possessed when still living with her husband. He was the founder and leader of what was probably one of the first Hasidic synagogues in the U.S., Beth Hasidim de Palen, at 16 Montgomery Street on New York's Lower East Side.
Every Sunday afternoon my father would faithfully visit his mother, usually with me in tow. Interestingly, every Sunday morning, my mother's brother would show up faithfully at our home to visit my maternal grandmother.
Grandma Reichek had her own ideas about medical treatment. When I was about 6 years old, I suffered a partial paralysis of one side of my face. It was probably a case of Bell's palsy. I recall my parents shuttling me from one doctor to another, none of whom could cure me. Then Grandma stepped into the case.
She instructed my parents to boil a pot full of my urine. A compress was dipped into the urine and applied to the paralyzed side of my face. It remained there for as long as I could tolerate the odor. Within days the paralysis vanished. I doubt whether Grandma ever patented her treatment.
I never got to know many relatives on my paternal grandmother's side. She had several sisters and a brother in the U.S. who probably died when I was a child. My father apparently lost contact with most of their offspring. I have never known anyone bearing Grandma's maiden name, Kuchiniak. Her one brother in this country "Americanized" the name. He was not very imaginative. He took on the name of Cohen.
When Grandma Reichek died, she was buried in a section of a Jewish cemetery in Woodbridge, N.J., established for her Gerer Hasidic sect. In accord with the sect's practice, men and women are segregated in the cemetery. But she has the privilege of being buried in a plot next to another "rebbetzin."